Smile makers: Dubuque manufacturer crafts critical products for dentists

During the course of almost four decades, Sherry Grutz’s work has been ever-changing.

Every day, she is presented with a new project, a new challenge.

It’s what she loves, and after 39 years, she finds she is just as dedicated to her work as the day she began.

“Every case is a person,” Grutz said. “Every case is different. I just feel like I am helping the person be able to chew and restore their smiles.”

Grutz is a certified dental technician and ceramic supervisor at Oral Arts Dental Laboratory, 6701 Chavenelle Road. She spends her days shaping crowns or staining and glazing replacement teeth that later will be inserted into the mouths of patients.

Oral Arts is behind many of the products that local dentists give to their patients such as dentures, night guards, implants such as a crown or a bridge, bleaching trays and items designed to help patients with sleep apnea.

In 1945, Milt Moses founded the company in Dubuque along with six other dentists, said Alan McGary, Oral Arts general manager. The company continued to grow, and in 1962, it started working with providers not only in various parts of Iowa but also throughout the nation, spanning from North Carolina all the way to Alaska.

In 1982, the company merged with National Dentex Corp., which now includes more than 30 labs in multiple states.

Oral Arts in Dubuque produces an average of about 3,900 dentures or partial dentures per year, and about 30,000 crowns and bridges per year, McGary said.

The Dubuque branch company employs 40.

“Dental technology is a unique field, where both art and science come together,” McGary said. “In a way, it functions much like a pharmacy, but instead of dispensing medications, it creates replacement teeth that a dentist has prescribed for their patient, enabling the patient to regain their smile and confidence.”

Dubuque dentist Dr. Joseph Zuccaro said his dad began working with Oral Arts back in the 1980s, and he has continued to rely on them with his practice.

“I think the business is very important because they are local, and they do very good work,” he said. “We use Oral Arts for a lot of different services for crowns, implants and retainers and dentures. We continue to work with Oral Arts because they are kind and personable but (also) because they do incredible work.”

McGary said Oral Arts allows dentists to focus on their craft rather than making products for patients or relying on multiple laboratories.

“Dentists needed a dental laboratory to produce those dental appliances off site because it is not efficient for them to produce them in the office,” he said. “They rely on a dental laboratory that can provide that manufacturing aspect so that they can concentrate on practicing dentistry.”

Oral Arts prides itself in the continuing-education programs it offers dentists through the Iowa Dental Association. But that has not been possible recently due to the pandemic.

“It’s tied our hands, and we are not in the community as much as we would like to be,” McGary said. “COVID has really changed the way that we do business in regards to our outreach and the ability to be a part of the dental community. We’ve always been a part of the dental community in offering courses for the dentists, but those are all on hold until COVID goes away.”

Grutz has learned the process that is used to create all of the products she helps design. The process includes function, phonetics and aesthetics.

“Those are the three things you work on when you are making teeth,” she said. “You want the function so the person can chew. Then, phonetics for speaking. Then, aesthetics — that’s how it looks.”

Now, she is so familiar with all of the work, she can step in and fill the roles of other employees in their absence. The variety and change drive her.

“I really like to make teeth,” she said. “I enjoy the people I work with, and I enjoy getting up every day and going to work.”

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