Sunday, May 14, 2017

How I modified some cheap figures for the 1930s.


Having just completed interiors for three of my coaches (see How I made interiors for my coaches), I needed to find some suitable figures to fit inside them. Not many commercially available 1:19 scale figures are appropriate for the 1930s, which is the period when my railway is set. This period was transitional between the distinctive Edwardian and Roaring Twenties styles and the postwar 1950s and so the styles were not particularly noteworthy or memorable. It was just after the Great Depression and so the everyday clothes tended to be less flamboyant and fairly drab looking. Certainly, the local population in my rural Cheshire community would not have epitomised haute couture, though some of the gentry and visitors to my hypothetical spa hotel near Bulkeley might have had the wherewithal to dress more elegantly.

One of the difficulties I found in trying to discover what ordinary folk would have worn at this time is that most websites and books on costume focus on high fashion rather than the everyday. Eventually, I tracked down some old newsreel films from the 1930s  (eg Chertsey General Election Result and Tower Bridge Road Market), which showed a selection of the ordinary people in their normal 'street' clothes.

 From these still images and from reading various bits of information it seems that in the early 1930s, the majority of the population would have worn hats - from the humble cloth cap to the top hat worn by the well-heeled on formal occasions. Ladies' hats seem to be variations on the cloche hat of the 1920s, brimmed hats and the occasional elaborate straw hat. Hemlines of dresses tended to be mid-calf and trousers generally had turn-ups. Men seemed to wear suits, mostly with a waistcoat and workmen might discard their jackets but keep their waistcoats on - even when the sun was beating down. Among these everyday clothes could occasionally be seen a gent in plus fours or a lady with a fur trimmed overcoat.

The figures

Armed with this information, I ordered some cheap plastic figures from China. Although advertised as 1:25 scale, the sizes seemed to vary dependent on which pack was bought. Although my coaches are modelled to a scale of around 1:19, the space between the seats was tight and so I needed figures which were slightly under scale.

Some of the figures were already appropriate for the 1930s, particularly men in suits wearing hats .....

However, the vast majority were unsuitable - for example, female figures wearing leggings, .....

...... and some of the male figures who were definitely wearing clothes out of keeping with the 1930s.


Green Stuff

I ordered some lengths of Green Stuff from a well known online auction site. Green Stuff is a two-part epoxy putty ..............

.... which is sold in strips of various lengths. For adapting each figure, a section of the strip was removed (I found scissors ideal) .....

....... and then kneaded between thumb and finger .......

....... until it was a uniform green colour.

Green Stuff has a very fine texture which enables it to be moulded and even rolled to make very thin and fine features.

It is very sticky which means it adheres to even quite oily plastics but will also stick to fingers and to shaping tools while it is being manipulated.

I found that licking my fingers or dipping the tool into a pot of water stopped it from sticking to inappropriate places.

Making hats

By far the most apparent difference between modern and 1930s figures is the absence of hats in the former. In one of the stills from the 1931 election video, I counted only three bare-headed individuals (all men) out of just over one hundred people.

As the majority of male figures in the two batches I received from China were wearing suits, I felt that most of them would be wearing trilby hats, rather than flat caps. After some experimentation, I found the easiest way to make trilbies was firstly to apply a small pea-sized blob on Green Stuff on the figure's head .......

..... and then manipulate this between wetted finger and thumb until I had produced a brim. At this stage it didn't matter how big or regular the brim became as this could be trimmed back later.

Once I was happy with the brim, I applied another pea-sized blob of Green Stuff to the top of the figure's head and squidged it to make sure it adhered well to the existing brim.

I then used a rounded dentist's shaping tool, suitably wetted, to give the crown of the hat some shape.

Sometimes, I had to remove some of the Green Stuff if the crown was looking too large, and then use the shaping tool to make a depression in the crown.

Large-brimmed ladies' hats were made in much the some way, though these were left domed.

Cloche hats were made from just one blob, with the brim being pulled out to a far lesser extent.

Some of the female figures were given knitted woolly hats or berets .....

 and one was even given a Tam o' Shanta.

Skirts and dresses

As indicated above, many of the female figures seemed to be wearing leggings or tight trousers and so these needed to be covered up with skirts. I tried rolling Green Stuff into sheets and draping these over the figures' legs, but this method wasn't very satisfactory - it was difficult too mould folds in the fabric using this approach. Eventually, I found that pushing a large blob of Green Stuff on to the legs of the figures was more effective.

Once in place it could be shaped using the dentists' tools, giving the material pleats ......

and/or folds depending on the shape of the underyling figure's legs.

In a couple of cases, the figure's existing skirt was lengthened to take it to mid-calf length.

Trousers and jackets

Some of the more contemporary-looking male figures required a bit more attention. One chap who was wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt.......

...... was given long trousers (with turn-ups) ........

...... and a jacket. His baseball cap was turned into a trilby.

 When he was finished, I decided his upturned face, somewhat paunchy appearance and the fact he was clutching what could be interpreted as a bible, gave him the bearing of a clergyman - and so a dog collar was painted on and his suit painted black.

Another chap also needed a jacket to give him a more 1930s look.

As the sleeves of his shirt were already beautifully wrinkled, I used Green Stuff to give him a suitably tightly buttoned jacket to suit his somewhat corpulent appearance.

 To me he now looks like a farmer returning from a very successful day (and a wet lunch) at the market.

Case Studies

I ended-up modifying twenty seated figures - performing some surgery to re-position arms or legs and using a craft knife to give some of the more flamboyant-haired women a hair-cut.

The governess

 Straight-backed and modestly dressed, I felt this figure would be quite severe with her charges in the nursery.

I veered away from giving dresses patterned fabric and so opted for plain colours. 

 She started life wearing leggings and no hat.

The hat and long skirt were added to make her a lot more respectable.

Granny Smith

Clutching her handbag and gazing wistfully into the distance, she looks to me as if she was once in service, maybe as a cook, but is now retired and living on her own an a small pension.

I had to do very little to this figure which was very well modelled.She was given a woolly hat and had her skirt lengthened, adding a few extra folds to give it some body. Her clumpy looking sneakers were disguised with paint to give her more modest and 1930s looking footwear. Careful painting brought out her facial features which were otherwise a bit bland.

The Man from the Pru

This chap looks like a bit of a smooth operator. I imagine he's a travelling salesman who is no doubt visiting farms and large houses in the area, trying to persuade them to invest in one of his many insurance schemes.

I decided his coat owed its origins to the trench coat and so coloured it accordingly. 

He required very little modification other than a trilby hat and some turn-ups on his trousers.

Flighty Fanny

She's clearly in service as one of the maids at Peckforton Castle and has decided to go into Chester for some shopping on her day off.

I had several of these figures in the pack and so decided to change her posture, in addition to giving her a long skirt and a cloche hat.

Her raised arm was cut off and swivelled around.

 ..... to lie across her lap.

Her flowing locks were also trimmed back with a craft knife so her hat would fit more snugly. Her arm does look slightly awkward and so, if I was to do this again, I would take a little more time experimenting with other poses until I found one which was a little more natural looking. However, as she is going to be sitting inside a carriage, she will not come under close scrutiny.



I now have more than enough seated figures to populate the three coaches which have just had interiors added (see How I added some interiors to my coaches). Some of the figures which are more presentable slightly larger in scale, will be deployed elsewhere on the railway - awaiting trains on platform seating. This will leave more than sufficient for the seats in the coaches.

I am slowly perfecting my techniques for painting the figures. I think I am getting better at painting fabric and the faces on my figures look a lot less alarming than they used to. For more information on how I paint my figures see (How I paint my figures) - though this will now need some updating.


Simon Wood said...

Thanks Rik - this is a super useful post! I have some of these ebay figures myself, and was wondering how to disguise their modernity!

Tristan Case said...

Hey Rik, your work with the clay/putty on those figures looks terrific and very fitting for the 1930s. Once you painted them, I could have assumed you bought them, as the quality was stop notch.

Ge Rik said...

Thanks Tristan. I'm slowly getting better with my figure painting - it's a very shallow learning curve ......