Milwaukee blacksmith hammers out plans for a School of Iron
Kent Knapp started blacksmithing at the age of 19. He apprenticed under a master blacksmith for a few years, but then moved to New Orleans with his wife and children, where he was unable to find a blacksmith to work with and so he focused on music instead.
Knapp, who is still a bass player today, moved back to Milwaukee with his family and in 2005 he opened his own shop, called Milwaukee Blacksmith, at 518 E. Erie St. in the Third Ward.
Knapp creates usable items as well as decorative pieces made from iron.
"We make anything from a cook hook to a driveway gate," says Knapp. "Our bread and butter is gates, railings, that sort of thing."
Knapp contributed his work to the George P. Miller Mansion, the Iron Block Building, the Charles Allis Museum, the Soho Building, the Emanuel D. Adler House and others.
The business is a family affair. Knapp's wife, Shannon, and daughter, Zoey, handle most of the behind-the-scenes aspects (Zoey also recently started to learn the craft, too) and his three sons, Miles, Birdie and Oscar, are all skilled in the art form.
A couple of years ago, a man contacted him asking to host his bachelor party at Milwaukee Blacksmith. This was a new experience for Knapp, but one that went very well.
"The guys came in, drank some beer, did a little hammering," says Knapp. "It was fun and it occurred to me that I could make extra scratch teaching classes with the bonus of keeping the craft alive."
Knapp feels very strongly about teaching others how to blacksmith and has done so through his children and others who are interested in learning.
Recently, he took it a step further and started teaching Blacksmith 101 classes which were so popular that he now offers classes every other Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. The cost is $125 and can accommodate up to six people.
The next class is Saturday, April 19.
"It's a beginner class. Basically, you get your feet wet and see if you have any interest in learning more," says Knapp.
Knapp welcomes students starting at the age of 12. He also plans to teach a kids' class in the future that is less hands-on and more focused on observation.
"I've had students from the age of 12 to 65," he says. "And both men and women."
Many of his students have requested an intermediate class, so Knapp started putting one together when he decided to start a blacksmith school.
And so the idea of the Milwaukee School of Iron was born.
Knapp has the space and the skills in his shop but not enough tools to function as a school. Consequently, he will start a Kickstarter campaign in early May to buy more tools – anvil, hammers, tongs, etc.
"This way, more people could work at one time and not trip over each other," says Knapp.
To kick off the Kickstarter campaign, the Knapps will host a party on May 2 starting at 6 p.m. at the shop. The event will feature food, drink, demonstrations and, possibly, guest participation.
Is Knapp worried about his students providing competition down the road?
"Nah," he says. "It's taken me 15 years to get where I am. And competition doesn't bother me. I love to see people doing it for the first time and get really jazzed about it. Last weekend, almost every person in the class asked for more instruction."
Should students take into account the potential dangers of blacksmithing? Absolutely.
"It's dangerous. You're dealing with a 2,000-degree fire. You can get burned and more than likely, you will get burned," says Knapp. "However, if you're careful and you pay attention, the burns will, at most, be minor. I have never been burned badly in my entire career. The work is less dangerous than driving a car. And if you respect it and don't act ridiculous, you'll be fine."
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