By Nick Pernokas
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but is it? What if you don’t know about the necessity until you’ve invented the technology for the solution? This is sort of a “chicken and the egg” paradox, but it really doesn’t matter. It takes a special kind of person to think outside the box and invent a solution for any type of problem. The Tippmann family is a case in point.
Many of us in the leather business recognize the name Tippmann in connection with their pneumatic Aerostitch sewing machine and their hand-operated Boss sewing machine, but their story, and the origins of these machines, runs much deeper.
“My family is very industrious,” says Brad Tippmann, President of Tippmann Industrial Products.
Brad’s father, Dennis Tippmann, grew up working for his dad, Lawrence Tippmann. Lawrence had invented the Tippmann Plate Crushed Ice Machine. Lawrence then sold the ice machine patent to Burge Ice Machine Company in Chicago, which produced ice machines used all over the world.
“I remember watching my father and older brothers create ice machines. If a prototype didn’t work, they never got discouraged. They kept trying new ways to build the product,” said Dennis, in a 2012 interview. “All the crushed ice in the world comes from my father’s invention.”
In addition, the Tippmanns held patents on many refrigeration processes. They never stopped tinkering. An example of this is a giant clothes dryer that Dennis’s brother built out of a 55-gallon drum in the Fifties. He made it for his mother who was washing for a household of 16. She would never part with it long enough for him to get it patented.
In 1963, Dennis was drafted. He spent most of his service in San Antonio.
When Dennis got out of the army, he went to hunt with his brothers in Wyoming. He fell in love with the country and began a lifelong love of the American West.
“He always wanted to be a cowboy. He read every Louis L’Amour book ever printed,” remembers Brad.
In 1984, Dennis developed a half-size, working reproduction of a 1917 water-cooled, 30-caliber machine gun. If you’ve seen the film, The Wild Bunch, you would recognize the prototype. It was a hit with gun enthusiasts and he soon built a couple more models from the same time period. These guns were chambered in 22 caliber and came with miniature canvas ammo belts, ammo boxes and period-correct crates. At a purchase price of $2000 a piece, he sold 1000 of them like hotcakes. Today these sets can only be found at auctions and they bring in within the neighborhood of $20,000 a piece.
In 1986, the federal government passed a machine gun ban and Dennis moved into a new world of weaponry. He began to build pneumatic air rifles for pellets and BB’s. On a visit to a trade show, Dennis was introduced to a new and upcoming field. A dealer asked him if he could produce a gun for the sport of paintball. When the dealer got nervous, and backed out of the deal, Dennis went on and made millions of paintball guns himself.
“Until 1985, the only way you could buy a paintball gun was to buy a whole franchise. There were no guns for sale,” said Dennis. “I saw a new opportunity, so I started producing paintball guns.”
Dennis realized that paintball was popular, but he thought it might be a fad. He didn’t want to put all his eggs in one basket, so he looked around for the next big thing. From his love of horses and the West, Dennis had an appreciation of the gear and tack that was used, and how it was produced.
Dennis started the leather sewing machine business in 1989. He realized, from living in northeastern Indiana, that there was a large Amish harness-making industry in the Midwest. Manufacturers needed sewing machines that could sew a lot of material rapidly, without being plugged into a wall. Dennis knew how to build one with pneumatics and the Aerostich became the only pneumatic sewing machine at the time. Another product for the leather business, pneumatic clickers, soon followed. Tippmann broadened their die cutter market out into other manufacturing and medical field applications. The Tippmann 15-ton die cutter is an economical, production-type machine. Custom dies can be built in house at Tippmann.
Around 1990, Dennis developed the all-mechanical, hand-powered Boss sewing machine. The machine was simple and operated by simply pulling a lever. It could be set up easily by an inexperienced worker and anchored to a table by a vice grip. With fewer moving parts than a traditional machine, it was easy to keep running. The first generation‘s bodies were cast iron. They became popular with leathercrafters through outlets like Tandy Leather. For makers that were hand-sewing small projects, like knife sheaths and holsters, the savings in time and money were immediately obvious. Tippmann constantly worked at improving the machines and the second generation of Boss sewing machines had an aluminum body that was sand cast.
When Brad was 14, he began to come in to work at the family business after school. He started out doing some assembly work in the paintball gun division, which was really busy at the time. After he got out of school, Brad began building parts as a private parts supplier for the paintball guns.
In 1999, Dennis was doing well enough with all of his companies that he was able to fulfill a dream. He purchased a ranch in northeastern Wyoming. Eventually, Dennis became involved with cutting horses and had some at his farm in Indiana. He encouraged his family, including Brad, to become involved in the equine world.
In 2004, Tippmann sold the paintball company and Brad came to work for his dad in the sewing machine factory. Dennis took his propane technology from the paintball business and used it to invent a self-contained propane post driver that could drive anything – from tent stakes to sign posts.
“These were all niche items. My dad was always into developing niche items,” says Brad. “My job was to build them and get them into production and on the market.”
By 2007, the Boss sewing machines were outselling the Aerostitch machines dramatically. Production for the Aerostitch was discontinued, but the company continued to service them.
In 2017, Brad re-engineered the body of the Boss with an aluminum injection molding process. This made the body lighter and stronger. Screw holes were included in the casting, which made it a more precise product. This process helped them speed up production and meet the hundreds of orders for the stitchers.
Tippmann is always coming up with new accessories for the Boss and they are in the planning stages for some other products in the future. A woodgrain, durable hydro-dip finish can be had for the leather craftsman who wants something unique in their sewing machine. All of the parts for the Boss are sourced from within 50 miles of their 33,000-square-foot plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana, so it is truly an American-made product. They have on-site service people who can aid with questions on set-up and maintenance. A large library of videos about all of the Tippmann products is available on YouTube.
Along the way, the Tippmann family created more companies. One of them produces pellet guns and is called Air Ordnance. A firearm company, Tippmann Armory, produces a 9mm Glock magazine-based Gatling gun and a single shot, rolling block rifle. Tippmann Arms is another firearm company that produces 22-caliber rifles.
Dennis passed away in November of 2020, at the age of 74, from Covid-19.
Brad reflects on the long history and varied products of Tippmann Industrial Products.
“A lot of these ideas went back and forth between the companies, based on the knowledge base that my dad had. We weren’t afraid to embark on any other endeavors. “
If you would like to find out about the Boss, the Tippmann clickers, or even better, Tippmann’s next great idea, go to tippmannindustrial.com or call 866-286-8046.
3518 South Maplecrest Rd.
Fort Wayne, IN 46806