Wrestling With Plastic: The Making of King Liger, The Wrestling Toy
I am a 33-year-old toy enthusiast, semi-professional sculptor, and lifelong wrestling fan. I also work a full-time day job, and am a family man. The following recounts my steps in becoming an independent toy maker, and how my passions influenced my work. There is a bit of backstory that leads up to King Liger being made, so please understand that this is not necessarily about wrestling, but more of the process of toy making on a part-time scale.
Part 1: The Beginning of an Obsession
I have always wanted to be a toy maker since as far back as I could remember. The only problem about wanting to make toys when I was growing up was that it wasn’t considered a realistic goal. I had to keep this as a side goal from junior-high up to college, while I prepared for the hopeful full-time occupation I would inevitably not get in a more practical field anyway. By the near end of my college career, I was gifted a big Godzilla toy from the 80s made by Imperial Toy Company that belonged to one of my friends trying to make space. Just for the fun of it, I decided to look up its information on the web, and what I found changed everything. Sure I found Godzilla toys on and off throughout my life in the American toy aisles, but somehow it had never occurred to me that there were more out there. I discovered Japanese toys made from Sofubi (soft vinyl), which predated mine. Not only that, there were sometimes dozens of variations in the plastic’s colors and paints used.
My then girlfriend/now wife, Frankie, bought me a book for the first birthday I shared with her by a company from San Francisco named Super7. The book featured beautiful pictures of vintage Sofubi kaiju toys, Japanese super hero figures (tokusatsu), and modern day sofubi toys made by artists that had worked with Super7. This made me realize that toy making could be something I could do as long as I put the proper work in. It flew in the face of what I had been told was a practical goal up until this point, but I am forever thankful for my wife being the one to say, “Go for it!”
Part 2: Research
So, truth-be-told, there was not much out there on the Internet or in books that discussed the nature of toy making in the mid 2000s. At this point, it had mostly been described in the way one waves a magic wand, and suddenly you had a toy made. I knew there was more to it than this, so I began digging. I scoured websites to find names of people who had succeeded already. I found artists like Tim Biskup, Joe Ledbetter, Gary Basemen, David Horvath, and Luke Rook. One of the artists who caught my eye was Mark Negata, the creator of Max Toy Company. Mark had been producing the type of characters that I wanted to make myself styled around characters like Ultraman and Godzilla. I found out that he curated a bi-yearly art show called “Toy Karma,” hosted at a gallery that doubled as a designer toy store called “Rotofugi.” Miraculously, this store was located in Chicago. Considering that everything up to this point involved people and places in states-if not worlds-over, this was practically in my backyard.
I quickly reached out to the owner, Kirby Kerr, about getting into the designer toy scene. From there on out, I would frequent the store, show him projects that I was working on, and pick his brain about where I could improve. Eventually he even let me sell my work there.
Our relationship led to me being introduced to Mark Negata at the next Toy Karma show, and I was given great advice on where to go from there. Mark then introduced me to the previously mentioned Luke Rook. Luke became my advisor on toy production through his company, Lulubell Toys. It seemed the gate was finally open for me, but the next part was when it got tricky.
Part 3: Character Creation/Sculpting
Ultimately, this was going to be done as a Kickstarter. I had attempted it once before and failed miserably with another toy I sculpted. Of course, that didn’t stop me from using the website again. I learned from where I went wrong before and went back to the drawing board. To succeed this time, I developed a hierarchy of needs to create a balanced product: design aesthetics, functionality, and price point.
For design aesthetic I looked back to what made me love toys in the first place: WRESTLING! I recalled spending many years sitting in front of a scrambled Pay-Per-View signal bleed of the royal rumble as a kid, acting out the event with my action figures as it unfolded. Even if they weren’t official wrestling products per-say, making wrestling shows with my action figures seemed like the most logical step to playing with them; it was simply universal. I had noticed that in the sofubi designer toy scene, professional wrestling was not covered as much. I saw this as an opportunity and began to look into my catalogue of original characters that I though best fit the bill. The previously shown “Twist Kid” character I sculpted was from a set of wrestling characters I created in the size of “M.U.S.C.L.E. Men” for a contest that I didn’t win. Among the set was a wrestler I called “King Liger.”
In a way, he was a combination of the things I loved in my youth. He was inspired by characters like Lion Maru, Tiger Mask, Kamen Rider, and I felt like he could easily fit into my all-time favorite game, “Saturday Night Slam Masters”.
For functionality, I worked on a proper sculpt of him for about a year and a half, keeping in mind principles of how he would be produced. I made him about five-and-half inches tall. Somehow this was a nearly universal size for action figures, ranging back from “He-Man” to even recent toy lines. The greatest challenge was how the figure would be molded. The reality of the matter was that this had quite a bit of science involved, IE making sure that there were no undercuts. This is where one part of the mold doesn’t have a clean line separating the other side of the mold, and the subject being cast won’t have a clear air channel to alleviate bubbles. One must allow for maximum venting for air bubbles not to be trapped to prevent malformation of your part. The main issue I had lay in the positioning of the arms. I initially had them set to his side bent up at the elbows as if he was ready to fight, but the bubbles were really bad.
I then put them in an “LJN Macho Man” pose, but still I faced undercut issues.
I later thought to just take the arms off and make them their own separate pieces, but then I would have faced the budget constraints of more tooling down the line. I wanted to make sure that this would be as affordable possible to consumers (that is where price point comes in). I finally settled on a simple-yet-universal pose with his arms raised up and slightly forward. I also made both hands fists for the sake of symmetry and aesthetics.
This allowed for an aesthetically pleasing look, a nod to smaller soft vinyl toys that came before him, and it promoted imaginative playability for anyone interested. You can check out the videos that I made showing off all the wrestling moves he could do in just that pose… except for the sharp-shooter… no wrestling toys can do that https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLhmGJv2QkZOQhIhS5ntkPEWfit7aTCohH).
Since I was going to do most of the work aside from what the factory would make, the price point at market would also be more practical and competitive for people to afford when buying designer toys. So always do as much as you can on your own. I then molded up a prototype in resin and was ready to start building my Kickstarter.
Part 4: The Trials of Kickstarter
Crowdfunding is by no means an easy thing to make successful, even if you are fully funded. I had noted what went wrong in my first campaign, and I realized I needed to be more up-front with what was going to be offered. I also needed to be as transparent as possible with the process of what had been done to make it happen. All the while this was happening, I was preparing for the real life challenge of becoming a father. My wife assured me the morning after our daughter was born that I was still going to make this toy project happen that year. Her confidence in me allowed me to keep going. I honestly got a lot of the campaign put together during the two weeks I took off of paternity leave. There were lots of nights sitting at this very computer illustrating, editing, and typing while a newborn was sleeping in my arm. Even with all the stresses that were involved, I felt that having my child there helped me through it. I am forever thankful for her presence then and for the rest of my life.
Prepping the Kickstarter took about half a year overall. I had produced a video, lined up fellow artists to help with some extra rewards, and most importantly, I tried to get as much as the final tooling finished as possible. After a month of constant posting on social media, word of mouth, great support from friends and family, #WrestlingMoveMonday shorts (BTW: Thank you again, Kefin and Jo, for letting me make more of those to promote this), and nail biting, I somehow had a fully funded Kickstarter!
If you’re curious, here is the original campaign: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/geoffmaxfield/the-lord-of-beasts-king-liger-the-action-figure
Part 5: The Real Work Began
Like I said: even if a Kickstarter is successful, there are major challenges that lay ahead for anyone trying to deliver on its goals. This next part spanned over almost three years, so I will give you the highlights.
The entire process for making King Liger is called “slush casting.” It starts with electroformed copper mold cavities attached to a steel frame. Liquid plastic (specifically plastisol) is poured into the mold cavities. The mold is then placed into a rotocasting machine that spins the mold on a centrifuge, pressing the plastisol against the inside of the mold surface and pulling out the air (similar effects can be used with a vacuum chamber if one doesn’t have a rotocasting machine on hand). Next the filled molds are placed in a hot chemical solution called “torque” (spelling may vary) that heats the mold up to 400 degrees fahrenheit. The heat conducted through the metal mold is enough to start “curing” the liquid plastisol, making it solid from the outside in. Since a hollow toy is the end goal, the curing times for this process are very quick (times will vary, but think minutes). The excess liquid plastisol is poured off for later casts, and the mold containing the cured plastisol is placed back in the heating bath briefly followed by a dip in a cool water bath. This brings the toy a to more hardened state, but is now cooled enough to be removed from the mold while still being pliable. Once removed you simply cut off the extra plastic, and your toy is ready to be assembled! I mentioned earlier that I was trying to make the final molds on my own. I documented quite a bit of the mold-making process through my Youtube channel in a series called “Making it in Sofubi.” You can see all of that here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLhmGJv2QkZOS4Qa0IB5GWRkW6De-Q-LPZ
I came up against my first roadblock when I found out later that even if I was able to successfully get my molds made, the chance of it being used by the Japanese factory that Lulubell Toys uses was uncertain. The mold would have to fit into their machines and heating baths based on their standards. My calculations were based off of rough estimations, and I needed exact numbers for this to work. To play it safe, I had to send off the original wax sculpt to Japan for the whole process, and I played the waiting game. The next, and scariest, road-block happened when the studio that I sent King Liger to caught fire. Everyone involved was okay, but the building faced severe damage and King Liger’s original sculpted model was among the works that were completely destroyed. Although I had not expected this to happen, I coincidentally did have a contingency plan. I had cast a resin copy of King Liger as the prototype that I had been using to show interested parties, as well as used for the #WrestlingMoveMonday videos. It just needed to be retouched and sent out to them. Once the dust settled from that terrible event, things got back on track. I tried to keep as involved as I could from the US, and I received frequent progress pics from the company’s owner and savvy business lady, Amy Osowski. By the New Years Eve 2018, the completed figures arrived on my doorstep. I may have waited 3 years to finish this project, but I waited a lifetime to take this picture that day:
As I said before, creating an action figure has been a dream goal of mine longer than any other I can think of. This experience taught me so much about what it takes to successfully pursue a dream that many laugh at. With as much rejection I had dealt with throughout my life so far, and knowing that I am not the only one in this boat, I offer a simple phrase: “Make your own fun.” This may not bring me a lot of money, but it does bring me happiness, even if there have been bumps in the road (and surely there will be more as I continue this dream). I face responsibilities just like everyone else, work a 40-hour week, family life, even returning to school for a secondary degree. I keep them all prioritized, and make sure that there is time for this. You can grow up to do anything. It won’t happen overnight, but it can happen if you put the work in needed to make it a reality in your timeframe. Anyone who has problem with that doesn’t really matter in your storyline, and quite frankly not worth your time. This is hopefully only the beginning for King Liger, and I hope to share more of his story with the world be it through new characters, comics, or cartoons as time goes on.
You can find me on Instagram to follow my projects:
Talk to me on Twitter here:
Past archives of my work are here:
You can even buy King Liger and other toys I made here: