Robot Restoration



As my sister pointed out, lockdown can lead you down some strange paths, mainly as a consequence of having too much time on your hands, unless you happen to be lucky enough to have been working throughout the last year and half.

This spare time manifests in a variety of ways, in my case, in attending online life-drawing sessions from around the world or writing blog posts. It’s also seen a boom in YouTube channels as people find imaginative ways to broadcast their passions and pass on knowledge of various subjects.

I’ve been watching “RobotHut”, where a U.S based collector and owner of a robot toy museum somewhere in the Mid West shows off his vast collection of toy robots alongside fascinating self-builds using 3D printing technology and based on the principles of automata that underpin the classic Japanese tin toys of the post war period, which saw a boom in this type of toy as the world moved from the Atomic Age to the Space Age.

While many of these toys were originally produced for the Japanese home market to amuse children left with next to nothing following the devastation of WWII and are inspired by science fiction films and literature of the period, returning G.I’s in the American Occupation of post-war Japan helped popularize them in the West and as a result they soon appeared on toy store shelves across the world.

Early examples were often produced from recycled tin, such as a cans of “Spam”, while later versions were adapted for factory mass production as demand increased, with better materials and finishes and are often astonishingly complex and ingenious – completely mechanical switches and gears allow for a variety of timed actions, with greater sophistication as the toys moved from being clockwork to battery powered.

It would be a stretch to describe them as cuddly in the same way that vinyl dolls for young girls are, or teddy bears etc – very often the metal tabs that held them together would cause cuts – their main purpose was to capture the imagination of kids – most often boys – hungry for everything and anything space and technology oriented, as symbols of power and purpose that combine the ingenuity and mystery of automata, an area that the Japanese excel at and can be seen in medieval examples, such as large Samurai figures that load and fire arrows from a bow using clockwork motors and wooden gears.

In fact, their actual playability is limited – very often purchased and then batteries loaded, after which they would run the course of their simple analogue programming, with flashing lights or smoke or noise and even voices by means of internal record players and after the initial awe, tidied away for another day, or worse – as was very often the case – dumped.

Growing up I remember having a few clockwork robots and later some battery operated toys from either Japan or Hong Kong and by my late teens my interests had moved on and level with changing tastes by the 1970’s, the Golden Age of the Post War tin toy robots had passed, and by the mid 1980’s they had acquired vintage status as rare examples of both manufacturing quality and cultural significance with their value increasing accordingly.

My interest was reignited in the late 70’s after finding Michael Buhler’s, slim but fascinating book of photos of his personal tin toy collection “Tin Toys”. Serendipitously, I met the author some years later through his parallel fascination with UFO’s whilst working on an animated film on the subject and that he had acted as an advisor on – his interests combined UFO’s, tin toys, painting and psychology.

The demand for robot toys didn’t wane however, due in large part to the “Star Wars” years of the late 1970’s, and somewhat ironically, plastic replaced tin in their manufacture to adapt to high volume production and to meet toy safety requirements.

The 1980’s is characterized by excess and plastics reflect the periods’ profligate exploitation of natural resources, in particular in petrochemicals used in plastics manufacture.

The consequence of this is that the material costs had gone up – and therefore price point – in comparison to that of cheaper tin and recycled metal, and while, certainly in Japan, the quality of plastic toys never suffered and examples are just as collectible and indeed very sought after by collectors, their tin antecedents manage to hold their own as being remarkable in their own right as ingenious artifacts.

I acquired several vintage tin robots in the mid 80’s from antique stores during the boom period for such vintage toys and since then more and more have surfaced so reducing their value. They can appear in unusual places, for example, on a trip to India in the early 00’s the patriarch of a family I visited took out some classic tin toys in mint condition for me to look and wonder at, still in fully working order and kept hidden away as precious items to be brought out on special occasions and if children happened to be visiting.

I don’t recall owning any of the tin toys that I acquired later so much of my interest is driven by a need to fill a gap that existed for economic reasons rather than nostalgia for childhood, next to a fascination for how they work though I was never brave enough to open one up to examine the interior, especially since there is the fear that you could unwittingly inflict damage on a valuable antique…until now.

In part 2 I will outline the steps involved in restoring a vintage tin Cragstan Yonezawa battery-powered “Talking Robot”, from the classic early tin robot period and inspired by videos on RobotHut and by Randi Rain, one of the very few female robot restorers out there, and she knows her stuff…:)

*Read Part#2 here.

Ravi Swami 2021