This is one in an occasional series profiling small businesses in the Pikes Peak region. If you have a suggestion for a subject, email email@example.com.
As a software engineer, Ron Hardman is thoroughly plugged into the modern, high-tech world.
But he’s also quite comfortable with decidedly low-tech tools — and has a particular passion for the ancient craft of blacksmithing.
Hardman grew up in Wisconsin, the son of an industrial arts teacher. He learned metalworking at age 14 or so and was still a teen when he started working for a manufacturing company, where he learned his way around a lathe and other machines.
So with that background, he’s been bothered in recent years by a trend in public education.
“The decline of shop class really struck a nerve with me,” he says. Not everyone goes off to college, he says, and those who do should still learn basic skills.
“You can go get your Ph.D., but you still need to know what end of a hammer pounds in a nail.”
So to promote an interest in the trades, he launched Kilroy’s Workshop at the start of 2014, teaching blacksmithing, bladesmithing and welding. The focus initially was kids, and Hardman figured most would be home-schooled since they would have no other place to learn shop skills. But a majority have come from public schools.
After the first several years, Kilroy’s added parents and other adults to the student mix. Now the client base is pretty much evenly split between kids and adults. Kilroy’s Workshop began in a hangar at Meadow Lake Airport in Falcon; in June 2018, it moved to a larger space on the east side of Colorado Springs — “5,000 square feet of blacksmithing and metalworking awesomeness,” as Hardman puts it. More than 3,500 students took at least one class at Kilroy’s last year; most take multiple classes.
“It’s just been a riot to see the growth in the last year and a half,” Hardman says. And he expects that growth to continue; he’s looking to open a second location, perhaps next year, and is eyeing south Denver.
A boost from TV
Hardman credits “Forged in Fire,” a History channel series, for fueling an interest in blacksmithing and bladesmithing. On the show, competitors attempt to re-create some of history’s best-known edged weapons.
“‘Forged in Fire’ is a big thing that opens the door for people to want to come through a and check it out.”
Hardman and his daughter, Jessica, 20, who teaches at Kilroy’s when she’s on break from college, appeared on a special “Family Edition” of the show that aired in November, competing against each other as well as a father-son team from Texas. Hardman emerged the winner with his re-creation of the famous rapier from the movie “The Princess Bride,” pocketing a $10,000 prize; that money is being split between Jessica’s college education and the business.
“It’s not an inexpensive place to run,” Hardman says of Kilroy’s, which is equipped with blacksmithing tools, a power hammer, milling machines, grinders, a plasma cutter and more.
Matt Waters, an instructor at Kilroy’s, has also appeared on “Forged in Fire.” His episode aired in June.
Waters got into bladesmithing as a teen, fueled by an interest in the swords in “The Lord of the Rings.”
“My parents let me build a forge in the backyard when I was in high school. ‘Hey, can I build a forge?’ And my mom was like. ‘Yeah, sure.’ They found out what it was and they still let me do it.”
Waters was working at Big R when his boss, who knew of his passion, introduced him to Hardman.
“I made the bold move of asking Ron if he was hiring right in front of my manager. I just saw it as an opportunity.”
It was a risk that paid off.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” Waters says of teaching at Kilroy’s.
More than a school
Kilroy’s teaches ages 9 and up. Students, Waters says, range from youngsters who are looking at possibly making blacksmithing or metalworking their career to adults who jump into it as a hobby that they always wanted to pursue but never had the opportunity.
“It’s been a dream, but they didn’t know it could be a reality, too.”
About a third of the students are female. And students come from much farther than the Pikes Peak region, Hardman says. “We’ve had every state represented here.” He does little advertising; most of his business comes from word of mouth and from people searching the internet for a place like his.
In addition to offering classes, Kilroy’s serves as a makerspace for people who know what they’re doing but perhaps can’t afford the tools on their own or don’t have the space. Kilroy’s Workshop also produces pieces on commission, such as knives and swords.
“We don’t just teach it, we do it,” Hardman says. “And that makes us better at teaching it.” Instructors produce the pieces, as do students who become paid apprentices after reaching journeyman status.
And there’s one other element to the business: Mastercrafts Magazine, a quarterly, family-friendly publication.
“It’s kind of what Popular Mechanics used to be, a mix between stories and projects,” Hardman says. Those projects have ranged from a boomerang to a small, working catapult to a working hovercraft.
“It’s a whole lot of fun,” Hardman says.
“The decline of shop class really struck a nerve with me.”