I've had an idea for a custom beer tap handle swirling around in my head this week. I mentioned it briefly on my Facebook page then realized about an hour later that I had not actually talked to any tap handle vendors! Doh! I took care of that problem very quickly. I've spoken to two vendors thus far, TapHandles (duh) and Chrislan. (See update below). The chances are 100% that you've seen their tap handles in bars as they are the suppliers to just about any brewery you can think of.
The way the custom tap handle process works is you provide the manufacturer with images of your logo or whatever you want and then tell them your story about what the brewery represents. They have artists/designers/sculptors who create initial designs and send you images. You go back and forth, up to a certain limit without incurring additional charges, and once the design is finalized, they make a mold, create a tap handle, and ship it to you to approve. Once you approve, they go into production. The entire process from submitting your images to delivery of your first shipment of tap handles ranges from 3-4 months.
The cost of all of this and minimum quantities differs a bit between the two vendors. First, TapHandles manufactures their tap handles from a heavy, durable plastic. Chrislan's are all ceramic. This difference is most apparent in the initial design pricing and minimum quantities. TapHandles charges around $1200-$1500 for the design and tooling. Chrislan charges around $2000. For both vendors, this one time fee is paid with the first order of tap handles, so it makes sense to order as many tap handles as you can in the first order to lower the price per unit. After the initial fee is paid, future orders are charged only for the handles. TapHandles has no minimum order but Chrislan has a minimum order of 200 pieces due to the ceramic manufacturing process. Both companies charge somewhere around $20-$25 per handle for the initial order but as mentioned previously, that cost goes down after the design and tooling charge is paid.
You can also order stock tap handles, which is great if you're on a really tight budget, but I think a good custom designed tap handle is an extremely important marketing tool and the costs are quite low compared to all the other equipment you have to buy in this business. Think about how many times you've gone into a bar, not sure what's available on tap. Maybe you look for the beer list, maybe you ask the bartender, or maybe you first take a gander at the taps. That's what I do on many occasions, especially if the beer list isn't readily viewable on a chalkboard or something. You know which tap handles get my attention? The ones mine are going to look like!
(Update 6/13/2012) I was contacted today by the sales manager for AJS Tap Handles after he read this post. AJS is yet another well known tap handle vendor which I had read about on Probrewer.com but neglected to contact. Apparently they are the largest tap handle manufacturer in the country and are based out of Random Lake, WI. Their customers include Revolution, Bells, Harpoon, and many more. Check out their Flickr photostream for lots of examples of their work. I'll definitely be talking to them as I get closer to launch.)