This Northeast Ohio manufacturer created the world’s largest rubber duck and bounce house
BRUNSWICK, Ohio - The “World’s Largest Rubber Duck” has become an international phenomenon. The beaming, whimsical 15-ton inflatable wades into cities and captures the hearts (and selfies) of her global fans. This July 12-15, the duck will be seen floating around the Festival of Sail Sandusky.
And she was “hatched” right here in Northeast Ohio.
Some of the world’s most iconic inflatables are brought to life at Brunswick-based Scherba Industries, which was launched by brothers David and Robert Scherba in 1982.
While the duck was created at a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing plant tucked within an industrial plaza in a Cleveland ’burb, there’s no denying that it has breathless devotees everywhere it travels.
“We’ve had to deflate in the middle of the night because people were crying,” David recalls. “They were just devastated it was leaving the Hong Kong harbor.”
But it’s not just beloved rubber ducks being made at Scherba, specifically in its “Inflatable Images” division. NFL arches and entryways that football stars burst through are developed here. Same with many of the inflatables that appear in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. From characters like the Carfax Fox to military decoys used on the front lines, Scherba has become a hub for inflatable creations.
Every year, its full-time staff of 75 and handful of part-time employees create around 1,500 inflatables. An additional 7,500 are designed in-house and assembled offshore.
This summer in Northeast Ohio is a busy one for Scherba beyond just the duck’s first appearance in the state. Scherba is also the force behind two more forthcoming events. Bounce House America, the world’s biggest bounce house, will bring its 20,000-square-feet of inflatables to North Ridgeville on its country-wide tour on July 13-15. The Insane Inflatable 5K race makes a tour stop in Akron on Aug. 25.
“Since we’re international, it’s amazing how little of what we make actually ends up in Ohio,” David says. “When we have three events like this, I get excited as all heck. A lot of my friends, neighbors and people who might not know we exist get a chance to find out what we do right here in Northeast Ohio.”
Up, up and away
Scherba Industries has three more divisions under its Brunswick roof. Gorilla Graphics handles design, print and installation of vehicle wraps and graphics. Whenever you see a food truck, first responder, specialty bus or custom car, there’s a good chance Scherba may have created its wrap. GameDay Vision is a branch of their inflatable business completely dedicated to sports complex graphics. Covers Unlimited manufactures field covers for most professional and college teams.
It’s been a three-decade adventure for this family-owned business. And it all started with a hot air balloon.
Long before their roster of clients included the likes of Ford, Pepsi and Nike, the Scherba brothers were two curious high school kids with a plan. They wanted to create their own hot air balloon to fly in.
“We bought an industrial sewing machine, borrowed someone else’s balloon to understand the pattern, then sewed our first air balloon back in the late ’70s,” David says. “in the early ‘80s, we saw our first cold-air inflatable and thought ‘that’s something that could take off.’”
Their first cold-air inflatable was none other than a replica of that hot air balloon. They launched their business from their home in Old Brooklyn and planted their first facility in Cleveland in 1985. In a few years, they grew bigger and moved to Brunswick, and bought the building where they now operate in 1996.
“Now, 36 years later, we’ve made everything from helicopters to Christmas trees and Santa Clauses to beer cans,” he says. “There’s not much we can’t replicate as an inflatable today.”
From start to finish
It’s no small task to work on grand projects for the world’s biggest names. But some of David’s favorite pieces don’t involve businesses at all.
“Whenever I get a call from the artist Paul McCarthy, that’s always a lot of fun because it gets very artsy,” he says. “The technical projects are also really interesting. When you’re making decoys for the military, life and limb are at stake. It becomes very intricate and very detailed.”
It all starts a flight of steps above the main floor in the design center. 3D artist renderings are created using computer animation programs to give a 360-degree view. Other times, for something like the Macy’s parade, Scherba is sent plaster molds that are already made and then scans in the design to the computer system.
Technology has streamlined the process since their early days.
“We used to have to use clay sculpting, and take photos of those,” David recalls. “Then I’d put them on the color copying machine, do a grayscale, fax it over. That was back in the ’80s. Now we can give them full-blown spin-arounds. Which certainly helps us, since most of our clients aren’t in Ohio.”
A team of designers takes it one step further and begins to plot out how to bring the artwork from screen to reality. There’s more than just pumping air into an inflatable – it has to have an internal structure and walls that keeps its shape.
On the ground floor, a computer-controlled cutting table marks and cuts each pattern piece. It guides the seamstress in knowing exactly where to sew.
Every piece is different. If it’s something Scherba has never made before – like a 30-foot inflatable animal – it takes about a week and a half to design, plus another 40 hours to manufacture. As summer heats up and events are in full swing, their calendar starts to fill up.
And you can’t have summer without the smell of food trucks dishing up local fare at fests and events all over town. That’s where their Gorilla Graphics division comes in to make vehicle wraps.
To see their graphics operation in action, just head to a smaller room tucked inside the plant. But don’t let the size fool you – there’s more than a million dollars of equipment within. Once a graphic, like a food truck wrap, is printed, it hits a computer-driven cutting table that slices it down.
Step into another side room, and you’ll be inside what used to be one of Northeast Ohio’s biggest spray booths. Before digital print, everything was airbrushed. Today, the space is used as a “wrap bay” for digital wraps, where workers apply the graphics to vehicles by using heat guns, squeegees and special tools to get around rivets to prevent air bubbles.
Stroll through the plant and you’ll see workers designing, sewing, cutting and constructing as their work is being prepared to be seen around the world.
Scaling a family-owned business from two brothers creating inflatables in their home to a 100,000-square-foot plant relies on a dedicated team. And they’re ready to tackle the next great heights – from their first air balloon to floats in the Macy’s parade.
“It’s been a crazy ride,” David says. “The key is having good help. And we’ve always been lucky enough to have a great staff to support us.”