Brush maker perseveres by catering to many markets

From household scrubbing to moon rock collecting, Schaefer Brush Manufacturing’s products have been used far and wide.

Schaefer Brush Manufacturing

1101 S. Prairie Ave., Waukesha

Industry: Brush manufacturing

Employees: 56

Incorporated in 1905, the Waukesha company makes brushes in many materials, shapes, sizes and colors to be used in heating and air conditioning, food processing, automotive, building maintenance and a variety of other industries.

Brushes manufactured at Schaefer, located at 1101 S. Prairie Ave. in Waukesha, have been used to clear debris out of piping, scrub out tanks at breweries, clean boilers in Navy ships and, yes, to gather a sample from the surface of the moon.

The company, which makes about $6 million in annual revenue, moved to its current location from Milwaukee space in 1982 to get more space, and is now at 59,000 square feet. Chief executive officer Harold Schaefer said the company plans to add on to the building soon, but is wary to do so in the current economic climate, he said.

The diversity of industries served was an advantage to the company during the Great Recession, though it was still hit hard by a sharp decline in orders from industrial clients, Schaefer said.

“We’re a major supplier to the HVAC industry,” he said. “We really got very austere—lean and mean.”

The company has 56 employees and makes about 4,000 products that are divided into about 20 categories. Most tooling is created in-house and wood, metal and plastic handles are manufactured at the facility.

Both natural and synthetic bristles are available for brush applications. A large raw materials inventory assures a quick turnaround on orders, since Schaefer often sees sudden demand.

“We’re never really sure exactly what size is going to be needed next,” Schaefer said.

Schaefer’s engineers also design custom brushes. The moisture content, ambient temperature and surface hardness all play into the type of brush that will be needed for an application.

“The shorter the material fill, the stiffer the product will be,” said Sheri Reichart, president of Schaefer.

A very stiff, short-bristled metal brush made at Schaefer is used by a client to score the inside of copper tubing, for example, while a feather soft fiber brush is used to dust wood shavings off products in a woodworking shop.

One employee hand-draws long metal bristles through an industrial rubber belt that will clean the coal dust off a conveyor belt, while another uses a semi-automated machine to lock stainless steel bristles into a twisted metal handle.

Twisted handles and metal bristles are the company’s specialty, but fiber bristles are also stapled to wooden handles and custom orders can be almost any color or shape. One customer who wanted a brush to clean tomato slices off a food processing machine asked that the plastic handle be bright red and the bristles bright green.

Schaefer has the capacity to mold plastic handles and print labeling onto the handle. At another station, woodworkers create brush handles, shipping crates for finished products and measuring tools used to determine the right amount of bristles to put in a brush.

While some Schaefer brushes have the company’s name on them, they also manufacture a lot of private label brushes. One such brush was marketed on a home shopping channel for use in cleaning shoes and jackets at home.

The engineering department recently worked with a customer to create both a machine and the brushes to clean a broach, a piece of machinery that carves grooves into a metal tube so a key can be used in it. It took weeks to design and build, with help from another firm.

“People come to us looking for a solution and they don’t just want the brush,” Schaefer said.

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