Steve Graber is a mechanical engineer who enjoys messing around with clay.
His day job has been a mix of everything from warhead fuzes (ordnance devices spell with a “z”) to rocket motor igniters, other pyrotechnic devices, joysticks for tractors, other control devices for CAT and John Deere to lighting fixtures seen in Home Depot.
Steve’s inspiration came from his high school gymnastics coach, Joel Baba, who encouraged his students to go to college. Steve enjoyed competing on the rings and didn’t want to stop, so he continued on to college. Engineering read like a fun course outline to Steve.
“One of my professors, Dr. Joe Shelly, was very influential academically, especially with his smooth style of talking. Post college, good old Louie Voida with his sense of humor and knowledge of fuze mechanism was a strong influence.”
Steve has been messing with texture ever since he first saw its results on clay.
“I was first exposed to texture on clay at an adult ed class in 1989. We did raku that session and the surface texture with raku glaze was so awesome, I just couldn’t leave anything alone without texture! I stole pastry cutters from the kitchen, used toy truck tires from thrift stores, cement and tile devices from the home depot stores. They were and still are great texture devices.”
Steve’s aesthetic sensibility leans to the Greek forms and American Indian shapes. “I like open vessels, which might explain why I so seldom do anything with a lid or handle,” he said.
Had you ever invented anything before the Steve Tool?
I hold a patent for a friction control I designed that is used on CAT paving machines. I designed several light fixtures for the company, Lights of America. I also was one of the key people helping design and launch the 400 series of spas made by Sundance Spas, part of the Jacuzzi Brands group.
How did you come up with the idea for the Tool?
It occurred to me as I was messing around with texture tool designs. Having designed products for other people, I thought, where is MY product? In 2006, I made a new year’s resolution with my friend Athena. We were chatting online around midnight and made bets with each other to launch our little business ideas. I followed through with mine. Athena owes me a lunch!
When I gained access to 3D printing machines at my day job, the world of texture really opened up for me! 3D printer devices are like Star Trek replicator machines. You can design something on a computer and send it to these printers. The printer “prints” one very thin layer at a time (.003 inches) with plastic. In time the entire part develops. This method enables things to be made that cannot be made economically by any other process. There is no concern for mold lines, draft angles, mold pull directions, cutting tool access, etc. You can make a ball inside a ball inside a ball if you like–and I have.
Having access to these machines, I made pottery texture tools on the sly. I’d use them in the pottery adult education classes I was in. I corrupted my friends into incorporating texture into their work as well. We’d discuss the value of this or that texture tool. And certainly everyone had more ideas of “what if” we made a texture tool like this or that. So I would make tools from our brainstorming sessions.
All the initial texture tools were made with no consideration for easy manufacturing. I didn’t need to worry about that since those printers did the hard work easily. However, I kept trying to think of how to make a simple tool that could easily be manufactured. Finally it dawned on me that the layer by layer approach could be done – just like what those machines do, provided the layers are a little thicker. That was when I hit on the idea of a stack of disks that could be arraigned this way or that way to yield different results.
The initial product was a wooden handle from a wood shop I located. Also, the disks were laser cut from Masonite sheet stock. Launching a product this way was low budget, low costs, low risk. I was able to judge if this product would be accepted and then saw the next step of going ahead with more expensive plastic tooling as a viable next step.
When it came time to name the new product, I kept coming up with stupid names. My friends finally confessed, “We always just call it a Steve Tool.”
What was it like going from concept to manufacturing?
I have designed products for injection molding, stamping, machining, casting, etc., so I knew that side of the world, and I thought I knew a little bit about business. Seeing new parts coming in for my new product was always exciting. Watching my product come together was certainly special.
Terms like “pull the trigger” are used when it’s time to spend big money launching a product. That’s when you know you’re really taking a risk and crossing a new milestone. I didn’t have an MBA and figured I’d learned in time what people with MBAs learn. The Steve Tool product launch was my own self-paced MBA program. I never thought the accounting costs would be as high as they are. And looking back, I launched the thing in a pretty bad recession, so timing wasn’t as perfect as it could have been.
The trick for a successful product is keeping it simple and keeping the number of suppliers down. In manufacturing, the “supply chain” is all-important. Fewer people involved keeps costs low and usually enables a high reliability of parts being delivered on time and at a decent price.
How did you convince stores to carry your product?
I started locally. My local supplier is Aardvark in Santa Ana, CA. they were the first ones to pick up the tool. I advertised in Ceramics Monthly, Pottery Making Illustrated, and Clay Times. I felt I had to join the fraternity, advertising in those magazines to get retailers to accept me. I exploited the magazines to find the stores who paid for advertising. I called them up and sent samples to them for review. The internet is priceless for locating stores! Slowly, stores picked up the tool. Slowly, artists tried texturing pots with the Steve Tool and they got hooked. Retailers talk to each other, and after about a year store referrals started happening. Now, the Tool is in about 70 stores across USA, Canada, and South Africa. I’m currently talking to retailers in England and Ireland. Hopefully, reaching around the world will make the Steve Tool available to everybody. I’m constantly amazed that today we can achieve this kind of exposure from an easy chair in my living room. E-mail, websites, word-of-mouth are really valuable!
What is the Tool made of and what is its retail cost?
The tool is ABS plastic disks and handle, with steel screw, nuts, and washers. It comes with gears and spoke wheels. They can be stacked in any way and the designs can be rolled into the clay.
List price for the Steve Tool is $18.70, but many retailers are selling the tool for under the list price.
Did you know the Steve Tool would be so popular?
“Popular” is still an odd term for me to associate with the Steve Tool. There are texture nuts just like me out there, and we all steal from our kitchens or garages or from little kids for their toy truck tires. Everyone’s fantasy about creating a product is that it’s like winning the lotto. But that’s not reality at all. For me, it was one of those things where I had an idea, and I knew I’d always wonder “what if” I followed through on that idea? So, I gave it a shot.
I get a kick out of seeing pictures of pots textured using Steve’s Tool. An ad for Coyote Glazes shows a pot created using my tool! I’m hoping that in time, I’ll see even more pots textured with my tool in the various pottery magazines.
I’ve now met hundreds of people online. I hear from artists whose work is in art shows with “my” textured pots. I even hear of people even conducting workshops on how to use the tool! I think it’s great! I love quietly being in the background. When I met Steve Branfman, he joked about how people keep asking him at HIS workshops if HE invented the tool. I tell people he did–it’s a fun rumor to spread around. I wouldn’t be surprised if other Steves in the pottery world aren’t getting similar questions.
What’s the strangest use you’ve ever seen for the Steve Tool?
So far, I’ve only heard of clay uses. I’ve sent the tool to several chefs for pies, breads, and pastry applications and they tell me it works well there. One of these days I want to get the tool into kitchens. I think it’s only fitting for a pottery tool to make its way into a kitchen, since so many kitchen tools have made their way into the pottery studio. And, it’s dishwasher safe!
One early response I got from someone who used the tool was interesting. He was given an assignment by the teacher to use “anything on this table” on their pots. The table had organic objects like a pine cone, twigs, bark, etc. He chose to use the pine cone, stabbing a hole through its axis and using it like a Steve Tool on his pot. Creative use! He wouldn’t have thought of using that process without having had exposure to the tool.
What is it that people might not know about the Steve Tool that you’d like them to know?
Creating the Steve Tool has been like creating a new musical instrument, except not being very good at music, I hope the applications grow well beyond what I do with it. I hope people aren’t put off by what I do with the tool–such as too much texture!–and take the concept of applying texture even further. A lot of people remark how they made pots “like mine” and then stopped. I don’t mind if people make pots like mine, but I hope they keep at it, going beyond what I do to make pots like theirs.
I hear of people using the tool in ways I hadn’t considered, such as carving through the textured features to get skeletal pots. Or applying the texture to leather pots. I never thought of that. Some are using a light touch to add a rim texture to plates, or trimming away the texture to yield a hint of texture to make the glazes dance a little on pots.
I recommend that people who are really producing buy TWO or more tools instead of just one. Some guys in Maine who were doing a run of 500 mugs with texture recently made a purchase. When talking with them about committing the Tool to that job, I suggested gluing the disks together to keep them from slowly deviating over the 500-mug run. It hadn’t occurred to them to commit a Tool to that one job. The cost of one Steve Tool, amortized against 500 mugs, really isn’t much.
Other modifications can certainly be made by the end user such as filing down the sharp points to get a softer result. Or even cutting off every other tooth to get a similar but different result on pots. So people will find valid reasons to set up a tool and leave it one way, then get another tool to set up a different way. For demos I use about 20 different tool settings to show the results, so there certainly are lots of combinations someone can get to try out and enjoy.