Copperfox’s rebirth has been the talk of the town for the last few months, with collectors asking us lots of great questions that we couldn’t answer. So, we connected with Copperfox’s new owner, Julia Nichols of Massachusetts, USA, to find out more about her and the plans for Copperfox Model Horses going forward. It was an incredible interview – I enjoy learning about what goes into producing our favorite collectibles, and Julia was willing to share a lot about the process that we usually don’t get to hear much about. She also dropped a few hints in here about what might be coming in the future… Very exciting! ~ Eleda
E: Everyone is excited that Copperfox is making a comeback under new ownership. Can you tell us a little about yourself?
J: Yes! My family lineage is of English, Scottish and Welsh descent. Our family tree began with the King of Briton, Prince of Wales, which we found out after my father spent a good part of his life researching our heritage. Naturally I’ve always been fascinated by it all, and enjoyed visits across the pond taking in all the culture and history.
As the first Ambassador for the Copperfox line, I enjoyed being involved with the hands-on aspect of the business, and loved the sculptures and special touches that Becky placed on everything she touched. So when Becky made the surprise announcement that she was closing, I immediately knew I wanted to try to do something to prevent the brand from disappearing. Copperfox is such a specialized brand with a niche market that has been largely under-represented. Though Breyer has done some Best of the British models, they were on molds that really weren’t designated for that purpose, so having molds made exactly to spec for British horses was of great interest to me as a collector and now as an owner. I currently enjoy a consulting career that takes me all over the country, and soon may allow me to travel in Europe as well. I previously ran a website dedicated to Breyer sales, and then later two separate stores on eBay, as well as a small business that I ran for more than twenty years. I’ve always enjoyed the creative freedoms that small business affords.
I began to spend time visiting shows and photographing horses and studying conformation, colors and breed characteristics. I used to take my horse out to a local lake and paint him, and studying the horse had truly become a passion.
E: Manufacturing models sounds like a huge undertaking. What made you decide to take this on?
J: I decided to take this on after about a year of traveling around the country (US) researching and meeting with people about Copperfox, doing feasibility studies and crunching numbers. I kept to myself as I planned and met with a few close friends and business partners. One day I just said to myself, “I’m doing this. I’ll find a way, and I’m going to do it.” My family still doesn’t know what’s going on, really. I still work a full-time job and dedicate all my evening and weekend time to Copperfox growth. I have two assistants now and I couldn’t do this without them. In six short months, we have accomplished a lot and whilst I’d like to be so much further along in the process, It’s important things are well-planned and thought out.
E: You're based in the US... Do you think that will make certain things easier than they were when the company was located in the UK?
J: Yes and no. One large issue for Becky was logistics and geographical location. She was importing plastic from the USA into China, then models back to the UK, then into the US! When I did market studies, we found most of the models sold were going to the US and Canada. I heard a lot of collectors talk about the currency conversion, high shipping rates, and so on. I was actually selling back to the UK collectors myself at which time they would have to pay VAT and high shipping for items that were originally in the UK to begin with! It was also very expensive and difficult for Becky to get the models to Breyerfest. On the other hand, we have heard the disappointment that collectors have felt about the company leaving the U.K. Becky discussed with many who were interested in taking on Copperfox, with no end result. The logistics of the U.K. are very different than the U.S., where we have access to so many more services -- which in the end we hope will end up being a benefit to collectors everywhere. Also, having a stockist that hobbyists can buy from inside the U.K. (and hopefully in other countries as we scale) will hopefully alleviate some of the concerns. As for design elements, well, the primary team is still working from the U.K. so we are happy to be able to have those connections.
E: It’s great that you’re honoring the company’s roots, and I know Becky was on board, helping you plan and get things set up. I might as well jump right in with something everyone wants to know: When will we be able to start buying Copperfox models again?
J: We would like it to have been yesterday, actually, as we are running on fumes, paying employees, rents, and many other items. We calculated in our business plan that it would take approximately four years to replace all that was lost (metal molds, etc). A short time, really, when you think about the fact that they were going into storage, potentially to never be seen again! We can weather the storm, but it’s all a risk for certain. That said, we are dependent on artists and designers, engineers and painters for our products. Having a team of somewhere close to 12 people at this point, a lot of coordination is done on a daily basis to get all the bits to fit together so patience is a must!
Our initial model Winston for instance, was compressed and damaged when he was cast into resin. This left no copies left in the world that were true to the original sculpt, though the resins that are out there are beautiful! The sculpture was broken during casting and thrown out by no fault of the caster, these things happen. (The horror!) So Kelly drove Winston across the UK countryside hours and hours to a scanner, got him scanned in 3D, then brought him back to her studio and she and I have been working him into two prototypes: One designed for plastics, as it needs to have a slightly larger volume and be balanced perfectly to allow for shrinkage during hollow injection moulding, and one for rotocast resin casting which will alleviate the initial damage concerns; as well as scaling him down for mini resins, micro minis and pewter! We are now planning into the spring of 2020; however, we plan to launch the website earlier than that. We are in testing now and there is product hiding in the website. It will be many months before Winston is in painted form as there are many tests and steps in the process still to come.
E: That IS exciting! It sounds like when you first bought the company, there wasn't much left from before. We have heard that the factory in China destroyed the very expensive metal molds that produce the models. Is that true, and if so, how can you replace them?
J: Yes, we had agents on the ground in China researching to see exactly what happened and what could be done as one of our factories here in the US stated they recovered moulds all the time and moved them-however, the moulds were destroyed, and certified as such. Since I never saw this with my own eyes, I fully expect that someday knockoffs will appear. This has happened in the past to other companies, and I just have to expect it. In the U.S., we rely heavily on legal protections that just aren’t part of the cultures in other countries, so we immediately trademarked and copyrighted all the works as soon as we passed papers on the assets of the business. We had word that other manufacturers were interested in the moulds, and due to this and some other issues (such as running into non-compete agreements when attempting to book event space), we had to keep this all very quiet until our legal items were settled, and that Library of Congress notice came saying all our copyrights were approved -- which took many months of nail biting.
We are working with multiple firms to have the metal moulds replaced. The first is a CAD scanning firm. They scan the models, then the models go to the artist/sculptor for clean up, then they go to another CAD house that does what Kelly has affectionately coined “nurbification” to get the file into the proper format that the tooling machines can understand to generate tool paths for machinery to follow. They then will go to our factory for tooling. There are many reasons to not do them in China, lack of oversight being one, but also the metals used are not always as durable and may not have as many “shots” available prior to degradation. You can actually see how the moulds lose definition as they age. We felt it was important to invest in higher capacity moulds up front and be able to communicate with our production team in person. There was also the time it took for the models to get into the U.S., and our nearest factory here says they can get an entire run done in a weekend-which is simply amazing!
E: This is an expensive endeavor... About how much would you estimate it will cost to create one metal mold?
J: We have a bulk breakdown of Winston, he’s over 50k USD, give or take, for his first run. Because he’s so large, there are so many details, to minimize undercuts, split him and ensure he’s pegged inside, and we wanted to do sonic welding for a stronger bond, plus we had to source the cellulose acetate ourselves. Another piece of it is that a factory will not kick up an assembly line for 250 models. They want to run thousands of pieces of white-ware at a time which you can understand, to have an assembly line going and to heat up and fire all the machines -- It’s all a pretty awe-inspiring operation. Making larger runs is also very good news for the collectors, as there will be many opportunities to offer different colourways as well as the ability for us to offer unpainted bodies to customize.
E: That’s incredible, but I think I speak for everyone when I say thank you for taking the time to do everything carefully and produce a great model for us. Do you plan on having new metal molds made for all of the original sculpts? (The Cob, Connemara, Exmoor and Irish Sport Horse?)
J: Yes, all moulds need to be rebuilt. We plan to do them all, though we are debating the idea of giving the Exmoor an alternate mane and tail. The great thing is, we are in a day of amazing technology. We can scan the master, send to an artist, and they can digitally sculpt the mane and tail changes and send back to me to print a prototype. Once that’s done, we can look at the model and see what we think. I’m sure I’ll be leaning heavily on all of our hobby to help with this process as we do this! There are alternate plans for other models as well. We are investigating the fox mould as well. He is easier to cast in resin; however he would also be fun in lots of colourways, so we have him slotted in as a regular model in the line up. It will be some time to get to a financial standpoint where we will have a go at him. We have an order we plan to replace the moulds in, and it is based on what we think will sell quickly, as we will need to roll all funds made back into production of the next mould, and so on and so on.
E: I understand you are respecting the original releases and will not release the same exact color again on the same mold, for example, there will not be a "new" Cadno or Superman. But you have new colors planned for those sculpts?
J: We do! I have one painted model sitting on my desk that is slated for production and I can’t wait for the hobby to see it as well as several tests in the cabinets here. We have a Winston in two colors planned. We will honor the original collectibles and not ever produce copies of previously sold painted models unless we decided to do them in another scale, which would make them an entirely new run. However, we are not taking resins off the table as we feel that there are too few resins in the artist community. Lots of people want to paint them, but they are hard to find! When Founding Foxes pledged money to the company and in turn got models back for their investment, they were accompanied with COA’s that would distinguish them from the newer resins. The resins we have here are also cast in a different method, by a different caster here in the US, and some will also be done in the UK. So those new runs will have provenance that they are a series 2 product.
We have test models out now being painted on Scamp. We visited a Shetland farm in France a few months ago to gather information on the breed, photos, measurements and marking ideas. We are also swimming with ideas on how to get the pesky peg on the Cob’s hoof to either function better or get rid of it altogether. I have had to make and stockpile pegs, and have been sending them to collectors for three years now! The trend seems to be, that they wedge themselves into the foam inside the boxes, never to be seen again.
E: You spoke a little already about the famous Winston Shire. We've all been waiting years to meet this guy. Some people heard that his sculpture is being modified and they're concerned. Can you tell us what you mean by "modified," who's doing the work, and why he's being changed?
J: Yes! So Winston was cast in a very small resin edition in the U.K. and during this process, the speculation is that his weight caused the mold to slightly “buckle.” When we received three of them here we noticed they were different widths in mm, and also his face itself lost a lot of width and definition. His left cheek especially, became nearly concave. As British Shires are tall and lanky, he is retaining that character while being a sweet, gentle giant. So, though he is meant to be slightly narrow to begin with, he was restored out after being pushed past the breed’s conformation specs into being too narrow only in his front section. So we had the best master resin scanned (owned by the artist herself!) and she then started to recover his features digitally. Kelly sends me a file to print a prototype with each and every repair or update so we can check measurements, balance and conformation. Also, he is retaining all 17 hands of his size… We will not shrink him down in “traditional size.” We’ve noticed a trend where some models are now being produced in 1/10th scale. We’ve also found that Stablemates are scaled up, likely due to their fragility. We are facing that right now with a production piece being a smite too small and the fear is the moulding process will bend the legs and pasterns of the horse. We’re currently holding our breath on that one!
E: People are asking us if you'll be producing the models in smaller sizes as well. It sounds like you are - What can you tell us about your plans for Minis?
J: A mold is currently being made for a mini, with more quickly to follow. We’ve made many Coppercub sized Winstons at this point with ABS resin plus Blu by Siraya which is a super strong resin. Our plan is to have Kelly manage the micro-mini aspect of production, in both pewter and cast resin as this is her specialty! Injection moulded Coppercubs are a long way off in the thought process for us at this time, however we never say never!
E: That's exciting! I know a lot of people who will be cheering as they read this. We have a lot of collectors who love minis and micro-minis because of space considerations. So you'll be producing the larger size models in cellulose acetate (like other large manufacturers) instead of the original ABS mixture?
J: We have a chemist that is such a genius I don’t understand what he’s even saying at times, and he explained porosity of the different composition of plastics. There are several reasons why ABS and Polycarbonate might not have been the right mixture for this specific application; however, they were incredibly durable and lightweight. The paint was tricky, as factories that paint model horses use acetone infused paints to adhere the paint to the surface of the model. It becomes a molecular bond rather than just a coat of paint on something. After we went to Copperfox “Eye” and “Hoof” school, we set our sights on the right paints, and made the decision to go back to the standard of cellulose acetate. Becky may have continued to use it, had she not needed to export it to China, it likely got far too pricey for her to do this. It is made in the US, so we have that small advantage on our side, in that we can source the product domestically.
E: While we enjoyed the ABS mix for some of its characteristics, I know customizers will be thrilled to hear you'll be using cellulose acetate going forward. It's much easier to work with and it's a material everyone is familiar with.... Did that also influence your decision?
J: Yes! The other (BIG) consideration for utilization of cellulose acetate was for customizers. The models in ABS/Polycarbonate were not easily re-positioned and often cracked or suffered seam splits. Though the cob may have (over time) a sliding front hoof akin to the Andalusian stallion when he’s cast in cellulose acetate, there are far too many benefits in using this type of plastic. Hobbyists had also trialed etching on previous Copperfox models, without always achieving success.
E: So it's going to be a while before we get to buy new plastic releases. What are you looking at releasing first, and do you have an estimated timeline for that?
J: Well, we might have some things coming up soon to tide people over until the long awaited plastic release. However, we are really hoping for spring as our launch for Winston in plastic. It’s not so much the actual production of his body that takes time, (our factory said three days flat they could have him done), it’s the finishwork. Our new warehouse space has onsite artists, and they will continue the tests that we’ve already started to do, until we are confident in our products and sealers. Will we ever find a vat of secret gloss that smells like Breyer’s? We certainly hope so ..*makes secret deal in back alley for 50 pound barrel... We may have to bring a test licker*.. We know what other manufacturers use, so we certainly have had some good pioneers that have paved the way for us to succeed. Consulting with finish artists for multiple years has brought a lot of beneficial information to the team, and we have one that visits our office frequently with new information every time she comes. It’s all a learning process and one that takes time!
E: It sounds like you're already juggling a lot just bringing the original sculptures back into production, so it's probably way too early to ask about new sculpts. People are curious, though - Copperfox originally planned to only offer British breeds. Now that the company is American-owned, do you expect to broaden the scope of breeds in the future?
J: Well, I never say never, and there is already a part-bred in the line up, yet we are as of right now, focused on the U.K. and surrounding countries. We did research some breeds in France whilst there for possible future projects. One we were particularly interested in was a Percheron, whom hails from western France yet has also been bred in Great Britain since the early 1900’s. We are in talks with many sculptors at this point to plan for the future, as we believe that having sculpts in the works at the same time that moulds are being created is detrimental as part of the scaling process. We are looking now into a New Forest Pony, and collectors have been sending us lots of ideas and we take them all into consideration! We want to have the collectors involved and be a part of the process. From the highlands of Scotland, to the rugged coast of Wales, (where our family’s castle Manorbier still stands), we hope to be selecting sculptures that hobbyists will enjoy. I won’t say no to a family for Winston, either, as admittedly there are not enough mares and fillies in the hobby.
E: Excellent! I’d love to see Winston get a family, and a Percheron true to their breed specs would be magnificent. Well, we're all excited to see where this exciting adventure takes you, and all of us collectors! Is there anything else you'd like everyone to know? Any surprises coming that you can give us hints about?
J: We are trying something new that is in it’s development stage: Offering painted mini resins from custom artists all over the world. Resins are beautifully detailed, yet so fragile and come unpainted, so as an original finish collector myself, it was difficult to buy, find someone to prep, and then find a painter to do what I wanted for commission. These runs will be small runs so that you will be able to view the actual horse you will receive, and the artist will be advertised. If it takes off and becomes more popular, we will of course consider entering more of the line into the program.
E: We've also been asked a dozen or more times if Triple Mountain will be carrying Copperfox again. I can answer that one: It's too early to say. You and I have talked about the possibility, but it will really depend on whether us carrying them would be a benefit to collectors or not, since you're now able to ship to them for the same price we'd be able to. It's something we'll look at as Copperfox gets closer to plastic run production, and don't worry, horse lovers, you'll be the first to know!
J: The short answer is YES! We look forward to collaborating with you Eleda to plan an exclusive release for Triple Mountain, and certainly hope you will be able to carry the line as it comes out also. We have a stockist in the UK, and will likely be seeking the same for the west coast due to shipping expenditures. There’s strength in numbers, and the more people that are able to duplicate our efforts here, the better off the entire company will be, meaning more horses, and who can say no to more horses?
E: Wow, that was a fun surprise indeed! We’d be honored to be able to offer an exclusive TM release! Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. You’ve answered a lot of questions that collectors are asking us, and it’s great to hear how much effort you’re putting into “doing it right.” We wish you great luck and success with Copperfox 2.0!
Thank you Eleda, as always, it’s been a pleasure!J. Nichols