Class is in session, Puddings…
How many of you actually know how a doll is made? Surprisingly, not very many – and that is unfortunate, for one to be so engrossed in a hobby both financially and passionately, it’s almost unfathomable to comprehend how few really know what the process is. This isn’t it, Mattel. The scores of talented and skilled individuals that come together through artistic and technical prowess reaches far beyond that of simple design – just so you have a miniature figure to rip out of the box to play, make over…and love – it boggles the mind, actually.
In the same fashion as understanding that a repaint isn’t a ‘re’ anything; but rather, it is usually a fully original face paint applied over what was removed factory paint – the process of making a doll brings the very birthing process to light of those that we call our favorites, or those we hate with all our heart.
For this ‘has-been’ who has managed production for a doll manufacturer, researched and understood the variances of plastics, and personally reviewed the process – I suppose it’s correct – that he has been there. But for many of you that complain about the costs of your favorite dolls without understanding that doll collecting is a luxury, the knowledge of the process can bring you enlightenment…and it’s one less thing to bitch about. It is true that understanding the costs associated with the making of a doll is a rather personal subject for me…but I get ahead of myself…
Some of the images I have used in this post are largely outdated by some 10-15 years – but they still drive the idea home. Videos like this bring some sort of visual to the process – though disturbing when it comes to insertion of the eyes – think of the end user? True, there are many variances that arise from the materials used, or whether or not the doll is made by an artist or by a manufacturer – or if it’s intended as a toy for a child (see previous video link). Nevertheless, the process is largely the same, usually only deviating by the number of hands and chemicals used to complete the transformation of sculpture into product. Then of course, is this example – although cheap as shit in nature, you can see Lucy’s face screening and hair rooting. Take due notice thereof, and govern yourselves accordingly…
A Sculpture – Notwithstanding the planning and research, sketching and pondering, nail-biting and procrastination – all dolls start in the same way: they are born through a sculpture. Whether or not the sculpting material is guided through manipulation of clay or through a digital screen, the sculpture arrives from an artist’s hand – sometimes multiple artists. Sculpting mediums are plenty, my Puddings – but basically, if you can get some pliable material to hold its shape long enough to cast a mold – it’s doll-making material.
Sculpting is an odd art form. Unlike drawing or painting which deal largely in two dimensions, sculpture adds the third dimension of depth. One can draw a lovely face, but to realize it in three dimensions means you must be able to envision the full head from all sides. Some artists just don’t think like that – hell, many viewers of the art just don’t think like that. How many of you have looked at a painted portrait, and found yourself pondering what the subject looks from behind? And no, I’m not talking about the curiousness of imagining a complex coiffure as it would look from the rear, although that is part of it.
Whether you sculpt through additive methods – that is, adding pinches of clay to a figure thereby building the form; or if you use subtractive methods such as carving – a sculptor has to see the subject from all angles in the mind, and translate to the sculpting medium – and maintain a strong focus to not allow the sculpt to deviate from the vision. It often can been done over and over again – and although the time varies from artist to artist – there is no denying that creating a sculpture is labor intensive, indeed.
A 3-D Revolution – Digital sculpting has made huge strides over the last two decades, now becoming accessible to almost any sculptor. This process is beneficial for so many reasons. First and foremost, it cuts down on the amount of materials needed to create a sculpture (‘printing’ the sculpture later is an entirely different story – but we’ll get to that). It can also save the artist a great deal of time once fluency in the sculpting software is achieved. And finally, digital methods allow one to ‘copy’ features, bringing symmetry to facial and body features otherwise not seen in a true human form (well, not perfect symmetry, anyway). The result is a digital sculpture that is ready to add engineered jointing, or serve as a model for the several molding processes needed, unless it is printed directly using 3D polymer printers.
All this technology comes at a price – literally. The software and hardware needed to manage it are damn expensive. You can outsource your 3D printing, but that is also expensive. Mastery of the software functionality can take months, if not years for some. Other handicaps create challenges for the sculptor – primarily that of learning to sculpt without using a direct hand-to-medium approach – and learning to sculpt from air or with virtual resistance. You might think this is a simple learning curve, but I can assure you – it is anything but.
I recall the days when 2D digital illustration arrived, evolved and advanced. One of the most difficult transitions from pencil and paper to mousepad and computer screen was that of eye/hand coordination. For me, even using digital illustrator pads, which felt like using a real pencil, were quite the challenge to retrain your eye to ‘feel’ through another source other than your flesh. Some say it just takes getting used to – but for the artist’s brain, that can mean many different things. In fact, some artists simply can’t make the leap to new digital methods.
For those that follow such artists as Joshua David McKenney, who is (as this is written), sharing his transition from hand sculpture to digital methods with his fabulous Pidgin Doll – both on Facebook and Instagram; Rob Redden, who has immersed himself into the technology to such scholarly levels that it might be easier to refer to him as a true expert on the subject matter); and Joey Versaw, whose Mary Magpie and First Love digital creations are inspiring how artists think about digital potential – it’s easy to become obsessed in the process. This is a fascinating world that is actually changing the way we perceive dolls and doll accessories.
I’m guessing makers like Mattel and Integrity have been using the technology for some time – and artists such as Robert Tonner started digital sculpting in the mid-2000s – and they are now realizing true productivity in its investment. For that’s ultimately the price that is paid – upfront investment in time and money.
I’ve often said that many of today’s doll makers go to resin as a medium because it only has one molding process, and the fact that to make injection-molded hard plastic doll parts requires tens of thousands of dollars in upfront investment – rotomolded vinyl is the same, though not as spendy as hard plastic – but there’s more discussion on materials later on…
An Engineered Risk – Once you have a sculpture, you need jointing – God, do you need jointing! Today’s collectors absolutely demand it. I get it’s all about versatility and ease of posing/dressing, but there are still scores of gorgeous dolls created with minimal jointing in the days where either the technology wasn’t there to reproduce it, or it was too cost prohibitive to manage. Be that as it may, articulation is here to stay, and doll makers are going to great lengths to bring us outstanding examples of hyper-articulated bodies capable of almost any pose.
To simplify the process (at the risk of insulting those who do this craft well), a sculpted body is dissected at all the spots where jointing will occur. Frankendolly has nothing on this original Frankenstein! In the place of severed limbs, pieces are added to the sculpt that will allow the engineer to take the process to the next refinement stage. Finally, what was once severed edges, are now finished-edge jointing.
Joint engineering is not unlike sculpting – but it’s much more mathematically precise. During these stages, fit and function are critical, and one tiny little miscalculation can mean having to start over. Some artists create their own jointing, some send them off to specialists who not only create the jointed parts, but they are also may refine hands, feet, ears, and other features to make the sculpture ready for molding. There are some still who will go the extra step to create the first moldable sculpt in wax. The advantage of creating a sculpture in wax allows you to refine facial and body features using a heated sculpting element. Not all wax sculptures are used in the lost-wax process (see below)
Again, this is where digital sculpting has advanced this method greatly. Gone are the days of trial and error – now one simply needs to monitor the computer screen, and allow the computer to fit parts to the micrometer, provided you have fluency in said technology.
If you are still following time and costs – take a bolded note here: third-party joint engineering is costly – whether it be by hand, or digital – because the skills/resources required of this art/science comes from years of education and experience.
A Mold – In order to reproduce a doll and its parts, you must have a mold from which the production material can be cast and pulled. Molding varies upon the materials to be used – but it mostly works like this: a sculpture is placed into some type of medium where it will leave an impression; once the medium has solidified, the original is removed and you now have a ‘negative’ of the sculpt in which you can pour your production medium.
Some makers will use the lost-wax process – the wax sculpture is cast, and then melted away, giving you a mold – but because the mold is destroyed to remove the cast item, a second molding process is necessary to take into production. Vinyl requires two molding processes to get a refined result (vinyl has a lovely texture that will display any imperfections seen in the original sculpt, so it must be as perfect as it can be) – remember that each time you cast a mold, the sculpt will shrink a little – so you need to be aware of this little fact when creating the original sculpture if a precise size is desired, or if mixing mediums such as vinyl and hard plastic (which both have different shrink rates).
In the case of hard plastic, an injection mold is needed. Injection molds must withstand repetitive wear and high temperature for the molten hard plastic to be injected inside it. This is why most hard plastic molds are made from hollowed-out solid metal (usually done through the aid of a digitally-guided industrial boring tool).
Depending on the size of a desired body part, multiple impressions may be created in a single steel or aluminum block to create efficiencies in production – why? Because if it costs thousands to carve a single metal block, you had better use it to its maximum potential, and not something like a single pair of forearms. It is true that metal molding blocks vary in size, and they become exponentially more expensive the larger they get.
You now have the primary reason artists don’t manufacture in vinyl/plastic – it costs too much upfront. You’ll hear all kinds of bullshit fluff about how resin is a superior doll-making material – and as I have said before, it can be – but those types of resins are very expensive, and you only see them in Goddess production such as JAMIEshow and Kingdom Doll, among others.
The Sybarites were also made in these costly, custom-blended resins – but Superdoll has now set their sights on plastics – because they can now afford it, and it creates long-range efficiency in production that will allow them to expand their market at lower price points. Now, understand that vinyl isn’t cheap either (well, just like resin or any manufacturing material – it can be cheap; but not the resin-like custom blended vinyl Superdoll is using) – so when you see a vinyl Sybarite that now sells for $400 as opposed to a resin version at $750+ – and scratch your head asking, ‘but it’s made of vinyl?’ No, dear…it doesn’t work like that. Casting solid vinyl, as opposed to hollow vinyl, can still be pricey.
All vinyls are not the same – the like is true of resins…and that age-old marketing mind-fuck brought to us by the direct-sell companies like the Franklin Mint: porcelain. Porcelain is a generic material; in and of itself, it is not remarkable with one single exception – it can be damn cheap to make. Varying ingredients and processes separate commonplace porcelain (a fancy name for clay) from such things as bisque, china, Limoges, or simple ceramics. It is one of the cheapest ingredients to use in doll manufacturing, and certainly (other than simple rag dolls) the cheapest thing to have made in China (though some lower grade resins can be just as cheap, depending on the degree of jointing and finishing).
And before artists like Popovy Sis and Enchanted Doll start throwing bejeweled Russian daggers, let me clarify that porcelain can be cheap – but with guidance, technique and artistry, the grades you seen rendered by fine doll artists using the medium – porcelain can also be a treasure. Are not coal and diamond the same thing, chemically? There’s much more to understand with doll-making materials, which we will get to a little later on – but for now, the point is to understand how it all means to the molding process.
Once again, technology has greatly advanced this process for those who can afford it. The advance investment clearly separates a mass-produced doll from an artist doll – and the varying price points reflect it.
A Supporting Cast – Creating a mold for any produced doll is hard work, and costly depending on the material used. You’ve already spent time and money on designing, sculpting and creating a mold – yet, you don’t even have your doll made yet!
Rendering materials like plastic or resin from the mold is called ‘casting’. Simply put, it’s the process of pouring the shit in the mold, and getting doll parts from it. Sounds pretty simple, right? Oh my dear…have ye learned little?
Some materials set with only an added agent – resin is such a material, using an additive to cure, or harden the epoxy. Hard plastic and vinyl set through a cooling process – and ceramics set through a heating process. Some of the processes take much longer than others. Injection molded hard plastic sets almost instantly when cooled.
Vinyl sets quickly, but it still needs time to rest in the mold as opposed to hard plastic which is spit out as soon as it’s formed (see above). Vinyl is amazingly forgiving and permanent once molded – if a head is pulled from the mold before it’s fully cooled, distortion can occur in its shape – but in many instances, gently heat it – and it can adjust itself, returning to its originally molded shape.
Resins ‘harden’ in order to set – and ceramics are fired at soaring temperatures over a long period of time to create its rigid form – the time for each varies on the quality and thickness of the casting material.
Once cast doll parts are removed from the mold, there is a first-stage finishing process – this removes the unwanted excess materials resulting from casting known as flashing. It then moves to preliminary sanding, where the surfaces are refined before assembly. What happens next varies upon materials used – but typically it moves into some form of assembly and finishing…
An Assembled Ensemble – Various materials use different methods of assembly. From gluing to high-tech forms of ultrasonic welding, to pop-and-click or stringing – assembly of the doll may or may not involve specific steps in initial painting, too. Furthermore, ceramics need painting and additional firing, while plastic/vinyl may receive some form (not including the head) of painting or detailing. Resins are the same, usually moving into the coloring or detail painting phase shortly after molding and sometimes before final assembly. Understand that some materials can be colored prior to molding, providing a base color for the flesh tone; but not always as successfully as the artist would like – so, painting is employed. Sometimes during this process, the clothing is being made separately from any part of the doll, unless some type of accessory is permanently attached to the doll (such as is the case with action figures – yes, they are dolls, dear).
Not Quite the Finish Line – After casting, various materials require more finishing than others. Here’s how that breaks down:
Remember that labor in China used to be inexpensive – used to be. This fact has greatly shaped how we see certain materials flourish in the industry, and others tossed away in favor of others that bring more economy to the production costs. As mentioned before, plastics require a great deal of upfront costs – upwards from $50,000+ for a hard plastic/vinyl doll; not too different for all-vinyl dolls (there are differing economies set in place for solid v. hollow rotomolding). If any part of a vinyl doll is solid rather than hollow, you can add the cost of extra vinyl and finishing. But other than assembly, they are pretty much ready to go after trimming and sanding of parts.
The goals of a doll maker envisioning plastics are simple: they are durable, cost less in production materials, and require less finishing. Porcelain and resins are less costly to mold and cast, but require more finishing labor afterwards in sanding and painting prior to assembly – add the fact that some resins also have a toxic nature in fumes and dust particles being inhaled, and you can see the extra steps that are taken to ensure the safety of the workers manipulating these materials – all adding to costs of production.
When labor was less expensive in China, it made more sense to avoid high upfront costs, and rely on the labor to manipulate certain materials after the molding process through finishing. But as time has shown, the rise of labor production costs and the fluctuation of petroleum have screwed with the balance once seen two decades ago – and it’s largely why you see more direct sales, lower profit margins realized by maker and retailer, and disappearing bits and bobs like accessories and doll stands. Sure, we’d all love to see a fashion doll in a gown priced less than $100 (hell, even $200, for that matter) – but then your perception of inflation indices would be so unrealistic and out-of-touch – you probably think you could get a car for less than $10,000, or send your child to college without assuming great debt for the rest of your life. It’s not just unrealistic, it’s stupid.
3D printing materials aren’t cheap, either – especially for quality materials that will last (well, as long as we can guess, anyway). But again, the plastics industry is always changing, and newer materials will set the stage for a new generation of dolls.
A Principle Touch – A doll’s face is the most important part of the entire creation. The body can be to some extent, and the coiffure is a supporting character; but the face is the bread and butter, the big ball of wax, the whole stinking shit – when it comes to dolls. Clothing is pretty important – but even the most amazing outfit on a poorly conceived/executed doll won’t mean a thing to its success (ahem, Alex?). If you think otherwise, you are dead wrong.
A doll’s head requires some of the most precise finishing not seen in other doll parts, except the jointing (and maybe clothing, in some cases). Whether it be screened (air-brushed stenciling), or hand-applied – rooted or wigged hair; nothing claims as much relevance as the doll’s face…it just depends on how much time and money you are willing to invest into making your sculpture look like you would own it – or one you would hope will attract an audience of customers.
I know I dwell on this, and it is my blog, but for you folks out there that still refer to ‘screening’ like it’s some universal term for ‘face paint’ – think again, and pull out the red hot poker I just jammed fully into your ass. It really does make you look uninformed, ignorant, and uncaring to use improper terminology when discussing dolls – especially those of you purporting to be ‘experts’. Some people might think me some dried-up old has-been from the doll world, who people gossip about at Tonner conventions – but I can assure you that I at least know my fucking terminology, and I don’t sound like an idiot when referencing it (unless I’ve had my wine, of course). Get with the program, amateurs…you’re not annoying those of us in-the-know who read your posts – you’re making yourself look like an imbecile.
‘Screening’ is an air-brushing process that applies paint to a face or any other body part using a metal stencil (um…hence the name, ‘screen’). It can be simple, but it can also be complex – it requires skill, though not as much as hand-application – except when multiple colors are blended over the mask (eye shadow, blushing, lip colors, etc.). You typically see this process used for eyebrows, the sclera of the eye, and lips – though some manufacturers can apply designs entirely through screening.
The reason I make such a big deal about this (not unlike doll armpits in poses) is because quite frankly, it’s insulting to the skills used by the face-painting workers with their hands and tiny brushes, expertly hand-applying features such as eyelashes, eyebrow hair detail, and any other touches of paint that bring an elevated artistry to a doll. Many can cluster jerk with Noel Cruz, celebrating him for his artistry; yet, few even give credit to the factory workers – who are not only capable of such face painting, they achieve it in more expensive products allowing for the time to manifest such elevated levels of labor expense. This shit takes time, people – time most factories can’t afford in a 300-piece edition. You should be bitch-slapping people when the term ‘screening’ is used incorrectly – it’s like identifying any variety of satin as ‘silk’ because you don’t know the difference between a fiber and a weave; referring to any fashion doll as ‘Barbie’ because that’s probably all you know; or think all Asian people are ‘Oriental‘. Shame, shame. Really…and you call yourself a doll collector?
However the paint is applied, it may go through some type of setting process – either by air-drying or through applied heat – before the hair style (if any) is created. Given that applied wigs can be typically styled in advance and attached with an adhesive, rooted hair styles must first have hair fibers sewn into the scalp using a rooting machine. Such machines are basically inverted sewing machines that bring the needle upward through the neck hole and out of the scalp, while a long arm reaches around, grabbing the hair and cutting it to a specific length.
Scalps are mostly marked with a screened color that matches the hair fiber so the scalp doesn’t show through, and to provide a template for the hairline. The hairline is a critically precise stitching process with every plug of hair evenly distributed, but not too close together as this could break the vinyl (rendered very soft by a heating process, allowing for the needle stitching). If a doll also has bangs or a defined part in its hair style, then duplicate lines of stitching must be included that equal the precision of the hairline. This isn’t simple sewing, folks…and very few individuals in the collectible fashion doll factories can do it well. Note: this does NOT include dolls made for the toy market, largely because the higher grade of vinyl needed in collectible dolls is thicker (and more expensive) than others, and the rooting needed for toy dolls is not as precise as that designed for collectible dolls. But of course, you knew the difference, right?
Many hair designs require styling after being attached or rooted. Almost all are done by hand (you just can’t get machines to do this) – and it’s kinda like being in an alternate-universe beauty salon where the heads are placed on spikes – brushed, combed, curled and primped – ready for setting.
Setting a hair style is usually done in quantity using a dry-heat air box – it’s gentler on sensitive synthetic fibers like saran – and you can make amazingly large air boxes – just throw those bitches in the box and let ’em bake! You also don’t have to worry about your workers scalding themselves with boiling water (those familiar with boil perms know this all-too-well – by the way, you really need to make sure your water is tempered). This is a process that varies from manufacturer to manufacturer – artist to artist – but the point to understand here is hair styles require thoughtful and accomplished skills to make just one – invaluable when it comes to reproducing multiples.
A Touch of Fashion – You’ve gotten this far, but your doll is still probably naked, or sporting permanently attached clothing items, depending on your customer. Now, I won’t go into the fabrication process of wardrobe – because that’s a subject in and of itself (as you can probably assess from my How It’s Made posts). But, dressing the doll is still very much a part of the assembly process – and it encompasses very simple procedures like zipping and pullovers to more detailed treatments like buttoning and buckles.
Some dolls are not fully dressed when packaged, so those accessory items are organized for placement in the package during the final stages.
Putting it Together – Before completion of packaging, there is a quality review process – in fact, there is typically a quality review through each stage of production. Toys require fairly strict safety code reviews – but little things like lead paint get past that – so don’t eat your dolls, please – after all, we are adults, and not children (or are we?).
I know some of you feel that each and every doll should receive this review, and in smaller high-end editions, they do – but the reviewers are human, and sometimes the quantities are vast – so lighten up. It’s professional suicide to not review your quality before shipping a doll to your customers – but it’s improbable to catch each and every nuance and/or mistake. That’s why they have customer care policies.
Some of you have better luck than others when it comes to receiving a doll with little or no errors – but methinks this is largely due to the priority an individual places on what he/she thinks total quality control should be. Then, there are collectors that will never be satisfied – so best to say they won’t enjoy the hobby like the rest of us do. Best to practice your best resting bitch face, and move on to you next drama in which to perform (and badly, at that).
A Material World – As we have already seen, the material a doll maker uses to bring its creations to life will have a profound impact on each and every stage of the doll-making process. A doll’s production material must be decided in advance, because it will greatly affect the time and money necessary to realize the vision. Mixed medium dolls such a vinyl/hard plastic or cloth/porcelain – well, they may simplify part of your process, but they will also create two sets of rules needed to map out your doll’s production (and the costs to do so – consider wax over porcelain and be willing to pay for it). There are clear advantages and disadvantages to each – not only from a manufacturer’s point-of-view, but also from the collector’s, too.
Not many doll makers design their dolls for things like longevity or storage – making a quality product that is durable, doesn’t always mean it will last. The plastics industry is always changing, and as disappointing brittle, discoloring and staining plastic issues may be – it’s just not realistic to expect any doll maker who uses plastics to know how that material will hold up in the long run – not even the designers/makers of the actual polymer plastics know, so how can you expect a manufacturer to? Most are making an attempt to use the latest quality materials that meet their budgets – they’ve already paid a shitload of money to make the molds, so cut them some slack when they are trying to create economies of scale in their production costs – no one is intentionally trying to use craptastic plastic – it just doesn’t make good business sense. But plastic just isn’t as durable as you expect it to be – and the varieties that might last can be unrealistically expensive. Just because antique dolls are still floating around doesn’t mean manufactured dolls will…it’s just not the same on so many differing levels.
Plastics are not the only materials that may suffer from simple age. Ceramics, cloth and resin – all materials have some type of drawback. As consumers and collectors, we should all be more focused on how to display, care, and preserve our dolls – because it’s just not a big priority for doll makers. If your collection means that much to you, then you should already be observing this level of care and knowledge when it comes to preservation – as opposed to just letting them collapse under a layer of dust mites and shifting seasonal sunlight.
There are things you must know: not all plastics are stable; vinyl is porous and can leach dyes from fabrics (staining); resin can easily discolor over time; porcelain can crack easily with changes in temperature; etc. There is no material that is better than any other – they usually have a specific set of production costs associated, and that’s why a doll maker will use it. Unless you are known for a specific type of medium (such as cloth dolls (R. John Wright or Maggie Iacono)), economy isn’t your biggest goal – maintaining an artist’s point-of-view is – but you’ll still look to China to streamline certain expenses where you can if you manufacture larger editions.
Ultimately, the most costly thing on a manufacturing production ledger after molding will be the doll’s clothing and accessories…which is why outfits only are so much more expensive than we think they should be. There is rarely a learning curve on a new outfit design/production, rarely re-used patterns, rarely recycled goods or labor that can assist in the efficiency of unique doll clothing/accessory production. Manufactured dressed dolls are more profitable than outfits only – so don’t be so surprised that separate fashions are slowly disappearing from doll makers’ offerings, too. It’s not about what it cost ten years ago – that is a daft and outdated opinion.
It’s what it costs now if you want it – because in the next season’s designs, it will cost even more (unless formers are exiled to a factory sale). The point here is: if you like it and can afford it, buy it – and buy it now. By doing so, you increase the chances the doll maker will be able to offer you even more next season – a vicious cycle, I know – but doll makers are businesses whose customers are largely obsessive-compulsive addicts. For in each item you don’t buy, a doll retailer is going out of business, someone is having to change their design aesthetic, doll makers are cutting production – and someone is being laid off, only to become another has-been out there – because you wanted it for a lower price in our pernicious luxury of doll-collecting.
So the next time you see some cheap-ass bitch slut-shaming doll makers over how expensive dolls are, and desperately pining for that all-too-necessary discounted price – you should be angry – damn angry – for assholes like these are destroying our hobby – and they are banishing good dolls and their accoutrements from a colorful world of skill, beauty and talent.
I think they’d be better-off collecting Lucy…really. Seems much more appropriate given the lack of appreciation for the work involved – and out of ignorance of its value. Class dismissed…