Mattel debuted the first Thingmaker sets in 1964 with Creepy Crawlers (a variety of bugs, snakes, bats and other gruesome members of the animal kingdom) as their featured creation.
The many Thingmaker sets that followed made many different things, but all sets generally consisted of the same stock items to create these marvels.
There were metal moulds, special ‘Plastigoop’ used to fill these moulds, an open-face oven to bake the moulds in, a cooling pan to cool the creations, tongs to use for mould handling, and a set of adornments (beads, paint, etc.) that were used to decorate the finished creations.
It was quite a lot of gear, and it was used in a complex process that kept kids busy for hours.
The Thingmaker process began as the Plastigoop was poured into moulds, often combining colours to get exactly the right shade.
These moulds would then be placed into the electrically-powered Thingmaker Oven to bake for a few minutes. When they were ready, they would smoke ever so slightly and create a very distinct chemical odour.
At this point, the tongs came into play, carefully removing the moulds from the Oven and dipping them into a cooling pan filled with cold water. The moulds would create an ear-satisfying sizzle when they hit the cold water. After a few minutes, they would cool to the point they could be handled.
Once fully cooled, the young thing-makers gently pried their new rubbery creations from the moulds and added the finishing touches with the decoration accessories that came in the kit. Needless to say, this whole process required thorough attention and timing. If the moulds were undercooked, the result was a lump of icky goo.
If the moulds were overcooked, the creation would get stuck to the mould. There was also a slight element of danger in handling the hot moulds, especially if you got too excited and tried to remove a still-hot item from a mould that wasn’t fully cooled. But done properly, the process could be quite rewarding, and many Thingmaker owners quickly blossomed into true artists.
Thingmaker and Creepy Crawlers were immediate hits, leading to the introduction of new Thingmaker kits and several add-on kits in 1965. The new Thingmaker kits featured Fighting Men (toy soldiers) and Creeple People (strange little creatures that could double as pencil-toppers). Maker Packs were also introduced that year.
These add-on sets basically contained everything in a Thingmaker kit except for the oven, allowing people who already owned the Creepy Crawlers to add Fighting Men and Creeple People to their Thingmaker repertoire. Finally, there were Accessory Kits that consisted of a few moulds and a bottle of Plastigoop. The first Accessory kit allowed Thingmakers to make Batman toys.
Like their predecessors, these new Thingmaker items were a smashing success. They became a necessity for any creatively inclined kid and, as the years passed, the varieties of things that could be produced by a Thingmaker increased exponentially.
Cartoon fans got kits for Superman, The Green Hornet, Tarzan and the Peanuts characters.
Kids who liked icky creatures bought Slitheries (snakes), Squirtles (bugs that could squirt water) and Mini Dragons. Meanwhile, horror fans snapped up Skeletons, Shrunken Heads, and Fang and Claw sets that made fake fangs and claws for their faces and hands.
These varieties ensured that the Thingmaker kept different kinds of kids happy, giving the toy a long shelf life in the process.
During its heyday, Thingmaker also inspired a number of spin-off toys by Mattel that used variations on the same basic technology. The first was Vac-U-Form, a toy that allowed its users to mould plastic into everything from toy cars and boats to wearable badges and disguises.
This was followed by the Hot Wheels Factory, which allowed kids to manufacture their own working toy cars, and Incredible Edibles, which used special edible goop that came in flavours like raspberry, cherry and root beer to create strange-looking but edible candies.
The latter toy was later expanded to make Kooky Kakes, real cakes that could be decorated to look like little creatures. It also included plastic feet for the Kooky Kakes to stand on.
In the early 1970s, parents and lawmakers alike became worried about the safety of toys, and the Thingmaker got caught in this crossfire. Despite its successful history, Mattel quietly discontinued the toy in 1974.
Thingmaker and its components swiftly became prized items for nostalgia buffs and toy collectors. Though it was no longer available, Thingmaker continued to be a cult favourite and lingered in the memories of its many former owners.
Any toy loved by so many people was destined to make a comeback, and in 1992, Toymax resurrected the Thingmaker for a new generation of toy fans.
In 2016, Mattel reinvented the Thingmaker as a 3D printer that cost $300. The fused filament fabrication machine extrudes layer upon layer of melted thermopolymer to create an object. The thermopolymer filament comes in multiple colours on reels that attach to the 3D printer.
Users upload design files via Mattel’s proprietary Design App (based on software from the CAD company AutoDesk), which works on Android or iOS devices, and can print parts to be assembled into toys.