It's Slammer time

It's Slammer time
The Slammer began its life as a secret weapon in TJ Irvin's arsenal of topiary tools, but it's now his full-time business – and he has global ambitions for this odd but useful item.

The Slammer began its life as a secret weapon in TJ Irvin's arsenal of topiary tools, but it's now his full-time business – and he has global ambitions for this odd but useful item.

New Zealanders are well known for tackling the odd DIY project around the house, but few have gone as far as TJ Irvin and designed and manufactured their own tools for getting the job done. After more than a decade of tinkering and countless broken prototypes, he’s turned his tool into a business.

At a distance, the Slammer looks like a rowing oar, but in the right hands it becomes the Swiss army knife of farming – replacing a spade, axe, crowbar and mattock in one swift hit. Unlike those tools, however, there’s no swinging when it comes to the Slammer; instead it uses a slide mechanism that requires less energy and makes it easier to use in tight spaces. Replaceable heads and extra attachments extends the Slammer’s utility.

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Irvin, 40, built the first version of the Slammer in his teens while living in the US. He was offered a motorbike in return for clearing a bamboo patch on his neighbour’s property, and a spade and the prospect of impressing girls with a sweet new ride were no match for the tough bamboo blight. Remembering a jack pick his great grandfather used while working in coal mines, he fashioned himself the first version of the Slammer and went at the bamboo again.

“I got that bike in the end,” he says.

The tool became instrumental in his career as a Washington landscaper specialising in bamboo installations (and, of course, removals), but it wouldn’t be until he immigrated to New Zealand in 2000 that he’d turn his focus towards selling his creation.

“The Slammer was never made as something I wanted to sell. I’m not a businessman, I’m just a guy who likes to make things in the shed,” says Irvin.

“I started making Slammers and doing work in Jackson Bay [in the South Island], and other people saw me using it and became curious. There’s not much bamboo here but there are a lot of fence posts that need to be dug.”

Now based in Wanaka, the first batches Irvin sold were “crude” in comparison to what he’s producing now – and far more prone to breaking. He approached Central Otago engineering firm Templeton & Sons to manufacture higher quality Slammers, 10 at a time. China would have been cheaper says Irvin, but he wouldn’t be assured of quality and would need to produce larger runs.

“By being able to build small batches, I could change the design every time I found a better way to manufacture it or a stronger design,” he points out.

There were 13 prototypes before Irvin settled on its current form; he calls it the simplest version of the product. His intellectual property isn’t in the design of the tool itself – plenty of slide hammers have come before it – his patent is in the manufacturing process involved in strengthening the piping and how it’s attached to the implement head.

Irvin’s attitude about the Slammer has changed since leaving the States. Where it was once a competitive advantage in the cut-throat world of landscape design which he didn’t want revealed, he now unashamedly markets the Slammer every opportunity he gets.

Regular trips to Field Days, online and social media marketing and the occasional press job with entrepreneurial magazines make up the bulk of Irvin’s marketing strategy – but he’s not opposed to the odd bit of serendipitous advertising. He’s featured on an episode of Police 10/7 wearing a Slammer shirt.

Although he was drink driving at the time, he says 30,000 people visited the Slammer site after the show aired. “It’s not a mistake I’ll make again, but it was interesting to see the response it got online ... my wife wasn’t very happy though,” he says.

Irvin now sells the Slammer online and has resellers around the world. He’s particularly targeting emerging nations where people power is still at the heart of major construction projects. In Argentina the Slammer is manufactured and sold locally for servicing regional infrastructure builds; the manufacturing is partly subsidised by the Argentine government as a way to keep manufacturing money inside the country.

“Everywhere I look now, the trend is towards automation – of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but if we could better harness the seven billion people on Earth it would have a tremendous economic and environmental impact,” says Irvin.

“Automation leaves people out of the picture. Tools like the Slammer are cheaper than buying a digger and it ensures you employ at least one person to use each one.” 

At $250 a pop, the Slammer is still a sizeable investment for many of the workers Irvin is aiming for. He says often it’s businesspeople buying the tool for workers beneath them, leasing them out to those unable to afford it.

Slammer’s future is in these markets and Irvin says he’s now working towards increasing the availability of the tool in Asia and South America through further reseller and manufacturer deals.