Thursday, October 16, 2014

Plasticarve: "That Wax Maureen Used"

If you ever found the Love estate auctions on the Hagen-Renaker On-Line Museum site, chances are that a big question mark formed in your head, as if sculpted right out of "Plastic Carve". Several auction items were described as made of this material, correctly spelled "Plasticarve". This keyword alone has no English leads on Google, until this post, at least!

A very short summary of the pottery process:

First, Maureen sculpted rough models in modeling plastilina (oil-based, waxy clay that can't be kiln-fired). She'd make a waste mold on this original, since most manufacturers wanted a hard master for making their own molds. Her waste molds are sometimes called "ball molds", and have a rounded shape, compared to squared-off molds for production. 

I spy with my little eye... Maureen's fingerprint, right above .COM
This is the ball mold for one of the licensed Muscovy ducklings from Share The Love.

To cut weight, instead of pouring a solid matrix on each side, she flicked plaster on segments and gradually built a ball-shape around the model. The empty ball mold would be soaked in water, drained, and then hot Plasticarve was poured inside to make a new positive/figure. The Plasticarve had traits of both wax and clay, and even plaster (polishing potential). 

The Maureen Love Originals Foal, aka, the MFMG "Calendar Foal".
This rough version is the older MLO foal.

          Plasticarve   / MLO stoneware /    MFMG "Calendar Foal"

By resculpting and smoothing out the Plasticarve, she got a perfectly refined, hard master that could hold up its own weight, without a wire armature.

Now that you can see how useful this material is, I'm delighted to be able to share with you the story of Plasticarve, from the son of its licensed manufacturer. He contacted me after finding a mention of Plasticarve on this blog. 

KP (name withheld by request) wrote:

The inventor of Plasticarve was Pat Crouse. The story I know is that he developed it for use in the aircraft industry for fairing wings to fuselages in the ‘40s. 
The inventor, with some partners, made up a craft kit that consisted of an instruction booklet, some tools ( knife, pencil, carving tools) in a box. A pattern for a head of Lincoln was included. This was in the 1940’s. The story, as it came to me, is that Pat ( the inventor) had contracts with major department stores for Christmas, and then there was a railroad strike that prevented getting the product out, so the venture went bankrupt. My dad bought the residual goods, so we had hundreds of the knives and wax pencils stored for years and years….we would sell a couple a year. I used to have one of the booklets but I think it is lost now. 
My father bought the residual business from Pat (a family friend) and continued the sales to sculptors, ceramicists, and the like.  After he died I continued to make it, but it was a struggle since I had no permanent place to keep the equipment for mixing, etc. so I eventually gave it up.
I have looked for an alternative to Plasticarve on the market, as I guess there are still people that need the low temperature melting point and easy working with hand tools, but I have not found one.  Computer modeling and 3-D printing is all the fashion now but I guess there are still artists who want to work with their hand tools directly.
Great to read your story about the Plasticarve model from Maureen that turned out to be slipcast.  My dad used to make plasticarve and I guess he sold it to Maureen, either directly or via Westwood Ceramic.  I have the old account books so I can check if she was a direct customer or not.

I did the easy part, i.e. flipped through the business records from the 50s to the 70s.  Unless Maureen used a business name she was not a direct customer, so maybe she bought the Plasticarve from a Southern California ceramics supply, who used to carry it in their catalog.

KP was trying to balance his university studies with the laborious production of Plasticarve at a remote location from school. Eventually, he could not keep up with demand and was dropped as a vendor. Laguna Clay Company acquired the (name withheld) ceramics supply in the 1990's. The specific date jives with when I started hearing of, and later, seeing, Laurilyn Burson recycling some of Maureen's old Plasticarve models, melting them back down to become new positives for her to polish. 

KP wrote:
... in the old days we had a couple of steady customers from the toy industry.    The story was that they would sculpt the masters for toys in Plasticarve, then electroplate a copper mold directly on the Plasticarve master to replicate it in plastics. I remember meeting one of the artists at a trade show and he definitely did not want to talk about Plasticarve in public ( this was the 60’s) since he regarded it as one of his trade secrets.

I am not sure that anyone does that any more, since the 3-D machining is everywhere.  Although I work in the tech industry I do not use any of the 3D modeling software so I do not know how intuitive the user interfaces may be.

Indeed, I found a toy collectors forum talking about this use:

"Kenner used a number of different waxes over the years. I know they used a product called Plasticarve (sp?), which I believe is that pinkish stuff, but it varied. During the early ESB years they seem to have used a white-colored wax quite a bit, and it has a different consistency. Some sculptors even formulated their own blends. In general, it's nothing like the wax of a crayon or a candle; it's not nearly so oily or crumbily. I believe it has a lot of talcum powder in it, which gives it a kind of smooth, finely-textured feel, and probably helps it to take fine detail." 
- username ronsalvatore

Ron pretty much nails the description of Plasticarve, right there. I've seen it in gray, cream, and light pink. Sci-fi nerds take note: this came from a discussion about the original 1977 Star Wars action figure prototypes in Plasticarve. 

KP wrote:
The other use was for masters for plaster molds for slip casting, which I guess is what you are using it for.  I have never done that myself so I am curious how you create the parting lines to get the mold to pull cleanly from the master.

Plasticarve with plaster mold parting lines still visible.
The Maureen Love Originals Foal, aka, the MFMG "Calendar Foal".

The answer to that is, "very carefully". My first professional experience with Plasticarve was when I designed the Miniatures Guinea Pig for Hagen-Renaker, in late 1995. I recall that when I completed the brown plastilina model, Laurilyn made the waste mold. The mold is a sculpture, in itself!

Photo courtesy Joan Berkwitz.

Plasticarve original Guinea Pig submitted to Hagen-Renaker.
Ceramic produced Fall 1996 to Fall 1997.

I was so careful to not break off his wee feet, while cleaning off his mold lines and sharpening his detail in the nostrils, eyes, and fur texture. I love how easy it is to polish, fill, and shape, and yet it is strong.

KP wrote:
I found your website….we are from the same part of California, since I grew up in Orange County. I was interested to read that Maureen worked for a company in Monrovia, since my parents had many friends in that area. My dad was a potter in addition to working as an engineer ( mostly throwing on the wheel)  so I wonder if he knew the folks at the company Maureen worked for….I will ask my mom the next time I see her.
...Just so you are not disappointed, one difference that you will notice is that the color has changed. I used to add pigment to get the white color, but the pigment went out of production so now the color is  sort of grey. 

I'm not bothered by this, as I have seen Plasticarve in several shades- from white/cream to peach to this khaki. With Plasticarve becoming so scarce, and serious potters needing it for their own businesses, I had to quickly adapt to pottery production with no wax intermediary stage. I learned to polish the brown plastilina with condensation, since oils and spirits break down the clay. When I need a hard master to supply to clients nowadays, I sculpt directly in Aves Apoxie and have resins cast. I'd love to be able to go back to the old way of doing it, for my own pottery moldmaking, as plaster molding directly off of brown clay and Apoxie each have their drawbacks. At last, there is a chance to do that.

KP's Plasticarve from storage, ready to be shaped into something new!

KP has a limited supply of his father's formula on hand, and I am ordering some for my studio. He offers these tips for working with this wax:

Melting temp is 143 F….melt in a double boiler.
You can color by adding crayons.

Initial blocking out by carving can be eased by warming the whole piece in warm water.

You can weld or repair with a hot knife.  Put the two parts together and probe the joint deeply with the hot knife to knit the parts together.  Small defects can be filled by puddling some scraps on the surface

I am told you can paint by spraying on a very dry coat of shellac first.  I have never done this.

In the past, I used steel minarettes, an alcohol torch, and a modified soldering iron on a rheostat. Now, I own an electric wax pen (high tech version of the same thing), so that should be perfect for Plasticarve work. If anyone out there needs their historic Plasticarve models restored, I may be able to help.

A certain complex, kicking Somali donkey jenny will be my Plasticarve test subject for ceramic production. Watch for a future photo tutorial on the whole process, this winter!


KP (name withheld). Pers. comm. October 3rd-16th, 2014.

Ed Alcorn's Hagen-Renaker On-Line Museum:

Plasticarve Foal from the Margo Potheau Collection. Thank you, Margo and Danielle.

Ball mold courtesy Share The Love.

1 comment:

  1. Oh Id love ot get some! I love trying to scult wiht new waxes. I used to cast in bronze and would sculpt my originals in victroy brown wax. I still ahve a bunch but I use castaline now to do larger pieces or I have a small amount of wax clay made by a sculptor that sculpted monsters and that type of thing, I forget his name now but it's out of production so I'm glad I got what I have. I think Sarah Rose also bought a bunch from this guy too. So now I go back and forth with using epoxy and the wax clays but am always looking for something new I might like even more and this just sounds exactally like what I'd like. I would love to get a small bit to try out. where can I order some of this?
    You can email me at