A visit to Lancashire to hear a story of individuality and invention from Solarfilm, – maker of films and coverings for the modelling world, makes for a grand and idiosyncratically British, day out – as well, unfortunately, as a valediction for the 50-year old company.
Sadly, the creator of Solarfilm, Derek Hardman, is no longer with us in person; he still models on, though, in the unageing, endless present of the digital dimension: “We do a DVD, ‘How to Use Solarfilm’,” says Andrew Hardman, “and you can see my Dad in action.” For the price of just four first-class stamps and a self-addressed envelope, Derek will come to your home or workshop to share the tricks and techniques for using the product that he began developing in his garage more than 50 years ago. “It’s very professional,” Andrew adds with gentle, Sallis-like humour. “Warner Brothers did it; only cost two hundred million,” he says, brew in hand. “Lots of CGI.” And this one self-deprecatory aside might be all the orientation you need for everything that follows when you step into the solvent-heavy warmth of Solarfilm’s factory, where the surprising quiet is unobtrusively wallpapered by music from what it’s tempting to call ‘the wireless’.
“It all started in Redditch in about ’65. Dad was a chemist; he taught chemistry at Redditch College of Further Education.” He was a modeller, too, of course, which at that time meant that he built and covered his models. “He had this stuff called MonoKote; very easy to use, but” – being imported from the US – “very, very expensive. So he thought, ‘I’ll have a go at making that myself’. He sent off for a sample of film, bought a thousand yards of polypropylene, a five gallon drum of adhesive that would stick to the film, and a stone of yellow oxide [pigment]” – the ingredients with which to make a coloured glue that could be printed onto the plastic film. “He built a machine in the garage with some bits of Dexion and did some trials: he just walked the film out over a roller” – that first machine was mandraulic; power-feed came with the Mk.II version – “and my Mum cut it off, folded it, and hung it up to dry. He carried on doing tests like that ’til he got it to work. Then he chopped it all up into thirty-six inch sheets, took it to a model show, and sold the lot!”
Remember these 100 or so words of profound understatement, won’t you, when you take a walk across the factory floor to see what’s involved in the Solarfilm manufacturing process, which is conducted, mark you – from grinding pigments to packing and labelling – entirely under one roof.
“He got some more colours,” Andrew continues meanwhile, “and started selling it by mail order. He used to [make the film] at night; he’d walk it out and hang it up in the dining room; he’d made a frame with a heater underneath blowing warm air.” The smell of Solarfilm-in-the-making is predominantly one of organic solvents: “We used to get a lot of that at home when we were going to school.
“Then it got too much; he decided that if he was going to carry on, he’d give up his job” – he worked at Dobson & Barlow, the textile machinery manufacturer – “and make a proper go of it.” Moving to Euxton in ‘68, Solarfilm rented an old mill at first before buying a site in Blackpool, and finally moving to the present, purpose-built premises near Chorley in 1980. Each move was occasioned by expansion; each investment indicative of a growing company into which Andrew fell almost by accident: “I trained as a maintenance fitter, but was made redundant just at the time they were moving from Blackpool to here; I came and helped to build the machines, and I’ve been here ever since.”
By ‘build’, Andrew doesn’t mean ‘instal’; the machines he’s talking about weren’t off-the-shelf printing technology but Hardman-designed; the one’s on the factory floor now are direct descendants – the sixth iteration by Andrew’s calculation – of Derek’s
Dexion-framed original. They’ve proved remarkably versatile, too: after producing the glossy, polypropylene Solarfilm in a variety of solid and translucent colours for 15 years, the machines began to be adapted to the needs of around a dozen different covering products that were steadily developed, often in direct response to modellers’ suggestions...