Dad Customizes Toys to Create Bond with Kid

Father & son creation

Making quality time with your kid by designing and stylizing hand-crafted action figures

One of the biggest challenges with preschool kids–or kids on break from school–is just finding something to do, day after day, with energetic, enthusiastic, attentive, inquisitive, and seemingly tireless little people. So far as I know, none of us are made of money, so even the indulgences we do allow ourselves have to be carefully spaced out and controlled so as not to Chuck E. Cheese our way into financial problems. And how exactly do you do that during a Chicago summer like this when the mercury regularly tops 95 degrees for most of the afternoon, marooning you indoors almost as effectively as a blizzard?

Customizing your toys.

Let me explain. Around Christmastime last year I discovered that I worked right around the corner from one of these new “Art Toy” stores that sell the peculiar fist-sized vinyl toys (sometimes called “Urban Vinyl”)  popular in Japan and increasingly popular in the US. I’m coming way, way late to this party of course, but there’s evidently a whole movement started in the mid 2000′s by musicians, artists, and street-art creative types who made their own custom limited toylines. A company called Kidrobot eventually brought this to the rest of us by making small, blank vinyl dolls called “Munny”s. They have all sorts now, a cat, a bear, a crocodile, a giraffe, a kangaroo, a bunny, and all of them come with some sort of random equally cartoonish accessory you can use to make your own custom toy. I got one for John last Christmas, and we’ve since made three more.

We happened to get a Mini Munny (which is what they call the 4″ ones, they come in several sizes) named “Bub” who was shaped, as far as I can tell, sort of like a little bear. Bub came with a little plastic spear, and of course John immediately said “let’s make him a knight, no wait, a knight that’s a castle guard.” Why a castle guard seemed preferable to a knight, I’m not sure, and that’s one of the beauties of customizing toys: it nurtures creativity. First I took the blank and added some armor and details to him with bakeable Sculpey clay. Then we baked him on a cookie sheet to harden everything and went about painting him.

Here’s John working on the spear with some basic acrylic paints, which have the dual helpfulness of being both very cheap and easily washable.





I put two coats of spray-on Krylon Matte Finish on him, and he’s ready to play with, alongside the other Munny (a secret agent I made from a blank named “Foomi”).

After creating the secret agent and knight, I brought home two more blanks, a crocodile named “Kracka” and a cat named “Trikky”. I consulted John about what we should make them into, and he said he wanted a viking and a ninja. Specifically a brown-colored ninja. “Trikky” came with an axe as his random accessory, so that was easy enough, but I thought the cat would make a better ninja, so first we made “Kracka” into the viking.

I got a bit more adventurous with the sculpting this time, adding the helmet, horns, beard, and the shield that had to be baked separately. All of these of course are meant to be regular toys mixed in with John’s other toys, and I wanted to see how the Sculpey clay would stand being played with, so I glued everything down and double-coated the whole figure with Krylon matte finish. So far, a week later and even after being played with by John’s younger cousin Gabriel who is three and a half, I’ve only had to glue one horn back on this one after I accidentally knocked it off of a high shelf.

With the cat one, I decided to go for broke. John was firm on wanting a ninja, and my thought was that it wasn’t going to look cool unless I added a bunch of details and sculpted stuff to it. Here’s the cookie sheet with him in pieces right before we baked all of the Sculpey on. The figures are soft vinyl, but they’ll survive 15 minutes in the oven at 275.

Then I re-attached the arms and head and glued together all of the separate hardened pieces and made sure that his arms and head could swing freely without breaking anything off or rubbing against each other.

Sculpey is relatively springy (like hard plastic), but when it’s thin, it’s easy to snap off if you push on it too hard. Otherwise, though, these toys are surprisingly good to go in terms of play. Once they’re Krylon-ed, they can withstand water and pizza sauce fingers and being put in a toy box with each other without chipping or losing much/any paint. John hasn’t taken any of them into the bathtub yet, but I suspect they’d survive it.

John helped paint the body a light brown and decided that the bird on his head (“Kracka”s random accessory) should look red like one of the Angry Birds. I did the detail work after it dried. With these, you have to do lots of coats of thin, watered down acrylic paint in order to get a nice even tone that doesn’t look brushed-on and lumpy. It takes a while, so be patient if you try it.

So at the cost of about a day’s work each, we managed to construct our own custom action figures, which speaking as someone who lived through the 80′s–arguably the best decade ever for action figures–is pretty goddamned cool. And I got to spend all that time one-on-one creating with my son. The blanks are $10 and can be bought at Rotofugi ( Chicago,, and Barnes and Noble. If you’re in the Chicago area, I highly recommend stopping into Rotofugi just to see what the whole Urban Vinyl craze is about.
About Mark R. Brand

Mark R. Brand is a Chicago-based science-fiction author and the online short fiction editor of Silverthought Press. He is the author of three novels, The Damnation of Memory (2011), Life After Sleep (2011), and Red Ivy Afternoon (2006), and he is the editor of the collection Thank You Death Robot (2009), named a Chicago Author favorite by the Chicago Tribune and recipient of the Silver medal 2009 Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) in the category of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He is the producer and host of Breakfast With the Author and lives in Evanston, IL with his wife and son.


  1. My daughter has been quite into Warhammer, and we’ve spent a lot of time together, assembling and decorating figures (not as magnificent as this:, I admit). More than anything, I think that what makes this rewarding is doing a joint project, where you agree together what your want to do and then work to reach the goal. Plus you’re learning a craft and doing things with your hands. Good fun on many levels.

  2. I have to say I have very mixed feelings about this article.

    I’m a great believer in tearing down barriers and obstacles of all types – and when it comes to breaking down the pseudo social barriers that have been created between fathers and kids I’m right in there with a the wrecking bars.

    But – as I looked at this article I kept on having flash backs to the Truman Show and 1950’s house wives! It’s the aire of how to be perfect at that domestic task with the perfect person showing the world how to be perfect. You know you have been exposed to too many stereotypes when kids doing Urban Vinyl with dad causes such a major trip out …. and you wake up screaming “No No Not Betty Crocker”. P^)

    • @ MediaHound, I’m not getting the trip out “…when kids doing Urban Vinyl with dad causes such a major trip out”? I like it as an extended project you can do together and play together, one that has more resonance and connection than something that’s just unpackaged.

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