Nosferatu: The story of a vinyl model that almost wasBy Todd P.
March 30th, 2011
For about two years, I fairly often caught myself shaking my head and wishing I had more guts. I came to realize that I had entertained a small dream — really, a small one — and just assumed it was out of my reach so I didn’t check it out. Several other guys weren’t so afraid, and now they’re living my dream.
My dream was to make a business of manufacturing model kits. Specifically, plastic model kits like the classic monsters, heroes, swashbucklers and the like Aurora used to make and which I loved so much when I was little. Polar Lights, the company whose reissues and repops of Aurora kits enticed me back into the model-building hobby in 2001, had been purchased by Round 2 and was quickly all but shut down. Round 2, it seemed, wasn’t interested in making figure kits because the market for them had gotten so small that they weren’t worth the effort.
I was dismayed. Yeah, OK, so there were only thousands of people building those models instead of millions. Thousands of people wouldn’t pony up enough money to make the effort worthwhile? Sure they would. I knew it, but instead of at least considering whether that was a market I could hope to serve myself, I just accepted that plastic figure kits were pretty much gone.
Then I found out about Monarch and, through emails, got to know its founder, Scott McKillop. Then Frank Winspur let hobbyists know what he was up to with Moebius and started making all kinds of figure kits. A few years later, the Megahobby boys introduced us to Atlantis. Thanks to all of them, plus a revived Polar Lights and more reissues from Revell-Monogram, plastic figure kits are all over the place. And how did it happen? Some people not so different from me, but also not so afraid, checked out a few things and decided to go for it.
Could I have been a “player” in this market? Eh, who knows. It’s expensive to make plastic model kits and there’s a steep learning curve. I just wish I’d at least done a little research.
Roughly a year and a half ago, when I was again shaking my head, I got to thinking about vinyl model kits. Plastic kits are what I built when I was a kid and they’re what drew me back to the hobby as an adult. But in 2001, it took me only a few weeks of involvement to move from mass-produced plastic kits to the less common garage kits. Of the garage-kit companies I started learning about, GEOmetric Design was one of my favorites, because GEO offered great-looking kits of characters I enjoyed at prices I could afford.
Many of those kits were made of vinyl, which is sort of a step between styrene plastic and resin. Vinyl kits are made from electroformed metal molds which last much longer than the silicone molds of resin kits. Molds for vinyl kits are much more expensive than silicone, but much less than the steel molds plastic kits require.
GEO was sold in 2003 and remains a great company, but it doesn’t do vinyl anymore. In fact, until fairly recently, very few companies doing business in the United States offered vinyl models. Lots of hobbyists, including myself, wanted to see them make a comeback but few people on the production side of things seemed interested.
I thought, “Oh!” I was sure a market still existed, although smaller than it used to be. And I enjoy vinyl kits. Why not try to produce some?
I started throwing out questions to everyone I could think of, particularly George Stephenson, founder of the original GEO who launched Black Heart in 2009. How much would it cost? What considerations should I take into account? How much would it cost? Where could I get it done? How much would it cost? Could I make my own vinyl casting facility? How much would it cost? Where would the molds be made? And most importantly, how much would it cost?
I kept asking questions, kept trying to come up with the cash I’d need. In the meantime, I started up Dedham Pond Designs and stared working on my skills as a resin mold-maker and caster, figuring that it was smart to make resin kits available as well, and also much less expensive to get rolling. I started trading messages with sculptor Joe Simon, who lives in Thailand where I might be able to connect with a factory that could manufacture my kits for me.
See, I figured on having the first kit or two manufactured for me, and hope to make enough off that to build my own vinyl casting facility. Joe started getting in touch with people, asking questions for me and passing on the answers.
Weeks passed and I made plans. I decided that my first vinyl kit would be Graf Orlok from Nosferatu, figuring that it was a reliably popular character that might help take some of the edge off the risks I planned to take. However, since answers were so slow to come, I went ahead and commissioned Joe to sculpt Mr. Hyde, based on John Barrymore’s silent-era Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I was thrilled with the job he did on that one.
Anyway, blah blah blah. Through all kinds of twists and turns, Joe got connected with a Thai factory that said it would do the work, quoting a price that I figured was acceptable. Extremely chancy for me given that it would cost many times what it takes to produce a kit in resin, but I thought I could at least make back my investment and probably pad it a little.
So, Nosferatu was a go. The pose Joe and I went with was designed for vinyl, to keep the number of expensive molds to a minimum. The small base and probably the hands would be cast in resin, by me. The sculpture was complete around early November 2010 and Joe got back in touch with the factory.
And the factory gave me an unpleasant lesson by more than doubling its price to mold and cast the piece.
The factory’s price estimate for producing a 1/8 scale vinyl monster model was based on photos of Joe’s Barrymore Hyde. The factory representative told Joe that the Nosferatu was more complicated and would require more molds to manufacture.
Really? Well, look at the photo and judge for yourself. To be kindly blunt, I think the guy fibbed. I suspect they either decided my project was too small to be worth their time and so they set a price they knew would scare me away, or they just took a chance at finding out if I was stupid enough to spend that much. No matter what the truth, there’s no way I believed it could cost more than twice as much.
I also knew that my little project that had a chance of making a little money, was now a project that stood to lose thousands of dollars. No way.
So, now Nosferatu is available in resin and even though he’s not in vinyl, it’s a neat kit. I’m very pleased with it, and hope I can continue working with Joe for a long time. Look for the next Dedham Pond offering from Joe before too long.
As for vinyl models, I still have it in my sights but it’s much farther away than it seemed late last year. All it took was a few unexpected expenses to deplete the fund to pretty much nothing. However, my work on Dedham Pond led to a job last summer molding and casting dinosaur fossils, so my skills in that area have grown dramatically.
My little dream hasn’t taken exactly the road I thought I was steering toward, but it’s definitely going somewhere.