Vintage Prototype Toys Process – How Action Figures Are Made

Vintage Prototype Toys Process – How Action Figures Are Made

Have you ever wondered how your favorite companies make action figures and what the process for creating vintage prototype toys was?

One of the best parts of my job as a buyer and seller of vintage toys is when I hear 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 that I grew up with.

Tonka Prototypes and Pre-Production Toys

Set of Series 3 unproduced, unassembled, and unreleased hardcopy prototypes from the Rock Lords Narlies Tonka action figure toy line.

Recently, I received a collection with some toys from all phases of the prototype processes. This collection included mock-ups, molds, hardcopies, steel dies, final paint samples, test shots, and pre-production pieces. The word “some” might be an understatement, this collection totals to near a 1,000-pieces, including over a dozen unknown, unproduced toys! The collection spanned all of Tonka’s toy lines from the 1980s: Go-Bots, Tonka Trucks, Spiral Zone and much more.

If you love prototype toys, sign up to receive a message when these great toys go up for sale.

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 include Hasbro, Kenner, Mattel, and many more.

A test shot (right) compared to a final engineering pilot (left) from the Tonka Clutch Poppers line.

This article would not 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 us 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. Toy companies produce prototypes 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

Tonka Trucks Prototype Illustration.

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 supplied 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. Eventually, the production team refines this art to try and capture even the mood or attitude of a character.

Unfortunately, by the time of final production, a toy might not resemble the first envisioned concepts and art. Usually, this is not a matter of capability, but the process becomes too costly for the company to follow through with. So, changes are often necessary. Once approved, the art department then transforms the 2D illustration then into 3D physical form.

Concept Mock-Ups

Mock-ups are rough models or sculpts used to create a 3D design. There are several ways to make a mock-up and even various 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:

Kitbashed Mock-Ups

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, the kitbashed mock-ups purpose is to act as a preliminary model only.

Wooden Mock-Ups

Ground Pounders wooden mock-up's.

This is where the production team crafts a block of wood or pieces of wood into a toy. Wooden mock-ups are meant only for simple toys.

Clay Mock-Ups

In most cases, the production team will make a clay mock-up, at a minimum, to rough out a concept. Clay is easy to shape and make changes to. Existing clay mock-ups are rare because productions only ever make one per toy. They are usually mudded brown, in some cases, they can be gray or off-white.

Wax Mock-Ups

Queen's Throne unproduced wax mock-up from the Willow Tonka toy line.

Wax mock-ups are sculpts made of wax. When asked why 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 the wax. Also, production teams only ever make one.

Acetate Mock-Ups

Occasionally, some artists use acetate. However, since it was hard to work with, few artists extensively use this wax. This material is flesh-colored.

Typical Concept Mock-Up Process

Chariot wooden mock-up from the Willow Tonka toy line.

After the art team transfers the concept art to a rough 3D clay sculpt, the design work is far from done, for this rough sculpt is just the basic shape. The rough shape eases the creation process for the wax sculpts so that the art team only needs to add the finer details. Once the team has a completed rough clay sculpt, the design team makes a copy via the creation of a negative silicone mold then pouring in wax to produce a wax cast.

Regardless of the type of mock-up, the final sculpt serves one purpose: to figure out the desired look of the toy. The wax will have the highest level of detail in the prototype process. Once the design departments approve the mock-up, the team creates a negative cavity silicone mold to produce hard copies.

Final Concept Rendering

The design teams make concept boards to show what they want to achieve from the toy in development. Concept boards can include movies, broadcast shows, cartoon photos, or comic art if they already exist. The team will consider a toy’s features and gimmicks at this point. If there is no prior existing art material on a character, the team will include sculpting input drawings.

Control Drawings Technical Rendering

Tonka Trucks Prototype Engineering Drawing.

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 must factor in if the plastic is soft or hard, hollow, or solid and the shrinkage for each material.

Silicone Molds

Prototype 2-piece silicone mold for making a hardcopy.

The design team creates silicone molds directly from the original sculpt to produce a positive hardcopy. Marra said, “Silicone molds are typically two pieces, but could be up to four, and may have inserts for molding complicated parts.” They do not last long and can make less than a dozen hardcopies. Hardcopies of the sculpt are necessary as the wax is not durable. Wax is great for sculpting details, but susceptible to distortion by manhandling and heat.


Unknown unreleased hardcopy prototype from Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers Tonka action figure toy line.

First, hardcopies were not always necessary. When the design team does need them, they would make the following:

  • Steel molds tooling master for production.
  • The paint master was for showing the final product colors.
  • The photography sample, as the hardcopy version has more detail than the steps that follow it. Before production finishes on the toy, the team will photograph the toys. The finished figure will need a package ready, which often relies on these photographs.
  • 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. Artists make hardcopies from Urethane resin and might be in multiple states: painted, unpainted, as well as assembled or unassembled.

Duchess Dire paintmaster hardcopy prototype from the Spiral Zone Tonka action figure line.

In the 1980s, production teams primarily made resin hardcopies. A branded resin that many recognize is Dynacast, which has a green pigment added to help show off details on a figure. The material is both extremely hard and extremely brittle. Kenner often favored Dynacast molds. Tonka favored basic Urethane resin. Design teams also referred to resin molds as gray models since they were grey or white. Metal dowels hold the limbs to allow for removal if necessary. 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, let us continue to the manufacturing process. However, there are a few sub-steps to cover since these steps were sometimes present depending on the project.

Product Take Over Meeting

Glittor horse Dynacast hardcopy prototype from Keypers Tonka toy line.

At Tonka this was always part of the process in the mid-1980s. However, at other companies, this 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 that were representations of the desired product look, features, and functions. The design team did not fully develop nor approve the PTO models 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.”

Proto Molded

Zod hardcopy prototype from the Gobots Tonka action figure toy line.

Tonka did not Proto mold, but the process still deserves an explanation. Headquarters was the only location where proto molds were present. Design teams would use aluminum to create these molds since it gave designers the ability to make quite a few copies. With the ease of creation, the teams could quickly implement changes to the molds if necessary. These test toys would lack foot holes and manufacturer’s markings. Also, they are smaller and rougher than hard copies.


A wax mock-up, along with some various hardcopies, a paintmaster and a pantograph all from the Spiral Zone Tonka toy action figure line.

A pantograph is a machine connecting 2 pins, technically two styluses. 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 that the second pen will draw an identical copy set to whatever desired scale. Thus, the machine eased the creation of enlarged or miniaturized sculptures.

Vacuum Forming

In recent times, 3D printing has replaced vacuum forming in many cases. However, back in the 1980s 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 a 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 on the project. At Tonka, the vendor quote package included:

  • Complete set of Engineering blueprints consisting of assembly and detailed part drawings for each part.
  • 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 andor tampopad printing
  • Instruction sheet size, color, and folds
  • Mold plan
  • Quantity required.
  • Shipping timing

Manufacturing Electrical discharge machining (EDM) Process

Winnebago dad figure head Electrical Discharge Machining (EDM) process tooling aid.

After the approval of the hardcopy, the company would send one to Southeastern Asia 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 use of electrical discharges (sparks) creates the desired shape.

Steel Molds

Steel molds are the basis for the casting and creation of toys. There are, of course, a variety of molds. As Marra explained it is 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. During this process, machines inject hot plastic into a closed steel mold under pressure. Once the cycle has run, it opens, and the process repeats for each part. Typically, during the creation of the steel mold, the team will engrave any patent info, Country of Origin (COO), and date onto the figure.

Injections molds typically have multiple cavities. Cavities could be of the same part or multiple components. Additionally, more than one mold is necessary, and no two molds or cavities are truly identical. In some cases, the toy manufacturer would make the product in different countries by different companies each with its 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

Lion Wings test shot / first shot from the Super Naturals Tonka action figure line.

Test shots, referred to as first shots, are the first test runs of the steel injection mold. Production teams use test shots to spot sculpting issues, mating parts for tolerance and fit, test joint articulation, ensure the product fits in the designed packaging, and more.

Debugging is a crucial step in production, for both the steel molds as well as the toy itself may have issues. Production teams make 50 to 100 test shots to test the injection tooling and verify it is 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

Production teams often cast test shots 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 receive a marking that reads as either “sample” “not for sale” or another distinct marking. They can also have deliberately wrong paint or stickers to prevent confusion with the final products that they represent.

The department that received the most samples was Quality Control. Here, everything received testing even down to the font sizes on the package. Color does not matter, because these were not products made available to the public. The size will be the final production size. They may have the copyrights added as well as foot holes if the design team had not previously added them. One of the tests done for child safety was the Pull-Test. This test aimed to meet toy safety regulation ASTM F963-17. In a nutshell, this test determined how easy is it to rip off all the appendages since they could present a choking hazard.

Pre-Production Samples

TNT Racers bagged final engineering pilot sample.

The industry refers to pre-production samples as final engineering pilots. The colors chosen for the molds are the final plastic color, and they usually have paint that reflects the specifications of the final product. If they are not, the model shop would paint them by hand. Pre-production samples will have the copyrights added as well as foot holes if they are not already present. They are remarkably close to the final toy in appearance. Their purpose is to show what the finished toy looks like and is virtually identical to the final toy.

Figure Painting

Tombstone Rock Lords final engineering pilot bagged sample.

The figure painting is not a separate step, but it still deserves further delving into. At this point, the production team uses a process called paint masking to paint the figures. This process uses a stencil to cover all the figures except the area that needs painting. For instance, a figure may have gloves that are meant to be blue. So, tape or another blocker covers the entire figure except for the glove before the production airbrushes the color on. This process repeats for each color on the toy. Typically, toy companies only paint their figures in a few colors because this process is by hand and was expensive. After printing, the production team sends individual poly-bagged samples headquarters for approval.

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 crucial step as it occurs before the debut of the toy to the public. Quality control would examine all aspects to verify it meets specifications. Once quality control approves everything, production would start. If it did not receive approval, the vendor would make the required changes. Quality control is an ongoing process with samples sent in regularly.

Production Samples

Super Naturals final engineering pilot on card.

Production samples are identical to the final toy. For these samples, the team packs the figure in sample packaging. However, the toy may still be subject to change. This change, however, would be a running change, since the prior production run is still in use, 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.

Packaging Prototypes

In the interest of simplifying the production process, we skipped over the discussion of packaging prototypes. Still, during the physical toy prototype process, the package is also undergoing the design process, separately but simultaneously. Production teams often make mock-up packaging from random card stock including those of other toy lines. Mostly at this step the concern is the size and shape of the packaging. This process can get interesting or messy as one brand of a toy may be on the package while another brand’s toy sits in the package. Thus, neither of these components represents the toy they are about to make or sell. So, for example, imagine a new Super Naturals figure is in production, so they use a Super Go-Bot for size representation and a Rock Lords package!

Concept Packaging

So, the Tonka action figure must be in a box or package before it heads to stores. The packaging process starts with deciding what type of package is necessary. In the 1980s, the chosen style for packaging would be a box or card back, each with several variations of those two themes.

Concept Art

Concept art is a form of illustration used to convey an idea. This art is a trial-and-error process, where the design team explores multiple designs before settling on a final design.

Original Packaging Art

Packaging artwork is the primary way to communicate with the consumer. This communication is critical as, in the 1980s, most consumers made their purchase decisions while looking in the toy aisle. So, the team must design key aspects of the packaging art which include logos, graphics, barcodes, legal/safety, and text.

Packaging Structure Design

So, how did companies make packages for their toys? Packaging needs 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 are critical, so the design team must carefully think out the package’s internal structure. Also, the team must design and die cut all the inserts. The industry calls this “White packaging.”

Mechanical Package Layout and Die Line Drawings

Now that the package has a final design, the production team needs to make it. It is just like it sounds with each package component (logos, artwork, text, etc.) shown on an artboard. Then, the team would send this artwork to the printer.

Separation Sheets/Films

The next phase is to turn our finished art into films. The films create the actual printing plates. Each separation sheet stands for one of the colors in the final artwork: black, cyan, magenta, and yellow. The printers then create each color in turn. This is how the 4-color printing process works.

Proof Packaging

Maniacs prototype proof packaging.

Proof packaging is meant to give an idea of the final package, and it is 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.

Printing Plates

The production will now use the films to create the actual printing plates using offset web printing, a common printing technique that transfers an image from a plate onto cardstock. Web printing sounds new but has been around for 150 years.

Production Card Back

Now we can print our final card backs as we will see them in the store with the toy for sale.

Sample Packaging

Zod hardcopy prototype compared to the finished toy from the Gobots Tonka action figure toy line.

This is close to or the same as the final product packaging. While sample packaging can again hold toys from other lines, it usually contains the actual toy from any point in the production process.

Where Is Michael Marra Now

Michael is the founderowner 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.

During 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 Color forms, 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:


Rin Raziel primed unproduced hardcopy prototype from the Willow Tonka toy line.

I hope you enjoyed the brief on how companies made your favorite action figures. This process helped create many great toys like Dino-Riders, Go-Bots, Indiana Jones, and many more!

If you are looking to sell vintage toys Wheeljack’s Lab is a vintage toy buyer. We would love to buy or look at your old toy collection. Our team has been buying and selling used toys for three decades. We will be certain to give your old toys new homes with people who appreciate them as you did. Sell vintage toys.

Author: Chris Ingledue 


Bio: I am the founder and owner of Wheeljack’s Lab pop Culture and Toy Shop. My vision has always been to reunite customers with their favorite childhood toys and pop culture, triggering fond memories, and reigniting their imaginations. Every day, I work in the “lab” where it’s Christmas 365 days a year. I scour the internet, like when we had the Sears Catalog of yesteryear, for the next great treasure. Then, I await the arrival of the postman as if he were Santa Claus himself and helping collectors worldwide with their own versions of Christmas. Every day as a vintage toy buyer is an absolute joy!

   Keep up to date with our latest news

One thought on “Vintage Prototype Toys Process – How Action Figures Are Made

  1. Very informative read. I’m dismayed to see what some people feel their prototype is worth.
    Usually a very unrealistically huge number.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

(will not be published, only used if contact is requested)