Laura Harbaugh always wanted to be an artist.
Her father was a professional photographer and her mother worked for Pierce County as a conservationist, racing to protect heritage farmland in the fast-growing Puyallup River Valley.
A graduate of Gig Harbor High School, Harbaugh earned her undergraduate degree in fine arts from Western Washington University in 2011. While she was enthralled by sculpture at Western, her professional focus was photography — not long before the industry became saturated by social media and phones with great cameras.
She knew she had to get out and find something else.
Harbaugh joined the Peace Corps and went to a rural village outside Kruger National Park in South Africa. She taught art to the kids, mostly sculpting and painting, and did photography in her spare time. She lived in a hut for two years.
“I was so isolated and lonely. I won’t lie,” she said. “The Peace Corps is hard.” But she had many epiphanies during that time as well. She discovered using her hands was an essential element in her work.
“This is what I love to do,” she said. “I’m not a tech person. I don’t want to be on a computer or spend my time looking at a screen. I like working with people and I like using my hands.”
She began considering career options where she could do both.
Her answer came in dentistry. The need for dental care combined with her research into the work itself pointed to a perfect career fit.
Harbaugh had an uncle in Eugene, Oregon, with a successful career as a denturist. She began showing up at every denture clinic she could find to ask people what it was like to do the work. She liked what she heard.
She applied to Bates Technical College in Tacoma in 2017. Once in the program, she loved it and knew that creating dentures was what she wanted to do.
“You’re constantly using your hands and you’re sculpting,” she said. “It’s so artistic. All the different materials used — like plaster, Hydrocal, wax and acrylic. I’m constantly mixing materials and the texture has to be perfect because if you mess up one step, you’re starting all over. There is no room for error.”
There are only three nationally accredited denturist programs in the United States acceptable for licensure in Washington state. In a field dominated by men, in 2018 Harbaugh found herself the only woman in her graduating class and the one before it.
She recalled making her first denture. The teacher broke it in half and said, “OK, now fix it.”
“It takes a lot of time to get proficient,” she said. “The schooling is so essential. You have to fail to learn how to succeed.”
Each mouth is so different, she said. “It’s like a snowflake or a fingerprint, each one is unique and requires so much customization.”
Despite negative stereotypes, Harbaugh said that dentures are about getting people back on track to good health. There are all sorts of reasons why people need them, from diabetes to cancer treatment and receding gumlines; even the negative effects of some early orthodonture back in the 1970s is a common problem now for patients in their 50s and 60s. “There is no shame in having a partial or dentures.”
“I feel like a lot of people just don’t know enough about partials and dentures,” she said. “It’s a great alternative to other types of dentistry.
“Imagine you’ve got one bad tooth and it needs to come out,” she said. “An alternative to an implant and crown would be a partial. A lot of people like them because they are comfortable, they have some flex to them and will last about 15 years.”
She said the downside to implants is oftentimes they fail, and they are very expensive. For a lot of people, learning that partials are a great alternative comes as a huge relief.
“Far more people have partials and dentures than you might think,” Harbaugh said. “People just don’t talk about it much but they look good, they function great, and there is a reason they are still around.”
Harbaugh opened her own clinic, Custom Dentures Direct, in Key Center at the end of 2019.
“Key Center is not without challenges for small business,” she said. “It’s hard to get people to come out this way to see a provider.” While her immediate prospects starting out may have been better in someplace like Belfair, she resisted the idea.
She was prepared to take time to build her practice up, but said that creative problem solving is always necessary to get over hurdles for new small business owners.
The first big hurdle turned out to be COVID-19.
“I was open for three months and was shut down for three months,” she said. She received no breaks on overhead and her business was so new that it didn’t qualify for any relief funding.
Early in the pandemic, Harbaugh said quite a few calls came after hospitals had accidentally thrown people’s dentures away: “We can’t bring the patient to you, but could you come here?”
Eager for the business at that point, Harbaugh found herself driving all over the place.
Making dentures is a four-step process. “If I just had a lab with me, I could knock out three appointments in one, instead of driving back and forth.”
Harbaugh decided to purchase a mobile clinic, custom designed with all new equipment, from a denturist she knew in Lacey who was too busy to launch a mobile business.
“Nobody has attempted something like this even though it makes so much sense,” she said.
Harbaugh and her husband Stanton, who is also self-employed, both love the outdoors and visit the Olympic Peninsula regularly. It took no time to envision how useful the mobile clinic would be to treat patients on the Makah Reservation in Neah Bay and other remote areas. While glad she made the investment for the flexibility the mobile clinic offers, she won’t go completely mobile anytime soon. It was her brick-and-mortar operation that made for a record-breaking start to 2022 for her business.
She’s happy with her office in Key Center.
“I like my community,” she said. “I’m close to my house. I have a baby. I like that it’s beautiful. I can look up from this spot (her office overlooks a pasture) and watch baby cows running around. I like that.”
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