MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Mitchell Iron Works handles projects from installing new railings on a hotel balcony to building the hotel.
The Middle Township business was founded in 1951 by the late Harry Mitchell, a former Navy welder and steel worker from Wildwood Crest.
Now it is owned by Mitchell’s sons, Bill Mitchell, 68, and Harry Mitchell, 61, both of Wildwood Crest, and managed by Mitchell’s grandson, Kevin Mitchell, 33, of Middle Township.
The company established its niche designing fire escapes and providing structural steel for Cape May County hotels that sprang up in the 1950s.
“All the old five- and six-story hotels needed fire escapes, and we built them,” Kevin Mitchell said.
Today, Mitchell Iron Works continues to be a welding jack-of-all-trades. The company relies on word of mouth and its reputation to attract customers.
The company puts up structural steel or manufactures custom wrought-iron railings in a variety of styles to suit residential or commercial customers. On a recent weekday, its workers finished putting a satin finish on porch railings that featured symmetrical twists and intricate decorations called “baskets.”
The company benefited immensely from the construction boom of the early 2000s.
“We had a huge spate of business from 2004 to 2008,” Bill Mitchell said.
The biggest challenge is maintaining a steady supply of work in Cape May County’s seasonal economy. The number of new projects can stretch thin between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day, he said.
But they expect to get more steel framing jobs to help coastal homes meet stricter wind-velocity standards. More windows will require steel frames under the changes, Bill Mitchell said.
“The glass holds up against the wind, but wood frames will flex and blow out the window,” he said. “That doesn’t happen with a steel frame.”
Likewise, many of the company’s residential projects cater to high-end homes with sophisticated architectural designs.
“It’s amazing how much steel is used in new shore homes because of the open floor plans,” Bill Mitchell said. “We’re more used to seeing steel in homes with basements.”
Kevin Mitchell said he sometimes works on hotels his grandfather helped build 50 years ago.
This month, the company is building a custom steel frame for an outdoor kitchen and entertainment patio for a mansion in Avalon.
Mitchell Iron Works generally serves Cape May and Atlantic counties but does some jobs farther afield. They provided the hurricane straps for the Atlantic City Boardwalk that no doubt helped the city’s wooden way survive Hurricane Sandy. The heavy-duty metal bars shaped like a tuning fork connect the boardwalk’s frame to the pilings.
Mitchell Ironworks did the framing steel work for the Village Shoppes in Rio Grande and the expansion of a Lower Township canning company.
The company has a 14,000-square-foot workshop and warehouse adjacent to a 2.5-acre steel yard in the Burleigh section of Middle Township.
The family upgraded its equipment in the early 1990s so they could compete for steel work building the tall bridge on North Wildwood Boulevard. One machine called an Ironworker uses 100 tons of hydraulic pressure to cut through steel plate like it was a block of cheese.
They expect a role in the construction of the Garden State Parkway overpass projects in Middle Township.
Almost everything about ironwork is dangerous — from the precipitous heights of installing beams to the torches, tools and heavy machinery to the unforgiving materials themselves.
Construction is one of the most dangerous industries in America, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, second only to transportation. And steel working, in particular, has one of the nation’s highest fatal work injury rates. (Commercial fishing remains the highest risk.)
One of the biggest dangers in the workplace is falling. In 2011, 666 workers died from falls and 21 percent of those victims fell less than 10 feet, according to federal numbers.
Kevin Mitchell said he always uses a safety harness when working around heights. The heavy tool belts are so cumbersome, they easily can throw off your balance even while climbing a ladder, he said.
“Definitely. If I fall, I’m hanging,” he said.
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