Sunday, February 19, 2012

The "Old Third": All Present or Accounted For


Eighteen years in the making, today saw the completion of a very large and involved toy soldier project, perhaps the meaning behind the title "Toy Soldiers Forever" certainly it often felt like forever.

My recreation, in pewter, of the 286 officers and men of the Third Michigan regiment of volunteer Infantry present on the field at Gettysburg, is now complete.

Half of the regiment was cast from commercially available molds, but the other half were cast from molds I made myself, starting with plastic prototypes, high temperature silicone, and plenty of salvaged pewter.

Black and brown are commercial molds, blue and green are home-made.

The project began in 1993 when I came into possession of about twelve pounds of pewter Christmas decorations.  The museum I once worked at had made, as a fundraiser for the restoration of a carousel, hundreds of pewter carousel horses as Christmas tree ornaments.  It didn't take too many complaints from customers regarding the brittleness of the decorations to have the museum pull all of the ornaments from the shelves and ordered "destroyed".  I volunteered to do that destruction, it took me eighteen years, but I finally accomplished that task.

The carousel horse pewter was not the best formulation of metals so I began cruising yard sales to find cheap pieces of high quality pewter.  Eventually I had more high quality stuff than the brittle stuff to combine them into a perfect blend of low-melt, high-strength, with pliability rather than brittleness.

The amount of pewter, and the variety of decorative items that were melted down makes for quite a trinket shopping list.  "Hey, where's the good bud vase?" "Where's my graduation mug?" "Do you still have that belt buckle I got you in Japan?".  The relative value that we ascribe to things makes for different priorities.

Many Spring and Summer days were spent casting.

Winter evenings found me making prototypes,  pouring molds, and assembling and painting soldiers. 

 The original castings were all made with alternate heads and arms to provide a range of possible stances and individuality of the figures.

 The store-bought molds produced figures which I used straight out of the mold or cut into pieces to make modified figures, frequently combining elements of store-bought figures with my original figures.

This project chugged along for almost two decades of my life, spanning quite a few ups and downs, career changes, and even marriages.  Frankly, I never really thought I'd ever complete it.  I'd do a few figures a year, sometimes a burst of twenty or so with
significant periods of mold-making

 including 1994, 2002 and 2004.

A shout-out goes to the Dunken Company

who has organic rubber molds of the classic 54mm Marx Civil War figures.

  For my original molds I had the help of the fine folks at Alumalite of Kalamazoo Michigan, especially the sage advice of the late Mark Green of Alumalite who tutored me on the ins and outs of basic mold making and pewter casting.  Over the years I've used two different types of their high temperature silicone RTV for this project and their product has been easy to use and provided flawless performance and very satisfying results.

Here are some examples of my originals and the commercially available molds:

My originals, QM sarge and bandanna man on the left, commercial guy on the right.

The hatless shootin' guy on the left is my creation, the Marx figure on the right is from a Dunken mold.

Another familiar Marx pose from a Dunken mold is on the right, my officer, with jaunty over the shoulder sword sash is on the left.

Dunken Marx loading figure on the right trying to keep up with my guy on the left ready to
 "return rammer".

As does everyone else,  I also make plenty of modifications of commercial molds cutting men in half and adding or switching pieces to come up with a variety of poses.

Note this officer running around on an enlisted man's legs.

My originals started their lives as those great old 54mm hard plastic Airfix figures.  I used both WWII Germans as well as Napoleonic figures.  Putting heads, hands, and feet aside I'd sand and file all of the garment detail off of the figure, and build it back up with sheet styrene, putty, or in the example below

 the metal foil from the seal on a wine bottle, in this case to make belts,

The blue silicone mold was cast around this prototype which produced...
this figure, once assembled, primed and painted, that is.

You may recall a short video I put on Youtube on the basics of casting.  Unfortunately I never shot footage (back in those pre-digital days) of the mold making process which is also a fascinating process.

That's the backstory, now here's the result:

The men of the "Old Third" on a dusty, sunny Virginia road, marching to the sound of the guns.

Their regimental flag a constant reminder of the expectations of the folks back home

The regiment deploys as the "long roll" is beat.

 (definately not "off-the-shelf")

Colonel Champlin surverys the field.

Companies form line of battle.

"File-closers" keep an eye on the less-than-stouthearted".

Fire commences along a four-company front.

Oh my, that's a lot of Yankees.  This begs the question "What about the Rebels?"

Well,  fourteen pounds of leftover pewter...

Should get me right around 140 Confederates.

Let's just hope it doesn't take another 18 years!

Soldier on!



Saturday, February 18, 2012