Learn how this hunter's ingenuity led to him starting a small family business that might just change the scent control game for good.
Necessity is the mother of invention, or so they say. That was definitely the case for southwest Michigan's Steve Knipp.
A few years ago, he was spending an early season afternoon sitting in his deer stand. As is often the case with the early season, it was wet out. A firm believer in scent control, Knipp realized if he brought his clothes back indoors to dry after his hunt, he'd probably contaminate them with unwanted smells, which meant he would have to wash and dry them all over again. "I was thinking 'Man, I've got to re-do all this again,'" Knipp said.
That's when he had an idea. This is the story of a small-time hunting product company doing their best to break into the outdoor industry. It isn't an easy feat, but Knipp seems more than determined to see it through.
As he sat there getting increasingly soaked, Knipp knew he had to come up with a solution to dry his clothing without having to go through the scent decontamination process all over again. He really just wanted to avoid bringing his hunting clothes indoors at all.
"If the deer live in an outdoor environment, to me, the best camouflage you can have is to just smell like the outdoors, to smell like where they live," Knipp said.
He knew he wanted to create some kind of outdoor scent control storage system, but he had to come up with an idea that would not only protect from cross-contamination scents, but would also guard against the elements while drying out wet clothing.
For a while he hung his clothing in his wife Michelle's gazebo, but she didn't like that idea. "I explained to her about what I needed," Knipp said, "and she goes 'Well, just make something. You're a millwright. You've been making stuff your whole life. You love fixing stuff. You know you can make something.'"
He took those words to heart and spent the next five to six months playing with a variety of different designs. He eventually came up with the idea of a stainless steel, powder-coated frame. The bottom is a steel grate to allow moisture to drain out and air to circulate in.
The top has a bar to hang garments from, and the whole thing is covered by a double layer of protection for the clothing inside. First is a black screen layer that can be opened to allow for faster drying. On top of that is a layer of water-, UV-, and mildew-resistant 900 denier canvas. This protects against elements like rain and snow.
The result is a kind of outdoor closet, and it does exactly what Knipp set out to accomplish. He now has a way to keep already scent-free clothing outside, where it could dry without sabotaging scent decontamination.
The product worked darn well, even from the start. It not only dried his clothing well, but also kept his gear free of contaminating smells from his home, vehicle, or garage.
His new homemade odor-control storage system infused an outdoor smell on his clothing that was very natural, and he decided there's no reason his hunting gear couldn't take advantage. It helped keep him hidden from the nose of wily and wary southwest Michigan trophy bucks.
"I was just downwind of a really nice 7-point at 10 yards," he said. "He was not paying attention to me. Our unit takes a lot of work out of preparing your clothes and keeping them ready to hunt. It takes a lot of the pressure and the stress off of having your clothes ready to hunt all the time, and you can focus on other areas of your hunt."
In fact, he trusts his product so much that it changed his entire hunting season routine. "The more I used it, the more I realized I don't have to use (cover scent) sprays," Knipp said. "I haven't used sprays on my hunting clothes in two years now."
But he and his customers have also found additional ways to use the Airlocker. For instance, another small company who manufactures scent balls sent some to Knipp. He then realized the balls could be used to infuse clothing with a specific scent. For one property, he used an apple-scented scent ball to infuse just a hint of orchard to the clothing he uses there.
Another customer uses an Ozonics scent control device in connection with the Airlocker to help make his clothes as scent-free as possible.
Knipp called his new invention the Airlocker. While he originally made the product for himself, his buddies soon noticed his new homebrewed piece of scent control hunting gear and started asking questions.
"All my buddies were like, 'What's that? Where did you get that?'" Knipp said. They didn't believe the Airlocker was homemade. "They were like 'Nah, you didn't make that, that's too nice,'" he added with a sly smile.
Like many inventions, Knipp had stumbled onto a potential business completely by accident. "I wasn't looking to make a company to produce and sell them," he added. "I just needed to fill a need that I had."
After a discussion with his wife, the couple decided they didn't have anything to lose by trying to make a small business of the product. Within a few weeks, they had formed Wild Winds Hunting Products.
My boy love helping in the shop lol pic.twitter.com/KZdaYHWSUP
— Wild Winds Hunting Products (@AirlockerLLC) September 12, 2017
It was clear this venture is a labor of love as Knipp showed me the workshop. When they say small family business, they mean it.
The entire operation runs out of an unassuming two-car garage in Marcellus, Michigan. Knipp gutted the whole garage just for Wild Winds. He gets the whole family in on the work: he does the tig welding of the frames, his wife and daughter work on the sewing, and others help with any number of random, business-running tasks needing to be completed.
The only thing the Knipp family doesn't do is the powder coating of the frames, and that's merely because they don't have the space and equipment to heat treat it at 500 degrees. Knipp sourced that job to a local business. "We try to keep everything as local as we can, because it's good to give back to the community," Knipp said. "Mom and pop shops... to me, is where it's at."
Passion for the product
Knipp doesn't have any big investors backing his business. He and Michelle support the financials via their regular jobs. Right now, every bit of money they make goes right back into Wild Winds and Airlocker. This year they added new shop lights, insulation, and a heater for them to work more comfortably in the cold of winter.
He knows it is more expensive to make a product like this entirely local in the U.S., but it's all about quality. "We pay attention to detail," Knipp said. "We want to give a true American-made product to the customer."
He also wants people to have their Airlockers for 20-30 years or more, and be able to pass them down to their children. This is why they designed Airlocker so that the canvas and screen sections can be replaced. You can go with different styles of camo pattern for different hunting areas, but also take care of any rips or tears with a full replacement.
"If you ruin the screen or break the zipper, send it back to us and we'll replace it for free and ship it right back out to you," Knipp said. "If I'm going to put my name on it, I want to give them the best quality of material and product that I can."
Right now the most common way folks are buying Airlockers is direct, mostly through e-commerce means. They've had a few in archery stores on consignment, but most of their growth has been aided through word of mouth and trade shows.
One local likes Airlocker so much that he leaves it out year-round, with his clothing inside. "I told him I dont recommend that, but it's yours, you can do with it as you will," Knipp said with a laugh. The Airlocker and the clothing are holding up quite well, he reported.
Knipp would love for Wild Winds and Airlocker to eventually become a full-time gig, but for now he's happy with slow-but-steady growth. He says this allows them to grow as the company grows. He hopes it is something he can pass to his children if they are interested.
"It's our baby," Knipp said. "To us, it's worth it because we're passionate about it, and we love it, and we know it works phenomenally well."
Knipp was nice enough to lend us an Airlocker to try out for Michigan's firearm deer season. Keep an eye out for a full review of this unique piece of hunting hardware soon.
If hanging out with Knipp and learning about the company's inception taught us anything, we're in for a scent-free season.