The Metal Toy Soldiers of Wm. Hocker, Proprietor

Begun as a retreat from the frustrations of work in the real world in 1983, Wm Hocker Toy Soldiers is now able to celebrate 34 years of survival thanks to a passionate and loyal clientele, a skilled and understanding staff, occasional infusions of support both financial and otherwise from spouse and parents and a continually renewed supply of positive energy generated by the many congenial denizens of the toy soldier world. Two of these last have written a brief history of the company in form both more articulate and concise than I might do myself and with their kind permission it is reprinted here. It appeared in the Aug-Sept 1993 issue of the Old Toy Soldier journal.

Wm. Hocker Toy Soldiers
by Jo and Steve Sommers

Two Highland teams engaged in a tug of war. A kneeling elephant. Lord Cardigan spinning at the gallop. When we see 54mm figures like these, most of us have come to expect Bill Hocker's distinctive square logo on their bases.

Britains celebrates its 100th birthday this year, but this is also Bill Hocker's tenth anniversary. He started his business officially at our OTSN Show in 1983 but continued to work as an architect for two more years before going full time in mid-1985 and he's never had a regret. Toy soldier manufacturing gives him ultimate control of each project--free rein to give reality to his dreams.

In July, we visited Bill in his meticulously organized and well lighted studio area in California. One large room is the converted garage workshop itself while another in the adjacent main building serves as both a display room and office.

Although he did all his work alone between 1983 and 85, Bill knew he had to hire help to keep pace with his orders. Bill notes, "the first painter I hired in 1985 is still with me: May Seng Saechao who works with her fellow Mien tribespeople from the mountains of Laos: Liew Orn Saechao, Fey Seng Saechao, Kae Chiam Saechao, and Muang Teurn plus one Afghani worker, Zahira Nashir. The handcraft tradition in Laos has translated well into figure painting, and the staff now casts figures as well as painting them." Workers decide on their own schedules and are paid hourly wages, but labor costs still account for 60% of the price of Bill's final products. [The current staff pictured left-to-right above is Maung Saeliow, Kae Chiam Saechao, Bill Hocker, Sou Chio Saelee, Liew Orn Saechao.]

Bill says he once calculated that it takes 20 minutes work per figure from casting to the final red box tie-in. To preserve his sanity and keep the figures affordable, however, Bill never keeps track of his own sculpting and setup time in calculating profitability.

Although he began just randomly choosing British colonial figures to produce which he thought would be fun, within a short time Bill decided to pick a specific campaign each year and work within that theme. He started with the late Victorian era, researching and producing a variety of sets for each campaign, but soon expanded to include the entire Victorian period. His yearly color posters and catalog document the progression.

Bill's goal is to balance marketable products with those he simply wants to do. More and more, however, it is obvious that his real fascination is for the toy in toy soldiers. He almost sparkles when he says, "I love the animation of guns that fire and horses that charge so now I add some particularly toylike item to the line at least once a year." Lord Cardigan, the first animated toy, runs on a device reminiscent of, but far from identical to, Britain's equestrienne. It was followed by the Bengal Horse Artillery in action, an articulated pull toy, and the Sepoys to Shoot, reminiscent of Britains prewar Soldiers to Shoot. Then came the elephant with jointed, movable legs and the Regimental Gymnasts which link together to form pyramids. His Highland Games-- the most animated of all--are nearing release.

Bill solid casts his figures in silastic molds. He does spin cast wheels and railings that are difficult to cast using the other method, but spin casting causes some shrinkage so Bill prefers drop casting for the figures themselves. A single day of casting produces enough figures for two weeks of painting, but Bill has never sold raw castings, only painted figures. Bill intentionally emulates the feel of prewar Britains, right down to the interwar paint tones, but these are not recasts. He sculpts his masters, and considers the Britains likeness a tribute to their grand tradition.

Last year Bill switched to a lead free metal which is 96% tin and he finds the results are much better. "Most people use a lead alloy, but last year my painters were concerned about media hype on the dangers of lead and encouraged me to make the switch." The new metal produces figures which are 2/3rds the old weight, resulting in a lightness closer to the feel of the original Britains figures Bill emulates. He even hollows out the bellies of his horses to make them lighter and more toylike.

This is not mass production. In ten years he has produced a range of 116 sets; all are still in production. Bill's #3 Maxim Gun Detachment, which has sold more than any of his other sets, has now only reached 178 in sales. Only one other item he produced has topped 100. Most sets only reach the 60 to 70 range, and the least successful item may only reach 20 or so.

What does Bill Hocker collect? Well the center of his display room is a table of HO Marklin trains, a hobby that dates from his childhood. The back wall is lined with his Britains collection, which he began while in architecture school at Berkeley. He was enamored with Charles Eames' legendary Toccata for Toy Trains, a film which inspired Bill and a friend to begin toy soldier collecting for a movie they unfortunately never made.

Today Bill says his work is completely satisfying and he plans to stay with it as long as he has breath. He has never discontinued any sets, be he makes no promises about the future. Collectors take note. Bill made an interesting admission towards the end of our visit. ""I've been toying with the idea of finishing my attempt to document the Victorian ear with a grand finale, stopping production on all my current figures (after a 2 year notice period), and then moving on to an entirely new concept.

Here is another perspective on our operation in my own words (skillfully edited by David Smith to find the relevant facts amid the gibberish and cant). It gets more into the technical nitty-gritty of things and appeared in the Winter 1991/92 issue of the Toy Soldier Review (now extinct). There have been minor technological and programmatic changes since this writing but it's still quite close to our current situation.

by David A. Smith

From Your California Correspondent: An Interview with Toy Soldier Maker William Hocker

The name William Hocker is certainly no stranger to the pages of this publication. Since 1984, Bill Hocker has been producing some of the finest "new" toy soldiers in the world. During the spring of 1991, I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Hocker at his Berkeley, California, workshop.

TSR: How long have you been interested in collecting toy soldiers?

Hocker: When I was in college, in architecture school, I was very fascinated with an animated film Charles Eames had made in which he used his toy train collection. A classmate had Britains from his childhood, and we thought it would be fantastic to make a film like Charles Eames. This was 1966, and we started buying some toy soldiers from F.A.O. Schwartz, but we couldn't buy too many at the time because they were expensive ($5.00/box). Of course this was the last year Britains made metal toy soldiers and the stock evaporated from store shelves; even at that time there were legions of collectors. I really had a sense of loss, and the film never got made.

The soldiers were put on the shelf and remained there for 15 years, until I met someone who had a small collection. I thought to myself: "Gee, I have a collection somewhere in my closet." I went home and pulled them out and a kind of fascination was rekindled and I started scrounging out places to buy.

TSR: How did you get started in the business end of the hobby?

Hocker: I wanted to collect in large quantities, and by that time the prices were already astronomical by anybody's standard. I started buying (at the London auctions) lots of damaged and repainted figures. A large part of my early collection are things that I bought and restored. Getting into restoration involved the casting of arms, duplicating paint styles, working with solder to repair things. After learning these techniques I felt I could make some new toy soldiers to sell and compensate for what I spend on the old ones. So I made several sets, put an ad in a magazine and went to the OTSN show...and I was amazed that people started sending money. I worked in a room upstairs, grinding one (set) out at a time, happy as a clam. I would pin orders up on the window shades around the room. Pretty soon there were layers of orders, I couldn't keep track of when I was (supposed to) have orders ready...that's when I bought a computer. The first two years (84-86) I was working full time (as an architect), but finally realized that I could make a modest living at this. In 1987, I had the garage remodeled into a workshop. But I realized I could not continue (without help); my wife spotted a woman cleaning house next door whom she felt was really smart. The woman said that she'd never done anything like that before, but she would take it on. A neighbor next door also started working for me, and they instantly showed they could do it much better than I, whatever it was. (Mr. Hocker now employs four people.)

One of the best things about the business is that it is at a scale that one person can do. You can take it in very small steps and the initial cost of the materials is cheap. It is rather easy to get started. But then you get to a point where you do have to put in some big expenses, like boxes.

TSR: Your soldiers have a familiar look to them.

Hocker: Again, coming from a background of restoring Britains, my natural tendency was to have the new soldiers look like the old Britains, but not be Britains. I undertook subjects that Britains might have done, but didn't. From the very first the concept was "it's gotta look like something Britains would have made, with guns that fire, wheels that turn." But I didn't understand the implications concerning the things I would do later because of that attitude. Now I recognize the fact that toy soldiers, and they really should be toys and not try to be military miniatures in gloss paint. I try to make in each group of sets a piece that is a toy, and cannot be anything but. Like the building blocks, the Crimean War Lord Cardigan toy, and the Indian Mutiny pull-toy. This year there's a kneeling elephant, taken from a lithograph of the Abyssinian war.

TSR: How do you go about producing a figure?

Hocker: I (originally) started with a Britains figure (Bill currently uses his own solid cast figures), and lump on solder, then grind it down (with a Dremel tool) and shape it into whatever shape. (Bill Hocker uses a rubber stamp to "engrave" his trademark on auto gasket sealer placed on the bottom of the figure's stand.) Guns are turned on a lathe in brass or aluminum. The (finished) figure is embedded in plasticine and a dam is put around it, and the silicone rubber poured on top of it. A plaster backing is poured on top of that. The plasticine is then stripped off and the process is repeated. I then (have) a gravity fed silicon rubber mold (made out of Dow-Corning 3120 RTV). All of the things are gravity cast with the exception of some really hard, small things...wheels in particular. There some things that drop casting cannot achieve and wheels are one of them.

The mold is done and ready (to be used). Initially we would tie each of the molds when casting, but that technique was a little too tedious. Now we use this little device (a lazy susan with a plywood top and clamps attached to hold the mold while casting- the caster rotates the lazy susan to 'handle' the molds as she pours.) It has worked out pretty well.

In addition we have the spin caster. The problem with the spin caster is that there is always shrinkage. Most spin cast figures you see have a thin look to them; that kind of shrinkage doesn't occur in the drop cast such an extent.

While the spin caster is faster, the bottleneck in the process of making toy soldiers is painting; in one day we can drop cast enough figures for 3 people to paint in a couple of weeks. Castings then go through the cleaning process and the figures are dipped in primer (Dupont lead based auto primer). Cavalry figures need their arms attached. The arm is put over the arm pin and then the pin soldered into a little ball, leaving the arm loose. Then the ball is drilled and shaped with a drill press. This gives the figure a Britains-like socket.

Next everything goes to the paint table...where it spends most of its life! I like to use Testor's (paint). I like its quick drying and flowing capability, its opacity; the characteristics of this paint are really good. The one disadvantage I've been struggling with for the past year is the fact that it is too brittle. Most manufacturers use acrylic enamels that have an enormous elasticity. So far in those I've tested, maybe five or six manufacturers, I haven't been able to get the colors I want (the colors are not rich enough). I have a hard time duplicating the colors I have been using. Also, when they dry they have a much thinner skin to them., and the surface texture of our figures telegraphs through. There's always a certain amount of porosity in the metal. The primer takes care of some of it, but the acrylic enamels don't seem to fill in that porosity. So far I haven't found the right acrylic paint but I'll keep on looking.

TSR: How do you choose your colors?

Hocker: All of the colors are mixed except for black, gold and silver. I've tried to duplicate Britains colors by going back to my collection and examining the various colors used...and selecting a favorite shade, or something that represents the middle of the range (of shades). Again, the style represents the "between the wars" style with a "ruddier" flesh and mustache. We try to do other things that have the Britains look to them, including the transparent rifle brown.

TSR: I don't suppose that's a secret?

Hocker: I do in fact use acrylic enamel for that - because the acrylic is available in a translucent paint - mixed with a little bit of Testor's to give it the balance.

After painting they are tied into their box. These cards (inserts to tie soldier into the box) are ,are made with a Mylar surface; we stamp our - one at a time - the holes using a different template for each set. The card is put into place on a jig with fishing line running underneath (with weights attached to both strings), and then a hook is used to raise the string (through the holes) and tie each figure in with the counterweights keeping the tension uniform. After I made this jig I was very surprised to see a photo of the Britains factory using one just like this, with a woman using a crochet hook!

The labels are then put on - one at a time - then each set is given a number and signed. And that's the entire process. I currently handle both ends of the process, the research and development, sculpting and mold making end of it, and the shipping. The "in between" is all handled by the staff, and very, very well.

TSR: How do you decide which theme to produce?

Hocker: The first year I was in this it was "whatever I thought would be fun." And that was the balloon set and the first five sets (in the catalog). The next year I decided to be more organized, just doing things from the Northwest Frontier campaigns. And after that each year for the OTSN show I would pick a campaign and work with that theme. At first I was just thinking of the late Victorian period, so the next year it was the Boer War...that was the first year I made a concerted effort in doing research resulting in ten sets. Each year I kept tackling an area of the Victorian Empire, as the poster (and catalog) document.

I began realizing that maybe the constraint of the late Victorian era was a little bit arbitrary, and maybe I should set my limits as THE Victorian era, to do most of the major campaigns in which the Victorian was involved, and also to do other things, like bands, that didn't quite fit in that format (of doing campaigns). I saw doing both "themes" as a kind of method; for the OTSN show I would do campaigns and for the L.A. show I would do other aspects of the Victorian army.

TSR: Any advice for the beginner; someone just starting out?

Hocker: The advice is just to do it. Everything is cheap enough and the technologies are simple enough; there's nothing in between the person that wants to do it, doing it and even beginning to make some money at it.

TSR: It doesn't depend on whether you want to do it as a hobby or as a business?

Hocker: Both! Yes, I would say both, though I always instantly say "Why don't you think about doing it as a business." Because there are few enough making toy soldiers and the demand is big enough and the satisfaction is great enough to make a go of it. Not that you could make a great living out of it; even now I'm only making a pittance. But it's fun, and the fact that it can be a business, however modest, just makes it that much more enjoyable.

Haven't had enough yet? A third article with more of my pontification about the toy soldier world is presented in this interview by Alex Heminway done for the initial online publication in 1999 of the Fox Soldier Chronicle (also extinct).

A Conversation With William Hocker

This year William Hocker celebrates his 17th year as a manufacturer and purveyor of metal toy soldiers. Since his 1983 debut at the OTSN Show, he has consistently produced among the world's finest toy soldiers. He lives and works in California, where he is assisted by a talented staff of women from the Mien tribe of Laos.

Alex Heminway: There seems to be a growing interest in the American Revolution as evidenced by new lines of matte figures from King & Country and Conté (and of course looking beyond the hobby to Columbia Picture's imminent release of The Patriot). In recent years you have created a number of beautiful sets from the Revolution. To what do you attribute the broader population's resurgent interest in the birth of their nation? And what peaked your own interest in American themes after years of concentrating on the Victorian era?

William Hocker: To answer the last question first: Richard Walker, the great toy soldier tinderbox , connected at the time to a toy shop in Williamsburg, suggested a fife & drum band that might be carried by the store. Research led to John Mollo's book of Am Rev uniforms: it was a transforming experience. The variety and color of the uniforms, the historical significance, the dearth of things available, a desire to begin an American slant to the products of an American maker all came together. The fife & drum bands were a non-starter at the store, but the net result of the effort was our most successful and extensive range of goods. Why the American Revolution now? It's a great subject and the Civil War just might be at saturation levels. I don't, however, sense an increase in popular interest in the period, beyond the weekend bump that a movie might bring. (Al Pacino's "Revolution!" didn't even create a bump.) I would be pretty disappointed if a Hollywood flick had the same impact on our business that the Ken Burns Civil War documentary had, but you never know.

AH: During your 16 years as a maker of toy soldiers, how many sets have you produced? What was the first? Will you discontinue any of these?

WH: We are currently at set #267. The number of issues of any one set is rather small - I would say the average is around 30, with 80 being a successful seller, so we've probably sold no more than 9000 sets total. All sets may still be ordered - everything is made to order and it matters little whether we're working on an early or late set. As of this writing, 92 issues of our first set, Royal Engineers Balloon Section, have been shipped. There are some sets that are so painful to make that I would like to discontinue them, but it seems more sensible just to raise the price.

AH: How do you begin to think about new campaigns of interest? Are you a voracious reader of history? What new campaigns can your collectors look forward to seeing from you?

WH: I am an incompetent and impatient researcher. I try to learn just enough to get the appropriate sets done and not embarrass myself, seldom with complete success. For the first 12 years, the theme was a documentation of the Victorian Army, and a new campaign was chosen each year to add to the group. The American Revolution and Buffalo Bill have complicated that formula. From this point on I would like to maintain an American connection to the things that are done, but I'm not quite sure right now of the exact direction.

AH: What role if any does whimsy play in your designs? In particular I'm thinking of your extraordinary set 'The American Century' and also a very charming set of children marching in 'Types of the American Revolution'.

WH: Despite devoting my life to it, this is not an interest to take too seriously. New toy soldiers are no longer children's toys, but they exist because there is still a child in each of us longing to play. Some collectors cloak this desire in the adult realism and precision of "military miniatures", but our things are meant to appeal to a baser instinct. The toy-like "Britains" style adds an amount of whimsy that might be killed in a more realistic treatment, but each year I have also tried to produce unambiguous toys - building blocks, the spinning Lord Cardigan, rolling horse teams, pull-toy rowboats, articulated elephant, stacking gymnasts, bucking bronco, etc. - that more directly make the connection to childhood. I have allowed myself further relief from the serious business of the year's major theme with the creation of "Specialty Goods" which include commemorative or serendipitous subjects like The American Century, William Britain Sr. & Jr., Harry Phillips auctioneer, the little toy soldier maker, etc. The most charming sets are those containing children because suddenly the child within us is placed in the scale of the toy soldier world, and perhaps we see ourselves there on the shelf.

AH: For many years you have had a love affair with Britains. What is it about their figures that has fired the hearts of so many collectors? When and why did you begin collecting toy soldiers? What do you feel motivated you psychologically to collect them?

WH: A broken heart. Collecting most often revolves around childhood nostalgia. Old Britains were prized toys for several generations of children. The last of these is just now dying off; for 25 years that generation has supplied the passion behind the development of the new toy soldier world. My own generation - one behind - was interested in plastic and playsets, but in my college days Britians were still on the toy store shelves. They were already antique remnants of a previous era, 'collectibles' if you will, although I'm not certain the term had been coined. In college I was fascinated with an animated film Charles Eames had made using his antique toy train collection. A classmate had Britains from his childhood. We thought it would be fantastic to make a film like that. This was 1966, and I bought some sets from F.A.O. Schwartz. I couldn't buy too many: at $5 a box the cost was astronomical. It was the last year Britains sold hollow cast figures and the stock evaporated from store shelves. No longer able to collect the army of my dreams, I was heartbroken. The film didn't get made. The soldiers remained in a closet for 15 years. After life settled down, I pulled them out of the closet and the fascination was rekindled. I started scrounging out places to buy. A large part of the passion, as with any lost love, has come from having missed the opportunity the first time around.

AH: What led you from architecture to casting and painting your own figures? Was there a correlation between your two careers?

WH: Yes. I found my new career while desperately seeking relief from the real-world stresses of my old career. As a Britians collector, my interests tended toward quantity over quality, and I found myself buying lots of damaged and repainted Britains and restoring them back to their original glory. The techniques needed in these "restorations" (some might use another term) - soldering, sculpting, mold making, painting - were equally applicable to new figures. At the time the interest in new toy soldiers was just beginning to flower in the US (Jan and Frank Scroby had begun the movement a decade earlier in the UK), Malcolm Forbes was out of the closet and the last hollow-cast Britains generation was just reaching it's peak buying power. 5 sets were concocted for sale at the 1983 OTSN show, and the rest, as they say, is history.

AH: Do you use hollow or solid casting? What type of paint do you use on your figures?

WH: Hollow-casting, which requires metal molds and a fair amount of skilled casting technique, has gone the way of the typewriter. There are a few nostalgic souls out there doing it using old molds (and one, Bill Lango, using his own new molds!) but generally figures are cast in much less expensive rubber molds, a material not conducive to hollow-casting.

Our paints are regular hobby shop enamels that come in those little expensive bottles. Although I've tried many less expensive alternatives, none have proven as satisfactory.

There is a more complete technical description of our entire operation on our web site [above].

AH: Your staff is comprised almost entirely of people from the Mien tribe of Laos. How did you meet these very talented craftswomen?

WH: This is an amazing group of people, with an amazing story to tell. The Mien hill tribe farmers of Laos were forced into military support of the American "secret war" against the Vietnamese. They were left with no support when the Americans left South-East Asia, and, fearful of communist retaliation, fled to Thailand. They spent years in relocation camps before being sponsored by religious groups to come to the US, only to be resettled into the racial war zone of public housing projects. Despite coming from a pre-literate agricultural society, they learned how to read and write and drive, how to get jobs in an industrial society, how to cope with government bureaucracy and hostile urban neighborhoods, how to save money on minimal incomes, how to deal with the complexity of American life (which after a lifetime I still don't seem to be able to master) all while trying to raise the 4 or 5 kids typical of pre-industrial families. They are now US citizens, with their own homes, SUV's and American lifestyles, and those children are now in college, in one generation jumping over several steps of industrial evolution. It is a remarkable story of triumph over adversity.

The necessary skill and patience of hand craft are an inherent part of the Mien culture. That making toy soldiers was one of the few jobs in America that required such skills was a fortuitous coincidence. My first recruit was cleaning house next door before being mustered into the workshop. She then became the recruiting officer for the next person, and since, whenever a new person was needed, consensus of the work force would produce one. Since I am a lousy "human resource" manager, this has been a perfect solution.

AH: What in your mind is the current state of the hobby? Do you feel younger collectors are taking an interest in toy soldiers?

WH: The interest in "old" toy soldiers, things that really were childhood toys, are dependent on the change in demographics in the collectors. Collecting is basically a middle-aged interest. The 20-somethings are too mobile while the elderly have their collections and are looking toward divestiture. The childhood toys of that middle-aged group are the current hot collectibles; in my tenure we have seen the shift in interest from hollow/solid cast metals, compositions, and dimestores to plastic figures and playsets with G.I.Joe and other abominations now in the wings.

New toy soldiers have their origins in the nostalgic passion for older things, but their future direction is more complicated and has much to do with the emergence of a new "world" economy. Speaking only of 54mm metals, there are now more makers of this style than ever before. Through the early 90's they were only cottage industries (with Britains, Ltd. struggling to find its place in the collectors market) and a shortage of goods was the rule in the new toy soldier world. Collectors remained small in number, passionate but proportionate to the supply. Since the rise of Chinese factory production, the infusion of available stock and greater marketing muscle has certainly begun to increase the collector base. Also in the 90's, military miniatures (an interest that had been left to the do-it-yourself hobbyist) emerged as an affordable collectible thanks to the Russians. This influence has been felt in the style of the Chinese things. On top of this the Internet has had an enormous impact, as it has in every area, in exposing the world to toy soldiers. Although it is still a small niche in the world market for collectibles, I would have to say that the interest in new collectible toy soldiers is stronger than it has ever been.

For cottage industry producers like us, the blessings are mixed. There are more customers out there and through the Internet they are much easier to reach than ever before. However, there is a tendency in the information age toward mega-consolidation after a brief period of proliferation. Whether or not such a specialized niche business will follow the trends of the mass market world is an open question, but at this point it still seems that the increased interest in toy soldiers is a benefit to all involved.

Another more recent article, with many color photos of the sets, appeared in the May 2005 (Issue #84) of Toy Soldier & Model Figure Magazine.

Since 1983