The mold makers use a three-dimensional pantograph to trace the hard copy in order to cut the steel molds. The hard copy is traced with a stylus and the contours are relayed to an Electronic Discharge Machining, or EDM, machine. This machine works on the principle of "reverse welding" and uses an electrode to "burn" away the unwanted metal. Since there is no physical contact involved, nearly any shape can be created in the metal. EDM techniques can be used on the hardest of steels and are the choice for most work involving tight tolerances and complex shapes. Because of the copying process, fine details cam be lost at this stage of figure development. Usually the first to go are small features like cloth pleats, hair and facial wrinkles, though nowadays it's possible to capture very fine detail that would have been lost years ago.
Each part of the figure requires a two-part steel mold to be made. Several "sub molds" or "cavities" can be created and placed inside a large mold "frame" so that one cycle of the molding machine can yield several kinds of parts, but all made of the same plastic. This also allows for the use of generic sized frames and cavities which means cavities can be swapped in and out and frames can be used for many different parts. The cavities themselves could be swapped with replacements (if damaged) or replaced with cavities for parts that were needed at the time. Multiple molds can be made in order to increase production yields which is evident by looking at the dates stamped on the legs of most old Star Wars figures. Many different text sizes and combinations can be found for identical figures which signifies that each was made from a different mold or mold cavity. Molds are made of steel and are not trivial in cost or complexity. Think of how tough steel is and consider the difficulty in transferring the shape of your favorite figure into a large chunk of it. So when you hear the term "steel mold" just remember that Joe Shmo doesn't have the equipment or money involved in making them.
The copyright dates and "foot holes" on action figures are added in at this stage of the process. After molds have been qualified and ready for production, the dates are added. This is why first shot figures do not have the dates present as they are "first" trials of the mold and not production pieces. Also at this process the limbs and head are modified in order so that, after being molded, they can be assembled. This means that the joints will differ from the way they look and function on the hard copy. Bulbous stubs will be added to protrude from the head so that it locks into and rotates on the torso. The limbs are done similarly.
Description: Chris Georgoulias