Some people find their niche through studying or work experience. Rain Gidley found his in tiny spacemen with light-up billboards and watermelon shark-heads.

Gidley is a Melbourne-based sculptor and ceramicist. His initial business idea was to use his skill to make trophies. “I was making roller derby trophies,” says Gidley. “But I realised it’s not the best way to run a business – being part of an entirely volunteer-run world.”

He took some of his roller derby designs to the team at Moon Dog Brewing, with a view to creating tap handles to match their out-there beer (including beers made from tinned clams, quinoa and belly-button fluff). One of the first – a striking watermelon shark-head with a long flowing green mane, created for the brewery’s “Bjorn to Boogie” watermelon beer – remains one of his favourites, and still regularly leads to new work.

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“My reputation is mostly built off the back the Moon Dog stuff in the early days,” says Gidley. “That really helped me build a folio.”

While an unexpected tap handle may boost sales at the bar, that doesn’t always translate to recognition at the bottle-shop shelves. To ensure consistency, Gidley works closely with the breweries to ensure handles aren’t just arbitrary sculptures but representative of the brewer.

“I’m trying to make sure that breweries are sticking with their branding elements, but as creatively as possible,” says Gidley. “If people are tempted to try the beer in the bar because of the handle, they’re going to recognise it on the shelf at the bottle shop. If I’m helping my clients build their brand, then that works well for both me and them.”

Gidley has now designed tap handles for a number of brewers around Australia, including Doctors Orders, Boatrocker and Temple Brewing.

The sculptures are usually made of polyurethane resin. Gidley sculpts the character-based designs by hand to give them personality, then when he has a prototype, he creates a mould and begins the painting process. He uses automotive paints, which last longer in the busy bar environment, where handles regularly come into contact with liquids and cleaning chemicals. Gidley says his tap handles will last for years if looked after properly. Challenges come in unusual forms. For the tiny spacemen handles he made for Odyssey Brewhouse in Geelong, he had to solve how to light them up when engaged. “[I had to find] a way to contain a battery and run a wire up through the back of it,” says Gidley. “It was something I hadn’t attempted before.”

As the craft beer industry grows, Gidley says his niche is growing with it. He’s currently expanding into more basic laser-cut wood handles for clients who don’t need the elaborate or expensive sculptural work, but would still like a point of difference at the bar. He’s also positioning himself as an expert in the community.

“Essentially I want to be the first point of contact for that sort of stuff, whether I can make it or not,” says Gidley. “If I don’t have the skills to do it I’m happy to hand the work off to somebody who does, and get the best outcome for the client.”

This article produced by Broadsheet in partnership with James Squire.