Perspectives of a Writer and Musician

Issues related to writing, publishing and playing jazz music: One man's muse.
by Al Stevens

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Location: Florida, United States

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Face to Face

You'll recall that I wondered about Sonny's origins. We now think we know who made Sonny. At first we thought he might be a Mack figure. There are similarities in the paint blending that resemble Mack's work. But the control linkages are unlike any Mack I've seen, so we wondered. Ventriloquist, collector and historian Tom Ladshaw suggested that Canadian figure maker Len James might have been the builder. This kind of fits because Frank Merryfield, the ventriloquist who originally owned Sonny, was a Canadian. Tom dug into his picture archives and came up with this picture of James working on a figure.

The similarities in carving and paint details are close enough to Sonny's that we can safely declare Sonny to be a Len James figure. Mystery solved.

Sonny's new face is cast and under assembly. Here's a picture of the old Sonny alongside the beginnings of the new Sonny.

There are some changes to the plans. Originally, I intended to make the copy as close to the original as possible. First, I decided not to replicate the under-the-jaw leather patch on the copy. They are difficult to install, look shoddy up close, and, over time, wear out. I had to remove the patch from the original Sonny to make the mold, so I'll have to replace it. Every indication is that the patch I removed is not original. It and the neck has been repainted. and the paint does not match the other flesh tones.

Figure makers in the old days used that neck patch to cover the hole under the jaw on woodcarved figures. Mack, Marshall, and others employed the patch device. It worked fine because ventriloquists worked onstage under bright lights. Audiences did not notive the patch. But you can see it in closeup snapshots of Jerry Mahoney and other vintage figures. Precedent exists for replacing the patch with a sculpted neck when making a cast replica. The Jerry Mahoney replicas made first by Ray Guyll and now by Jerry Layne have a sculpted neck.

Observe the necks of the two heads in the photo. The original has a gaping hole where I've removed the patch. The replica has a sculpted neck.

Michael Harrison, Sonny's owner, asked that the replica have moving eyes. The original does not. Thus the eye assembly in the photo.

There are other changes that become evident as the project continues. I'll discuss them later as the project continues.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Debugging Sonny

Since I had to mix urethane to cast Sonny's jaw, I decided to do the whole head that way. The molds are in two halves, front and back, so slush casting is tedious. I had to slowly slush the wet urethane around each half being ever so careful to keep it from spilling over the rims until the urethane set up. That takes at least a half an hour per cast. If you set the mold/cast down before that, the stuff is still flowing enough to settle in deep pools in the low spots.

I don't have the patience for this kind of work, but I did it.

Here are the casts in the molds ready to be de-molded.

No matter how many times I do this, the cast is never thick enough in places. It can be paper thin and pliable even to the point of tearing. I had to add layers after I thought I was done. Even then, the edges will need to be reinforced before I assemble the two parts.

Here are the casts, demolded and ready for some finish work.

You might wonder about that black spot under the right ear. That is a small moth that got into the process sometime during the molding and casting processes. Here's a closeup.

Something makes me want to leave that moth there. It would be hidden by the wig, but I'd know it was in there, representing the many years that Sonny lay silent in an attic storage trunk with only moths to keep him company.

But I'll probably allow pragmatism to prevail over sentiment and debug the figure.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Sonny's Mother Mold

Yesterday I made a mold of Sonny's two head halves and the jaw. The mold material is RTV rubber, which is flexible and doesn't stick to anything except itself. But because RTV is a flexible rubber, you can't cast into it unless it has a rigid foundation. That foundation is called a mother mold.

Mother molds can be made from any medium that is pliable when wet and sets up hard. You can use plaster of paris, plaster bandages, paper mache, fiberglass, and so on. I chose a product called Plasti-Paste for this project. It has all the properties needed for a mother mold plus it is non-toxic and sets up in only 90 minutes. Normally I'd use something less expensive for a project that involves only one casting, but I'd never used Plasti-Paste, plan to use it for my Ricky-Tik project, and wanted to learn how it works. Here's Sonny's head parts with the mother molds added.

After the mother mold hardened, I removed the original head sculpture from the molds and put them away. Here are the molds themselves flipped over and ready for a casting to be added.

I have several choices for a casting medium. Paper mache, MagicSculp, Epoxy Sculpt, fiberglass, and playurethane. I am certain to use urethane to cast the jaw since its inner details, such as teeth, would be difficult to get to using a hand-cast medium. The jaw needs to be poured.

I slush-molded two head halves with urethane in the first stages of the Ricky-Tik project, and it isn't easy. Consequently, I haven't decided whether Sonny's head will be urethane or a medium that is easier to work with.

More to come...