Dave Brummel has a larger than life personality. In many ways, he is at heart, a showman. In another life he might have donned a top hat, epaulets and a whip as the ringmaster in The Greatest Show on Earth. His enthusiasm is infectious and he always has a story or two up his sleeve.

Brummel is also an extraordinary entrepreneur, a self-made man in the old world sense. He is someone who rolled up their sleeves, got their hands dirty, some might argue all the way up to his elbows, and built his business from the ground up out of clay.

Brummel’s business, Aves Studio, won the St. Croix Economic Development Corporations’ 2023 Small Business of the Year Award.

The semitrailer out front promoting Aves Taxidermy and Cheese has stood as a local landmark in Hudson for more than 40 years. Brummel married into the cheese business when he married his wife of 47 years, Sandy, whose father was a master cheese maker. A true entrepreneur, Brummel assisted his father-in-law in the cheese business, tried his hand at growing Christmas trees as a way to finance his four daughters’ education, is a master taxidermist and a beekeeper, but he was destined to make his name in clay.

Brummel grew up with 10 siblings on a dairy farm not far from Watertown, Wisconsin.

Surrounded by a landscape of woods and water filled with wildlife, Brummel fell in love with hunting, fishing and trapping, ways to explore the rural landscape that fueled his imagination.

At the age of 11, Brummel used the money he had made from trapping muskrats to pay for his first correspondence course in taxidermy.

“Taxidermy was a way to express the artistic ability that I’d been given. I have a knack for it and I knew that very early in my life,” Brummel said.

It was a purchase that would pay dividends for the rest of his life.

Clay is one of the foundational materials in the taxidermy process. It was also the weakest link.  It can be applied to an armature, used to set eyes and ears, and sculpted into the shape of the mount. Once it hardens, it can be painted and the fur or feathers attached.

By the time he was 13, Brummel had built a budding taxidermy business. As he perfected his craft, his mounts were becoming more popular. He had experimented with almost every kind of clay available and he was not satisfied. The existing clays required firing to harden correctly, but taxidermists used them as self-hardening. As a result, they didn’t have the required strength or elasticity causing them to crack, shrink and peel. They were also very alkaline in nature which would react chemically with leather and other materials and cause glass eyes and other features to change colors over the years.

Brummel did what any good entrepreneur would do, he made his own.

Although Brummel had a thriving taxidermy business by the time he entered college he intended to become a veterinarian. It wasn’t until his internship senior year that he was informed that because he was colorblind, he would not be able to complete his degree in veterinary medicine.

“Color blind people were not accepted into veterinary school, but they have an advantage in the clay business,” Brummel explained. “I see things you don’t. It’s just grays and browns to you, but I see a whole world in there and I’m able to do things with it that other people can’t.”

In hindsight, although extremely disappointed Brummel sees that rejection as a moment when fate intervened.

“Once I realized that I wasn’t going to be a veterinarian, I think the good lord put it in my head I had something bigger to do and it was an even bigger challenge,” Brummel said.

Brummel put the knowledge of chemistry he had acquired while studying to become a vet to work.

By the time he sold his first synthetic clay in 1978, he had already created 33 different recipes.

“I liken it to the process of making a cake. You combine the flour, the butter, the eggs and the sugar and you make your cake. That’s how this works. I buy raw materials, some of them are natural from minerals, some are minerals that have been patented and have different properties than when they were dug out of the ground. Then I combine them in a proprietary process to meet my expectations,” Brummel explained.

Although he was able to sell the different variations of clay, they were limited to specific uses and he struggled financially.

Brummel knew there had to be a better solution and proved it by combining all the best characteristics from his 33 recipes including into a new product that he called “Eye Set Clay.”

The “secret sauce” included the addition of fiber, the equivalent of rebar, ingredients which were non-toxic and the most innovative feature of all, it was made to self-hardening. Brummel’s innovations revolutionized the synthetic clay industry and earned him the moniker “The Father of Self-hardening Clay.”

Brummel’s own taxidermy business was experiencing significant success and word of his invention started to spread within the industry.

“It turns out the uses taxidermists put the clay through are so extensive and brutal … if you can survive the taxidermy industry, you can survive anything,” Brummel said.

People began to call Brummel’s invention “Critter Clay,” a brand he would later trademark.

The big break

In 1980, Brummel booked a booth at the first ever World Taxidermy Expo in Atlanta, Georgia. For five days taxidermists from around the world entered their mounts and competed for thousands of dollars in prizes. For the first time, anybody and everybody who was a name in the taxidermy industry was in Atlanta. That opportunity would change everything and enable Brummel to build an empire out of clay.

“It was my debut. I came with 2100 lbs. of Critter Clay in large blocks. I used a harp to cut it into small pieces, 25 per block,” Brummel said.

Like any good baker gives away doughnuts, Brummel handed out free samples of his Critter Clay.

“People could touch it, feel it, smell it. They were taking the sample back to the rooms at night and making their own miniature critters,” Brummel said.

The clay was gone in 3 days.

Brummel walked out of Atlanta with six international accounts and a reputation that was spreading like wildfire throughout the taxidermy industry.

“To satisfy what I considered the needs of that industry, which had to do with the pH, toxicity, malleability and longevity of the product, we created our own parameters,” Brummel said.

The potential for clay

The market for Critter Clay has grown exponentially over the years. It has been driven organically by the users themselves, artists and taxidermists who promote the product based on their own experience using the product. That built-in credibility has allowed Brummel to expand the use of his clays and machés into markets he never imagined possible.

“We developed what I call our customer advocacy base. I started working with people at that level heavily in the 1980’s,” Brummel said. “I take care of them and they take care of me.”

Brummel cites a respected doll artist, considered a guru in his industry, who he has been working with for more than 10 years.

“You can’t find a better person to sell for you than one of the professionals in the doll industry who does doll repairs. He has been using my clay to repair his 100-year-old dolls, Brummel said. “I enable him to do that and then he writes articles and speaks to people promoting me and my product and it goes on and on. He is our new advocate.”

People started approaching Brummel asking him to create a product to meet their specific need or in a specific color. He responded by going back into the lab and creating solutions to their requests. After 40 years Aves Studio sells more than 40 products ranging from Critter Clay to machés and more recently two-part clays that include epoxy ingredients to add strength and set up faster.

His products can be found in schools where using a kiln can be a liability. A multitude of artists and industries use his products including sculptors, jewelers, prop makers, people who repair artifacts and people who build outdoor displays. His products have been used on the space shuttle and are popular with model makers for building prototypes including cars, rockets and even mice for computers.

Brummel has built and maintained relationships with a number of large commercial clients including the Smithsonian and for more than 30 years with Walt Disney World Services where his products are used for repairs at water and amusement parks around the world.

“We’re a clay company. Our products last longer in repairs because they are made with real minerals which are millions of years old. We provided 1700 lbs. of our product to the Chicago Field Museum to make Sue the T. Rex whole again. Thousands of pounds of our product was used to create a textured ceiling in a Las Vegas casino. Our products are talking to people every single day,” Brummel said.

Challenges and opportunities

Brummel learned early on that competitors would try to imitate or reverse engineer his formulas. To combat that piracy, he instituted a legal strategy that employs registered trademarks and pending patents to protect against knockoffs.

There are still a lot of people who do not know clay can be a solution for their needs.

“It’s grown everyday since day one. We’re just babies in the world marketplace,” Brummel said. “Every building’s got something broken on it that could be fixed with one of our products. That’s 300 million buildings in the US. How in the world are you going to make that much clay? It blows me away when I think of what the possibilities are.”

Brummel does not own a cellphone and he leaves the computer work to others. He begins most days by personally returning calls from friends and longtime clients.

“My favorite part of the business is to hear back about the successes that people have professionally and otherwise using our products. I encourage them to try to make a difference in the world, to lead by example. That’s really powerful,” Brummel said. “At the end of the day, it kind of makes me who I am. If I can’t help people, I feel like I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

As he approaches 70 Brummel has no plans to slow down. He only knows one way to do business, hands on, full speed ahead.

“If you give me a problem, I will sleep on it a bit and I’ll tell you, in short order, whether or not we can solve it.”

Tom Lindfors is a freelance journalist and photographer. He can be reached at 715-248-4811 or tom@lindforsphoto,com, Photo: Courtesy of Tom Lindfors.