I do anything. Run around on jobs, meet with clients, look at the projects. It’s what a small business man does.
Since the rise of the white-collar workforce, detractors have looked down at jobs like welding. But as sedentary work takes its toll on so many Americans, tradesmen have become the envy of a new generation. The environment has served Oklahoma-native Rob Key well.
Rob Key Designs forge exquisitely-styled iron doors, railings, balconies, and sculptures for high-end properties. Key is a master at his trade, but it’s his knack for business that’s put him on the map. Founded in 2005, Rob Key Designs has studios in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and serves clients across the country.
Born in the small town of Oilton, Oklahoma, Key’s roots are in aviation. He learned how to weld and work with exotic metals by overhauling airplane engines. After years studying under his father, he opened his own FAA-certified repair shop. But – as it did for so many – the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 changed the trajectory of his life.
A sharp decline in work within the aviation industry meant Key’s specific skills were no longer in heavy demand. Exploring a much different side of his trade, he took a job with an ornamental ironworks company in West Palm Beach, Florida. The job opened his eyes to a new creative outlet for his abilities. It also gave him valuable experience with demanding customers like Donald Trump. “I worked on some ridiculous houses down there,” he recalls. A divorce, and the powerful tug of his roots brought him home to Oklahoma.
Since founding his own shop, he’s built an impressive clientele across Arkansas, Texas, and beyond. “We’ve even shipped one of our custom iron doors to Brooklyn,” says Key.
For Key, success is all about commitment to the work and the clients. “Everything is hand-forged, beginning with the raw iron ore that we heat right here to 2,300 degrees. Nothing is pre-fabricated overseas. It’s all made here.” His staff of fifteen works long days bringing Key’s designs to life. His clients are even welcome to watch the progress, which unfolds in a massive 18,000 square feet facility.
Photos by Shaul Schwarz
Despite success, Key and his employees haven’t forgotten to be grateful for every gig. “We are so thankful for the opportunity,” reflects Rob. “It is so wonderful to live in a country where entrepreneurs can thrive.”
Employees at Rob Key Designs, where the expression “grinding through the day” takes on a literal meaning.
The tradesmen at Rob Key Designs gain experience in the full spectrum of ironworks, from using the forge, to welding the pieces, to installing the finished products.
Key’s story is an important reminder that tradesmen play a vital role in the American economy. By choosing to manufacture his designs using an American-based workforce, he ensures his knowledge and expertise is being passed on to future generations.
Nothing is pre-fabricated at Rob Key Designs. That approach makes it harder for Key to compete with companies who resell products made overseas. However, nothing can surpass the quality and craftsmanship he and his team deliver on every job.
An employee working on iron frames. With offices in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Rob Key Designs maintains a steady flow of jobs throughout the region, with new opportunities for expansion on the horizon.
While his duties running the company keep him from being hands-on with the welding process, Rob still hand-sketches every one of his custom designs. The process requires him to interpret what his client wants, and then direct his team to deliver on expectations.
Rob Key Designs employs fifteen tradesmen, all skilled at creating the ironwork Key designs.
Rob Key, founder of ironworks firm Rob Key Designs, stands outside the company’s shop. Key developed his skills as a master welder while working on aircraft.
Q & A
Rob Key showed us around the impressive facility and brought us back in his private workshop to chat.
What’s a typical day for you?
Creative. I’m constantly designing, working with customers. My clients, my employees, people have general ideas – I kind of finish the thought and hand sketch everything. Plus, all the things any small business owner has to do. Make sure it is all getting done.
Are you still hands-on with the welding?
I go out there for fun every once and a while, but I can’t be. I’ve got fifteen guys. I used to, but I can’t anymore. I love it actually. I love doing it. I could still do it all, but as business grows, I can’t really sit down long enough to do anything. But I have great guys that I work hand in hand with. I’m still sketching stuff on tables, plywood, they know how to work with me and make the designs how I like them, so it’s just been a progression over time.
And everything takes place right there in your shop?
Oh yeah. I probably have ten projects going on at once all the time. My shop – I have 18,000 square feet, and it’s full. We have the anvils, the forges, just the stuff laying all on the floor in a cool way, and we’re putting the designs together. We do a lot of modern stuff and traditional things. It’s just cool. Most people, even my customers come in, they’re like “wow,” they just love coming in there and looking at everything and watching us as we create.
What’s one of your favorite projects that comes to mind?
I’ve got a lot of them. Good question. Right now, we are working on a house with a door that is going to be 16-feet tall, so that’s a cool project.
What do you see as your role in the community?
Just a creative person. The contractors I work with know me. We have great working relationships. They trust me from a creative standpoint. I just go in and I try to make their project the best I can, because I want them to be successful. Working hard to do the best job I can and helping other people along the way.