Did you hear the one about the dental lab that gets all its business through word of mouth?
Dana and Jeannette Chiappinelli — whose business doesn’t advertise — make crowns, bridges and implant parts out of their Walz Avenue home on Red Mountain.
You wouldn’t know driving by. There’s no sign, no line of people waiting to get work done, no 10-foot-tall plastic tooth with a big smile painted on it.
It just looks like a house.
Dana said there are a few guidelines Dental Technologies must observe per their business license to operate the lab in their home.
“We’re allowed to do this so long as we don’t have any [nonfamily member] employees here, and we can’t disrupt the neighborhood. … We’ve never had anybody complain because we’re good neighbors,” he said.
The Chiappinellis have had their lab in three locations after moving to Glenwood in 1995: first in a townhome basement in Oak Meadows for two or three years; then in a home on Riverview Avenue for three years; and their current location two streets up the hill, where they built their house with the business in mind.
Theirs is not the first dental lab in Glenwood Springs. Coincidentally, a lab operated by Charles Sprick was located on Riverview Drive.
Though customers don’t come in shopping for that special bridge for grandma, Dana said once or twice a week people stop in for a shade match.
This is where the process becomes artistic; the crown is colored to match the surrounding teeth, including cracks and blotches.
“Sometimes we get people that are in their 60s and they think they want [their bridge to be] white, but we kind of explain to them that when you meet somebody that’s 60 or 70 years old and they smile and they’ve got these beautiful white teeth, you know they can’t be real,” Dana said.
In steps Lisa Niehaus, the third employee of Dental Technologies, who works out of her home in West Glenwood.
Her job is making the manufactured teeth blend in with the natural ones.
“Lisa’s our artist,” Jeannette said.
Technically, Niehaus is a porcelain technician, but when people ask what she does for living, “Sometimes I say I make people smile for a living. Sometimes I just say I make teeth,” she said.
Niehaus came into the fold in 2017 after the Chiappinellis advertised for a ceramist.
Niehaus has an impressive resume.
“I started in the dental field right out of high school,” she said. Her first full-time job was in a dental lab in Illinois, eventually spending 17 years at Valley Dental Arts in Minnesota.
“They’re an oral design lab. They were one of five in the whole world at that time,” she said.
She also has some high-level training.
“I took a class with the guru of porcelain design technicians,” she said.
Harder to compete
The costs to operate a lab have risen considerably over the years. Dana said his first lab in 1983 cost him $2,500 to set up. Comparing that to the present, he pointed to a scanner and said it cost $30,000, and that isn’t even the most expensive piece of equipment in the lab.
As equipment costs have gone up, the price for finished products has gone down. It’s faster and cheaper to grind out a tooth now.
“The product we produce now is less expensive than what we used to sell. … The molar is the bread and butter of dentistry. … We sell those now for probably 40% less than we used to because of the technology and the competition,” Dana said.
This makes small labs like Dental Technologies a dying breed.
“Nobody’s going to start from scratch now,” Dana said.
“There are huge labs that do everything. You don’t find three- or four-person labs very often these days,” Jeannette said.
“A couple of years ago the statistic was that there were 40% fewer laboratories now than there were 10 years ago,” Dana said. “A lot of the old-timers didn’t embrace the technology, and they just couldn’t compete.”
A difference in quality
Dana said that not all crowns and bridges are created equally.
“Just because someone has a scanner and a mill[ing machine] doesn’t mean that what they do is the same as what we do, because there are different materials you can use that will lead to a different level of quality,” Dana said.
Niehaus said technology can’t duplicate what she does.
“Technology has changed a lot in what I do, but at the same time the training that I’ve had and the skills that I’ve learned can’t be replicated with technology. They haven’t caught up to that yet, as far as doing custom shade work, as far as putting in the little nuances that make a crown look more like a natural tooth. … That part of it hasn’t changed that much for me,” she said.
The nearest dental lab is in Grand Junction, and to the east there’s not another until Denver, Jeannette said. But with work being done digitally, location isn’t that relevant.
“Our competition is everywhere: China, Costa Rica, anywhere a doctor can send a file,” Jeannette said.
The Chiappinellis likewise have clients all over the country.
“We have accounts in Texas, Illinois, Georgia, Steamboat, all up and down from here to Denver. It doesn’t have to be local. Most of our accounts are not local,” Jeannette said.
Locally, the dentist office of Anderson and Heim was a big client. After Corey Johnson bought the practice, he continued the relationship with Dental Technologies.
Other local clients include Tim Huson at Murray Dental in Glenwood and Michael Doherty of Crystal Valley Dental in Carbondale.
Another area client is Ward Johnson of Aspen. Dana knew Johnson in dental school, and he suggested Dana move their operation to Glenwood Springs.
“He felt there was an opportunity here,” Dana said.
Dana said a dental degree is not required to do this work. He graduated from Triton College’s Dental Laboratory program in 1982.
“There aren’t very many schools to even go to anymore. I think there’s only two left where you can go and get a formalized education in the technology,” he said.
But mastering the programs doesn’t qualify someone to make crowns and bridges.
“You have to have some understanding of teeth, the anatomy of teeth and how they function. You have to have a general understanding of the relationship of dentistry to this craft,” Dana said.
“How teeth function is just as important as aesthetics for longevity,” Jeanette said.
More than a mouthful
The Chiappinellis had never considered how many teeth they make in a year, but after some thought said they average 300 to 350 teeth a month, which is 3,600–4,200 per year, or 112–131 mouths’ worth of chompers.