Don’t tell longtime GIjOE fan, collector and accomplished 1:6 scale customizer, Bill Lawrence, that there isn’t anything fans can do to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of “America’s Moveable Fighting Man.” After having a good laugh, he’d probably give you a knowing look, crook his finger and ask you to follow him into his Joe Room to witness one of the most astonishing custom figures ever produced: a perfect, piece-by-piece, modern-day replica of Don Levine’s first-ever prototype GIjOE (originally created over 50 years ago by the now deceased, “Father of GIjOE” himself and his 1963-64 team of artisans at Hasbro). In this exclusive account of Lawrence’s amazing 10-of-a-kind achievement, we’ll hear from the customizer himself and learn exactly how this stunning 1-year creation ultimately came to fruition. And so, without further ado… Herrrre’s, Bill!
My Custom 50th Anniversary GIjOE Figure
By Bill Lawrence, October 19, 2014
Written exclusively for The Joe Report
“With all the talk about the upcoming 50th Anniversary of GIjOE and the possibility that we may not be seeing anything in 1/6 scale to celebrate it, I decided that it was too important of a historical event to not do something to commemorate it.
And what better way to celebrate Joe’s 50th Anniversary than to do a custom of the figure that started it all; the prototype of the world’s first action figure, America’s Movable Fighting Man, Rocky. I also wanted to do something unique that hadn’t been done before and I believed that this would fit the bill. I also wanted it to look the absolute best that it could, so I assembled a team of professionals that have a reputation for being some of the best in their respective fields. Beginning with…”
Working With “the Pros” To Create a Masterpiece—Step 1: The Sculpt
“I contacted a sculptor I’d met a couple of years ago at Mego Meet 2011, Andrew Covalt of Covalt Studios, about sculpting the head for me. He is a VERY talented artist that did several head sculpts for the DC Retro Action Super Heroes line by Mattel. Thankfully, he agreed to take on the project and work began in early October 2013. After producing the first rough sculpt, Andrew told me that he noticed some differences in the comparison pic I had sent him and wanted to re-work his sculpt some more to try to make it even closer to the original. All we had to go by were images we found on the internet and we never did locate a profile shot, so some guesswork was involved.”
“Now that the head sculpt was complete, the next order of business was attaching it to a body. This involved hollowing out the head, which was made of wax, and test fitting it on a vintage talker body that Andrew had lying around the house.”
“To me, the neck looked a little thick and hung over the base of the neck post too much. I also felt it was a touch long. Andrew said would see what he could do (see below).”
“Things were really starting to come together and look great now! I noticed one thing in the update pictures Andrew was sending. Somewhere along the line it looked like the right eyelid had become slightly misshapen, not quite as rounded as the left. Andrew immediately made the minor adjustment and sent back what would be the final picture of the sculpting phase.”
The Final Headsculpts: Creating a Prototype—of the FIRST GIjOE Prototype
“Andrew told me that after he hollowed out the head, the neck had gotten pretty thin. He was a little worried about it getting damaged in the mail. He decided to make a mold and do a couple of resin casts to make sure we had a solid copy of it. After a couple of tries, Andrew informed me that he was having problems with air bubbles and couldn’t get a casting that he was happy with.”
“We discussed the issues he was facing and ultimately decided to carefully package and send the wax original to Mego Museum member Austin Hough, owner of reproheads.com, who uses a pressure pot method in order to minimize the bubbles that are sometimes formed during the molding and casting process.
I was also lucky enough to attend a seminar on casting put on by Austin at Mego Meet 2011. We knew he was the right person for the job and thankfully he agreed to take on the project for me. I contacted Austin and made arrangements for the wax original to be sent directly to him. On April 3, 2014 it was on its way!
The wax original arrived safely at reproheads.com on April 7. Whew, that was a relief! After about a month or so, I received the following picture from Austin (see below). They were done and looking good! I couldn’t wait to get them in the mail.”
“They arrived! I opened the package to find the wax original tucked safely away in a plastic container carefully padded all around with foam and ten freshly cast Rocky heads in a one gallon baggie. They kind of looked like golf balls LOL.
Now it was my turn to get to work. I needed to drill out the necks and fit each one to a GI Joe neck post. Austin had cast them solid. This proved to be a better method than trying to cast them with the hollowed out necks. So, I rounded up all my tools and a 7/16” paddle bit and set out to accomplish this task.”
“I had some problems with the paddle-bit wollering out the hole to the point that the neck got very thin in places on several of the heads. In hindsight, I suppose I should have used a smaller bit, like 5/16”, and then fine-tuned it with a Dremel. I used Milliput to build up the thin spots and then finished up with the Dremel to get the final fit.”
“It worked great! The white Milliput was almost an exact match to the resin, both in color and composition. Now for the final touches and then off to paint.”
Step 2: The All-Important Paint Job—Matching the PAST
“At first I entertained the idea of painting all 10 heads myself. Then I thought of artist David Howard, member of my local DFW GIjOE Club. I had seen some examples of his work through the box art he designed for a couple of our club exclusive figures. It was impressive. What if he could paint them for me?
I ran the idea by Greg Brown and he said he would reach out to David and ask him for me. David agreed. I got in touch with him through email and we discussed the project. We finalized the details and the heads were packed up and on their way to him.
I received an update from David on August 5, 2014. He told me the paint was coming along nicely and that the likeness to the original was “very close.” Then he asked if I wanted the final sealant to be gloss or flat. The original looked glossy because they likely used oil based enamels to paint it. I didn’t want it too shiny, so I asked if we could go with a semi-gloss sealant. David said he would see what he could come up with.
I emailed David at the end of September for an update on the painting. He was planning on attending the DFW GIjOE and Action Figure Show on Oct. 4-5, 2014. He told me he would bring the completed heads with him when he came up on Friday. I tried to have everything done on my prototype so all that would be left is attaching a head for its debut on Saturday morning.”
Step 3: Rocky’s Uniform and Accessories
“I had a difficult time finding a seamstress that would agree to sew the outfit for me, so I tossed around ideas on how to get it done. I could find some vintage Vietnam-era military clothing and use an old GIjOE Action Soldier uniform for a pattern and make the jacket and pants myself. I thought they probably did something similar back in 1963 when making the prototype. That would be cool, just like they did it in the day! But there was one problem with that idea: I would have to learn how to use a sewing machine to pull that off (not likely). Fortunately, one day I was looking through one of my GIjOE books and came across a picture of a #7505 Field Jacket. Ahh…
“It had a very similar look to what I needed. It had a zipper instead of snaps, but I could live with that or possibly even remove the zipper and sew in a couple snaps later. Ultimately, I decided to go with this jacket and a pair of 2-snap, Action Soldier fatigue pants. The original boots were handmade and looked pretty rough. This wasn’t something I entertained doing by hand so I decided to go with standard issue short black boots.”
“I also equipped Rocky with a standard canteen and a marine camo helmet. I had to add brown camo paint spots to the helmet and I also changed the black elastic to white in order to better match the original.
I also had to come up with a way to recreate his unique parachute harness and backpack. I wasn’t sure I was going to have the resources to have them custom-made for me, so I tried to see what I could put together.
I started by looking at an Army-Navy store down the street from where I work. There, I found a tan belt that worked perfectly for the bed roll, and eventually found my solution for the harness and back pack with a vintage GIjOE Marine medic bag and a pair of store-bought olive drab shoe strings!”
When All Else Fails—Recruit the Aid of Your Wife!
“My wife agreed to lend her sewing skills to the project. She surprised me with a prototype of the harness and pack one weekend when I was out-of-town. There were some adjustments to make, but overall I really liked where the design was headed. As the week of the show arrived, I still needed to complete the parachute harness and my wife and I spent a total of 6 hours over 3 evenings finishing up the design. We debated altering the envelope shaped top to the medic bag to go straight across but we liked the way it looked so much already that we left it as it was.”
“Next, I had to figure out how I wanted to recreate the sleeve patches. On Rocky’s left sleeve was a Sergeant rank patch and on his right sleeve was the same, but with the addition of a 3rd Infantry Division patch above it. I knew there were places to order 1/6 scale patches, but I wanted to first explore the idea of making my own. I decided that I would try to make the Sergeant patches and go ahead and buy the 3rd Infantry ones. Both Dave Tedesco from The Patch Hut and Mark Otnes from Patches of Pride were kind enough to send me examples of their 3rd Infantry Division patches to try out.
The ones from the Patch Hut arrived first, and I needed to get Rocky ready to debut the following weekend at the DFW GI Joe and Action Figure Show, so I went ahead and tacky glued one on the right sleeve. As for the sergeant rank patches, I came up with the idea of using a dark green denim iron-on patch and some .005” brass sheeting.
They came out okay, but were very tedious to make. It also got a little sloppy with the glue, mainly because I was working with such small pieces. I am going to have Dave at the Patch Hut custom make me some sergeant patches to match the style of the 3rd Infantry patch. I feel they will look a little cleaner and save me a lot of time!”
Creating a Replica of Rocky’s Prototype “Coffin Box”
“Rocky’s custom box was made by Trenches member, Jay Cosenza. Luckily, when Levine’s original, hand-painted prototype box came up for auction in 2003, Heritage Auctions had taken some high-resolution pictures for the auction listing and they were still out there on the internet. I sent them all to Jay and he promptly got it all laid out.
I wanted to honor the golden anniversary of GIjOE by placing a seal on the box. I searched Google Images for 50th Anniversary logo ideas and found several I liked, but nothing really caught my eye. One day, I was reading some back issues of The Joe Report and saw a t-shirt design that Mark Otnes had created for his “Dirty Dozen” at Joelanta 2014. THAT was the logo I wanted for the box! I emailed Mark to ask if I could borrow the image and he agreed and forwarded me a JPEG. I sent that along to Jay with a couple of notes on some slight changes I wanted to make.”
Step 4: Choosing a Logo to Celebrate GIjOE’s 50th
“Jay worked on the design and sent this back to me. I really liked the way he did the 50! It was my suggestion to also include ‘1964 – 2014’ on the logo, but I didn’t really like how it came out. It just looked a little busy. So, I asked Jay to remove it altogether and move the word ‘YEARS’ down to where the dates were. This looked better, but something still wasn’t quite right about it. Something was just ‘off.’ Since we had gone back and forth several times and I kept trying different ideas and not really getting it just right, I suggested to Jay that we go ahead and print the boxes just like the original and make the 50th logo a sticker that I could include with the contents. On August 12, 2014, Jay sent me pictures of a mock-up of the finished box for approval and it looked great. On September 1st, the boxes were done and ready to ship. The boxes finally arrived on September 18th. As I expected, they were absolutely PERFECT!”
“Back to the 50th Anniversary sticker. Mark’s logo was the one that initially caught my eye. I decided to quit messing with perfection and just go with it as is, not change a thing about it! I spoke with the print shop across the street from work about having some stickers printed up. The price was very reasonable. I emailed the image to the print shop and received an email back on 9-24-14 that they were ready to be picked up!
Step 5: Putting All the Pieces Together
“It was show time! I arrived at the convention center to load in and set up my booth (Vintage Toy Rescue). The first thing I needed to do was to find David Howard. I found him setting up his own booth and after a brief chat, we got down to business. Surprisingly, he told me he had ‘some good news and some bad news.’ (uh-oh).
I said, ‘You brought me at least ONE head didn’t you?’ He quickly assured me that he had. That was the good news. The BAD news was that he had been unfamiliar with the brand of semi-gloss sealant he had used and applied to all 10 heads earlier in the week—and that the paint had ‘bubbled off each and every one of them!’ Aaaaaaugh!!!
“David said he hollered every cuss word he knew and then even made up a few! At the end of this tragic story, he handed me a small box. I peeked inside and staring back at me—was Rocky! He looked AWESOME! The likeness to the original was incredible. I couldn’t have asked for a better final product. I immediately popped him on the body I had waiting and set him up for the show.
In the end, everything came together beautifully. The process, from start to finish, took about one year. Rocky debuted on Saturday, October 4th, 2014 at the DFW GI Joe and Action Figure Show and was well received by all. In fact, he won first place in the custom action figure contest! Going into this project, I set out to make 10 figures. Those 10 were gone within the first hour of the show Saturday. Thoughts of a second run are already being entertained, but I want to complete the first 10 before I decide how to proceed with the next run. I will say that I want everyone that wants one to be able to have one.
Oh, and for those that caught it and are wondering why Rocky is holding his helmet tucked under the wrong arm in my pics; it’s simply because his right elbow was too loose to hold it. That’s it for now, I have work to do!” —Bill Lawrence, Texas
Bottom Line: Typically, we’d sum up here with a couple of paragraphs of laudatory praise for Bill and his A-Team of 1:6 scale customizers (all OUTSTANDING), but today, we’re turning the reigns of The Joe Report immediately back over to Bill, who wanted to offer his own heartfelt words of gratitude to those connected with this amazing project. Take it away, Bill!
“Yes! Thanks to friend and fellow DFW GIjOE Club member, Greg Brown of Cotswold, who was a big help throughout the process, acting as my consultant. I bounced just about every idea off of him first, soliciting his valuable advice. And thanks again to Andrew Covalt of Covalt Studios for his amazing work sculpting the head, David Howard of Design Ranch for painting the heads, Cozette Lawrence for helping with the design and sewing of the parachute pack and harness, Jay “aiwaloki2” Cosenza for making the amazing boxes, Mark Otnes of Patches of Pride for the use of his 50th Anniversary logo and sample patches, and Dave Tedesco of The Patch Hut for sending some 3rd Infantry patches and custom-making the Sergeant sleeve patches for me. You were all wonderful. THANKS!”