How Action Figures Are Made – The Vintage Toy Prototype Process
One of the best parts of my job as a buyer and seller of vintage toys is hearing the stories from collectors or adult sellers who owned these great toys as a child. Better yet is talking to someone who worked at a toy manufacturer and learning more about the production process, from that person’s perspective.
I love buying collections from former employees that worked at the great companies I grew up with. Recently, I received a collection with some toys from all phases of the prototype processes. Pieces that included: mock-ups, molds, hardcopies, steel dies, final paint samples, test shots, and pre-production pieces. Some might be an understatement, near a 1,000 piece collection, including over a dozen unknown, unproduced toys! The collection spanned all of Tonka’s toy lines from the 1980’s: Go-Bots, Rock Lords, Super Naturals, Tonka Trucks, Spiral Zone, Steel Monsters, Pound Puppies, The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers and much more. If you love prototype toys sign up to receive a message when these great toys go up for sale email signup.
Given the large scope of this collection, I thought I might share some pictures and outline the general process that some of the great toy manufacturers used in making new toys. Companies that include: Hasbro, Kenner, Mattel, Matchbox, Playmates and many more.
This article wouldn’t have been possible without the help of Michael Marra who was Director of R&D and Engineering. He managed the Engineering R&D, Soft Goods, Model Shop, Sculpting, Drafting and Documentation departments at Tonka. Michael oversaw 65 people who made the magic happen! All new product ideas scheduled for manufacturing passed first through Michael and his departments. Tonka, once just a truck company, rose to the 5th largest toy company during his tenure. He was kind enough to teach me a tiny fraction of what he knows! Thank you, Michael! Now let’s take a look at what some talented people did for us.
The Action Figure Prototype Process
First, a prototype is a sample version of a manufactured toy. Prototypes are produced for internal use in the manufacturing process that will bring a toy from a concept to the consumer market. Before getting into the meat of this process, know that with each step in the process every department had to sign off. Those departments include: Marketing, Engineering, Operations, Legal, Quality Control, Design, and Packaging. We managed to get an original copy of the new product flow at Tonka during this era.
Toy Conceptual Design – Initial Art Concept Sketches
The birth of a toy begins with the initial concept, thought or idea. This idea can be verbal or written. For example; I want to make a tough guy. The people in the “Blue Sky Group” at Tonka provided the general form or thought on paper, called concept sketches in B&W or color renderings. Concept art can be very rough illustrations to start with but eventually are refined to try and capture even the mood or attitude of a character.
Unfortunately, a toy might not be able to be made the way it’s first envisioned. Perhaps it’s not that it can’t be made, but rather it’s too costly. So changes are often necessary. Once approved the 2D illustration then needs to be put into 3D physical form.
Mock-ups are rough models or sculpts used to create a 3D design. There are various ways to make a mock-up and even different stages within the mock-up process depending on the item. For our purposes here we are silicone molding a hardcopy. Marra states, “Prototyping may also include machined parts, vacuum formed parts, silicone molded parts and/or purchased parts.” Some examples of mock-ups include:
This is the process of taking parts from other toys to make a new toy. Many hobbyists use this term for their custom creations. However, the origin of this term comes from the toy manufacturers that have used it for decades. In this context, it’s used as a preliminary model only.
This is where a block of wood or pieces of wood are crafted into a toy. Wooden mock-ups are generally used for only simple toys.
In most cases, a clay mock-up is made, at a minimum, to rough out a concept. Clay is easy to shape and make changes to. Existing clays are rare due to the fact generally only one is made. They are usually mud brown, in some cases, they can be gray or off-white.
Wax mock-ups are sculpts made of wax. When asked why a wax is made Marra stated, “A wax is made when fine feature details and highly polished surfaces are required. Wax is a harder material and holds sculpted shapes and fine details better than clay. Additionally, wax makes for a better, more accurate, detailed, silicone mold.” Existing wax mock-ups are few and far between due to the brittle nature of wax and the fact that generally only one is made.
Acetate was occasionally used by some artists, but it was hard to work with so few used it. This material is flesh-colored.
Typical Concept Mock-Up Process
The concept art would be transferred into a rough 3d clay sculpt. Far from done, this rough clay is just the basic shape. This will allow for easier making of the wax sculpt, with only the finer details needing to be added. Once the rough clay is done, a copy is made by making a negative silicone mold and pouring in some wax to produce a wax cast.
Regardless of which type of mock-up was used, the final sculpt serves one purpose: to determine if this is the look that’s wanted. The wax will have the highest level of detail in the prototype process. After all departments approve the mock-up, a negative cavity silicone mold is made to produce hardcopies.
Final Concept Rendering
Concept boards are made to show what we want to achieve from the toy in development. Concept boards can include movie, broadcast show, cartoon photos or comic art, if they already exist. A toy’s features and gimmicks will be considered at this point. If there are no prior existing art material on a character, sculpt input drawings will be included.
Control Drawings Technical Rendering
Technical renderings show what the finished toy will look like from all sides. When asked about control drawings Marra said, “Control line art drawings are to scale and provide overall dimensions of the final product’s height, width, depth and critical proportions desired for final production.”
Engineering Assembly and Detail Part Drawings
When talking about detailed part drawings, Marra said, “These guys “engineer it” by generating scaled orthographic drawings representing each three-dimensional component using two-dimensional views for each side of the part, right down to the screws.” They have to factor in if the plastic is soft or hard, hollow or solid and the shrinkage for each material.
These are created directly from the original sculpt to produce a positive hardcopy. Marra said, “Silicone molds are typically 2 pieces, but could be up to four, and may have inserts for molding complicated parts.” They don’t last long and are generally capable of making less than a dozen hardcopies. Hardcopies of the sculpt are needed as the wax is not durable. Wax is great for sculpting details, but susceptible to distortion by manhandling and heat.
First, hardcopies were not always needed. When they were needed they were used to make the following:
Steel molds tooling master for production.
- Paintmaster was for showing the final product colors.
- The photography sample, as the hardcopy version has more detail than the steps that follow it. Photography is generally done before the figure is even finished. The finished figure will need a package ready.
- Packaging sample or a carded mock-up paired with a matching proof card to show how the final packaged toy will look.
- Office copy in case of questions.
Hardcopies made from a negative silicone mold will be slightly larger than the final finished toy. This also allows for shrinkage on the final product. Hardcopies are made from Urethane resin and can be found painted, unpainted, as well as assembled or unassembled.
Hardcopies were primarily made of resin in the 1980’s. A branded resin many recognize is Dynacast, which has a green pigment added to help show off details on a figure. The material is both very hard and extremely brittle. Dynacast was favored by Kenner. Tonka favored basic Urethane resin. Resins were also called gray models and were generally grey or white. The limbs are held in with metal dowels so they can be removed. Hardcopies will not have any country of origin or manufacturing details, or foot holes if the finished figure will have them.
With our hardcopies done we can proceed to manufacturing. However, I’m going to cover a few sub-steps that were sometimes used depending on the project.
Product Take Over Meeting
At Tonka this was always part of the process in the mid-1980’s, at other companies it was not always the case. The Product Take Over meeting was a new concept for me, Marra explained, “PTO (Product Take Over) is a meeting headed by Product Design and Marketing Departments presenting the product concept to the rest of the R&D Departments, most notably my R&D Engineering team. Product Design and Marketing presented written descriptions, preliminary costs, sketches, renderings, mock-up models representing the desired product look, features, and functions. PTO models were not fully developed nor approved at the time of this meeting. When my engineers accepted the concept at the PTO meeting, it established the OFFICIAL start to commit company resources to have the item fully developed and manufactured.”
Tonka did not Proto mold, but I thought I would cover it. Proto molds were located at headquarters; made of aluminum, it gave designers the ability to make quite a few copies so that changes could be brought about quickly if needed. These are test toys. Again they would lack foot holes, manufacturer’s markings, and they are smaller and generally rougher than hardcopies.
A pantograph is a machine connecting 2 pins together, technically 2 stylus. So that the movement of one pen tracing an image produces an identical replica image with a second pen. The beauty of this machine is an identical, enlarged, or smaller copy set to whatever scale necessary will be drawn by the second pen.
Vacuum forming has since been replaced by 3D printing in many cases. Back in the 1980’s design departments commonly vacuum formed parts. Marra states, “The vacuum forming process uses a sheet of plastic material that is heated to pliability, then pressed against a 3D mold (positive or negative), by vacuuming out the air between the plastic sheet and the mold. Once cooled and removed the plastic is a replica of the mold’s shape.” Vacuum forming is low cost, with easy tooling, efficient and allows for speedy prototyping.
Vendor Quote Package
A quote package is everything a manufacturer who would like an opportunity at producing these figures in their plant would need to bid the project. At Tonka, the vendor quote package included:
- Complete set of Engineering blueprints consisting of assembly and detailed part drawings for each component.
- Complete Bill of Material.
- Packaging type, size, inserts and color requirements:
- Packaging die line drawings
- Blister details, size, shape, material, etc. as required
- Label sizes and color requirements:
- Label(s) die line drawing(s)
- Paint and deco operations:
- Paint masks and\or tampo\pad printing
- Instruction sheet size, color, and folds
- Mold plan
- Quantity required
- Shipping timing
Manufacturing Electrical discharge machining (EDM) Process
After the hardcopy is approved, one is sent to the Orient to make the final steel injection molds. Injection molds are a negative copy of the final figure. Electrical Discharge Machining (EDM) assists in translating the hardcopy into steel mold cavities. EDM goes by many names such as spark machining, spark eroding, die sinking, wire burning or wire erosion. EDM is a manufacturing process where the desired shape is obtained by using electrical discharges (sparks).
These molds are the basis for which toys are cast and made. There are, of course, different kinds of molds. As Marra explained it’s not just about the mold, “Injection and/or Rotational and/or Blow and/or Extrusion molds are built. Also, jigs, fixtures, spray masks and other production equipment are built or purchased as required.” In our case we will focus on plastic injection molds. Where hot plastic is injected into a closed steel mold under pressure. Once the cycle has run, it opens and the process repeats for each part. Typically any patent info, Country of Origin (COO) and date are engraved at the time the mold is built.
Injections molds typically have multiple cavities. Cavities could be of the same part or multiple components. Additionally, more than one mold would be needed and no two molds or cavities are truly identical. In some cases product is even made in different countries by different companies each with their own molds. When there is strong demand like Tonka had for its Pound Puppies, they will source from anywhere to try and meet the demand.
Test shots, referred to as first shots, are the first test runs of the steel injection mold. The test shots are used to spot sculpting issues, mating parts for tolerance and fit, test joint articulation, ensure the product fits in the designed packaging, and more.
Tooling made must be debugged, both the steel molds as well as the toy itself may have issues. Generally, 50 to 100 test shots are made to test the injection tooling and verify it’s running properly. Testing water temp, nozzle temp, cycle time, cavity issues such as flashing and much more. Marra explained, “Once the mold is running properly we need to debug the parts. Parting Lines match? Does the part design inherently produce sink marks? Do parts release from the mold without scuff marks? Can the parts fit together? Do the parts pass required mechanical tests, i.e, drop, impact, pull, etc.? Any failure would require reworking the tool steel itself depending on the issue(s) being resolved.”
Bagged Samples and Quality Control
Test shots are often cast in a single color or random colors that look nothing like the final toy. Test shots do not have any factory-applied paint. These toys are hand-assembled at the office, with the parts typically coming poly-bagged in bulk. Given this, they are marked with “sample” “not for sale” or other distinct markings. They can also have deliberately wrong paint or stickers to prevent confusion with the final products they represent.
The department that received the most samples was Quality Control. Here everything was tested even down to the font sizes on the package. Color does not matter, because these were not sold to the public. The size will be the final production size. They may have the copyrights added as well as foot holes if they had not been added previously. One of the tests done for child safety was the Pull-Test. This test was done to meet toy safety regulation ASTM F963-17. In a nutshell how easy is it to rip off all the appendages as they would represent a choking hazard.
Pre-production samples are generally called final engineering pilots. They are molded in final plastic color and they are usually painted to specifications, if they are not they would be painted by hand in the model shop. Pre-production samples will definitely have the copyrights added as well as foot holes if they had not been added. They are very close to the final toy in appearance. Their purpose is to show what the finished toy looks like and are virtually identical to the final toy.
Figure painting is not a separate step, but I thought I would talk more about it. At this point, figures need to be painted using a process called paint masking. This process uses a stencil to cover all the figure except the area that needs painting. Let’s say the gloves are to be blue, then everything is covered except the gloves and they are airbrushed. This is then done for each color. Toys are typically only painted a few colors because this process was done by hand and was expensive. After printing, individual poly-bagged samples are sent to headquarters for approvals.
Quality Control Sample
It is at this point that the outside third party vendor manufacturing the toy would send a sample of the packaged figure back to headquarters for approval. Each step needs authorization, but this is a particularly important step as it’s about to be released to the public. Quality control would examine all aspects to verify it meets specifications. If everything is approved, production would start. If it wasn’t approved, the vendor would make the required changes. Quality control would be an ongoing process with samples submitted regularly.
Production samples are identical to the final toy. These samples are packed in sample packaging. There may still be a change. This change, however, would be a running change, with the prior production run still being used provided it passed quality control. Your toy can now greet you at the store. A lot of work, by a lot of great people to bring boys and girls some joy.
I didn’t discuss it to keep it simple, but during the physical toys prototype process, the package is also being designed separately but simultaneously. Mock-up packaging is often made of random card stock including those of other toy lines. Mostly at this step the concern is the size and shape of the packaging. This can get interesting (or messy) as you can have one brand of a toy on the package and another in the package neither of which represents the toy they are about to make or sell. So for example (since I have no pictures) imagine a new Super Naturals figure is being made, they use a Super Go-Bot for size representation and a Rock Lords package!
So we need to put our Tonka action figure in a box or package. The packaging process starts with deciding what type of package is needed. Generally, in the 1980’s, that would be boxed or carded, each with several variations of those two themes.
Concept art is a form of illustration used to convey an idea. This art is a trial and error process, where multiple designs are explored before a final design is chosen.
Original Packaging Art
Packaging artwork is the key way to communicate with the consumer. This communication is critical as most of the purchase decisions in the 1980’s were made while looking in the toy aisle. Key aspects of the packaging art have to be designed which include logos, graphics, barcodes, legal/safety, and text.
Packaging Structure Design
In essence, how are we going to make our package? Packaging needs to be designed to be eye-catching, easy to use, but also must allow safe transportation, product protection and prevent pilferage. A lot of thought goes into this one simple step. First contact or “eye appeal” is crucial! Then the reveal, product extraction, and post-extraction. These should result in a memorable connection with the package and brand. At the same time, safe transportation and product protection is critical so package internal structure must be thought out carefully. All the inserts must be designed and die cut. This is called “White packaging”
Mechanical Package Layout and Die Line Drawings
So we have our package designed, now we need to make it. It’s just like it sounds with each package component (logos, artwork, text, etc.) shown on an artboard. This would be given to the printer.
The next phase is to turn our finished art into films. The films are used to create the actual printing plates. Each separation sheet represents one of the colors in the final artwork: black, cyan, magenta and yellow. Each color is printed in turn. This is how the 4-color printing process works.
Proof packaging is just to give an idea of the final package and it’s usually without the toy. This packaging will have a lot of variances, such as: printed on one side, lacking hanger holes and even lacking die-cut edges. The proof stage can have a wide variety of problems including spelling errors, logo changes, text changes, font changes, different graphics and more. There may also be comparisons made of the various elements found on the package.
The films now will be used to create the actual printing plates using offset web printing, a common printing technique where an image is transferred from a plate onto cardstock. Web printing sounds new but has been around for 150 years.
Now we can print our final card backs as we will see them in the store with the toy for sale.
This is close or the same as the final product packaging. Sample packaging can again contain toys from other lines, but generally contains the actual toy from any point in the production process.
Where Is Michael Marra Now
Michael is the founder\owner of Marra Design Associates, LLC (MDA). Michael Marra has 49 years of toy industry experience bringing new toy and game products to market. For 31 years as Marra Design, Mike and his wife, Lynn, have helped new inventors like you, license their new product ideas to toy companies worldwide for royalty income. Mike has licensed over 150 products which have generated hundreds of millions of dollars in retail sales and millions in royalties.
The first 18 years of his career, Michael held Executive positions for international companies such as Hasbro Industries as New Product Development Engineer, Marx Toys as Manager of R&D, VP of R&D for Colorforms and Director of R&D Engineering for Tonka Toys.
If you have a great toy, game, seasonal or pet idea contact Mike:
Michael or Lynn Marra
Phone: 952 937-8141
Web Site: www.marradesign.com
I hope you enjoyed the brief on how your action figures were made. Great toys like Dino Riders, G.I. Joe, Ghostbusters, Go-Bots, He-Man, Indiana Jones, M.A.S.K., Rock Lords, Sectaurs, Silverhawks, Star Trek, Star Wars, Starcom, Starriors, Super Naturals, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Thundercats, Tigersharks, Transformers, Tron, Visionaries, Voltron, Wheeled Warriors and many more!
If you’re looking to sell vintage toys Wheeljack’s Lab is a vintage toy buyer. We would love to buy or take a look at your old toy collection. We have been buying and selling used toys for three decades. We will be certain to give your old toys new homes with people who greatly appreciate them as you did. Sell vintage toys.
Author: Chris Ingledue
Bio: I’m the founder and owner of Wheeljack’s Lab. My vision has always been to reunite customers with their favorite childhood toys, triggering fond memories and reigniting their imaginations. Every day I work in the “lab” where it’s Christmas 365 days a year; scouring the internet – like we did the Sears Catalog of yesteryear – for the next great treasure, awaiting the arrival of the postman as if he was Santa Claus himself and helping collectors worldwide with their own versions of Christmas. Every day is an absolute joy!