ITS HISTORY, PRODUCTS AND PROCESSES
The manufacturing process began with the unloading of lorries in Castle Street; Long Garden Walk was inaccessible to large vehicles at that time, the now pedestrianised junction with Castle Street being the only vehicular access. The blue half-hundredweight drums of raw polyester resin were then taken to the workshop on a hand trolley along these narrow streets (which were former rope-walks). The drums had to be manhandled up the rickety outside steps to the upper floor, where moulds were assembled for the individual products. The moulds were filled with the resin, which had been mixed with pigments of the appropriate colour mix and a catalyst to harden the resin. One of the later processes used in making the coffee tables (36 x 18 inches) was the use of two different mixes of resin. The first, and usually darker, colour (e.g. blue) would be poured into the mould, immediately followed by the second colour (e.g. gold) poured into the centre, causing the blue to be displaced.
Pigmentation and all aspects of manufacture were craft processes, performed mainly by eye - no computers in those days! Addition of the catalyst caused a rapid chemical reaction, heating the resin and, in addition to the internal crazing, created a quite unique smell which drifted over the area, no doubt to the consternation of residents in the upper-class homes of Castle Street! The process had to be adjusted to create either a large shattering effect for products such as lamps, or a smaller, closer shatter more suited to smaller products such as the paperweights or thin castings such as the tables. Once the resin had cooled and set, the moulds could be removed and the object passed to the sanding department downstairs.
Cube paperweights and their derivatives were cast in glass moulds; this was also the method for table lamps, with the glass pieces of the mould held together with Sellotape. The egg paperweights were cast in glass bulbs manufactured primarily for the electric lighting industry - these were than cracked open like real eggshells to obtain the piece from within. This was also probably the way the spheres were cast, but memories cannot confirm that for certain. The moulds used for coffee tables usually consisted of a large wooden board covered with Sellotape and then cardboard edges to the required height were Sellotaped to the board; a “Heath Robinson” method, but cheap and effective. After the casting was broken out, the least interesting side would be chosen for a glassfibre base to be bonded. This was done using the time honoured method of sticking Sellotape around the sides of the table to form an edge to retain the bonding resin. The top of the table was then cast using clear resin to form a smooth surface to be polished and to seal the large exposed cracks where the shatter broke through the surface. After squaring up the casting in the finishing department, using an angle grinder, the same method for filling the cracks that protruded through the sides also involved a retaining strip of Sellotape and a hot resin mix. Once the edges were filled the whole table could then be sanded smooth and French polished.
Pen-holder, showing felt base
Photo: © Mike Andrew
The base of the smaller moulded items would have sharp flashing around the edges and, as a result of cooling shrinkage, a slight dip in the middle. This base would be sanded flat for later application of a felt base (or, for certain products, the base would be fine-sanded, then polished instead of having felt applied). In the sanding room, despite efforts to extract and filter it, the air was always thick with resin dust. Those of us who worked there wore an extravagant range of hats to keep the worst of it out of our hair, and tied hankies across our mouths to protect the lungs. These were the days before dust masks became the norm. And any benefit of tying hankies over mouths was probably negated when we took turns to clean out (with brooms, shovels and sacks) the "dust room" - a sealed room to which the extractors sent the dust they collected! But at least we weren't working with asbestos, fortunately. The surfaces which had been in contact with the mould also needed processing - there would be blemishes which would need to be polished out (or possibly sanded and then polished). There might also be surface cracks - major cracks would result in rejection of the piece but minor cracks would be filled with clear resin, sanded and polished to perfection.