Care and Feeding of Shrinky Models

Posted by Eleda Towle on

Shrinkies are interesting characters.  I have a couple in my personal herd and enjoy them.  We've also sold quite a few over the years, and I've saved their photos to help answer hobbyist questions.  Today we had a question about how to care for shrinkies from Charlie in the UK, so it seems like a great time to talk about them.
 
Never heard of shrinkies?  "Shrinky" is a term coined by Breyer collectors for models that have shrunk in size to become smaller than most models on their mold.  Breyer models are made of the same material as old movie film reels, and old films suffer from this same type of plastic separation and breakdown, which film archivists call vinegar symdrome, after the noticeable smell that comes when you open an old film canister.
 
A great example is this shrinky Precipitado Sin Par next to a non-shrinky one:
 
 
Shrinkies usually are found among models made from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, when Breyer first started moving production to China.  Without getting technical, it's believed that the batches of plastic used during that time weren't accurately mixed, resulting in a different percentage of one chemical versus others.  [Fun fact:  Did you know that Breyer's plastic (cellulose acetate) is not made from petroleum products, but instead is sourced from wood and cotton?] 
Not every model made during this era is a shrinky, probably because Breyer had some blank models left in their warehouses from earlier production, and also because they didn't move all molds to China at the same time.  You can tell shrinkies in a few ways, though they won't all show all the symptoms... Some depend on the severity of the shrinkage. 
 
Check out this adorable shrinky Family Foal!
 
In early stages, all you'll see is that they're smaller.  This is the cute stage - The stage we want to keep them at if we can.
 
What you don't want to start seeing is this:
 
This Black Beauty looks like he's covered in oil.  He is - This is the liquid part of the plastic separating from the solids and oozing out.  This indicates that the plastic on this model is severely breaking down.  The oily fluid, which smells like vinegar, usually oozes out through the vent hole in the nose or mouth, or a tiny opening in a seam, but in severe cases, like this one, it just seemed to cover him.  This guy had been kept inside a plastic bag inside a plastic tote with no air flow for over 10 years, which hastened the process.  If you're taking a model out of storage and you smell that vinegar smell, inspect your horse closely for other symptoms.
 
Another thing that can happen is color fading.   Compare the shrinky Secretariat's color to a "normal" Secretariat:
 
 
Wow, right?
We're not sure exactly how this works chemically, but colors, particularly browns, fade on shrinkies that are deep into the process.   You can also sometimes see a white powdery coating on the horse's body, as seen below on this same model:
 
 
I think this may happen after the oily stuff sits on the plastic for a while and evaporates, but that's only a guess.  This guy is still attached in his original box, but was kept in an airtight container in storage for several years.
 
White models also change color somewhat, though it's harder to describe.  The Leopard Appy Fighter pictured below (as well as the stripe and socks on the Family Foal at the top), and other models we've had with white areas, look more "solid" or opaque than usual, often duller, and some even have a very slight greyish or yellowish tint... just enough for you to notice that there's something different about them. 
 
 
You can see that on the Fighter - He has been sunbathed, so it's not yellowing you see.  In person, it's more of a dingy greyish cast to the plastic, most likely caused by the plastic condensing as it shrinks.  This condensing can also - at the worst stages - cause legs to bend and entire bodies to start to look "lumpy" as some areas shrink more quickly than others.
Here's the worst we've seen.  This Rugged Lark has had a bad time of it, and shows all of the symptoms:
 
 
Not only is he quite a bit smaller than he was originally, and his color has faded from a rich red bay to this pale version, he's showing the twisting legs and lumpy body shape of severe degradation.  Check out his hind legs:
 
 
And here's a view from underneath to show the lumpiness of his profile.
 
 
Sounds scary, especially if you have models in storage, but it doesn't have to get that bad!
 
Air flow is definitely a key to slowing this process and maybe halting it altogether.  Displaying shrinkies on open shelves in a room that has moving air is the best thing for them.  I have a shrinky Adios in red dun in my own herd:
 
 
 
His run was 1988-1989.  I bought him around 1993 without realizing he was a shrinky, and have displayed him on open shelves ever since (see below).  He is considerably smaller than his brothers, shorter in length and narrower.  If you look closely, you'll see that he has deeper hollows at the girth and flanks. However, he has never gotten oily or had problems with twisting legs..  My Horse Room is in the loft of our Cape Cod-style home, so it's open through the railing right down to the living room, providing lots of air flow.
 

As you can see, he's right in there with all his brothers (he's wearing a halter in this photo from 2014), so I can vouch positively that vinegar syndrome is not contagious.  It's simply the breaking down of a poorly mixed batch of plastic, so either a horse was made with a poor mix that will shrink and condense over time, or it wasn't.  They're perfectly safe to have around others.  The Black Beauty in this article was in a tote with dozens of other models, but despite how bad he was, no other horses in the tote were affected. 
 
However, the key to slowing the process is good air circulation, so if you can display yours on open shelves instead of behind glass, that will help a lot.  And while nothing has been said about this officially, cool temps and low humidity are certainly also factors in keeping these special guys safe.  To preserve old films, they keep them in vaults at temps just above freezing and with very low humidity, so it makes sense to try to keep our models out of extreme heat and humidity as well.  Our home gets pretty warm in summer, and used to get humid (no longer, now that we have heat pumps), which is probably why my Adios shrunk as much as he has.   Triple Mountain keeps models we have for sale in cool, low-humidity storage for that same reason.
 
If you have to keep your models in storage for a period of time, try to keep them in a cool, low humidity location and ideally don't use airtight containers.  They are best kept wrapped in soft, white cotton fabric (old, clean cotton t-shirts are great, as are some bed sheets or white towels - Never anything colored, though, as dyes can bleed into plastic over time), which breathes better than plastic.  If it's safe to do so, you might want to consider using cardboard boxes instead of plastic totes, or drilling some small vent holes into the totes.
 
[Above - A rarely seen peek into Triple Mountain's Model Storage]
 
Of course, if there's a chance that your models might be exposed to moisture while in storage, it would be wiser to risk vinegar syndrome in the few models that may be prone to it, than to have an entire box full of models get moldy... So use your judgement based on the situation and try to get them back out into open air as soon as possible.
 
There you go - I hope you learned a bit about shrinkies!   They add a lot of character to our collections and represent an interesting period in Breyer history.  With proper care, they can continue to do so for many more decades. 
And on a happy note:  All of the shrinky models shown here have found happy new homes!

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9 comments

  • Thanks for this! I have about 2-3 shrinking but luckily not any with oil in them, my moms had been in a plastic box but they are fine luckily. They were there for 3y.

    K on
  • Ouch, Ellen, that’s so sad! I’m so sorry for you! And you too Tonya! I store my models in a temperature controlled house with open air and frequent “health” checks.

    Blackberry Lane Studios on
  • Great article. As far as I know the shrink plastic is mostly found in those few years shown by most of these- however I have a few other oddballs, much older, who developed pock mark shrinky spots. Its as if there were bubbles or as you pointed out, poorly mixed plastic. I wonder, too, about the years when Breyer was shifting from plastic to plastic, there had to be batches with more than one type mixed together by someone who didn’t understand chemistry. Speaking of chemistry, I just found one more thing you can’t do! I use t-shirts to wrap my models, and if they have a log turn them inside out to keep the logo away from the plastic. Works great- except apparently not sports shirts! I had a bunch of my now grown son’s soccer shirts, you know the ones with the holes and the number? They were so soft I thought they would be very nice. Apparently they have enough of something in them that reacts with breyer plastic to wreak havoc. Fortunately while prepping for the online Breyer show I found the situation. I knew something was amiss the second I opened the box. That terrible vinegar smell! And it wasn’t older models, somehow the soccer shirts, not the plastic number bits, but the actual fabric, had reacted enough with the models that it had EATEN its way into the models. Horrified I threw the whole thing into the freezer to stop the reaction. Now they are soaking in baking soda and cool water. Finally got the shirts to let go. Hard lesson learned, thought I’d pass it on. If I could post a picture I would show you what type of t-shirt I mean, as they are relatively common. Toodles, Ellen

    Ellen Kennedyt on
  • Oh this makes me cringe…I have horses in storage in another state, and I’ve no idea when I’ll be able to get them here. There was a roach problem in the apartment complex so when I moved, everything was packed in new totes.

    Tonya Smith on
  • Sorry Rebecca, that’s sad.

    Jim Richards on

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