Memorial High School student Daikon Iverson looked into getting his four-wheeler powder coated, but it occurred to him that he might be able to do it himself.
He began researching the process — which involves spraying a special powder onto parts and heating them up in an oven to create a coating more durable than paint — and sought out the equipment needed to start up.
As he learned about powder coating on the internet, he saw that some had used the process to decorate trendy insulated metal drinking tumblers made by YETI and Ozark Trail.
It was a good starter project before he’d take apart his ATV and tackle coating its large frame.
Word spread about his talent of custom-coating cups and after a year he’d sold 1,000 of them to people wishing to promote their business, mark a special occasion or simply have something decorative to drink from.
“It just kept expanding from there,” said Daikon, now 17.
Iverson Custom Coatings, founded in mid-2016, has now sold 2,000 of the tumblers through word-of-mouth, the business’ Facebook page and on an Eau Claire store’s shelves. One of his most popular sellers — a tumbler with the silhouette of the state of Wisconsin with a star where Eau Claire is located — is sold at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St.
But how does he do it?
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In an early March visit to the workshop next to his family’s rural Eau Claire home, Daikon showed how he adds color and creativity to a plain steel drinking cup.
Daikon pulls out a new tumbler from his stock — he buys them in bulk to save costs and meet demand for his products — and proceeds to ply his trade.
He’ll either create his own design or bring up artwork submitted by customers on his computer. A machine called a Cricut, which is shaped like a small home printer, makes precise cuts in a sheet of vinyl to reproduce the design.
He carefully arranges the vinyl pieces on the surface of the tumbler. These serve the same purpose as masking tape does when painting — areas covered in vinyl will be kept bare from the coating of powder he will apply.
Daikon then uses wax and oil remover to get any fingerprints off the cup before buffing it with a microfiber cloth.
Then it’s over to the powder coating area — a metal cabinet for small jobs like cups or a garage stall for bigger projects. A powder gun gives an electrical charge to the fine colored particles before spraying them onto the surface of the tumbler, which has been grounded via a wire that extends outside to a stake half buried in the earth. This is crucial in the process as the charged powder will cling to the grounded metal.
Any excess powder that got inside the cup is wiped out and then the tumbler is put in a standard kitchen oven — no longer used for baking food, of course — that’s been preheated to 400 degrees.
It will take several minutes to cure the powder into a durable coating, but he’ll interrupt the cooking time midway through. Using a timer, infrared thermometer and his experience, Daikon spots the 30-second window when the vinyl can be peeled off perfectly.
He pulls the cup out of the oven, carefully flakes off the vinyl pieces using a tool, and then puts it back into the hot oven to finish curing.
Using multiple levels of vinyl masking and coatings, Daikon can make more complicated designs. One cup he made has the Dodge Ram truck logo mostly in the tumbler’s native steel with black powder coating providing shadows in the design and a border to it. The rest of the cup has a gray color. He keeps about 50 colors on hand, but has his choice of about 6,500 through the supplier he uses.
When the cup comes out of the oven, the powder has changed into a colorful durable coating enveloping the cup.
After cooling and cleaning, the tumblers are ready to sell, complete with Daikon’s business card and instructions for proper care inside.
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Daikon has branched out to powder coating larger items as well.
Metal parts on his ATV got a shimmering blue coat in October 2016. He’s also coated snowmobile frames, antique metal lawn furniture and machine parts for local shops as well.
Family connections and meeting people through 4H have also helped Daikon secure powder coating clients.
“That’s the great thing about Eau Claire,” he said. “It’s a small, tight-knit community.”
The ability to use vinyl to mask off portions of cups also came in handy when he had to coat parts for diesel engines. Where parts would be exposed to the elements, they needed to be coated. But portions of them had to be kept bare or they would interfere with how the engines operate.
To cure these large pieces, Daikon needed an oven bigger than one found in a kitchen.
He drew up plans to build his own oven larger than a refrigerator using scrap metal, insulating materials, heat-resistant paint, kitchen oven elements and controls to regulate the temperature inside.
Though dad helped him connect him with sources of scrap metal and some of the labor, Daikon did the vast majority of the work, which included grinding and welding.
His young age has surprised some customers.
“A lot of people say, ‘OK, thanks. Can I talk to your dad?’” Daikon said with a laugh.
But he assures them that he’s the one behind Iverson Custom Coatings.
Just ask his dad.
“Every penny that’s gone into his business came out of his own pocket,” Eric Iverson said.
He credits his son’s strong self-efficacy for not only learning the coating process, but also how to run a small business while going to school.
“He sets his mind to something, and you’re not going to convince him otherwise,” Eric Iverson said of his son.
Daikon gives credit to his parents, Eric and Kayna, for their support and occasionally helping by boxing up cups when he’s filling a large order.
Eric Iverson said he encourages his children to pursue their passions and Daikon had always shown an aptitude to fabricate things.
Even as a young boy, he would help his dad work on cars out in the family’s garage and picked up some of his mechanical skills through that.
About six years ago, Daikon bought broken motorbike and go-kart parts and turned them into working vehicles, his dad said. A series of YouTube videos shows Daikon’s conversion of a bicycle into a motorbike using a chain saw engine.
His projects, including the large oven, have won him grand champion in the mechanical sciences division multiple times at the Eau Claire County Fair.
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The Eau Claire school district has a program for juniors and seniors, allowing them to get credit for workplace experience combined with relevant classes.
Drew Seveland has been overseeing the district’s youth apprenticeship and work-based learning program for three years, and Iverson is the first entrepreneur he knows of to take part.
“Within a unique program, he’s a unique person,” said Seveland, the school district’s academic coordinator and Iverson’s mentor for the apprenticeship.
Use of the apprenticeship program is rising in Eau Claire schools, Seveland said. Three years ago there were 11 students participating and it’s now up to 32.
Students must put in 450 hours of work as part of the program and take a yearlong class or two semester classes that relate to the work they’re doing. That can mean business or marketing classes, or something more specific like auto repair for students working in a local car service shop. Employers fill out a skills checklist to assure the school that the student is learning crucial on-the-job lessons. A classroom instructor reviews the checklist, feedback from the employer and gives a grade on what the student has learned.
Because Daikon is running his own business, his parents and Seveland take on duties that an employer usually handles for other apprenticeships.
“Daikon’s really interesting, honestly,” Seveland said. “He could be satisfying about four of the different lists.”
The state Department of Workforce Development has student skills checklists for agriculture, construction, arts and communications, finance, health science, hospitality and lodging, information technology, manufacturing, marketing, STEM and distribution.
Daikon opted for the mechanical checklist, which requires students to show they can apply classroom and industry knowledge to their work, act and communicate professionally, use technology, meet safety requirements, exercise quality control and meet customer needs.
In addition to teaching himself the nuances of powder coating through online forums and other resources, Daikon also has learned about running a business. He’s kept a spreadsheet of all his sales and worked his way through tax filings needed for a small business.
But to get Daikon exposure to other workplace settings, Seveland is arranging a visit to Global Finishing Solutions, an Osseo company that makes paint booths.
Some students in the apprenticeship program do all their work outside of the school day, but others get work-release to be excused early so they can go to their jobs in the afternoon. In Daikon’s case, his school days end early.
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Insisting on his own that “school comes first,” Daikon said he doesn’t let his company interfere with homework.
He limits his powder coating time to afternoons, but will also work weekends if he’s filling a large order.
For people who order one cup through his company’s Facebook page, Daikon estimates it will usually take about a week to get it. Delivery time for bulk orders depends on how big the job is.
Recently he got a request from a barbershop for 18 tumblers adorned with its logo. A group of women also placed an order for customized cups to commemorate a vacation they will take.
Daikon recalls his first sale — tumblers for a lawnmower race in Holcombe — was in July 2016.
An order that kept him busy in summer 2017 was for 350 cups for a Madison area feed business. The company liked his work enough to order 100 more the following year.
In addition to something he enjoys and continues to develop, Iverson Custom Coatings is also a way to get him closer to his lofty goal — graduating college without debt.
Daikon will be attending UW-Stout in autumn to begin his studies in mechanical engineering. His dream job is to work for a big auto manufacturer, hopefully in part of the business focused on using renewable energy.
“I just absolutely love the mechanical side of things,” he said.