Igniting a spark

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Zoey, Birdie, Shannon, Ozzie, Kent and Miles Knapp.

Advanced finishing tools give 5,000-year-old art a 21st century boost and help a family to follow its passion

February 2018 - If you ask Kent and Shannon Knapp what they do for a living, their answer might surprise you. “Our personal story is our business because our business is our family,”  says Shannon Knapp. The couple own and run Milwaukee Blacksmith Inc., located in the Bay View area. With Kent as lead blacksmith and Shannon as operations manager, the shop has three apprentices: elder son Miles, middle son Birdie and youngest son Ozzie. The Knapps’ eldest child, daughter Zoey, is shop foreman; she also designs custom projects.

Their story can be traced to a spark that ignited when Kent Knapp found himself learning blacksmithing at age 19. He soon developed a passion for it, which persisted alongside his interest in the city’s diverse historic places and singular architecture. In 2005 Knapp found a way to combine both these passions. He set up shop with a 100-year-old screw press and a 135-year-old anvil.

“I never expected it would turn into a trade we could practice as a family but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he says.

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Pferd finishing tools have helped Milwaukee Blacksmith expand from forged stock (below) to jewelry (left). Photos: Royal Brevväxling

Knapp and his sons heat, hammer, bend and cut steel and iron into just about everything from simple, elegant hooks to the 2,500 lb. freestanding clover sculpture that was installed at Erin Hills Golf Course in time for the U.S. Open championship in June 2017.

Milwaukee Blacksmith achieved fame with “Milwaukee Blacksmith,” a History Channel reality program. But it was the shop’s family values that caught the eye of John Thompson, Pferd Inc.’s national technical sales manager. Also based in Milwaukee, Pferd is a U.S. subsidiary of August Rüggeberg GmbH of Marienheide, Germany. Pferd—which supplies products for abrasive, cutting, grinding, finishing and specialty applications—opened in 1799 by making files and rasps for blacksmiths and farriers.


“I caught one of the episodes and thought, ‘I have to meet them,’” says Thompson. He caught up with the family at an open-air blacksmithing event and introduced himself. “Kent is a skilled master of a 5,000-year-old art form. As such, he’s old school. To build his business, he needed to embrace technology. We talked about where they wanted to go and how we could highlight their art.”

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Zoey Knapp uses a Pferd cut-off wheel on a Milwaukee cordless tool to prep stock for Milwaukee Blacksmith’s School of Iron classes. Photos: Shannon Knapp

In 2016, Thompson visited the Knapps with samples of different flap discs, cut-off wheels and wire brushes. He is a technical expert for Pferd’s Training Academy, where classroom sessions and practical application exercises help sales representatives and distributors gain knowledge and experience with Pferd products. “Everyone knows Pferd for cutting and grinding, but finishing is our second-largest business segment,” says Thompson. “Blacksmithing is a class of industry that our product line is made for—from filing to grinding and mirror finishing. The question we want to answer is how do we do this?”

The performance of Pferd products on select samples quickly captured the Knapps’ attention. But it was the interest Pferd showed in Milwaukee Blacksmith that tipped the shop’s decision to delve deeper.

“John wasn’t making a pitch,” says Shannon Knapp. “He was genuinely interested in showing us how to use the tools. John brought our finishing game to another level.”

The Knapps soon discovered other benefits. A bar of steel left in a coal fire for too long crumbled. A Pferd angle grinder brought the metal back to a mirror finish. “We would have trashed the piece,” says Shannon Knapp. Learning how to heat treat metal introduced color to the product line. Milwaukee Blacksmith’s work is painted black or sealed in wax and blackened.

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The Knapp family heats, hammers, bends and cuts steel and iron into just about everything, including this octopus chandelier. Photo: Royal Brevväxling

“The kids started branching out into plasma cutting and shining plate,” she says. “We noticed we were getting color during welding. We mentioned to John that we liked the effect. He taught us how to pull each desired color out of the metal by using specific temperatures.”

Pferd‘s CombiClick system is a shop favorite. A flexible backing pad is married to a rugged mounting system on the back of the disc. The backing pad allows CombiClick discs to be compatible with standard angle grinders. The geometry of the cooling slots ensures a high throughput of air, which reduces thermal loads on abrasive material and workpieces.

“We use the Pferd electric angle grinder with the CombiClick discs,” says Shannon Knapp. “I love the locking system. You barely have to twist it and push click. It’s easy to get on and off.”

In addition to the CombiClick discs and angle grinders, the Knapps often reach for the buffing wheels and wire brushes.

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The Pferd electric angle grinder with CombiClick discs has an easy quick-change locking system. Photo: Royal Brevväxling

Branching out

Aside from enormous art pieces, fancy scrollwork fencing, gates and a host of tailored projects, Milwaukee Blacksmith makes small items it sells through its online storefront. One product, sheet metal cut into the shape of the state of Wisconsin, receives an attractive textured finish from Pferd wire brushes. The Pferd 120 volt Uwer 55/200 SI angle grinder also allows Milwaukee Blacksmith to go from raw material to a mirror finish in two steps. The technique lends itself to cutlery.

“Pferd tools have really helped [our family] to express themselves in metal,” notes Kent Knapp. “Shannon and Zoey have begun designing and making some jewelry out of sterling, brass and other metals.”

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A flexible backing pad is married to a rugged mounting system on the back of the CombiClick disc, making it compatible with standard angle grinders.

“Our kids don’t work with the old-school blacksmithing techniques as much as Kent does,” Shannon Knapp agrees. “Typically if a job needs to be forged, Kent will take the lead. If it’s something that needs to be cut and assembled, the job goes to the kids.”

With the Pferd arsenal at their fingertips, Milwaukee Blacksmith finds the company’s consumables and tools an invaluable resource. For Pferd, it’s about giving back. “You don’t get to be 218 years old and owned by one family without investing in the industry,” says Thompson. “This family is an example of that investment.

Kent Knapp is also making an impact by teaching blacksmithing at his School of Iron.

“Everything I do is to create a legacy for my family and to provide for my kids long after I’m gone. I think we’re headed in the right direction.” FFJ



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