Mark Frauenfelder at 1:19 pm Sun, Dec 5, 2010
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What is the secret powder?
How it's made - Color Crayons
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His latest book is Made by Hand: My Adventures in the World of DIY
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Here’s the Youtube version of the MR. Rogers Crayon video for those who are being blocked by PBS.
Sorry for the bad quality, I didn’t post it.
When it comes to analysis of crayon marketing and manufacturing, Daddytypes’ Labor Day 2009 manifesto, The Triumph of the Crayolatariat, should be required reading. It’s a truly extraordinary piece of work.
My girlfriend added stearic acid to improve rub-off, and I was less than enthused.
>why not give your nephew all sorts of different brands, and see which ones lose the tips first?
Cause I’m really really poor. *g*
Thank you for the amazing links to Sesame Street (which I immediately thought of when I started this video) and Mr. Rogers. So much has changed about how we make tv for kids.
Couple of things strike me here…
1) The King’s English apparently has completely different slang terms for male masturbation.
2) The narrator must hail from the same part of England as Robin Leach, with his quirky accent.
I’d just like to add that the camera work of the closeups was way machine sexy and the sort of thing I like to see from my internet.
The ‘secret powder’ in RoseArt crayons is powdered cellulose and starch.
In Crayola crayons, it’s mostly or entirely cellulose.
in really cheapo crayons, (and in “organic” crayons) it’s mostly or entirely starch.
The way to figure out whether there is starch in the crayon: Put some of the crayon in a small cup of warm spit. If it partially dissolves, it has starch in it (spit has enzymes targeted specifically at breaking down starch). The more it dissolves in an hour, the more starch it has.
Crayola’s pre-schooler crayons in the early 80′s had a high amount of starch in particular colours of the crayons.
(Yes, I was 6, sucked on a crayon, it started to dissolve, talked to my dad about it (because paraffin doesn’t dissolve in spit), and we did scientific experiments on crayons. And now thirty years on it pays off.)
The “secret powder” used to be talc; I’m not sure if this is still the case. Talc is a chemical relative of asbestos; asbestos is carcinogenic because it’s hollow- it pierces cells, defeating the purpose of having a selective membrane. That’s why it was mainly smokers who got lung cancer with asbestos: either one is bad, but the combination is particularly lethal.
CPSC found transitional talc in Crayola crayons, so my money is that the “secret” ingredient is nothing more than talc.
It makes sense because of talc’s slippery properties; it would make for a very nice, flowable product when applied to paper. A little more Googling shows they changed the formulation in 2000 after the CPSC’s squealing. It’s not like asbestos is going to come flying out of a wax matrix and embed itself in a kid’s lung, certainly not in concentrations high enough to cause cancer. It’s a huge leap; it’s not asbestos, it’s in wax, and it’s not airborne. The risk is about as close to zero as you can get.
youtube votes the secret powder is cocaine, maybe that’s why i stuck so many up my nose
Thats RoseArt…. not Crayola.
A “nice rub-off” is always appreciated.
You beat me to it. I always preferred Crayola for their superior rub offs.
Rose Art gives a happy ending?
And I wasted my whole entire childhood on Crayola.
I love it when the narrator states that the machines are completely automated, just as the worker drone is placing crayons in the hopper.
If I was given task to reverse engineer the secret powder, my candidate no. 1 would be starch.
I don’t believe the competitors do not know what the secret ingredient is. All it takes is to purchase one box of crayons and pay for use of mass chromatography machine.
I still remember the Sesame Street trip to the crayola factory with some fondness. i think i might’ve had it on video and watched it over and over, it’s so deep in my brain… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMU-wXsgyR8
@Softestmonster, you beat me to it. I loved that episode.
The label says “Rose Art” which is in fact an inferior crayon– color is thin and too waxy. Is the video mislabeled, the post, or does Crayola make RoseArt?
The label says “Rose Art” which is in fact an inferior crayon– color is thin and too waxy.
And they smelled funny. I don’t know what Rose Art put in their crayons, but I always refused to use them as a kid because of the smell. Blech, I can smell it now just thinking about it.
The Mr. Rogers version is even more mesmerizing.
god that was beautiful. i like how mr rogers plays soft piano music and adds sound effects and makes little childlike observations.
It’s interesting to compare the 40 year old Crayola factory with the newer RoseArt factory. A lot of the machine stuff is nearly identical, just slightly different implementations of the same idea. And only a few more steps are automated by RoseArt.
There’s a wonderful Mullard vacuum tube factory video out there that shows similar changes – they have older assembly lines with ladies doing lots of delicate hand work to make tubes, and a brand-new assembly line for ECC83s (12AX7s for Americans) that’s nearly completely automatic. But one gets the impression that the newer line might have a lot of downtime, since there are a lot of fiddly bits in tubes that require fiddling with.
I enjoyed that. But now I want to eat a crayon.
I always thought it was Mr. Rogers who went to the Crayola factory. Hmm. If I had any desire or curiousity at all I’d research that. Unfortunately, this bit of typing has done me in for the day. So there.
Does anybody ever uses that “white” crayon?
Re: using the white crayon:
1) Choose colored paper, draw with white crayon.
2) Use white crayon for highlight in multicolored compositions on colored paper.
3) Draw on white paper with white crayon. Apply watercolor wash as desired over white crayon.
I just want to state that these are NOT Crayola Crayons. If anyone actually paid attention to the video, they were RoseArt and we all know that RoseArt doesn’t compare to Crayola.
These are very obviously not Crayola crayons. The giveaway is all the labels saying “Rose Art,” along with the T-shirts on the workers saying the same thing. And also the pixels.
Pusher robots now protect crayons, I can relax around the stairs again.
I don’t think anyone here has mentioned yet that these are “Rose Art” crayons NOT Crayola. I just thought I’d tell you.
Thanks to those that posted the Sesame Street and Mr Rogers viddy links! Way cool.
Rose Art crayons are made by cold robots; Crayolas are made by happy grandparents.
Mr. Rogers uses an in-house foley artist, who apparently uses only a trapset.
Why does anyone need Valium, when there are Mr Rogers videos on the web?
The piano was played live (by Johnny Costa), so I imagine the drums were too.
Has anyone else noticed that the Sesame Street and Misterogers clips are not only filmed at the same factory (the Binney & Smith factory in Easton, PA I presume) but they feature the same friendly grandparent types? Look at the guy who pours the bucket of hot wax! Same dude I swear.
I suspect that what we’re seeing here is the result of 30 years’ worth of automation in the crayon factories of the world. Crayolas are probably made by cold (but very cool-looking) robots now, too.
I did notice that the modern Hopper Ladies didn’t bother to smile for the camera like their 1970s counterparts did.
Here’s an interview on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency with someone who worked in a crayon pigment factory.
It’s been covered obviously, but in response to the question “Who knew that the making of colored crayons could be so beautiful?” – the answer is: everyone else, because we’ve all seen the Sesame Street video. The cinematography and music in that is epic, and classic :)
I remember there being a video about how crayons are made on Mr. Rogers in the late 70s/early 80s. It was always one of my favorites. Every time Mr. McFeely brought a tape to watch on Picture Picture, I hoped it would be the crayon one.
I just dropped a few of my son’s crayons into the baseboard heater and turned up the thermostat â€¦ takes me back to Grade 2.
A number of people have weighed in on it already, but my mom teaches Kindergarten and was quick to point out after seeing the video that Rose Art crayons are pretty lame. The tips tend to break much too soon, and they do not color nearly as well as Crayolas either, in addition to the colors not being as “true.”
Ah, but the Waldorf schools use special German crayons with extremely bright pigments and 100% beeswax (at least for the wax component. There may be stearic acid or talc or something in there, too). Anyone wondering what a crayon for grownups is like should give those a test. One example are here (and Waldorfers use special colors even, OOH!) http://amzn.to/ebOalI
and I bet all the ones made by Caran d’Ache count as good grown up examples, too!!
I’m old enough to remember the “flesh” color crayon. It was later renamed “peach”
It was sort of the same light beige color that “flesh” colored bandaides were made of.
Being a darker-skinned child, and a coloring and drawing enthusiast, I used to create my own flesh color in my coloring books and the people I drew by combining peach with brown, and sometimes some yellow.
I remember that video with Mr. Rogers and the Crayola factory. When I was a kid, I had sort of a fncked up childhood and wasn’t allowed to watch Mr. Rogers. My parents thought he was stupid, so it didn’t matter if I liked him or not. But I remember seeing that segment on crayons once. All of Fred Rogers’ work had that laid-back, calm feel to them, but the Crayola segment is one I’ll probably remember above all the others.
I wanna see the human sacrifices they make to create the “Flesh Coloured” crayons!
The best part about the Sesame St. video (posted in the comments) is that all the humans do is pick things up and move them. Even as a kid seeing that in the early 80′s, I thought that seemed like an excellent job for a conveyor belt. But I guess I didn’t understand labor programs, union rules, etc. back then.
ROSEART?! What the fuck?
I may be wrong, but I believe the large country located between the Canada and Mexico is called “America”, not “Americar”.
It’s “Americar” if you’re a Kennedy.
Why oh why is there not an actual brand of automobile named “The Americar”?
The American Americar…
But wait: didn’t Rambler used to make the “American”?
Of course they did…a friend used to have a badass ’64 or ’66 American convertible…
Still…I can just see the TV ad…”The Americar!”
Well…”badass” ain’t quite the right word….more like “cool” or “slick”…after all, that car my buddy had was a 1960s automobile – but it wasn’t a “muscle” car, like some badass 1970s Mustang or Charger.
I’m from Germany, and my childhood mostly took place in the not-quite-so-globalised 1980, so I grew up with German wax crayons. At some (fairly late) point of my childhood, though, I was given a box of Crayola crayons by someone (possibly by my dad, after a business trip?) That must have been in the mid to late eighties, I think. I was fascinated by the many different colours – German wax crayons, no matter what brand, rarely came in more than six to eight colours. However, when I tried them out I was disappointed: they were much harder than the crayons I was used to, thus producing much less intense results on paper.
What I’m curious about is, can anyone here confirm that difference? And are Crayola crayons still that hard, or have they changed their ‘recipe’ since then, maybe?
Actually, my curiosity isn’t quite so random: I have a nephew who’s getting into the right age for crayons now; right now, he hasn’t got any, but I’ve been thinking about getting him some. I need to start learning about the brands available these days… :D
Judging from your description and the Stockmar site, I think that what you’re calling a “crayon” we call “pastels” over here. You can buy them, but usually in art supply stores and they aren’t commonly marketed to kids.
And the daughter of an artist, I have to agree with you:
Pastels > Crayons
Hmpf – not sure about how soft your Stockmar’s were, having never used them, but i know i always struggled to get vibrant colors out of Crayola as a kid… the hardness was something i came to appreciate as i got older, however, and learned to blend, shade, layer the colors, etc. still use them from time to time as an adult, even.
Growing up my grandmother worked in the Crayola Plant, so i rarely used anything else – but there’s a reason most people have been so quick to point out the video here’s not on Crayola.
why not give your nephew all sorts of different brands, and see which ones lose the tips first?
Addendum: these were the wax crayons of my childhood: http://www.stockmar.de/index.php?ccPath=21_25&products_id=3191
Thanks for posting this. I’m going to try to buy some of these. I think the difference between American crayolas and some European brands (I have a pack I bought at Harrod’s) is that some manufacturers remember that crayons were originally invented for use by “serious professional artists”, and maintain a quality product intended for that use. In the U.S., however, wax-bound crayons have always been considered strictly for use (and consumption) by young children, are manufactured cheaply, and you generally get an inferior product.
According to the narrator the factory labels less crayons per hour than it makes.
Wouldn’t that cause serious storage problems?
I would assume they have more than one labeling machine to make up the difference in production.
I couldn’t help to think that all those kids were going to be disapointed by all those boxes of those crappy RoseArt crayons.
That’s why i always used markers and colored pencils.
I already knew this, growing up in the Lehigh Valley where every single elementary schooler gets to go on a field trip to the Crayola Factory.
Good memories, but I think my childhood tour of JustBorn candy factory (another Northampton County staple) will remain my best factory tour experience haha so far.
Candy > Crayola > pre-historic drawing tools > Roseart
Roseart ain’t got nothing on Crayola. Their products suck, even a 4 year old knows that!!!
I remember seeing this video or something almost exactly like it when I was young on Public Television and thinking it was the greatest thing ever. Ahhhh sweet nostalgia!
Did the narrator really say “synthetic chemical”?
@Anon: Hmm, dunno. I don’t know any artists who work in wax crayon, really. And my own main experience of using wax crayons was from kindergarten through primary school, too. In fact, we had to get a pack of wax crayons for school, in first grade; it was obligatory. And we used them quite a lot in primary school art class! :-)
I think it’s probably more of a difference in the idea of how wax crayons should be used, and what they should be used for. Brother Ody’s reply to my first comment indicates that Crayola crayons are used much like I would use coloured pencils, allowing shading, mixing etc. Whereas the kind of wax crayons I’m familiar with from my own childhood were all about thick, vibrant colours. If you layered them, with the darkest colour on top, you could achieve cool rainbow effects by scratching the top layer with some sharp or pointed implement. Another fun thing to do was to cover a piece of paper in shavings from a wax crayon, then fold it and iron it with a hot iron, so the wax would melt. I found these examples online:
Hm. When I use crayons, they seem to snap really, really easily; yet, in the video, they’re being tossed around, quite hard.
What magical process turns them into brittle sticks of colour between the factory and my piece of paper?
@Maggie: Nope, I swear, those are wax crayons. (I know the difference, being a bit of an artist myself – though I haven’t done any drawing in ages, and never could handle pastels. I was more of a pencils and watercolour person; pastels were much too messy and imprecise for my taste. Nowadays, though, my art is either digital, or metal. ;-))
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