A step back in time: Bonner business creates WWI ‘toy’
At first glance, it might look like Bonner Springs resident Steve Allen gets to play with toys all day.
But his home-based business, Timewalker Toys & Collectibles, is a very serious undertaking.
For one thing, business is booming for the online retailer of one-sixth scale figures, largely consisting of World War II military figures and movie characters — Allen said the company has been virtually untouched by a downtrodden economy.
“We’ve never really seen a period of stagnation, even through the worst of the recession,” he says.
For another, Allen and his wife, Margaret, have taken on the significant task of introducing a new era to the market, producing a prototype for a World War I line of figures. Already, a copycat figure is being produced by another manufacturer that caught wind of the Allens’ line, but the Allens hope it is clear their toy is of a higher quality.
“They have produced a similar product; ours is distinguished in the fact that it is much more historically accurate,” Steve Allen said. “It’s not to say that their figure is bad, but it’s more of the common kind of output you get from the industry.”
Not just a G.I. Joe
Allen got into the 1/6-scale industry a decade ago as a collector, shortly after it started to grow when a company called Dragon Models started producing fully articulated, historically accurate World War II figures.
“A lot of people will look at it superficially and think back to the days of the old G.I. Joes that are 12-inch,” Steve Allen said. “But they’ve come so far now, that the representation of a soldier in 1/6 scale form can be highly detailed, with hyper-realistic headscopes and miniature equipment. It’s miniature militaria, really.”
Allen estimates about 2,000 to 3,000 individual figures have been created over the years. World War II toys range from average soldiers to historical figures such as German field marshal Erwin Rommel and Hitler. These figures cost $80 to $120.
A company called Hot Toys began producing 1/6 scale figures from the comic book movie industry, such Captain America and Thor, and cost $150 to $200.
“The kids love them, but the kids can’t afford them, so they’re really for adults,” Steve Allen said.
With the level of historical accuracy, collectors include professors who use the toys in their teaching to those who put the pose-able dolls in dioramas.
“The reason for a lot of hobbyists that 1/6 scale is interesting is it’s not too big, where it’s going to take up a lot of space, but it’s not so small that you can’t appreciate the minutiae, the detail of the equipment,” Steve Allen said.
It didn’t take long for Allen to go from collector to seller. The business began when he visited an Overland Park online vendor to pick up a few items.
“I kind of got the bug at that time; I looked around and thought, ‘We can do this — there’s something here,’” Steve Allen said.
Allen and his wife, both with anthropology degrees from Kansas University, where they met, took their business’s name from anthropologist Clive Gamble’s book “Timewalkers: The Prehistory of Global Colonization.” They said they knew their niche would be selling 1/6 scale to militaria collectors, and so began to sell their products at militaria shows as well as online at timewalkertoys.com.
It seems to have worked.
“The intent was to make just a little bit of additional income, but it grew pretty quickly and became all-consuming rather fast,” Steve Allen said. “Over the course of a couple years, we had established ourselves as one of the leading 1/6 scale retailers out there, and we’ve been building on it ever since.”
In 2008, Steve Allen quit his other job and started running the business full-time. The couple say they continued with a conservative approach but found they weren’t impacted by the economy. Customers told them they were taking fewer vacations but spending more time at home with their hobby.
“You would think that the unnecessaries in life would go by the wayside, but when you’re not able to do all the things you would prefer to do in the summer time, this is a good thing to occupy your leisure time with,” Steve Allen said.
Just as Steve began working fulltime on Timewalker, he and Margaret decided to see if they could fill a void they had noticed in the industry.
Both lovers of history, they had been volunteering at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City since its 2006 opening. But the 1/6 scale industry didn’t reflect figures from The Great War.
“With the centennial approaching it’s time — it’s getting closer to time to have them out,” Margaret Allen said.
They started petitioning manufacturers in the industry to look at World War I as an option for a toy line.
“Nobody really had an interest at the time, but we finally got in contact with a company that was willing to take a look at it and look at our proposal,” Steve Allen said.
The Allens went to California a year ago to pitch a World War I product line of figures to that company, CalTek. The time since has been spent determining just how to approach the line and the first prototype: an early war imperial German infantry soldier, wearing a spiked helmet and intricate tunic.
“We decided on that figure because it is kind of the iconic look of the war, at least where the German Empire is concerned,” Steve said. “It has a little bit of flash to it, and we want to make a big impression with the first one.”
Developing a prototype
The Allens have spent months working with World War I museum experts to ensure their prototype is historically accurate, at a level of research Steve Allen says goes beyond the norm in the industry.
They have gone back to the original source material, taking photographs and measurements to make sure the manufacturers in China make the most accurate World War I figure possible.
But the back and forth communication has been difficult. For example, they sent a photo of a helmet cover to the manufacturers, who sent back a 1/6-scale helmet cover including the holes from age and wear and tear shown in the photo.
“That wasn’t meant to be reproduced, but they took it literally,” Steve said.
Altogether, they created 38 different panels with historical details and descriptions of each item on the toy.
“It’s quite a laborious process to put all these things together, but it’s important because what we’re ultimately working toward is a highly realistic product line,” Steve said.
Doran Cart, senior curator of the World War I Museum, said he has appreciated the Allens’ use of the museum as a research facility, and that the toy line may help revive people’s interest in the history of the war. Cart said the museum gets requests for research assistance from all over the world, from documentaries to graduate students’ research projects, but the Allens’ project was unique.
“I have to admit, the project with Steve and Margaret, that’s a first, for us to do that on that type of scale,” he said. “As far as a whole detailed uniform and equipment for a 1914 German infantry soldier, that’s a whole different kind of project.”
While the competitor’s copycat doll has a specific name and will hit the market in the next few months, the Allens are simply calling theirs the Battle of Liege German Infantry soldier, and they hope it will be available in the fall.
The couple will continue with more World War I figures in the future, though they say it will be hard to research some soldiers, like Belgian and Russian, as original items are harder to find. They think the line will cause their business to finally expand beyond the capacity of their home, as well.
“It’s quite a project, and it’s been a lot of fun to put together,” Steve said.