Brad Wheedleton’s epiphany came at Nationals Park on Sept. 27, 2014, when he received the last of the seven Nationals bobblehead giveaways that season, a Tyler Clippard nodder honoring the beloved and bespectacled reliever.
“I’d started collecting and I had the whole series,” remembers Wheedleton. “I got the last one and I said to myself, ‘My collection needs a place to go.’ They were piling up on the desk or in a corner collecting dust. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to go home and build a dugout for them this weekend.’ “
One trip to and from Home Depot and five or six hours later, Wheedleton had employed his trusty jigsaw to fashion his first BobbleDugout, his name for the new home for his growing team of spring-loaded ceramic bobbleheads. He admits to a little bit of trial-and-error woodworking, but was happy enough with the finished product to brag about his creation on social media.
“I tweeted about it: ‘My guys needed a place to live,’ ” he recalls. “By the end of the night, I had about 30 direct messages from people asking how they could get one.”
If necessity is the mother of invention, Wheedleton’s brainstorm became his home-based BobbleHouse Industries. Laid off after 10 years in the landscaping business, the Ashburn, Va., resident found himself at a career crossroads with a burgeoning idea people seemed to love.
“Early on, I just had the idea. It was pretty cool and people seemed to like it,” says Wheedleton. “But what do I do now?”
Encouraged by wife Cris and members of the Half Street Irregulars, an active Nationals fan group, Wheedleton struck out on his own. Now he spends his days in his garage, lovingly constructing homes for bobblehead collections far and wide.
“I never said, ‘I’ve got this idea and I want to make millions.’ I said, ‘I’ve got this idea, but can I make it work?’ ” he says. “It’s a novelty. It’s not something that’s going to save the world or cure cancer. Just building dugouts for bobbleheads seemed like a silly idea.”
Not to those who craved his cottage industry creation. Wheedleton, 41, discovered that there were plenty of fans whose collections, like his, had outgrown desktops and bookshelves. So many that he sometimes struggles to keep up with orders that come in from his website, where he proudly promises that he’s “Helping to control the homeless bobblehead population.”
That original 16-inch prototype that housed Jordan Zimmermann, Wilson Ramos, racing president Bill and the rest of the nodding squad has become a standard 24-inch dugout, retailing for $130, that’s big enough for the haul from most teams’ season-long giveaways. He’s got four patents with five more pending. Wheedleton has branched out into customized baseball displays and hockey benches and penalty boxes perfect for Capitals bobbleheads. It’s all custom-made with the same detail and passion that went into his first dugout.
When someone wanted an Indians-themed display case, Wheedleton created one featuring the scoreboard at Progressive Field. He’s made a double-decker Bernie Brewer’s dugout for a Milwaukee fan. Another dugout recreated the riverboat in Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, a personalized creation for Reds CEO Bob Castellini. He’s done specialized work for the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation and Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman’s ZiMS Foundation.
Dodger Stadium, Wrigley Field, Kaufman Stadium and other iconic ballparks have gotten the BobbleHouse treatment. So have minor league and college teams. There’s even a BobbleHouse business card holder.
“What people want, I’ll build,” Wheedleton says.
His garage workspace is busier than Santa’s North Pole workshop these days. His home-based business has taught him that paint dries differently in the summer humidity than in the winter chill, so finishing touches may be applied in a different room of the house, depending on the time of year. His dining room doubles as a showroom and weigh station for shipping.
Wheedleton boasts customers from 17 states, Korea and Canada. His customers like that the custom-made dugouts and benches protect their collections from inquisitive felines and curious children. He’s even had buyers in San Francisco give the ultimate compliment: BobbleHouses are built to withstand earthquakes.
“And it’s all off Facebook, Twitter and from friends,” he says.
There’s a certain satisfaction that comes with creating something. There’s an added sense of pride when that creation is craved by friends who have forged a groundswell of activity that has morphed into satisfied self-employment.
It’s like that old Faberge commercial from the 1980s. His friends told two friends, then they told two friends and they told two friends and so on. BobbleHouse Industries is a perfect example of the exponential power of social networking.
“I say, ‘Wow,’ a lot,” Wheedleton admits. “Especially around Christmastime. I’m not a sales guy. I’m not a ‘Look at me on TV guy’ when Julie Carey of Channel 4 came out to do a story on me. I belong in the back, in the shop, creating stuff. But this is ‘Wow’ stuff to me.”