THE AB LAB DIP MOLD EMPLOYEE INTERVIEW
Here you will read the actual interview I gave to the retired employee of Abbot Laboratory's,the only American based aluminum and porcilan dipping mold plant that produced the Stretch Armstrong body skins as well as many other latex stretch figures.This was a very rare opportunity for me to give this interview because the dipping plant is no longer in business and this kind of information is not only almost immpossible to obtain but very secretive material that no other employee was willing to devuldge.I can only say that I was more than honored to get this one chance interview and share it with you here on Stretch Armstrong World. I hope you enjoy what is for the first time a detailed step by step look into the dipping process that formed what is today one of the most legendary action figure toys ever produced.
The Stretch Armstrong Mold Dipping Process may be a thing of the past, however today the process remains a very coveted and patented series of steps within the Kenner/Hasbro Toy Company and Abbot Laoratories (the Latex Factory that dipped these metal and ceramic molds).In fact, things were so secretive that in the last few months before the Abbot Labs Closed its doors, the remaining Mandrels or Molds were all locked up in Gaylords or giant metal boxes and secured from any persons or employess. Nobody was permitted near these molds as their next trip was to the scrap yard.I was fortunate enough to meet in person one of the employees of Abbot Labs and interview him on this dipping process. This is the first time ever you will see just what went into creating these legendary stretch figures of old. To keep the identity of this employee confidential,we will call him Kramer.I will use the acrynym SAW for Stretch Armstrong World in the interview.The following is the interview of August 14th 2007. Enjoy!
SAW:First let me say how honored I am that you have taken the time to share your knowledge of this dipping process with Stretch Armstrong World and all the stretch collectors out there.Its really great to finally meet you after our lengthy phone conversation we had.What do ya say we get down to it. I guess my first few questions are, When did Abbot Laboratories first begin dipping molds into latex, and tell us if the process has changed much over the years.also, how long did you work there?
Kramer: Well, Abbot labs first opened its doors way back in 1914 and originally dipped molds for pharmaceutical companies.Although present day technologies may have changed some things like the machines run by computer instead of mannually operated machines,the actual dipping process back then was basically the same as today. I worked at Abbot Labs for almost 30 years and just recently retired in 2007 along with Abbot Labs which also closed its doors on August 18th 2007.
SAW: Did Abbot Labs dip only the Stretch Armstrong figure or did they also dip other toys?
Kramer: Actually, we dipped all the original Stretch Figures from Kenner like the Stretch X Ray, Monster, Octopus and even the Stretch Serpent! We also dipped many different latex toys for not only Kenner, but also Justoys,(Stretch Genie) and Cap Toys more recent 1992 version of Stretch Armstrong. We even dipped that weird Obe toy, remmeber the one with the buldging eye sockets? HA HA !Abbot Labs also dipped latex glove molds, and other odd designs from various companies as well as other related items for pharmaceutical companies right up to the day they closed.
SAW:Ok Great, So lets get into the dipping process a bit. I suppose I should just let you take it from here and give us some of the details about the machines used and the manner in which the molds were dipped.
Kramer: Well, To start off, let me say that we were the only plant in the United States that dipped these Stretch Armstrong figures. There were other overseas companies that dipped there versions of Stretch Figures such as Precisions Dipping Marketing Limited in the United Kingdom where the Denys Fisher Stretch Incredible Hulk was dipped.Back in the day we were dipping molds 24/7. Thats all we did day in and day out. This will give you an idea of just how successful these toys were.OK, so here is what we did,These Mandrels were created in another plant and sent to us only for dipping. We would load or anchor 108 Molds or what we called forms in two rows to large steele frames rails or what we called trucks that were operated and controlled by a dip crane.Each mold was secured by a metal clip that slid over the dip rail.Each truck rail held 6 stretch figure molds and there were a total of 9 rows or rails totalling 54 stretch figure molds to be dipped.This Dip crane would move up or down at a RPM speed of 0 to 1 foot per second and would travel over 25 feet down the station line to several different dipping station tanks.Our latex shipments came in 50,000 gallon tanks which we had to custom color by adding the correct dyes for each stretch figure variation.From 1976 through 1980 we used non UV resisitant latex.As technology increased, UV resisitant latex became available after 1980.Our Stretch Latex recipe was co created with Kenner and approved by Kenner and mixed to the agreed upon specifications.It was an extremely high qualtity latex mixture for its time in the 1970s. Next,we would fill our dipping tanks with the colored latex.Each Dipping tank was about 5 feet wide by 9 feet long and held 550 gallons of 70 degree liquid latex.These giant tanks were wrapped in water jackets to keep the latex from getting too warm or else it would cure before we could dip the molds.There were also large mixers that would adgetate the latex from the bottom of the tank upward to keep it from clogging.All the machines were inspected daily and cleaned biweekly.
Saw:Wow this is great,I cant wait to hear more, I assume the dipping process starts now?
Kramer: yepp! We would lower the dip crane holding the 108 forms feet first into what was called the TalcTank. This talc tank held a mixture of dry talc powder,water,and soap. This was a liquid slurry mixture of 180 degrees.The forms were lowered into the slurry for 30 seconds to heat up the forms and prepare them for the latex tanks. This partial talc slurry created a coating over the mold which acted as a release agent for the latex.After 30 seconds the forms were raised out of the slurry which dried rather quickly. We would then lower the frame again to dip the remaining side or row of forms into the talc tank.We now have 108 talc coated molds ready for the next dip tank.
SAW: I really wish I could have seen all this for myself, it sounds like a lot of fun.
Kramer: Well your right it was a lot of fun, but after 30 years, you know like any job, it got old. But all and all, it was a very interesting job and now when I see how rare and valuable these stretch figures have become it really puts the icing on the cake for me.
Saw: ok, so go on, lets hear the rest!
Kramer: Lets see,where was I, Oh yeah, we were getting ready to dip into the next tank. So with the talc coated molds ready, we then moved the truck to the Coagulant Tank or what we called the "Coag Tank" which
held a mixture of Calcium Nitrate, Talc,Soaps and other Chemicals. This room temperature mixture made the latex adhere to the mold. Unlike the previous dipping tank which had 30 seconds of dwell time, there was no dwell time in the coag tank.The molds were lifted out immediatley and then lowered again to complete the other row.The Molds were now finally ready for the actual latex dip tank.
SAW: Its really great how well you remember all these details but Im sure you must have dipped literally thousands of molds over a 30 year span. With repetition like that how could you forget.right?
Kramer:Thats right Tony, I have dipped thousands of molds. Somtimes I have nightmares that Im still dipping and then I wake up sweating and shaking!! HA HA HA!, just kidding. Ok so lets move on the the latex shall we? Now we move the truck down the line to the Latex Dipping Tank.This is where the Molds go into the liquid latex that becomes what would be the final Stretch Figure. The Molds were very slowly lowered heals first into the latex.The Molds were lowered in very slowly because if you hit the latex to fast and hard an air pocket would form at the bottom of the feet.Once the mold reached the top of the legs we slowed it down even more because this area between the legs was prone to trapping air if we dipped it too fast. This would cause an air pocket to form and that would not be acceptable quality.The Feet and Arm pits were also areas prone to air bubbles.Thats also the reason we would lower them heels first. You may even notice some stretch figures have rough areas in the bottom of the feet. These were trapped air bubbles that had to be popped leaving the remnants of extra latex skin. If the air bubbles were too noticable the figure was discarded.Once the mold was dipped past the arm pits we would continue to lower it in half way up the neck flange.The Mold would dwell in the latex for a total of 7 to 8 minutes. This dwell time was important as it would determine the thickness of the final latex skin. Basically the longer it dwelled the thicker the latex skin would be, After the 8 minutes was up, we began to again, slowly raise the latex covered molds out of the liquid latex. This step usually caused webbing to form in the arm pits and between the legs as the liquid latex dripped off the mold.This webbing would kinda pop almost like a bubble gum bubble as the latex dripped off becomming too thin to hold together.We then flipped the molds upside down foe 3 to 4 seconds and then back up aain to blend these webs of liquid latex into the figure. We repeated this step untill all the webbing was blended and gone.
SAW: WOW!, This is so interesting Kramer,You know, I always wondered why some of most perfect Armstrongs had some rough areas under the feet.Now I know it was just a defect problem. This makes it so much more acceptable from a collectors stanpoint to know this is normal.It really sounds like the trapped air was a serious issue that needed a lot of attention. Lets hear the rest.
Kramer: So now we move on to the next step as we take the latex covered molds to the leach tanks which are filled with water that is 190 degrees. We would lower the molds into the water one side at a time for a total of 2 minutes. This would set up the latex and also wash out all the nitrates, coagulants and residual talc, leaving a nice clean pure latex skin.We then would immediately move on and dip them into the talc powder tank. This Talc would aid in the skinning or stripping process and very importantly keep the latex from sticking to itself. you may not know but a pure,fresh latex comes in contact with itself it will stick together and almost adhere itself so well that we would have to discard some of the skins if there was not enough talc on them. So this was a very important process especially since almost all the work was done up to this point. It really was ashame to throw some of them near the final step of their creation.
SAW:Man, I wish i could have just one of the defective Armstrongs you discarded. IMagine the value of such a rare piece today.Well Kramer, IM gonna guess the next step, because Im almost sure I know, is it the ovens?
Kramer: Yepp! Howd you know? We then loaded the frsh skins back onto the solid steel wheeled trucks and rolled them into a 60 foot long oven.Keep in mind these skins were continuously moving through the ovens at a pace of 1 foot per minute. Latex cures at 220 degrees so the first half of their journey was baked at 180 degrees and the second half at 225 degress. The total cure time for each skin to pass through the oven was 1 hour.Each mold would exit 80 feet from its original starting point at the entrance of the oven.So you see, it was very important to maintain a steady temperature as they passed through the oven.
SAW: Do you think this is why some of the Stretch Armstrongs skins vary in stretchability? I know that some seem stiffer than others and dont seem to have as much elasticity.Could the heat have played a factor in this?
Kramer: Yes Tony, this is most likely what may have caused these variations. If the temperatures were too hot or they went through too slowly, the latex would tend to cure too much creating a less stretchy skin.Wow, you really are the Stretch King to have such knowledge of these toys.
SAW: Yeah,Well, What can I say.....but seriously, the good thing about this is that the Stretches with the least elasticity seemed to hold up better over time.
Kramer:Well, you are the King so you must know. So where were we, oh yeah, now we move on to the fun part, the stripping or skinning of the latex from the molds It took 50 minutes to strip each truck full of forms or molds. We stripped 9 trucks or 486 Stretch Armstrong Skins in an 8 hour work day and this went on 24/7 for year after year! We were really pumpimg these babies out! Ok, Now once we reach the stripping station which is an 80 foot trek back from where we left off at the oven exit, we shower the figures in cold water for 30 seconds to make cool them and get them ready for stripping.This cooling process made the skins more stable so that when pulled on would return to there original shape.If the skins were too warm when we stripped them, it may create a permanent defect in the skin as our fingers tugged and pulled them free from the molds.We then took the figures and stuck our two fingers into the neck area and began to peel or strip the skins off the molds. As we did this, the skins would come off inverted leaving the inside of the skin on the outside. We then reinverted them back to the origianl position.There were times that some employees did not reinvert them which created a much more defined figure as the inside of the skin picked up much more detail as it cured directly on the defined metal mold.This is why some of the figures today are more defined with stomach muscles and lines and others more smooth looking.You may notice the high detail in the Stretch Monster because the Monster was never reinverted once stripped. What you see in the final Monster Figure is the interior of the skin before it was stipped or the detailed exterior of the Aluminum mold.
SAW: Wow, thats great stuff Kramer.I knew thats what caused these variations! I also had another theory. Do you think some are also more defined because they were created from the ceramic molds? I noticed the ceramic molds are incredibly detailed and sharp as apposed to the metal molds. I also think that the build up of talc powder that I see on the molds I own today would slowly fill in the molds crevaces and lines diminishing the muscular detail of the mold.
Kramer: You got it again Stretch King! Man your good! this is exactly correct and I bet these very detailed figures today are selling for the most money.
SAW: Yes they are Kramer. I actaully own most of the armstrongs out there today and although any Arnstrong figure is extremely coveted by collectors the detailed figures in my collection are the very best and most valuable.Ok on to the rest, lets hear it!
Kramer: Here is my favorite part of the entire dipping creation process. We now took the skin and placed the open neck over an air valve that blew 90 pounds of air into the figure in a split second.POP! you would hear as the figure blew open and talc powder flew all over the place. It was great! We had a lot of fun with this step because somtimes we would blow a figure up untill it reached the size of a human and then it would pop! so loud as it blew apart!. you should have seen these things when they reached this size! It was hillarious! Its no wonder where these things got there name. they really were capable of some serious stretching.
SAW: man, I would loved to have seen that Kramer! Maybe some day we will find some footage of the dipping process on video.Now that would be great.OK Kramer, lets hear the final steps in this most interesting process, shall we?
Kramer:Well, your right, we are almost near the end of our journey.We now tke the Armstrong Skins and litereally throw them into a 200 degree clothes dryer for one hour which was called the "second cure" because as you know we cured them once already in the ovens and for the second time here in the clothes dryers. This second cure helped to lock in its shape by very slightly shrinking the skin hence giving it more strength and durability against those thousands of little hands that would soon begin to stretch,pull and tear there new Stretch Armstrong figure.The final step as you would probably guess was shipping. We then grabbed handfulls of Stretch Armstrong Skins and threw them in no orginized fasion into a 3 foot by 2 foot cadboard box and shipped them out to the filling stations at another factory.I cannot remmeber exactly where they were shipped but as you know the filling process even today is beyond top secret and no one person has yet to devuldge in any great deatil what this filling process entailed or anything about the machines that were used.Well,there you have it,the Stretch Figure dipping process start to finish.
SAW: Wow! Well I just want to really thank you Kramer for all your time and thought you put into this interview.It really was very interesting and Im sure all my Stretchy friends will love it too.
Kramer: Well, actually, I really didnt put much thought into it because I practically do all these steps in my sleep! After 25 years its pretty hard to forget it all. Anyway King,I enjoyed it as much as you and your very welcome. Ill see what I can find out about obtaining some information on the filling process, and who knows, maybe we can do another interview in the future.........
The Stretch King: Well Stretchy's, I hope you enjoyed this rare look into the World of dipping.If you have any questions about it you can always contact the King! Keep on Stretchen!