Sunday, December 29, 2019

Something's brewing.

Armies are on the move and a camera has appeared on the toy soldier table.  This bears watching.  An all Britains event.

Soldier on!


Saturday, December 21, 2019

Toy Soldiers Forever!

Though usually unnamed, most of the greatest Civil War battles have occurred on bedroom floors, tabletops, and backyard gardens.  Fearsome phalanxes of plastic toy soldiers have engaged in mortal (if only temporary) combat, generaled by generations of boys, and occasionally girls, to triumphant victory, staggering defeat, or the unsatisfying stalemate that is precipitated by bedtime.

The children of the post-World War Two era were the beneficiaries of the abundance of cheap and versatile plastics developed during that conflict. Companies such as Lido, Ideal, Topper, Remco, and Marx were manufacturing a variety of Civil War-themed toys in an abundance prompted by the Civil War Centennial of the early 1960s.

In the closing years of the 1950’s, toy magnate Louis Marx released the first Civil War play set marketed through the Sears catalogue.  Marx figures were remarkable in their day for detail, sculpting, and the animation of the realistic poses.  The Marx “Blue and Gray” play set was a wonder of fun.  The set included an exploding bunker, antebellum mansion, boulders, trees, a horse-drawn limber, cannons and seacoast mortars (that fired little projectiles) fences, breastworks, horses, an army ambulance, and armloads of 54mm scale toy soldiers molded in plastic of blue or gray.  A focal point of nearly every tabletop or bedroom floor battle was the plastic Burnside Bridge – style bridge that completed the set.
Presented with this playset on my 10th birthday I was the envy of all my friends, and the bane of their parents as the nagging began; and soon more and more boys were showing up at school with five or six Marx “Civil War guys” in their grimy pockets.

I was typical of many boys of that generation who began a lifetime interest in the American Civil War.  Now, that same generation of older, sometimes wiser, paunchy and world-weary baby-boomers frequently find themselves scouring the screens of eBay hoping to score a little piece of their childhood.

Most of those beloved Marx figures have been recast and are now available from many toy soldier vendors.  Newer companies including Toy soldiers of San Diego, Barzo, Replicants, BMC, Conte, and the aptly-named Armies in Plastic carry on the tradition with exciting new poses with, in most instances, superior sculpting and animation compared to the old Marx figures, but usually at premium cost.

John Zabawa’s shop Gettysburg Miniatures Soldiers provides the full range of toy solders from the inexpensive BMC/Americana line to the very high-end miniatures including W. Britains and King and Country.  Although the miniatures could be called toy soldiers they are definitely not for play and not the focus of this inquiry. 
In business for the last 14 years John, like many others, first became interested in the Civil War when he received that classic book “The Golden Book of the Civil War” with its fascinating battle maps populated with tiny soldiers, evocative of toy soldiers.  At age 10 John was presented with the Lois Marx Blue and Gray playset, and he has been immersed in the world of toy soldiers ever since.

Over a decade-and-a-half in the same location, John has seen many changes in the industry, especially in the quality of the sculpting, noting “Conte collectables upped the ante with incredible detail.” John has also seen the customer base change, observing that adults are his primary customers although he frequently gets children in the shop and enjoys “educating them to the wonderful world of toy soldiers.”

Although plastics prices have risen substantially he notes that there are inexpensive figures out there including the BMC Civil War figures (sold as Americana in the Gettysburg area) “if a vacuum gets a couple of these its no big deal” It is the BMC/Americana “Gettysburg” play set that is the steady seller in John’s shop.  “Its nice to see a parent leaving with a child who’s gotten some toy soldiers who looks up and says ‘thanks’ to the parent…that’s a good thing, a nice thing…that’s what starts their interest."  He believes that “the future of the hobby looks good” and encourages parents to get their kids interested, noting that there’s “a lifetime of enjoyment if you get the bug early.” 

A former vendor is the venerable Charlie Tarbox whose childhood interest was also sparked by those intricate maps in the Golden Book of the Civil War, noting “an enormous amount of interest in toy soldiers was generated from those maps.” Charlie first visited Gettysburg in 1960, on the eve of the centennial and still has his toy soldiers from that time.  He relates that as a child he “arranged his figures to replicate the battle maps in the Golden Book.

Unlike John Zabawa, Tarbox is not as optimistic regarding the interest in the hobby among the younger generation lamenting “the number of little boys who pass by and couldn’t care less increases every year”, noting the greater allure of electronic toys and devices vying for their attention.

Charlie’s primary customer is the high-end collector and he accommodates their tastes with exquisite hand-painted miniatures and says that business is good;  Tarbox wryly observes, “Who would have ever thought of a toy store that didn’t need to be open in December?”

Meaghan Barry, manager of the bookstore at Antietam National Battlefield enthusiastically affirms that “Toy soldiers are a consistent seller and generally more than one bag is sold at a time” and notes that the most frequently heard refrain from children  in her store is “I want this one, and this one!”  

Meaghan’s shop, located on the battlefield itself, serves the full range of visitors.  She says of the Americana line of toy soldiers “Children, parents, and grandparents purchase them”Of those children, one in particular, is emblematic of the new generation of toy soldier enthusiasts: Michael Logan Thomas.

Twelve-year-old Michael Logan recently became fascinated with those little plastic men and, when asked what he finds most interesting about them, observes “The fact that you can set them up so they’re battling and then set them up differently;  they can be different every time.”  This articulate bedroom-floor general currently collects soldiers of just the Civil War period though adds “I want soldiers from other periods but it’s a work in progress.”

Michael Logan is looking forward to middle school and the opportunity to use toy soldiers in history assignments; “I could use them to show what the Battle of Bull Run was like; set them up to demonstrate it.”

This child of the sesquicentennial era has a personalized approach to his soldiers and battles noting “Usually I just like making different set-ups but I’ll do battles when I get the chance” adding “When one side is outnumbered they get more cannons.”  Asked who usually wins as he presides over blue and gray armies he responds, “Typically, I never get to the end, but usually the Union wins and some times the Confederates.”

Michael Logan’s taste in toys is reflective of other kids his age noting his interest in Legos. Megablocks, Pokeman, and Transformers, but he gives nearly equal attention to his Civil War soldiers.  When asked what he would tell other kids about toy soldiers he thoughtfully responds, “You might think that they’re not fun, but they are quite fun.”
Thus far the emphasis has been on men and boys as the primary interest group for toy soldiers, but to exclude girls would, in fact, be quite hasty.

Meet 32-year-old Christin Sciulli, a self-described “true geek girl, who has always been drawn to gaming and collecting toy soldiers." Christin, a native of Pittsburgh, traces her interest back to middle school when her father became involved in the hobby of 15mm miniature war gaming with a focus on the American Civil War.  Christin thought “the figures were really cool, and I offered to paint the horses for my dad, which then led to my siblings and I painting entire units for him.”

A history enthusiast since childhood, Christin particularly enjoyed watching westerns with her grandparents and reading about westward expansion.  This led her to the Civil War era which, even as a young girl, she found “very interesting and tragic.” Initially, she was drawn into the hobby by Civil War and Wild West figures, and, like her father, miniature war gaming became her primary interest.  Her interest has grown beyond the Civil War to include painting and gaming with miniatures from a variety of eras, noting “I realize that I just don't have the physical space to buy figures and game in every period that interests me.”

When asked how she is viewed in this traditionally male domain she responds “Very positively . . . until I start rolling the dice and killing their troops! Generally everyone I have interacted with has been very polite and encouraging, and happy to have a woman gaming with them and discussing history and the hobby with them; they are happy to have any new blood participating in the hobby with them.”

Since the 1960s the hobby has changed, seeing the range of Civil War toy soldiers increase in quality, availability and in price.  What is unchanged however is the joy found in setting up and knocking down these little plastic men in miniature battlefield dramas just as they have been for generations.

In Christin and Michael Logan one can see the torch being passed from the Centennial generation to that of the Sesquicentennial era.  Despite the distractions of electronic gaming, and technology-based toys, young people and children are still happy to marshal their plastic and metal legions, both blue and gray, and soldier on into the future.

Toy soldiers, happily, will endure.

Soldier on!


Thursday, November 28, 2019

Toy Soldiers...and Sailors...Forever!

I just shot this video of a model of the USS Higbee that I made several years ago.  I populated it with little sailors that I created using the microsoft "paint" application. 

 There are about 85 of them and they are all I was when I served aboard the Higbee in 1973-'74.

Until next time...

Soldier on!


Sunday, November 10, 2019

Cannoneers Post! Loading and firing ACW artillery video

Join the gun detachment of South Mountain Battlefield State Park as they travel to Antietam National Battlefield to demonstrate the loading and firing of the 12-pounder light-gun howitzer...the Napoleon.

Soldier on!


Monday, November 4, 2019

Strombecker 54mm American Civil War figures

Here is grist for a future post.

Today, at our local flea market I picked up this set of four soldiers and a horse manufactured by Strombecker in 1966.

I remember the company from my childhood, they made slot cars, but I'm unfamiliar with these figures.

The finishing and painting will be a nice winter project.

I'll keep you posted.

Soldier on!


Sunday, November 3, 2019

Home-casting...old school.

Here was a nice surprise.  My brother-in-law gave me one of his childhood treasures - a Rapco soldier home-molding kit. 

 These kits were a real "dad and lad" thing from the 1940's into the late the good 
old days before we realized just how toxic lead is.

This is model 1295C from Rapco, Inc  of Chicago which started out as part of Rappaport Brothers home foundry.  Rapco manufactured kits like this through the mid-1960s.

I've had it for a while and this weekend the time seemed right to give it a whirl.  The kit is comprised of a little hot-plate melter, a ladle, one clamp and two, two-piece three cavity molds with handles.

The little hot plate hadn't been fired up in decades and just couldn't seem to develop enough heat to melt the lead.  I ended up using my mapp gas torch for the melting.

The first casts had very little detail, so I threw them back in the ladel to melt again.  In the meantime I applied the torch to the assembled and clamped mold.  By heating the metal of the mold the next pour was able to pick up much more detail.

The kit makes three Afrika Korps Krauts and three G.I.s.  I opted to take just one of the figures through to completion, and that's the soldier throwing a stick grenade.

Just popped out of the mold, super-shiny, with lots of flash to be trimmed off.

Fifteen-minutes with a nipper and file ended up giving me a pretty clean model.

He then went into the spray booth for an even coat of Tamiya gray primer.

This is the finished product, finished bright, and ready for battle.

This was a fun little experiment that produced a pretty satisfying result...ready to join the ranks out in the toy soldier studio.

Do any of you have a childhood memory of kits like this?  Let me know.

Until next time...

Soldier on!


Saturday, November 2, 2019

A Civil War artillery video I made.

Go here to see a Youtube video about Civil War artillery.

I made this video when I was a park ranger at Antietam National Battlefield.

Soldier on!

(ranger) Mannie

Monday, October 7, 2019

Factory tour!

Factory tour!

You'd never know it from the outside, but what used to be my garage is now my woodshop, which is where all of my 54mm Civil War scenics come from.  Put on your safety glasses because it's time for a tour of...

Victory Wood Working.

When I was thinking about how to reinvent the garage into a shop, I decided to go all the way and turn it into a WWII defense plant...

where it's always April 29, 1942.

So as FDR gazes down benevolently upon us, let's clock in and take a look around.

Is it a union shop? .. natch!

I worked, for many years at a large public museum, where we recreated a furniture factory from 1912.  We had an abandoned furniture factory at our disposal from which we were able to scavenge a lot of really great stuff.  One of the things that really stuck with me was that each piece of machinery had a wooden locker where the operator kept his or her stuff.

Bandsaw blades.

Sanding belts.

Tablesaw blades.

Using mostly salvaged lumber I made Art Deco tool stands for the drill press and mortising machine. 

I used to have my dad's medical department helmet when he worked as an occupational nurse in a Chevy plant that had been converted from making engine blocks, to making propellers for B-24s.  Sadly, it was lost somewhere along the way.

Let's take a look at the tools and some of the things that they've been used for.  Please keep your hands in your pockets and don't distract the workers.

The small bandsaw was one of the first new machines that I bought after the creation of the shop. I use this smaller saw to make tighter curved cuts, as with the beginnings of my stone bridge.

With the Jointer planer I was able to plane down the walls of the bridge so that the stone copings would overhang them.

This little bridge has seen many a battle on the toy soldier table.
(you can see the process of making it here)

The small bandsaw was also emplyoyed to make a fanciful WWI artillery piece.

Here, the carriage is being freed from a piece of scrap mahogany.

The small belt sander was used to get in to tight spaces, like those on the gun cradle and recuperator mounts.

This was not patterned after any particular gun, I just generalized the common elements that I found most interesting about large WWI guns.

(You can see the process of making it here)

The next time I make a 54mm post-and-rail fence, I'm going to try to use my mortising machine to drill square holes in the base in which to insert the fence posts.

It takes a while to wrap your head around the idea of drilling square holes...but there you are.

My wood lathe has been employed for many projects, including the turning of the gun barrel of that WWI cannon.

I also used it to turn the stone abutments on Burnside Bridge.

A fairly big project that I undertook a few years ago, was making a 15" Rodman gun in 54mm. For this project the lathe was put back in to action.

The Rodman gun tube moved to my drill press, another early resident of the factory.

The drill press was used to bore out the gun tube to the correct diameter: and, by adding a sanding barrel...

I was able to shape the trunnions.

All of the parts and pieces made their way to the spray-booth to be primed and painted.

The Rodman gun is ready for action.
(You can see the process of making it here)

The drill press doesn't get much rest.  I just used it last month for my latest project; a water well in 54mm.

In this instance I used hole saws of two different diameters to make the circular wall of the well.

I'm very happy with the finished product.  Now that W. Britains has finally come out with American Civil War civilians, I can bring a whole new dimension of fun to the toy soldier table.

One of my most-used tools is my belt/disc sander.

From making boulders...

to shaping terraforms, the sander has been used on every project that I've undertaken.

The showpiece of the shop is my Grizzly 14" bandsaw.

The small bandsaw can make curved cuts of a moderately small diameter.
This larger saw is used for making more sweeping curves, such as the walls of Burnside Bridge.

Again, the sander gets used for everything.

I learned early on that there's no such thing as "too many" clamps.

For wood glue to be effective the glued pieces need to be clamped together until  the glue dries.

(You can see the whole process of making this here)

The stacked layers of my terraform hills were cut on the bandsaw, shaped at the sander, and glued and clamped together.

For the tightest curves of all, I use the scroll saw.

The scroll saw, like the bandsaw, cuts curves.  
Its very thin, reciprocating blade, cuts very tight curves and angles, which was just the ticket for the forest of trees that I wanted to make.

I traced two matching tree outlines on thin plywood and carefully cut them out.  Then I went to the bandsaw and cut slots in each - one, from top to midpoint, and the other, from the bottom to midpoint.  In this manner they slide together and a two-dimensional tree is
 the result.

By sliding them apart they store flat, which is mighty handy when you have limited storage space.

The beast of the shop is the tablesaw.

The tablesaw is the one indispensable machine that every homeowner should have, not to mention the do-it-yourself toy soldier enthusiast. 

I glued up a few pieces of scrap and passed them through the blade...

and the result was a nice little wall-tent.

I acquired a Britains Deetail limber that didn't have a lid.  Another piece was pulled from the scrap pile, milled on the tablesaw, dropped in to place...

and is ready to be primed and painted.

The tablesaw also turned out the timbers for about two-dozen cheval de frise. 

Then to the drillpress...

and then to the sander.

Bamboo skewers were cut to length, sharpened, and glued in to place.

The finished product makes for a very menacing component of the Petersburg fortifications.

The toy soldier table itself is a product of the tablesaw.

A spare corner in my furnace room became a 54mm wonderland.
(You can see the process of making it here)

It is a joyful kind of therapy to be able to combine my two favorite hobbies...

to bring more fun stuff to the toy soldier table.

What's next?

Don't ask me, I just work here.

Until next time,

Soldier on!