Graph Tech Turns 35
Graph Tech Guitar Labs, based in the Vancouver suburb of Delta, British Columbia, has become the world’s largest manufacturer of nuts and saddles. In addition to these bread-and-butter items, Graph Tech is also known for its revolutionary Ratio Balanced-Gear Tuned Machine Heads, the Ghost Modular Pickup System, Resomax guitar bridges, Chops handcare products, and TUSQ harmonically rich picks. Now observing his company’s 35th anniversary, founder, owner, and “Head Honcho” Dave Dunwoodie reflects on his company’s humble start and how remaining true to his original mission and vision have turned “one idea” into a model for the industry.
Working on his kitchen table back in the early ’80s, Dunwoodie fashioned his first guitar nut from a sheet of graphite. After months of studying engineering books at the local library, he stumbled on newly emerging materials that contained graphite and PTFE (trade name Teflon by Dupont), including one that could be injection molded.
In 1983, Dunwoodie borrowed $5,000 from his mother to make a simple three-cavity injection mold and buy blank Gibson and Fender style nuts, a string tree, and 50 lbs. of the groundbreaking new material. After coming up with a company name, Graph Tech, and a product name, The Graphyte Nut, he worked with a local print shop to lay out the artwork for a small ad. Mailing the ad to Guitar Player magazine committed him to the project and meeting a two-month deadline to purchase the material, make a mold, and find a fabricator that could produce it.
By chance, 60 days later, on March 31, 1983, Dunwoodie received his first order, by mail, from his first customer, on the same day he received his first finished product: the world’s first self-lubricating nut, with a formula that is five times slipperier than graphite. And at the end of the day, for all his innovation, research, and gumption, he had...$9.95 in the bank.
But the operation grew: from the kitchen table, to a modest 200-square-foot-workshop in 1987, to its current fully equipped design and manufacturing facility in Delta. The company now fields a team of 24 to create products, in Dunwoodie’s words, “with the sole purpose of improving the playing experience.”
For the next 20 years, Dunwoodie kept expanding the Graph Tech line and brands during the day, gigged three to six nights a week in a successful Vancouver band, and coached his two daughters’ fastpitch softball teams. “Looking back,” he says, “I don’t know where I found the time or energy, but it was a lot of fun, fueled by passion and support from my family.” Today, both of Dunwoodie’s daughters, Theresa and Tarina, are an integral part of the Graph Tech team.
Graph Tech is now the largest manufacturer of nuts and saddles in the world, offering more than 1,200 different nuts, saddles, and bridge pin designs and materials including TUSQ, Black TUSQ XL, NuBone, and Nubone XB, with more models being added every month.
Every morning, the entire staff meets for a 15-minute stand-up meeting to bring up challenges and solutions and keep everyone informed and in sync. Every meeting ends in a company cheer—anything from “Team Work” to the “Hooked on A Feeling” intro (“Ooga-chaka Ooga-Ooga Ooga-chaka”)—led by business development team leader Shaun Verreault. Says Dunwoodie, “Not a day goes by without a laugh being shared or a problem being solved.
At Graph Tech, the most effective motivators are connection with the work—many of its employees are musicians—and the company’s creative culture. “We’re not a me-too company,” Dunwoodie stresses. “We stretch our imagination and strive to innovate products to improve the playing experience. The marketing and design teams work together to come up with initial product concepts and ideas. Again, if it doesn’t pass our ‘improve-the-playing-experience’ mantra, it’s quickly thrown to the issues list. Concepts and ideas then are visualized on 3D CAD drawings for manufacturing and design feasibility. If it passes that hurdle, numerous 3D printed versions are tested and perfected.”
This painstaking process allows the team to refine a prototype’s designs, structural integrity, feel, and aesthetics before small production runs are produced for beta testing. Then it’s go/no-go, or back through the design cycle again. Some products make it through; others go through the process a few times and may or may not ever see the light of day.
Dunwoodie sees the key ingredients of business success as “persistence, having a vision of where you will be in ten or 20 years, and always thinking long-term with your customers and suppliers.” Regarding persistence, he says, “A lot of the time I feel like a moth, flying around the light bulb, trying to get inside and always bumping my head. But if you have a vision, and you don’t give up, you’ll find a way inside. It may not end up exactly the way you envisioned at the start, but with the knowledge you’ve gained trying, you’ll find your vision and start to have more and more small successes, which lead into bigger and bigger successes.”
In some ways, long-term thinking is even harder. “You can’t think of a customer as one sale and they’re gone,” he continues. “You don’t have to make a profit every time, but you do have to think about how many sales each customer is worth over ten years, 20 years, and a lifetime. Jim Dunlop didn’t get rich selling one pick, one time, to one customer. I don’t know the actual numbers on this, but based on my own pick consumption when I played professionally, I spent maybe a dollar a week. Over ten years, that little 33-cent pick generated $520.”
Dunwoodie’s confidence in his products is reflected in Graph Tech’s extraordinary 45-day “Love it or Return It” Guarantee, which applies even after the customer has used or installed the product. “I’d rather have the customer be blown away by how we respond to correct the problem,” he says. “Maybe he bought the wrong product, installed it incorrectly, had an accident, or maybe that product just wasn’t for him. Customers can immediately tell by our passion that we don’t want them to be ecstatically happy, we need them to be ecstatically happy, whatever the issue is. We will earn their confidence and trust. If we achieve that, we have that ‘$520 pick’—and a lifelong believer in Graph Tech, our ethics, and our products. Products with purpose, and products that actually do what we say they do.”