The Magnet Factory
January 7, 2017
By Sheila Julson
Wood and metal repair, restoration, conservation
After a century-plus of Industrial Age manufacturing, its vestiges are everywhere — from museums to landfills. While much of the output from decades of manufacturing eventually winds up in a landfill graveyard, people like Mike Brylow seek out our civilization’s discards and gives them new life.
Brylow offers a range of services including the repair, restoration, and conservation of wood and metal antiquities in the Bay View building he’s named The Magnet Factory, 2424 S. Graham St. There he builds custom furniture from reclaimed material, but he also services and repairs vintage automobiles. Air-cooled Volkswagens are his specialty.
Brylow, who has lived in Bay View for most of his life, worked as an auto mechanic for 30 years when he sustained his second severe foot injury. The injury knocked him back for four months. While he recovered, he reevaluated his direction and path and led him to the decision to pursue his interest in restoration work.
From his teens on, he had a strong interest in automobile repair. His neighbors were car guys, and he was the curious boy who often rode his bike to watch them work and ask what they were doing. He learned more from a friend’s father who let him watch as he worked on cars and occasionally allowed Brylow to help.
Later a friend got him involved in restoration work. “During the 1980s and 1990s when the antiques business was thriving, I got to work with him. It was fun to take something that exists or is ready to be thrown away and turn it back into the world again,” he said.
When he decided to pursue a new direction, he looked for a building. He had always been intrigued by the “mystery building” on Graham Street. He discovered it was owned by James Zvonar. Prior to Brylow’s purchase, the building served as a warehouse for Industrial Machinery Corporation, a company that buys, sells, appraises, and auctions metalworking equipment.
Zvonar had received offers from others who wanted to purchase the building, Brylow said, but he was never able to make a deal. But the timing was right for Brylow and Zvonar and everything fell into place. He purchased the property from Zvonar in 2012.
Brylow noted that King Lofts owner Scott Genke, a good friend, also contacted Zvonar about purchasing the building, but two days after Brylow. “Had I not taken action when I did, he would have bought the building,” he said.
Thus began a two-year long renovation process that involved acquiring special permits for his restoration work, as well as constructing living quarters in the building, where he and his wife now live.
“It was in horrible shape,” Brylow said. “Windows were boarded up and were either smashed out or rotten.”
Brylow’s knack for finding the unusual led him to windows from an old East Side apartment building that he purchased for $15 apiece. “They originally mounted vertically, but we turned them sideways and they fit perfectly,” he said.
His passion for unusual automobiles is obvious while strolling through his shop.
Brylow pointed out a turquoise-colored 1947 Crosley once owned by the Madison Shrine Club. The Shriners, who used it as a clown car for parades, modified it by adding an extra exit. Brylow is restoring the vehicle to its original condition “from the ground up, every nut and bolt.”
Crosley automobiles were manufactured in Indiana on and off between 1939 through 1952.
He’s currently working on a 1950s GMC tow truck for a friend. Brylow said rumor has it the truck was an Indy 500 vehicle, but he has to research that claim. “It’s much more ornamental than your average tow truck,” he said.
He recently restored a step van for Chris Keidel of Mobile Bike Werx, a Bay View business that offers onsite bicycle repairs. Brylow sandblasted the vehicle to a raw, shiny aluminum. “You’ll definitely notice it when he’s out and about,” Brylow laughed.
Another project on Brylow’s shop floor is a 1972 2-door Honda 600. He said it’s one of the very first Hondas that was imported into the United States. He’s also working on a 1973 Volkswagen van.
Brylow is a skilled woodworker who crafts objects from salvaged materials but also makes custom builds. He’s often worked with wood from bowling alleys, transforming the sturdy wood into tables and countertops.
Some of his repurposed bowling alley wood can be found in Scott Genke’s King Lofts building.
One of his treasures is a railroad stationmaster’s desk that he estimates is from the 1880s, the height of the steam railway era. He left the original teal paint in place and reglued and reclamped it, making it structurally sound. He noted that painted furniture is hot these days. “In the past, I would have stripped it and refinished it. There’s beautiful oak under there, but painted furniture is the trend right now, so painted it is.”
Brylow also uses his Magnet Factory to host events. He’s participated in pop-up art shows and Bay View Gallery Nights.
He recently partnered with From Here to Her, an alliance of Milwaukee-based female artists. “When we bought the place, we knew we wanted to share it with the community,” Brylow said.
He will also use the building to host his daughter’s wedding this spring.
Despite the many projects he’s worked on over the years, he has no favorites. “It’s fun to just open the door every day and see what’s here,” he said, “You really can’t have a bad day in this place.”
The Magnet Factory’s name is a nod to the heritage of his building. Situated on an unassuming end of a very short street, the building once housed Dings Magnetic Separator Company, now known as Dings Co. Magnetic Group, located in West Milwaukee.
Currently, Brylow has about 5,000 square feet of workspace for his projects.
Brylow said his business has always been generated by word-of-mouth and is by appointment only.
The Magnet Factory
2424 S. Graham St.
(414) 412-7293 + Facebook
Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Bay View Compass.
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