[Before I begin, let me just point out that this Dragon took so long to get to even the ‘finished sculpting’ stage, that I had actually forgotten which year I started it in. It came as something of a shock to me to discover (upon checking the giant Dragon thread on the Forum Of Doom), here in 2015, that it was Christmas 2008 that I started it, and not Christmas 2009 like I’ve been telling everyone for the last few years. I’m shocked and horrified to realise that it took me 6 years and 8 months to get from initial armature to finishing the queue off. I am 40 at the time of writing, so that’s over 1/8th of my life this thing took. Best years of my life, etc. Not only that, but I started Heresy officially on April 6th 2002, so that means half of the business life has been spent mired in the Dragon Saga. Wow. ]
‘I fancy doing a dragon’ I said, on the internet once, in the summer of 2008. I was never happy with the dragons that were available at that point to wargamers as kits. They were too small, to puny, weird looking, boring or completely implausible. Some were just dogs or horses with wings and scales, others badly fitting nightmares of metal. I saw one that was just an actual elephant with wings. I thought I could probably do better than some of the ones that seemed to still sell well for other companies, which is the basis for all independent wargames comnpanies (I assume) and the secret arrogance at the heart of any commercial sculptor. I can do that, we think, and I’d do it better.
I posted a poll asking people what they thought a dragon should look like on the Forum Of Doom, and also posted about it on another forum I frequented. Thus it was that one of my handful of determined online detractors, a small minded little man, seemingly insecure about the perceived success of everyone else, immediately retorted that I wouldn’t be able to sculpt a decent dragon. (later on the guy who sculpted the elephant/dragon said mine was rubbish, which made me laugh uproariously)
Well, if there’s one thing that makes me determined to do something, it’s some miserable shit saying I wouldn’t be able to, thus the idea of making one became something I absolutely must attempt. The next break that I had – Christmas 2009 – I had a little play with some wire, and a lump of concrete from the garden of my first house that I had found and kept because it was interesting, and some putty. I made a vaguely dragon-like stick figure and glued it to the ‘rock’ and felt really good about what it would look like when finished.
Now, I should point out I wasn’t coming into this idea entirely without research or anything – I happened to be on good terms with the chap in charge of the resin company that made the two enormous dragons for Rackham – a French miniatures company that has since ceased trading – and knew that according to him, those two enormous dragons, which were very nice models, had sold only three dozen or so copies. Indeed, in his workshop were a hundred more, boxed up on the shelves and ready to ship abroad (he was in the Midlands in the UK and did work for various companies around the world) but unwanted. So I naturally assumed that if a Dragon model as nice as that one only sold 36 or so, mine would certainly fare no better. But that was beside the point – I just like making nice models that other people like, I wasn’t particularly looking to set a new business record for sales. So a couple of dozen, 36 or so tops, was fine with me.
Those pics there are the earliest ones I can find on my current computer. I’m sure there were a few of the bare bones wires glued to the lump of concrete, but they’re lost to time/inefficient organisation of folders.
Anyway, being a smug, arrogant, egotistical show-off, like all sculptors, I put those pics there online on the Forum Of Doom on 19th of January 2009 and several people asked me if they could immediately put money down on it. Well, I was in a financial pickle at the time with a tax bill that was twice as much as I’d expected. So, in a move that I will regret making forever more, I decided to accept a £30 deposit. And even more foolishly, promised everyone that they would pay no more than £100 for the finished model, even if the cost ended up being more than that. I was basing this entirely arbitrary price point on the casting cost that I’d been told for the aforementioned Rackham dragons. Surely mine couldn’t cost much more to make than those. By the end of January, I’d taken 48 deposits. (I did at least make sure to put clear warnings on the site about how this thing might take ages to finish, that it might not ever be finished, and that any deposits were non-refundable. For all the good that did; wargamers, I would learn, never read the accompanying text on any picture of a model they like the look of. they just click ‘Add To Basket’ and wonder why stuff hasn’t arrived already.)
Oh, 34 year old, Andy, if could travel back in time and stamp on your face until it was mush, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post right now.
Anyway, with my face unmushed and a half completed dragon model to wave about the place, Salute, the annual Big Show for wargames miniatures in the UK rolled around. It takes 3 months of the year to prepare for Salute as you have to cast everything, package it, work out what your stand will look like to maximise sales, and so forth. Huge amounts of work, every year, for the small businessman. So not much really got done on the Dragon, due to lack of time. The deposits kept coming in though, and I should have stopped taking them then, but I had literally no idea that this thing was going to be a nightmare to finish, never mind manufacture. I was fully expecting to finish it a month or so after Salute for some reason.
By Salute itself, which was weirdly a month earlier than normal at the end of March that year, I think, I’d taken about 63 deposits and genuinely thought things were winding down. 63 was an easy number of figures to cast in metal, so I guess I assumed that resin wouldn’t be much more difficult, although I knew very little about the intricacies of it at that stage beyond you had to mix two things together and pour them into a mould (I’d tried some resin drop-casting as a teen and it hadn’t gone well). At Salute, I chatted to a couple of people who were contract resin casters, and agreed a price with someone that the Dragon could be manufactured in it’s then format of cuts and things without issue, for about £40 a dragon. I’m friends with this man, got nothing but love & respect for him and have no desire to accidentally diss him or his business online so I’ll call him Stan (which took ages to think of because most of the go-to pseudonyms you use like Dave, Pete, Jeff etc actually do belong to other casters), because what happened next is not really anyone’s individual fault other than mine, ultimately. I was very, very naive and wildly over-optimistic about my own ability to finish the sculpt whilst simultaneously running my business. And, as it turned out later, Stan was wildly over-optimistic about his ability to manufacture the dragon whilst running HIS own business. We were two 1-man shows with what woudl turn out to be absolutely no accurate concept of the amount of work heading our way.
Mushed face, I tells ya.
Anyway, to say that the next two years were a miserable nightmare of depression, angst and stress, would be understating it. You see, the thing about this Dragon was that I wasn’t really making it 100% according to my own gut instincts. I had run a poll on the Forum Of Doom before starting the sculpt. I gave people three choices for each of the areas that concerned me, such as what should the Dragon be perched on, what size should it be, what skin texture, and so forth. The results came through as a huge Dragon with a medium length neck, crocodile scales, a double-row of spines along it’s back, mounted on a rock, dynamically posed with open wings.
Duly noted, I tried to meet this brief. It became obvious that the spines were going to be an issue in terms of dynamics because you have to allow for the neck to move and the spines needed to be overlapping or spaced apart far enough to allow movement of the neck if the dragon were real. I even asked at one point if anyone would be bothered if I did a single row of spines instead of double, and was assured by several people who had placed a deposit that they would be very unhappy if it didn’t have the double spines. So bollocks to your concerns, Andy, i said to myself, just get on with it. But though the spines DID prove to be a pain in the backside, especially from a casting point of view later, they were nothing compared to the labour involved in sculpting tiny squared off crocodile-esque scales on such a large beast, by hand, in a rapidly setting putty. Here was my largest oversight – those scales took forever. A single 1 inch by 1 inch area would took a couple of hours or more of careful sculpting to get a realistic enough result and still remove tool marks and things. And what I definitely had not allowed for were revisions to the anatomy that I now assume to be inevitable on all the things I make. As you work on a piece, you always change it to make it that little bit more realistic, or you have an idea that requires substantial changes to how the model is assembled that requires cunning thoughts and careful concealment of joins where possible. Or you really want to convey the idea of flight muscles where no previous dragon miniatures seems to have done that. But every bright idea I had, although they improved the overall look of the thing just how I expected them to, also meant that those scales had to be re-sculpted over the top of the existing ones. So a new layer, taking just as long as the first layer had to be done. And again, when the changes I’d made had to be tweaked to allow for other changes, and again when parts were cut away to allow for casting, and again when cutting the parts revealed another flaw elsewhere. And again, when I’d been doing it for several months and was now much better at sculpting the scales than when I had started, so much so that later scales looked a different style to any remaining earlier scales. And again, when some parts were test cast in metal and didn’t fit ant perfectly anymore. And again, and again until I almost started crying one winter night sitting alone in the workshop, working on the neck for the 6th or 7th time and wondering if it would ever end. In some areas scales were redone 8 or more times. I know that because when the dragon was cut up for casting for the third time or so, I could count the various different colours of the layers like tree rings. I ended up trapped in this infinite seeming loop where I was working on the same areas of dragon over and over, like a painter on the Forth Bridge in Scotland, where up until 2011 they used to have to paint the bridge from one end to the other to battle corrosion, taking two or more years, and then go back and start again because the weather would cause the paint to flake away (they’ve got a rubberised paint now, which means the bridge doesn’t need painting so often, but growing up it was mentioned on the telly a lot, presumably to impress us kids with the notion of spending your whole life toiling endlessly for the benefit of others. Hmm. That came in handy. )
In fact come to think of it, they finished painting the Forth Rail Bridge before I finished the Dragon queue, and that about characterises the whole situation for me.
It took two years to get the time between all the other stuff I had to do, business-wise, to finish the initial sculpting. November 2010 was the month when I sent the Dragon off to Stan to be cast at long last.
That’s how long it took to get the Dragon to a point where I could put it down, and say, “No more. This will have to be the point I stop at.’ I could have carried on forever and never been truly satisfied. I was utterly depressed with it all. I had been through all the stages of grief with it. I was spending far more time at the workshop, or in my tiny little sculpting room at home, than I was with my beloved wife (who has her own health issues and was struggling with clinical depression in her own right; any of you who have experienced depression yourselves or have seen it in loved ones and truly understood a fraction of what they’re going through will know how lost and alone she must have felt never seeing me all day and seeing the anguish I was going through and being unable to help – true depression leaves the victim incapable or simple things like concentrating for long periods, doing physically challenging tasks, sorting things into order etc. We had no children, no pets and yet no money. Those internet trolls refused to believe that the money from the dragons could possibly have been spent keeping the business running, they actually did think that I was rolling around in cash on my bed, laughing at the gullibility of the average wargamer. I wasn’t. I was lying there staring at the ceiling, failing to sleep.)
So, in October/November 2010, two years later, more or less, Stan suddenly found himself being held to a price he’d quoted in 2008 for a ridiculously tricky to cast dragon that was a lot bigger and more complicated than the one he’d seen in the cabinet that year, and not only that, but there weren’t 36 of them or even 63, there were, at that point 136 or something. Much like me, Stan is a man of his word, an all round good chap, and tried to keep the price per dragon down, but at some point the fact that the price he’d quoted did not include the cost of making the moulds required, came as something of a surprise to me. I had sent the money that I’d had set aside for Dragons, expecting it to cover the first 100 castings or more, only to get 30 or so dragons and a £3500 cost of making the moulds.
Having somehow overlooked the mould cost between that Salute two years previously and the first invoice, I was a bit horrified by this bill, in all honesty, (Since then, having made what has felt like an endless series of replacement moulds, I can fully understand why the bill was so high – so much silicone needed, and so much labour going into setting up each mould. In fact, £3500 was actually a bit cheap) but at least I finally had some dragons to send out (one of the first ten or so people to receive a dragon, I would discover later on, slagged me off as an imbecile on a wargames forum under the same username he’d had on the FOD and caused several people in the queue to demand their money back, which massively set back the process of clearing the queue every time it happened. This after he’d already painted his dragon and posted pics on Coolminiornot and seemed to be very happy with it. ).
The only problem was that the castings I received weren’t entirely up to my quality control standards. Of those first few dozen, only 19 full kits made the cut. putting the problem simply, some of the parts were so big that the resin Stan was using was thickening before it reached the bottom of the mould, meaning air bubbles in highly visible places like the wing arms and some of the rounded muscles and things. The next batch had similar problems. The solution appeared to be to re-cut the dragon to make smaller pieces, and so I had to do this. I’ve had a few people over the years applaud my bravery when it comes to cutting things up because it’s always a lot of work even on small figures – every cut you make will dislodge surrounding material or run through a detail, and even when you’ve fixed the damage (which in this case also meant taking off a lot of the surrounding scale work so that scales could be re-patterned to better run along the joins instead of having a lot of half-scales that had to be perfectly aligned by the customer) the parts can easily change size in the moulds due to various factors and ruin the fit – you end up with gaps caused by things imperceptibly shrinking or changing shape from a curve to a very slightly less curved thing. The more parts you have, the more gaps you create in the assembled model.
Now, for the sake of sanity, I’ll skip over the next time period, where I spent the whole next year thinking I had a finished dragon but somehow spending that same year chopping the bastard thing up and refitting it, again and again. Feet moved from legs to rock, then rocks were attached to the big rock. The tree was chopped off, then later reattached to the rock. A branch came and went. The neck was separate, fitting in a jigsaw pattern to the torso, but then later moved to become a single piece with that torso. Every casting seemed to reveal flaws in scale work that had to be sorted with more sculpting. Meanwhile, Stan’s own business was suffering – it took a full day of work to do all the pieces for the dragon (much of the labour involved is cleaning out moulds ready for re-use. it takes ages to get every fleck of resin flash out of a mould). Stan had given me an initial estimate of 20 dragons a month, which was the info I passed on to the customers waiting, but this slipped quickly – to ten dragons a month, then 5 a month, then 5 every other month. He was struggling to keep his head above water and spending a whole day working on a dragon for me for £40 – which is piss-poor wages for the amount of work involved, never mind materials etc – just wasn’t something he could accommodate. We had both underestimated the work involved. In the end Stan supplied me with 51 dragons that could be sent out – but with my cash gone and his cash gone it had turned into a case of me casting figures for him and him casting dragons for me, so we’d ended up both not working on our own figures, very odd indeed. The final thing was that Stan cast up 20 dragons and sent them by courier to me. They used up the last of the moulds life (silicon is very fragile and easily tears, which are the large chunk of pink or blue or clear rubber that you might get in a casting from some companies. Once detail is torn out the whole mould is dead) but incredibly, the delivery driver did not bother to deliver them. He forged a signature and threw them over a fence somewhere between Stan’s workshop and mine. 20 dragons gone for good, and me with no money for new moulds.
[By this point I had already put my house on the market, the theory being that since the housing market had gone up, we might be able to sell it for a bit more than we bought it for, and use the spare money to cover the cost of the remaining dragons as well as pay off various loans that were crippling me – I was paying out £700 a month in interest payments, and with sales dropping I really needed to lose those loans (one of them was a flexible loan that I had taken out at 6.7% apr but which jumped to 16%apr after the company was taken over by another bank) . Houses in my area had always sold within a few weeks. So we’d surely be fine. It had gone on the market end of August 2010. It was in reasonable condition, with new bathrooms and a new boiler in 2007, but we got no takers that year despite lots of viewings because suddenly EVERYONE in Oakwood had their house on the market and buyers could basically pick and choose to their exact taste.]
I have to ahil the patience of the dragon queue again at this point. I was posting regualr updates, every time something looked to be going right I would pass gthe info on, and make deadline promises that come the date in question, simply didn’t materialise. Stan was too busy to get me dragons, or the number of dragons supplied fell below what I had expected thanks to my quality control, and so on and so forth. I ended up apologising to everyone as many times I told them I had good news. Things got pushed back. Shows like Salute would come and go, and Salute takes up the first three months of the year in prep – so every time we got past Christmas, a huge delay would happen where I had to cast up the entire range, package it nicely, and ready my stand for the industry’s big UK pay day. A hundred tiny things piled up on top of each other, and the dragons seemed to slide ever backwards, simply lacking the funding to bring them forth. I was still too busy resculpting parts in the evenings and weekends to make enough new figures; my sales were slowing down. Add to this a couple of other factors, namely the sudden Golden Age of Independent Miniatures Companies -where anyone who could push a bit of putty and had access to a digital camera and the internet could open their own small business. The market exploded, overseas figures that had never really been available in the UK before except tucked away in the corner of a scrappy looking trader’s stand at some show held in a village hall somewhere, were suddenly easily obtainable for a reasonable shipping cost direct from supplier. Extremely talented professional sculptors were being made redundant from big companies and finding that they could sell their figures direct and make much more per sculpt than if they had been working for commission. Kids who had been practising converting their Games Workshop figures for years suddenly started selling bits and pieces to like-minded people to convert their own figures with. It was now a real buyer’s market – anything you wanted, chances are someone would be making a really great version of it. Even so, I was continuing on, but with less money coming in.
The second thing that happened was that a very clever young man in the USA came up with what appeared to be a reliable way of spincasting resin at a speed comparable to metal production, without any of the airbubbles associated with the results that had been the case for the previous decade or more. He sent me a sample of a figure that was essentially a metal figure in terms of quality of sculpts, and at least equal to a traditional resin casting in terms of undercuts and detail, but had the resilience and lightness of a plastic figure. I was astounded by the quality – and so was Stan, who had also been sent a sample – we both thought it was the future of miniatures production that we were looking at (and these days a lot of companies use that USA company to do their castings). The realisation that 90% of the dragon could potentially be spincast using this guy’s method blew me away. I have my own spincasting setup but the size of the parts exceeded the capacity of my machine. However, the chap in the USA, had machines that were far larger, and could handle wider and deeper moulds. The USA has access to a far greater range of equipment than the UK when it comes to hobbies and crafts and machines aimed the manufacturing of toy soldiers are comically easy to obtain, as well as a plethora of materials in which to cast them. My new friend in the USA had steadfastly learnt all he could about plastics at a chemical level, reading up in dozens of books to understand the process, and come up with a brilliant end result, albeit one that as I understand it he has since almost completely abandoned, in favour of a different material and process. However, at the time, it was revolutionary and everyone who saw it loved it. I asked him if he could help me with the dragon. He said he’d be happy to take a look and see what he could do. I was ecstatic. The end was surely in sight – but first, I had to prepare the dragon yet again, this time it needed to be cut up into sections that could be spincast – there’s only so deep a part can be, and only so wide, even on the bigger moulds available. With razor saws and huge DIY knives, I began to hack and slice the master sculpt of the dragon up once again in to manageable parts for spin casting.
As you may have guessed, this took a long time, hampered as I was by the need to run my business still. I’d estimate it took me six months or more of careful visualising, cutting and fixing. It’s all blurred into one miserable fog now, looking back. I was still working stupid hours in the workshop or in my little sculpting room at home (the rest of the house was now pretty much emptied of anything messy, which had been put in tubs and was stored on the celing of my office in the workshop. Boxes of books, miniatures, model kits, all the stuff that was my hobby was boxed away up there to try to make the house look clean and tidy) and my wife was still not well, having discovered some unpalatable stuff about her upbringing that was awful to learn. We were living hand to mouth, and frequently had to beg money from customers to meet bills with flash sales and so forth. Always there was encouragement and support from followers and friends on places like the Forum Of Doom, Facebook and twitter. It helped me get through it. I can’t thank those people enough for their positivity. Holding onto that hope that it would all somehow be OK, and soon. I should point out that by this point, Stan was every bit as busy as me, trying to save his own business and dealing with his own life, to really do much in the way of quid pro quo dragons but the occasional one. The moulds were pretty much finished in terms of usability, too. This spincasting would work out, though, Everything was going to be great.
Eventually I had parts that would just barely fit in my own spincastable mould tins. I set about mastering the pieces in metal so that I wouldn’t be risking the loss of the dragon sculpt itself by sending it across the ocean. But casting those massive parts in metal provided it’s own issues – namely, they were so big, and so thick in places that when cast in metal they acquired a horrible sandpapery finish, or worse yet, pitted with a thousand tiny holes. The most awful aspect of the process was distortion though – as thick as they were, those master sculpt chunks were still putty, of varying types, and under the heat and pressure of the vuclanising process they flattened and distorted, not by much, but enough that the metal castings showed almost no signs that they had ever been intended to fit together.
I’d say that it took another 3 months to go over each casting, find the least warped or pitted ones, and very carefully fill in all the pitting with putty between the scales, file down joins with a huge file intended for metalwork from the DIY store and build the sections back up with thin strips of putty so that the correct proportions were maintained. It was agonisingly long work, knowing that every day that I was doing this, I wasn’t doing other stuff. But there was something else I hadn’t seen coming. Kickstarter.
Kickstarter is a crowd-funding website. And it would prove to be my new nemesis. I have referred to it as a sort of cash-trawler for the hobby. in aprevious post, and it still is to an extent, although in the years since it launched a number of people have become disenchanted with it due to the preposterous numbers of start-up companies with no experience, who have failed to deliver thier promised rewards to backers. I can pretty much point to the month it openened, becuase my taking s dropped by 50% on the year before. Bear in mind that I still wasn’t making much in the way of new figures, which wasn’t helping, but a lot of my regular backers were now spending their budgets on the latest cornucopia of miniatures being made available through Kickstarter from other companies, both old and new. If i didn’t have new figures then why would they give me money? But the worst bit was this – all those new companies had also seen the new spincast figures, and they wanted their own ranges to be made in the new material.
Which meant that by the time I’d finished crying and filing and swearing and roaring in frustration and had the parts ready to send, my USA guy was way, way too busy to help anymore. Dozens of companies wanted him to make their stuff, and he was simply snowed under with work and no forseeable opening.
Well, shit. I was devastated, in all honesty, as this had been the miraculous light in the tunnel that was going to solve everything and I had been telling people this for months. I had several angry customers who hadn’t been following my updates and just wanted to know why they still had no dragon. Now the spincasting was off the table, ultimately through no fault of anyone’s but mine for taking so long to fix things up ready to go, even though it was unavoidable that it took so long.
By now the house had been up for sale for three years, with an endless stream of people who would give reasons for not buying it as ‘the stairs were in the wrong place’ or ‘it didn’t have a jacuzzi bath’ but as 2013 rolled over, in February that year, one last couple came to see it and put in an offer. It was a low offer, and even after haggling it up it meant we were selling for what we bought it for and the funds to clear the loans would rob us of any deposit for a new house. Additionally, with the recession hitting home, the freely available mortgages for self-employed people were no longer there, so with no way to prove I could afford any mortgage, taking the offer would mean jumping off the property ladder and renting.
We took the offer.
We moved just after Salute that year, handing over the keys on May 5th 2013. My buyer was a bumptious arrogant little oaf of a man, and I hated having to sell to him, but we did. We took the equity and paid off £34,000 of loans, credit cards and overdrafts. I had a small amount left over, only £5k or so. If I spent it on dragon moulds, it’d be gone almost instantly. Only one thing to do, and that was do the same thing I’d done when I bought my own metal spincasting machinery at the start of Heresy. make the dragon myself.
Guess what; more re-sculpting. This time I was simply undoing all the work I had done to make the dragon spincastable. I had to reassemble the parts to make a minimum number of RTV castable parts. Another a couple of months there – at least I didn’t ahve to cut much up, it was all gap filling and some small tweaking to make fits. Given that the parts were now in metal covered in putty (alas the original sculpts were largely destroyed when they were vulcanised, the process causing delamination of the various putty layers that I had used). By June I had reassembled the putty-altered metal castings of the dragon into what I hoped were manageable parts. This involved a lot of resculpting to reinvigorate detail and so forth. (BTW, if it were possible to make a dragon in metal I estimate it would weight around 12kgs, assuming you could find a machine capable of handling the mould needed to make a 3 inch deep rock for the base)
Slight problem: I didn’t really know much about the resin process except that you mixed two parts together and vacuumed it to get the air bubbles out. I understood the principles of positioning a part in a 3d space to get the best casting, but had no real experience of mould making and so forth. Enter Jed Norton of Antenociti’s Workshop fame. Having followed my troubles, he offered to hook me up with some pressure pots form his supplier over in Stoke (since gone bankrupt) and let me spend a day at his workshop with himself, his wife Nadine and his caster Roy, and pick their brains on the ins and outs of resin casting. It was invaluable. I left with a far better idea of the resin process than I had had previously, but in much the same way that watching someone who’s an expert doesn’t make you an expert yourself, I would still have huge gaps in my knowledge. However, I felt confident that I could remember enough of what i’d been told and shown to get cracking with the dragon parts myself. I used the remainder of my house funds to buy a vacuum chamber, vaccuum pump and a new compressor to pressurise my two big pressure pots.
Thus at the end of July 2013, I had the beginnings of a resin casting setup, and needed the dragon to cast.
(Side note: I met a man called Paul Turner at this time, and we discussed possible plastics I could make once the dragon was out of the way. I’ve had them on the back burner for the last few years, always expecting the dragon to be resolved imminently. Paul has worked with resin for 20 plus years at various companies including automobile manufacturers. He described the dragon parts I was about to attempt making as ‘an absolute bastard in casting terms’. If there’s an easy way to do anything, it seems I deftly avoid it every time.
Second side note: by this point I owed Stan a fair bit of casting in return for QPQ dragons, and we had tacitly agreed that he wasn’t going to be able to cast any more for me. We both knew things hadn’t worked out how we wanted, but thankfully we still seem to be friends. I’ve seen a lot of people rage and spit at each other in this business and it’s a tragic thing when it happens. I have nothing but respect and love for Stan and am always happy to see him in real life, usually once a year at Salute. He’s a lovely bloke. Since his involvement in the Dragon Saga he has added pressure casting to his setup and been involved in the casting of 1000s of figures for a massive Kickstarter that he successfully fulfilled, so I suppose even he’s learnt a bit of resin stuff as a result of the Dragon crapping all over him. But I’m still sorry for nearly killing your business along with mine, Stan.)
There are videos of some of my early attempts at moulding the dragon on YouTube, full of optimism and the joy of a new process. After all, I had been shown all I needed to know to get started, so after that it was surely just a matter of working through the process and learning. I envisaged myself churning out 20 dragons a month before the end of 2013, scything through the queue. At this point I still had 200+ dragons to make IIRC. If I had truly understood the amount of work ahead of me I think I might have curled up and screamed. But i was resolute that i was going to break this thing before it broke me.
That’s me attempting to open my first enormous self-made mould. Sadly, I had failed to visualise the spines properly – in the end it transpired that by trying to fit the whole torso into one giant mould, I was simply allowing the dragon to lock itself in place. It was almost impossible to open the mould and remove the casting without something being broken, be it leg or spine. Yes, I had to cut it up and resculpt it a bit. How did you guess?
This was the start of the learning curve, and as various pro resin casters had warned me, it was a massive curve indeed. if I’d had the funds, I’d have got two or three different companies to cast for me, but I didn’t have the funds. So all I could do was get on with it and overcome the problems one at a time. Starting with chopping up the big torso into separate chunks and legs:
By this point, sales had gotten so bad that my minion of several years, Craig, had left the previous year and now I was having to pack the orders and cast metal myself, so even that small amount of time was eating into my resin casting time. Add to that all the myriad problems involved in the process, such as thinking you’re being clever by mixing up a big batch of resin to do several moulds with, only for it to set in a fraction of the time listed on the datasheet and emit so much heat that you burn yourself picking up the container to boot, or the air bubbles that you just can’t get out and the mould misalignment that renders a piece unusable. Dozens of ways to fail, but only one way forward and that was to learn from your mistakes.
I quickly realised that more pots would speed things up a lot. With only two of them, I was forced to wait around between batches whilst things cured under pressure. I had been impressed by the vast collection of pots Jed had in his workshop in Stoke – over 20 of them. My two were looking somewhat token by comparison, especially when I had so many moulds for the dragon to get through. However, bear in mind that by the end of 2013 it had been 5 years since the Dragon was first sighted, and some people were getting antsy. One German customer, who had 3 dragons on order at £100 each, was asking for the fourth time where their dragons were. Disregarding the fact that when they put their money down it was on an understanding that that money could not be refunded, they had had enough of me promising things that didn’t materialise (their dragon trio was still 87 dragons away or something) and I felt obligated to return their money. Several other people also demanded their money back, usually because they had seen some forum post that had shaken their resolve, but sometimes because they had simply gotten older and were no longer in the wargaming hobby! I was acutely aware of time slipping me by at this point. I was heading towards 40 (this year, 2015, in fact. I didbn’t get any cards from friends, had no party to celebrate and had no money, nor owned my own house or anything like that, it felt pretty crappy but I was too busy to dwell on it) and it felt like my whole life had been spent locked in a tiny workshop worrying about dragons.
Every time I got a step ahead, it was two steps back, be it money wise or sculpting wise. Each and every refund tore a hole in my finances. Just as I thought I had the funds to buy a new pot, someone would come along and demand theirs back. It was frustrating but there was nothing to be done. What I need was more pots, and more space. I needed a bigger workshop, and someone to help me by emptying the moulds and cleaning them whilst I cast.
My contract for my existing workshop, which I was renting from a very dodgy landlord based in Manchester, was coming to an end. I got a terse letter demaning more money for the same poorly maintained space if I wanted to remain. I enquired about one of the larger units and was ignored (I don’t think the landlord’s nephews were really very good at communicating with him in their role as supposed legal department for his firm, after I left the old unit I got an angry email from him asking why i hadn’t paid the rent that month and had to point out hat his own firm had basically forced me to leave through lack of response). I would have to look elsewhere if I wanted to have a proper set-up.
There was only one way that I could afford to move, and that was to run a kickstarter that would get me the funds for a new place, new equipment and the silicon and resin I’d need to bring back all the stuff I could no longer sell because of metal costs rising so much since I started back in 2002. Reluctantly (I didn’t want to add to my dragon workload, I wasn’t an idiot to that degree) I ran a small project, setting the date to end just before I was due to move.
In an unexpected move, the world decided to play along with one of my bright ideas for a change, and the Kickstarter proved massively successful. Way beyond what I had thought possible. Suddenly I had the funds to rent a bigger workshop, buy more pots, get a big load of silicon and resin and bring back the old monsters, as well as hire a new staff member. Incredible! I remember the feelign as I went for a walk about half an hour after the Kickstarter ended. I was in disbelief and spent the next two weeks afraid that something would still go wrong and the money wouldn’t turn up for some reason. happily it did, although some people demanded refunds for reasons as stultifying and brief as “I don’t like the figures any more’, never once thinking that it was an investment process not a shop. Ah, well.
I was still on my own, and this was days before my contract was due to expire on the old unit. At the last moment, literally 8 days before I would have to stay at my old place for 3 more years or leave, I found a new workshop twice as large and the paperwork was rushed though. I was able to find a van for hire, and moved workshop over the course of a week or so. (At no point did my landlord make an appearance to check the old unit, or the estate agents who were supposed to be the go-betweens. I left the keys with a neighbouring unit.) Amazingly, two people travelled to Derby to help me do this, and I’d like to give my heartfelt thanks to Drew and Darren – especially Darren who stayed a whole weekend at his own cost and was an absolute marvel, needing little direction and basically disassembling the old office walls singlehandedly. I’d have hired him on the spot but he had three jobs up in his home town and wasn’t looking to move to Derby. If he hadn’t shown up, I’d have had days of single-handed work ahead of me because nobody else was volunteering to help.
I took a video of the new workshop after I moved in.
I still can’t believe I fit all the stuff into my old workshop and the first thing anyone says here in 2015 when I’ve been in there a year, is that I really need a bigger workshop. the place has been rigged out with racking and shelving that took me 8 weeks to build and organise to a point where I could resume casting dragons and then I had to spend 3 weeks catching up with the orders. I advertised for help, and out of all the people who applied, only one man passed my applicant test – basically, anyone who wanted to work for me needed to be really keen. I loathe half-heartedness. The needed to show me they wanted the job. So I ignore the first emails people send. It’s a simple test: If they want the job, they’ll ask for it a second time, chase me up, see if I got the first email or if it went astray. Dan, my minion at time of writing, was the only person to do that, the others never bothered.
Dan started in December 2014, at which point I think I still had 186 dragons to do. It was a bit of an odd time, because Christmas was coming and I close the workshop for two weeks because it’s the only time of the year when most people don’t expect you to send out orders (someone always does, and they’re usually an American, and they email you on December 27th and ask where their order they placed online on December 23rd is, as it hasn’t been shipped yet.). Immediately following Christmas, I had to start prepping for Salute again too, so the amount of Dragons being cast was not as much as I wanted. I also had to start on the Kickstarter models that had been added to my list of things to do, because some of the backers didn’t read the message about the dragon being in front of everything, and expected to see updates. The first three months were mainly Salute-oriented. Thankfully, my regular helpers, former minion Craig and show minion Andy ‘Pockets’ Starling turned up to help for the week before the show and we got it done. Dreadful show, due to a lack of new figures and so forth, but I broke even more or less and at last there was nothing between me and the dragons once it was out of the way.
So there we were in May 2015, and there was the dragon queue. I was still having to make and replace moulds. I needed half a dozen moulds of each part to stand a chance of ever finishing the task, and that’s what I made. Some moulds wore out after only a few castings, as all it took to render them useless was a tiny rip in any of the massive amount of scales, and a huge 4 kg mould was bin-fodder. The oily silicon couldn’t even be chopped up and reused! But despite the amount of money this was costing, and the amount of work making new moulds and rethinking how parts should be positioned, here at last was progress. Here at last, that queue was going down. The first milestone was when I got to 150 dragons to go. Then 118 dragons, because that was more than halfway to the end. We were still a long way off, and having closed the dragon queue in January in an attempt make it a finite amount, by June I had to reluctantly sell 10 more to those who wanted one, just to cover the cost of a new set of moulds to clear the remaining 50 dragons.
50 Dragon felt like less dragons than 42 did. We were stuck on 42 for ages as moulds began to fail left and right, and it became clear that some dragon orders had been miscounted and people were owed two dragons not one. We were casting and moulding and that 42 was not moving. it didn’t seem to change for four weeks. It was so odd.
And then I turned to Dan and said fuck it, let’s kill this thing. I’m going to sell those 10 more dragons I was talking about, make one last set of moulds and power on through.
And here we are, now. I don’t own my own home anymore, I live in a tiny house that costs me more to rent than the one I owned. I owe thousands on my credit card again and have a business overdraft of £10k that I am maxxed out on. I have a big list of models still to make for the Kickstarter.
But I finished casting the last needed Dragon part on Saturday the 21st of August.
Half an hour after I took that last part out of the mould, thunder rolled and a storm hit. It was massively satisfying. I’ve now taken two weeks to try and make some progress on the Kickstarter models, although I seem to have spent the first week writing about dragons in the form of newlsetters, social media and this blog.
Thanks again to everyone in the dragon queue who waited years to get their dragon. Special thanks to those people who seeing the straits I have gone through, paid me some more money on top of the £100 they had been promised as the price. VERY special thanks to those who topped it up to £200 when the RRP hit that. Baffled thanks to those who didn’t pay me one penny more, even for shipping, and mocked me when I asked, but at least didn’t demand their money back. Starey eyes to the couple of people who did not pay me a penny more and immediately sold their dragon on for more than they paid me. Oh how that hurts, having gone through what I’ve gone to keep my promise to them. Meh, it’s their dragon though. I got them it in the end. Nobody, not that miserable little online shit nor the vitriolic berater from the early days can now deny that. And that’s all I really have to show for it, apart from a basic knowledge of resin casting and a shit-ton of practise.
I have kept my word, where anyone sensible, or self-centered enough, would have done the ‘proper’ business decision and walked away, declared bankruptcy and got a job selling kettles. One man who runs his own miniatures business suggested I should have sold the list of names as gullible marks to some spam caller company because they were all fools. The very notion angers me.
I have a dragon for everyone in the list that I have checked names against since January 2009 when I stupidly took that first deposit. I have been ridiculed, vilified, held up as an example of how not to run a business and belittled. I have felt lower than some of you will ever know and I have nothing to show for it, no shiney car, no ipad, no smartwatch; no laughing children to play with, no holiday albums of my wife and I enjoying our 30s in interesting locations. I took 8 separate days off in 2014 (I marked them on a calendar). Our last proper away-from-home-and-miniatures holiday was in 2007, a week spent at Monkey World. I turned 40 in February and haven’t even had time off to see my elderly parents since Christmas 2013 (my car wouldn’t have made the 500 mile round trip and I couldn’t afford the petrol at Xmas 2014 to drive up there anyway), But I was raised by my parents to keep my word, so I did that.
Now to try and keep my business. I’ve learned a lot from this. Time to put it to good use. Time to make a load of demons and a giant for the Kickstarter.
No, I’m not making a new dragon. I’m going to leave that for a bit. There are 300 or so of mine out there in the world, that will suffice for now.
Thanks for reading. It’s probably a bit long, and filled with grammatical and spelling errors, but it’s a tale I felt needed telling so that when I get asked about that Dragon that I used to sell I can point people to this link. Most people have had no idea of the heartbreak and mental war behind this model. They just assumed it was another dragon model like the ones they got form those other companies. This one cost me too much. This one was not a mass-produced toy, forgotten by the sculptor after they were paid to sculpt it for a month or two and sent if off for approval by the studio director. This one hurt. It broke me, and my life. This one was a one-off. I hope never to have such a massively successful problem again.
If you have been impressed by this tale, and want to help out, why not visit the shop and buy something? If you use the Redemption Code THEDRAGONISDEAD you can get 25% off any metal figures before the 9th of September 2015. It would help me keep going. I have a lot more things I want to make now that the Dragon is finally out of the way, and I think you’d like them.
Director. Sculptor. So very tired.
Face currently still unmushed.
Heresy Miniatures Ltd
August 28th, 2015