I met Kent Knapp at a block party in downtown Milwaukee last month. Milwaukee Blacksmith’s mobile set is a regular feature at festivals in the area. A crowd formed in awe around the blacksmiths hammering and twisting hot metal. Kent, tattoo-clad and enjoying one of the city’s finest beverages, handed me a slip of paper. “We offer classes if you’re interested,” he said. “The School of Iron,” advertised on the paper, was created because there’s so much interest in the craft around town. Now Kent and his family of blacksmiths are going to be on a national stage. Milwaukee Blacksmith is a 10-episode series premiering on History Aug. 23 at 10pm ET/PT.
Kent is Milwaukee to the core. He grew up on the north side and lives in the Bay View neighborhood south of downtown. He even has “Milwaukee” tattooed on his forearm and has a street named after his family — Knapp Street, on the east side of the city, was named for a relative who was a prominent figure in the region in the 1800s. For the last 10 years, he’s left his mark — the Milwaukee Blacksmith logo — on projects throughout the city that he loves.
About His Show: “Milwaukee Blacksmith”
The show is about the ancient craft but a lot more. “It’s really more about family,” Kent told me. “My employees are my four kids [the two youngest — Dharma (3) and Tashi (1) — aren’t old enough to punch the clock yet], which for better or worse, you can’t really fire them at the end of the day, so this is about family.”
Kent’s been working as a blacksmith since the early 1990s. It’s hard work juggling family and work. “[The show] is about trying to remain a strong family, dedicated to an Old World craft in the 21st century … especially being a father in the 21st century to a bunch of blacksmiths, if you can imagine, it can be a challenge.”
The family’s big break with the media was four years ago when the Knapps’ neighborhood newspaper, the Bay View Compass, ran a story about them. Because of the story, people began to tell the Knapps they should have a reality show.
And now the show is happening. “We struggled through many, many years to get where we are, and we’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and all of our hard work as a family business is starting to pay off,” Kent reflected. “Quite honestly, I get a little choked up when I think about it, when I see [the completed episodes]. … I really think that people are going to appreciate the values held within the show, and the fact that we stuck together and made this happen. It’s really kind of a dream come true.”
What Exactly Do Blacksmiths Make?
Kent and his family work on a number of unusual projects for the show. The first episode is about them making a Death Star fire pit. “Prior to the TV show, most of what we did was architectural work — balconies, gates, railings, fencing. Some of the projects for the show were a little out of the box. We were challenged, and we stepped up to the challenge, and I really think we delivered and knocked the ball out of the park.”
As a craftsman, Kent’s work on the Miller Mansion in Milwaukee put him on the map. The mansion was built in 1917 and the current owners want to stay true to the history and beauty of the property. Kent primarily worked on his own at the time — the kids were too young. It was a year’s worth of work to complete front and back gates and fence panels.
Kent has done some great work around the city. “I did a small Cyril Colnik reproduction railing for the Charles Allis Art Museum that I’m pretty proud of, notably because it was a direct copy of Colnik’s work … Colnik was a master blacksmith who lived in Milwaukee from about 1894 to his death in 1957 or 1958. [Capt. Frederick] Pabst met Colnik at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, and the story goes that he convinced him to come here, and for that sole purpose, we have some of the best American ironwork anywhere in the country right here in Milwaukee. … That was really a huge part of how I got into the business, and what kind of set me in [the blacksmithing] direction.
There have been some unusual projects prior to the show as well. “I had a young man who was a costumer, and sort of a circus performer, if you will. We made these very bizarre double-articulated boots that he would wear, that would not only jack him up about 3 feet higher than his original height, but made him appear as if he had two sets of knees. It was a very bizarre, alienesque-type thing. That was probably one of the most bizarre projects that I’ve ever done.”
See what projects, bizarre and otherwise, are in store for the Knapp family in the debut season of Milwaukee Blacksmith.
Milwaukee Blacksmith airs on History Tuesdays at 10pmET/PT.