How to Get a Figurine Produced in China and Not Lose Your Shirt
Jared Zichek decided to make his own, and says you can, too.
This is The Original Golden Age Black Terror vs. Killer Robot, a miniature based on an old comic cover from the late 1940s. This article will describe how I got this hand painted, limited edition resin statuette produced in China and how you can do the same with your own figures.
Last year I started Goldenagefigurines.com to produce a figurine of Fletcher Hanks's Stardust the Super Wizard, a cult comics character featured in Paul Karasik's excellent I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!, published by Fantagraphics. I was an average guy with a love of mid-twentieth century comics and no prior experience in producing collectibles; I have been learning the business as I go along and I'm now on my third figurine with a masochistic desire to produce more. This article is a cautionary tale for other artists and entrepreneurs bold and foolish enough to follow a similar path.
What Should I Make?
The collectibles market is very crowded and competitive, so it is important to find a niche that is underserved. Like many industries, it took a hit during the 2008 financial crisis and has never fully recovered, at least at the lower end; consequently, there are a lot of nice collectibles out there chasing a diminished number of dollars. I think it takes blind optimism, misplaced confidence, and the willingness to risk at least five grand to dip your toe in this market; prepare to commit a lot more if you want to make a serious go of it. You can raise money by running a crowdfunding campaign, saving money from your miserable day job, shaking down your rich uncle, participating in risky medical experiments, etc. For crowdfunding, I suggest carefully examining my original Kickstarter campaign and doing everything opposite of what I did.
I chose the Golden Age of Comics as a niche because few other companies were doing much with it despite its small but devoted following. Like any pop cultural product, there is a lot of dross in the old comics hosted on such sites as DigitalComicMuseum.com; however, there are also a few weird gems that may deserve commemoration in plastic. Another important point is that public domain characters from this period require no expensive licensing to produce; for your first figure, you probably want something that won't bankrupt you if you misjudge the market and produce a flop. That being said, you will probably sell a lot more if you do buy a license and produce collectibles based on something more widely known, such as a movie, TV series or video game. It really depends on your appetite for risk and willingness to set fire to bales of money.
For my latest piece, I knew I wanted to produce a figurine of The Black Terror, whose modest popularity is primarily due to his eye-catching costume, which is generally more exciting than the stories he appeared in. (He does have the distinction of having been inked by a young Frank Frazetta, however). I also wanted to base the sculpt on one of his more dynamic covers, so I presented my customers with a variety of options selected from a cover gallery on the wonderful Grand Comics Database. The winner was the ironically titled Exciting Comics No. 45 published in March 1946 by Standard Publications, drawn by the great Alex Schomburg, a legendary cover artist of the period:
An alternative to existing properties is a character of your own design, i.e., a designer toy. These are typically done in vinyl but are also produced in resin, especially if you are making less than 1,000 pieces. If you have cultivated social media and developed a following, you can ask your fans to fill out a survey to gauge the level of interest in a possible figure; it's probably best if you give them a choice of 4-5 candidates, as your favorite character often doesn't match that of your audience. (At least mine doesn't - for me, the more esoteric and obscure the character, the better). At this point, some basic color renderings of what your have in mind is sufficient. You can create a survey with many different tools, such as SurveyMonkey, Google Forms, or PollDaddy, among others. Leave it up for at least a month and perhaps offer an incentive in the form of a discount code to those who bother to complete the survey. It is pretty easy to manipulate online surveys, so you should take the results with a grain of salt; for me, they've been relatively accurate, though I generally add 25% to the results for those who are not on my mailing list and are late to discover the figure.
If you have at least 150 potential customers (120 survey participants + 30 possible future customers), you can proceed with a figure, as there are at least a few good factories in China willing to produce numbers this low. However, be aware that you will be spreading the prototype and molding costs over very few units, resulting in a high per unit cost. You will almost certainly have to sell these direct, as your margins will not be sufficient to provide the 50-60% discount demanded by a distributor.
Digital Sculpting and Prototyping
I design my figures digitally using an old version of Softimage XSI (soon to be defunct) and Sculptris, a free sculpting app. I've been sculpting for about 2 years and it is the one aspect of the process I enjoy the most. I find digital sculpting to be much more forgiving than traditional sculpting with clay or wax, as you always have the undo button and it is easier to maintain symmetry. It is also simpler to experiment with various poses and recover an earlier version of the sculpt when things go awry. I gather a lot of reference images of the character from various comics and sculpt straight away without any preliminary sketches. A sculpting tutorial is beyond the scope of this article, but you can find many useful instructional videos on Youtube, the Sculptris forum, etc. by people far more talented than I.
Once you've achieved something that looks reasonably good, show it to fellow artists, friends, family, etc. for feedback. It's always helpful to have fresh eyes look at your work and point out its indisputable mediocrity, reminding you that you would be better off cleaning out septic tanks for a living. You will have to repeatedly revise problematic areas, sometimes even the entire sculpt, before you get it to the point where you can't stand working on it anymore; then you know it's time to have it 3D printed. If you are printing it at a small scale, don't bother with excessive fine detail (like skin pores, for instance) that won't show up on the print. You may also have to exaggerate things like chainmail, rivets, buttons, etc. for them to show up on the print. Exaggerate the thickness of long and thin objects like swords so they are robust enough to survive production and shipment. Get a draft print done through Shapeways using their Frosted Ultra Detail (FUD) material to gauge how close you are to having something production-worthy; you will have to hollow it out beforehand though to keep the cost reasonable. A wall thickness of .6mm has been sufficient for me.
The next step is to get a high quality 3D print done to serve as the master for the molds; one of the best companies for this is Ownage.com; they are not cheap, but they produce some of the best prints I've ever seen, as evidenced by this thread on ZBrushCentral. Unlike most other service bureaus, their prints are cleaned up and finished to the point that they are ready for casting; few other service bureaus deliver this level of quality for the price. You also don't have to hollow out your digital model or break it down into subassemblies; just hand it off and they do all the hard work for you. It usually takes them about 4 weeks to produce a small 3D print. Since they are based in Hong Kong, they can also quickly ship your finished print to the factory in mainland China with minimal chance of loss. Other high quality rapid prototyping companies to consider are Moddler, PDModels, and VisionProto, among others.
If you are on a budget, you can use the aforementioned FUD material from Shapeways to create a master, though it can take a lot of time and effort to produce something production-worthy. The main drawback of FUD is the rough surface of areas that intersect with the wax material laid down by the machine to support overhangs; sanding and polishing this out without destroying important detail is a challenge. A way to mitigate this is to slice your figures up into small subassemblies with the detail side facing up; attach these to a sprue made up of 1mm wires. Make sure that both the length and width of the resulting "kit" is greater than the height; this way you have a greater chance of it being printed in the correct orientation, which you otherwise have no control over.
It usually takes 2 weeks for Shapeways to print and deliver your order, assuming it isn't rejected due to printability issues. I find their design rules to be very anal retentive and usually check the Print it Anyway option to speed things up. Upon receipt of your order, you will need to clean the parts of their oily and waxy residue; I recommend running them through a cheap ultrasonic cleaner filled with Bestine for 15 minutes. Bestine is highly flammable, so don't have a lit cigarette dangling out of your mouth as you lean over to watch the ultrasonic cleaner make cute little bubbles. Once that is done and the parts have dried, you will need to sand the parts with successively finer grades of wet and dry sandpaper; I use it wet to keep the resin dust down, as it is bad for your lungs. For the roughest areas, a fiberglass scratch brush is quite useful for removing the worst crud. Also useful is a Flex-i-File, plastic sanding needles, Novus Plastic Polish, and a rotary tool chucked with a buffing ball brush run at low speed. Once the parts are cleaned up, your can assemble them with superglue; acetone can be used to remove it if you have an accident. Needless to say, you will need to work in a well ventilated-area to avoid brain damage from all the acetone and Bestine fumes in the air; if you don't believe me, ask my walnut-sized brain tumor.
Once everything is together, spray it with Tamiya Fine Surface Primer, which is about the best there is for miniatures like this. You'll probably discover more problematic areas and have to sand, polish and re-prime it repeatedly before it looks good enough for mass production; at that point it is ready to be shipped to the factory. I found shipping it to China with tracking and insurance to be ridiculously expensive, so I gambled and shipped my latest piece USPS International First Class for $18 and crossed my fingers that it would make it there intact. It did, though I don't recommend others doing it this way.
Traditional Sculpting/Hiring Someone Else To Do It
Of course, you can also go analog and sculpt the prototype using wax, clay, sculpey, etc. My only advice is to be sure you make a resin casting of your original and send that to the factory to make the molds; you don't want to lose your one and only original in the mail, which can easily happen thanks to the confusing system of address formatting in mainland China. A terrific book for traditional sculptors (and the techniques of producing action figures and collectible statues generally) is Pop Sculpture by Tim Bruckner et al.; I really can't recommend it highly enough. Mr. Bruckner is one of the best sculptors in the industry and if you ever develop 1/10 of his ability, count yourself lucky.
If you aren't a sculptor, then you will need to commission one to create the master. You can hire one through a site like eLance.com or have your factory in China create one for you, as many of them also offer sculpting/prototyping services. If you can draw, you should provide a character model sheet and other references to the help the sculptor achieve the look you want. I think there is something to be said for going this route, as you are less likely to take things personally if a product isn't well received by the marketplace; you can just blame the other guy.
Preparing a Production Guide
You will need to prepare a production guide document to solicit quotes and describe exactly what sort of product you want. Use clear, simple English and include photos/renders of your sculpt, what you want it made of, the number you want, what sort of packaging you would like, how you want it painted, when you want it delivered by, etc. These statues are typically made of polystone or polyurethane (PU) resin; the former is resin mixed with limestone dust and is less expensive than the latter. It has a nice porcelain quality but is more brittle than PU, which can be bad if your sculpt has a lot of delicate features. The Original Golden Age Black Terror vs. Killer Robot was made of PU due to the dynamic pose of the figures and potential for breakage in transit.
For the painting guide, I use renders of the digital sculpt with the colors usually indicated in the Pantone Solid Coated system, as shown in the excerpt below:
For figures produced in quantities below 200, my factory uses soft, hand-cut black foam to protect them in the box. You can also use a thermoform plastic tray, though it offers less protection than the foam. A generic white box with a color-printed sleeve is used for reasons of economy. If you are producing 300 or more figures, then you can start looking at a custom full-color box and molded styrofoam interior, which offers the best protection. Neither is inexpensive, however. You will need to provide artwork for the sleeve/box or pay someone else to create it; include a UPC bar code (I bought mine here) and some very important verbiage: "FOR AGES 14 AND UP" and "THIS IS A WORK OF ART, NOT A TOY." If you are producing something actually for children (not middle-aged men who like antique children's entertainment), then you must have your product tested for compliance with U.S. toy safety standards by a CPSC-accepted laboratory. Budget accordingly.
Finding a Factory
The safest route is going through a trading company; reputable ones I'm aware of are Lucky Group International Ltd. and Point East Ltd., which act as middlemen between you and the factories. You will not be scammed, though they will pressure you to order a minimum of 500 pieces; you will also pay more than dealing directly with a factory. To cut out the middleman, go to Alibaba.com and search for "resin character statue" or the like and start contacting companies which look promising; I don't deal with anyone that hasn't been a Gold Member for at least three years due to the many incidents of fraud that have occurred on the site. I email them my production guide and wait for a few days to receive all the quotes; several will not respond if you are not ordering at least 500 pieces. The quotes you receive will be all over the map, though you shouldn't necessarily pick the cheapest one without first doing a lot of online research. Be advised that the quotes never include shipping, which is a substantial additional expense to consider. My last air freight shipment of 175 figurines cost me about $3 per unit, each one weighing 5.6 oz. and taking up 117 cubic inches. Granted, I was probably ripped off on this one, but international shipping is just bloody expensive. If you have 500+ units to ship, or a product that is heavy, then you will want to find a freight forwarder to ship it by sea, which is an article in its own right.
Concerning the working conditions of the factories, you can check their Industrial Certification pages on Alibaba to see if they have been properly licensed and inspected. However, there is a lot of official corruption in China and you will not know if it is in fact a sweatshop or laogai unless you fly over and check it out for yourself; even then you may be shown a facility that isn't the actual factory, as they may be subcontracting work out to other firms. You may actually be dealing with a trading company and not even know it; nothing is as it appears in China. If you find this issue deeply troubling, then develop a product you can make domestically for which consumers are willing to pay a premium. It's hard to do though when everyone has become accustomed to "Made in China" prices.
The factories will always give you a rosy estimate of when they can complete production of your figure; in my experience, you should always double their estimate, as I've yet to work with a factory that has actually met their deadline. Once you have narrowed your search down and selected a winner, you will want to order a sample from them before committing a lot of money up front; it usually costs a few hundred dollars. For the Stardust figurine, I had Ownage ship the 3D printed master to the factory, which then made a mold and casting from it. This was then painted according to the production guide I provided them. If working with a factory for the first time, always have them ship the sample to you for physical inspection; photos are not sufficient to gauge the quality of the figure. If the sample is mediocre, have them return the original 3D print and find a different factory. However, the sample will usually be fantastic, as they will go all out on it to impress you and secure your business. You have to cross your fingers and hope the production run is equally impressive; the current factory I'm working with hasn't let me down in this respect. I have a slight tremor in my hands but I couldn't achieve the delicate paintwork these artisans do even if I was 100% healthy.
Once you have reviewed the sample and indicated the changes (if any) that need to be made, you will then need to swallow hard and send them a big chunk of money to initiate production, usually 50% of the agreed upon price. They prefer a bank wire transfer, but I find PayPal to be cheaper and easier. The first time I did this, I felt like a sucker who had just tossed a lot of hard-earned cash into the wind, despite have received third party confirmation that the factory was legitimate. This feeling didn't dissipate until I started getting progress photos about 10 days later. If you have taken pre-orders from customers, you will want to forward these photos on to them, as they can become nervous if there is any sort of delay, or even if you are on schedule. This is why I always recommend doubling the delivery estimate the factory gives you to provide yourself with a little leeway.
I do all of my communication with the factory in the evenings by email or online chat; they usually have a customer liaison who can communicate in English reasonably well, though misunderstandings inevitably occur. On Alibaba, these customer service representatives are often depicted as attractive young ladies in knockoff Hello Kitty clothes with fake Western names like Amy or Jennifer; in fact, they almost certainly are dudes who look like this guy, though maybe with a shirt. Always be very polite with them, especially if you have found a good factory that does high quality work at a reasonable price. If you offend them, it's likely they will finish the job for you but never return your emails when you return to request a quote for a new project.
Once the job is done, you will have to pay the remaining 50% + shipping costs, another big financial punch to the stomach. It usually takes about 10 days for the shipment to reach California from China; one of my shipments went from Shenzen to Japan, Japan to Alaska, Alaska to Kentucky(!), then Kentucky to San Diego. In Kentucky, it was inspected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which did their usual fine job of manhandling and damaging the merchandise with their giant oven mitt hands and sausage fingers. You can tell they've inspected a box by the special tape they use to reseal it and the random resin debris rattling around inside. You can theoretically file a claim to get compensated for damages, but your time is probably better spent salvaging what you can and writing off the rest.
You will eventually receive a stack of big boxes on your doorstep accompanied by curious looks from your neighbors. You would think opening these up would be like Christmas, but I approach it with a sense of dread. I hold my breath and carefully open each packaged figurine with my heart in my throat, bracing myself for any damage that has occurred during the epic intercontinental journey from China to my doorstep. The figurine boxes packed at the corners of the shipping boxes are often badly dented, but the factory usually includes extra boxes and sleeves as replacements. Sometimes the figures have minor damage that can be repaired and sold at a steep discount; other times they are beyond saving.
Once you've got your inventory inspected and sorted, you then have to start fulfilling customer pre-orders. Depending on how many you have, it can easily take a solid week to get them all shipped out. I try to package the figurines as carefully as I can, with plenty of styrofoam dunnage and quality shipping boxes; despite this, a few more will probably end up getting damaged in transit, especially if shipping overseas. You either have to provide a replacement if it's serious or a discount if it's minor and can be fixed on their end. This, I think, gives me more headaches than anything else. You will probably need to price your merchandise to account for an overall attrition rate of at least 5-10% when selling resin statues, and even that might be too optimistic.
If you've produced 500 or more of a figure you may be able sell them through a distributor like DKE Toys, Diamond, or the like. If you can't get a distributor but have a high sales volume, then consider an online order fulfillment service like Shipwire, Webgistix, Fulfillment by Amazon, etc. Boxing and shipping is a drag and once you've reached a high enough sales threshold you will be happy to pay someone else to do it.
Marketing and Selling Your Merchandise Online
Countless books and articles have been written about this so I will just make a few comments based on my personal experience. For a storefront, I like using the Storenvy platform because it is well designed and charges no monthly fee for the basic version. You can also easily list your products on eBay and Amazon, though the majority of my sales have come directly through my Storenvy page, which surprised me. You can set up a separate page on there and use BitPay to accept payments in Bitcoin. Because BitPay's fees are lower than PayPal's, you can offer customers a lower price. I wish more customers would use it, as I have no love for the greedy eBay-PayPal leviathan.
For marketing, try to leverage every free option open to you before shelling out for online advertising, which is of questionable effectiveness anyway. That means spending a lot of time updating your social media, being active on relevant forums, sending out press releases to blogs that cover your type of product, being open to interviews, sending samples to influential reviewers, etc. You can also periodically run a giveaway using a service like Punchtab to bring in new customers. Check out StartupBros or similar entrepreneurial sites to get more ideas of how you can improve your business.
It may take months and months before your see a profit on a particular figurine; or it can sell out in a few weeks. You never know until it actually makes it to market. It's like that annoying old adage by Oscar Wilde: "When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me."
Improvements in 3D printing technology may someday make the process of overseas production of figurines like this obsolete; when this occurs is anybody's guess, but I'd say 10 years is a reasonable number. Shapeways has recently introduced a Full Color Plastic material that shows the direction the technology is headed, though there is still quite a ways to go. At this point, I don't really care about color; I just want a 3D printer that produces inexpensive, high resolution prints that are uniformly smooth and detailed on all sides. There are new 3D printers coming on the market like the Formlabs Form1+, Kudo3d Titan 1, and DWS XFAB which look promising. These should provide some welcome competition with the Envisiontec Perfactory series, the current gold standard for printing miniatures and jewelry prototypes. By gold standard, I mean smooth, high resolution prints that cost their weight in gold.
Some Random Observations
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