Smitten with Smithing: A Modern Milwaukee Blacksmith

Jun 23, 2014

Milwaukee Blacksmith Kent Knapp in his forge.
Credit Bonnie North

Blacksmithing brings to mind a lot of images, most of them out history or myth.

Most of us, if we think of a modern day blacksmith, we might imagine someone who shoes horses.  But while farriers are blacksmiths, not all blacksmiths are farriers. 

Kent Knapp is most definitely not a farrier.  But he is a 21st Century blacksmith who plies his trade right here in Milwaukee.  Lake Effect’s Bonnie North stopped by his shop in the 3rd Ward:

Milwaukee Blacksmith Shop
Credit Bonnie North


Kent Knapp: our motto here at MKE blacksmith is get it hot and hit it hard…

SOUND: hammering

Bonnie North: The hot metal gives in to the force of Kent Knapp’s hammer. He’s making an ironwork scroll, starting with a piece of 5/8th  inch square steel about 3 feet long that he tucks into the glowing forge. Being the fanciful sort, I had half expected to find Knapp working a dark cave lit only by the glow of the fires and the sparks from the strike of the hammer on hot steel. But Knapp’s blacksmith shop at the eastern end of the Third Ward is open and bright, the only shadows cast by the late winter sun coming through the large windows.

SOUND: hammering and forge

KK: So I have two different forges burning here, one is a coal forge which burns at about 3000 degrees. Gets a small section of the bar really, really hot, but you got be careful because it will melt in there… it’s just a coal fire with air blowing underneath it, just like when you blow on a campfire…

Kent Knapp at his forge
Credit Bonnie North

SOUND: hammering

KK: the other one is a gas forge, which is just natural gas with air blowing over it. That gets to be about 17-1800 degrees…

SOUND: hammering and forge

BN: Knapp has been smitten by smithing since he first walked into the Cedarcreek Forge in Cedarburg at the age of 19. He began studying with a Milwaukee master smith, but then left Wisconsin with his family for a stint in New Orleans – a place that has its fair share of decorative ironwork. After 10 years away, the call home grew too loud to ignore and Knapp returned – and more or less picked up where he left off.   He’s now in his 40s, and making a go of Milwaukee Blacksmith. And business is good…..

SOUND:  forge

KK: I do a lot of architectural pieces – gates, railings, balconies, fencing, sconces… I always say everything from a coat hook to a driveway gate. We can do just about anything with steel here. You know if you want a piece that looks like it was made 120 years ago, we can do that. If you want to match some existing ironwork on your 100 year old mansion, we can do that…

BN: But even though there is great art and craft in the pieces Knapp produces, he says it’s tough being a blacksmith today:

KK: There’s a lot of fabricators out there – guys who will cut and weld stuff together...

beginning the scroll
Credit Bonnie North

BN: Knapp points to the scroll he’s making now:

KK: You can actually buy that stuff from China or India that was made by a blacksmith who makes 50 cents an hour and you can buy a C scroll or and S scroll out of a catalogue for a couple of dollars and then weld it into your railing or your gate of whatever. I don’t believe in that. I believe that anything that comes out of my shop should be made by me. So I will not use premade pieces that come from overseas. Everything that you see in my work is made by me.

SOUND: hammer/forge

BN: back at the anvil, the scroll is taking shape. He changes to a smaller hammer, the better to do the finer, finishing work. This piece is exactly the kind of thing you’d learn to make at one of Milwaukee Blacksmith’s public classes – although it would probably take you or me a lot longer than it does Knapp

SOUND: hammer

KK:  just hammering it over the edge of the anvil, getting a nice curve…these are just some basic techniques. A scroll is probably one of the most common elements in ironwork. You’ll see it all over the place. Unfortunately in recent years you’ll see more machine-made scrolls than handmade. 

BN: For all of his skill, Kent Knapp isn’t just a good blacksmith. He’s also a walking fount of ironworking history – especially about the part Milwaukee played…

KK: I love this craft. I’m crazy, head over heels with it; I just think it’s the coolest thing. I spend my hours studying it and you combine that with my love for Milwaukee and the fact that we has this guy Cyril Colnik here, who, in my opinion was the best American blacksmith ever. There’s a couple of other guys who come close but I just feel he was the bee’s knees if you will. And we had him right here in Milwaukee for almost his whole life.

BN: Austrian born Colnik moved to Milwaukee at the age of 20 and set up shop here in the early 1890’s. His award-winning decorative ironwork graced the homes of many of the city’s prominent figures, including those of Frederick Pabst, Paula and Erwin Uihlein, and A. O. Smith, whose home is now the Villa Terrace Museum on Milwaukee’s east side. One of Colnik’s masterpieces, a decorative grille, is still on display at the Villa Terrace. Knapp lights up as he talks about Colnik’s artistry and I wonder if he hopes that someday his work will be revered in the way he reveres Colnik’s:

Almost done
Credit Bonnie North

KK: Uhhh, (laughter) uhhh, I’m not sure. Umm, I do what I can. I’m constantly learning, I believe that each year I get better, so who knows where I might end up in my lifetime? But if I can ever be as good as Colnik… I hope so. I feel he’s so important. Like I said, not only to the history of American Blacksmithing, but to Milwaukee…

BN: But even if Kent Knapp’s name isn’t remembered for generations to come, his ironworking legacy will live on. Knapp’s kids are already learning the business and he believes they will be better than he is.

Meanwhile, the scroll Knapp has been working on is almost done. He sticks it into the forge to get it hot again, and then takes it to the anvil one last time.

SOUND: hammering

KK:  (hammering)… True it up a little bit, make it straight…. (hammering)… oops, a little too far…but anyways… you get the idea. That’s the finished product. So in about 7-8 minutes, we went from regular square bar stock that comes out of a steel rolling mill, we tapered it out, did a little fishtail on there, and scrolled it over (hammer) … needed one more hit… (Bonnie: does it always need one more hit?) (hammer) It always does…

BN: For Lake Effect, I’m Bonnie North

The finished scroll
Credit Bonnie North