Star Wars Toy Production at Kenner / www.klimko.com
I worked as a toy sculptor at Kenner Products in Cincinnati during the Star Wars years. The creative process and the workflow involved in the production of toy figures, particularly the Star Wars Figures line is described here.
QUICK OVERVIEW OF THE PRODUCTION SEQUENCE:
1. Marketing and Design departments defined the features and specifications of each character and assembled the reference materials that the toy sculptor used.
2. The toy sculptor made a quick rough sculpture in oil clay. Often fixtures (metal or nylon parts) were inserted at this time. Fixtures enabled articulated parts such as arms and legs to accurately position. (In some cases this step, along with steps 3 and 4 were omitted if the sculptor could build up the wax freehand more quickly than by using the clay-plaster-wax sequence. Also, on many occasions existing wax parts from other figures were modified to produce the starting point for the new figure.)
3. A two-part plaster mold was made from the oil clay sculpture.
4. After the plaster mold was cleaned and prepared, fixtures were removed from the oil clay model and inserted into position in the plaster mold. A specially formulated carving wax was cast into the plaster mold, duplicating the original form of the clay sculpture. The fixtures remained imbedded in the wax casting.
5. The toy sculptor would use miniature carving tools to remove and shape wax, and a hot tool to add wax as need. Details and tolerances were held to very high standards. (One of the challenges to the toy sculptor was to produce an accurate likeness of the character, while at the same time observing the needs of the manufacturing process. This required the sculptor to establish "parting lines" on each piece of the figure to allow it to freely release from a two-part steel mold. Resolving detail close to the parting lines was always challenging.)
6. Rubber molds were made from the finished wax sculpture.
7. Urethane casts that duplicated all of the details of the wax carving were made in the rubber molds. The factories used the Urethane model to produce the steel molds that were required for the high-volume injection molding of plastic.
8. The same rubber molds were used to create multiple Urethane casts to be used in-house for numerous activities such as the making of Kirksite molds for pre-production plastic runs, developing painting masks, product photography, packaging, etc. (The Star Wars figures were manufactured under license from Lucas Film, and at one point prototypes were mailed to them for approval.)
9. The factories used the master Urethane figure to generate multiple steel molds. Usually this was done by pantographing, followed by detailed hand-finishing and polishing. In some cases it was suspected that certain factories had made the entire steel mold by hand and "by eye" while working from the model.
10. Painting, assembly, and packaging were then completed.
FOR THE TOY COLLECTOR:
WAX ORIGINAL or WAX CASTING?
Frequently additional wax castings were made from the rubber molds (6) for a variety of uses. They were made in the same wax as the original sculpture, so it is easy to confuse the two. Here are some points that distinguish the original waxes:
A. Original waxes have no surface bubbles or other surface imperfections.
B. Originals will have metal or nylon fixtures visibly imbedded in all areas were articulated parts would join (head, arms, legs).
C. Originals will not have evidence of flashing (where the rubber molds separated).
D. Originals will frequently exhibit slight color variations within areas resulting from wax being added during the carving process. Sculptors had drawers full of wax bits to use, and often the colors varied slightly.
E. Originals usually carry evidence of light pencil lines on the wax that indicate where the sculptor placed the mold parting lines.
There are exceptions; for example, the Han Carbonite toy was made in several trial configurations, and wax casts from an existing mold were used for each new figure. These casts were lightly modified and reworked by the sculptor, so in this case, each could be considered an original model.
Kenner made its own carving wax in-house in small batches, so color variations are common. They also adjusted the recipe from time to time. Ivory colored waxes tend to be earlier than the pink waxes, but with some exceptions. Freelance sculptors working for Kenner often used their own favorite wax (sometimes obtained from Mattell), so wax composition and color can vary further.
THE VALUE OF URETHANE "HARD COPY" ORIGINALS:
The most detailed and crisp rendition of each figure was contained in the original wax carving. Unfortunately, wax cannot tolerate careless handling or even frequent careful handling, so many surviving wax originals are compromised. The Urethane figures (8) cast from the original wax exhibit extraordinary fidelity and accuracy, and they have the benefit of being durable enough to hold their detail. When compared to the final plastic production figure, the difference in form and detail is immense. As a matter of routine, green Urethane was used for tooling and production purposes, and a tan Urethane was used for in-house activities.
Kenner made some pre-production plastic parts in-house. These pre-production metal molds were made by casting Kirksite (an aluminum-zinc alloy) directly against the highly detailed Urethane (7) figures. The resulting molds could carry all of the detail of the original, so the plastic parts made from them could likewise be very detailed and accurate. (However, for some reason, many Kenner pre-production parts appear crude). Production molds however, were pantographed into steel. This is a process in which the Urethane original was used to guide a high-speed cutting tool that traced forms three dimensionally into steel dies. This mechanical process left the steel mold cavities quite rough, requiring substantial hand detailing and hand polishing. The amount that the details and forms within the figure were degraded or modified depended on the skill and patience of the toolmaker.
Generally this term is applied to plastic parts made in production molds before actual production begins. Short runs of 100-200 parts were made to test molds, and were shipped to Kenner to be used in a variety of ways, including destroying them to establish stress tolerances. Plastic color was not important and is seldom the color of the final production run. First shots are valued for their scarcity, and also because they exhibit the highest level of detail. The molds were fresh and crisp, and extremel care in their making was exercised by the factories, since these were the parts that Kenner would approve (or not approve).
Star Wars Toy Production at Kenner / www.klimko.com