Challenges of 4x4


Hello to all of my fans, foes, and friends!  It's been a wild 2017.  I'd like the chance to do a little recap and review of something after first bringing a bit of bad news.  HWS will not be able to hit our hard deadline of Jan. 22, 2018 for the end of 4x4.  Before putting myself at the mercy of my customers, I am hope the end will not be that much later than we initially projected, and I wish to share with everyone the challenges of 4x4.  I do not want this to end up as a list of complaints or excuses for the extension of the sale completion, but instead I am optimistic that this information may help others create their own sale formats and provide insight to potential issues which can cause real delays to projects people begin with the intention of completing.  Oh, I also intend to complete 4x4 and carry on.  Please do not forget this.

 1. Participation & Promotion -

A lot of the time it seems that participation in artisan sales is fast, furious, and people may even buzz about it.  The truth is, I feel like that used to be the case when artisan sales were a lot less frequent, and there weren't so many of us making caps.  I'm not particularly deft with handling or keeping up with the changes that have occurred in the structure of the enthusiastic keyboard cobblers.  When creating 4x4, the objective was to give such a massive amount of opportunity that all walks would be able to participate.  This sale had micro batches without the tight time restrictions. It had lots of thought and planning put into each colorway with a dedicated 3 shot minimum.  Did I mention there was no real urgency other than to think about the order before placing it?


The truth is that lack of stress/urgency really bit us in the ass.  This sale would force us to remake our workshop, reinvent our workflow with regard to production and authentication, and most importantly generate the funds to support work expenses as well as our basic cost of living.  The sale was announced April 17th, 2017 to open April 23rd, and officially my last day of contracted work by voluntary resignation was May 4th.  I had my savings, this sale, and confidence that the concept would genuinely sell out based on the virtue of it.  People could enter the sale, tell their friends and not feel like assholes, or like they were ruining their own chances. Also, I felt the prices were reasonable for folks submitting their money for the better part of a full calendar year.  I was asking a lot and offering a lot as well.


The relaxed offering really showed when the confused may-be-participants wouldn't hit the buy button.  COME ON!  My die hard fans (RNGeezus bless) back me up sight unseen without many of them truly understanding what was going on, but anyone who was expecting something great to come from HWS wasn't given the right promotion to really motivate a buy.  I had a seemingly limitless supply of keys by what is even the current definition of artisan work, very little answers to peoples questions, and I was buckling under the pressure.  


The sale really occurred in about 2 different spans of time April-early May and the end of July.  In terms of sale volume, I had been working to produce 3/8 of the total number of keys available in the sale since I had left my job, and it was only during the beginning of July that I panicked and announced sale closure.  In this time, I was contemplating a part or full-time job hunt, and finishing up mold production while making sure there were enough for everyone's 1st choice, and just writing off the sale as a failure.


At this point, I feel comfortable saying we had originally opened up 4x4 with a stock limit of 1600 keys total.  Four color groups of 400 keys per group.  This means by the beginning of July, we had Nebula sold and then on avg 75 sold of each other color group.  Our target to operate comfortably to January 2018 with estimated working expenses was the total of 1600 keys.  Luckily, by the end of July when the sale was announced to close we had sold very close to 1500, which was enough to continue with our studio work full time.  This left us with the opportunity to scale up mold production and focus on becoming a better studio.  Wouldn't it be something if the molds and scaling up as a studio were also challenges?

 2. Molds and Becoming a Better Studio -

In August, our mold release solution became a mold release problem.  We were baking a protective coating at 375° F, which reduced the surface energy of the RTV platinum silicones we were using.  This would be applied prior to every cast, which acted as a sacrificial coating, and honestly, it wasn't horrible.  We'd wash the molds after demolding, and start it over again.  Our use of solvent based spray releases was strictly for silicone to silicone release as well as treating :~$ynth parts, but we had learned very early on that a number of spray releases create inconsistent results, and often degraded molds pretty quickly.  Because I am a distributor of a mold product, I have to say that what I carry in my studio shop will not reduce mold lifespan in favor of an easy feeling release.  I also can say that there is one brand or another to avoid.  That’s just my courtesy to the truth.  The truth is in artisan keycaps we are in a unique situation.  There aren't too many production crafts at this scale which use RTV silicone for entire production campaigns.  RTV silicone is porous and also chemically degrades as its physical structure is worn.  Our solution was to use a protective, heat-set, barrier which doubled as a release agent to prevent loss of detailed components as well as eventual mold acidification.  I feel like the ripping of mold details is easy to understand, but it takes a bit of science to look at acidification of the silicone oils and what kinds of defects can be caused by it.  When silicone oils turn too acidic and begin to interact with other compounds, it can become unstable.  Relatively low thermal interaction with this unstable oil can cause gases to accumulate in the pores of the mold and then release during a cure.  Additional pressure applied to the cast resin can not fix this phenomena because the release of gas is exponentially greater in volume than the deposits of this oil.  Coating the porous silicone oily-solid construct has worked for us since we started to work with this material in late 2014-beginning 2015 and beyond.


The issue at hand is that we lost the ability to procure said mold release, and our angel to counter this issue came in the voice of NightCaps Eat_the_Food.  He said ‘Just make more molds,’ and we did.  We also set up an arrangement to visit earlier in the year during the Seattle 2017 summer meetup.  I learned a lot of great things from my time with the makers in the PNW.  There were a ton of very generous people, and we did our best to return knowledge in kind.  This is one of the caveats to the challenge because it is important to note that our struggle with this issue was greatly reduced when we sought help from peers and professionals.


Professionally, I also reached out to Miller Stephenson in June, as my supply of magic mold release was coming to its end.  Miller Stephenson is a chemical company which produces a large number of industrial compounds for North America including but obviously not limited to Krytox™!  Woo!  Everyone loves the lube.  It’s great stuff.  In speaking with their representatives about my business and goals, we established that their products may be used for RTV silicone molds, but the existing lineup may not be entirely appropriate to prevent the sorts of issues I had in the past while retaining mold detail.  That concern was entirely valid, but they assured me that a customized solution was not outside of reasonable acquisition.  It would just take time.


Time wasn’t exactly kind.  We were making many many many molds, throwing many many molds away, and we made many many tests of Miller Stephenson ReleaSys™ products as part of our routine through late Summer all into Fall.  By early November we actually had a working product, technique, and workable solution for micro detailed RTV silicone molds in the form of ReleaSys™ 9804 as a protective coating and ReleaSys™ 78.  The revisions of technique and being a better studio grew organically during this time as well.  To be a better studio we had to adapt to these challenges and the scale of our project which wasn’t certain until the end of July.


Remember how we had been communicating with NightCaps?  It was really above and beyond what they needed to do.  I would consider them to have considerable grace and kindness to allow us into their lives for an entire week.  It was in that time we learned we had been deliberately choosing safe methods of production over effective methods.  I don’t mean personal safety, but I mean predictably safe methods.  Our yields were high, our molds in circulation were low to keep costs low, and that afforded us to work as long as the molds didn’t break, which would cause us to lose time on mold production.  If things didn’t go our way, and we were in a position to lose molds, we would have been set back far too long.  NIghtcaps’ studio was set up so that each part of the process had a space and a time and a way to quickly determine the success of their run of molds & keys.  All of their work happened well after they were awake, and ended well before they signed off for the day.  It was truly inspiring to see the work ethic meet a truly efficient workflow.  Our foresight to seek to learn from others made August to November some of our most productive time for colorways and introducing the Fugthulhu sculpt into the WILDCARD line-up.  The revisions to our mold release solution and our studio are probably the most lengthy topic, and I’d love to professionally consult on the topic with talented peers sometime soon.  Something has to be said about separating the studio from all other essential parts of life, and if only we had this information sooner I think some other challenges may have been avoided as well.  Challenges to avoid would be having little to no support in crisis.


3.  Personal Crises -

Going into 4x4, we had just welcomed two lovely fur-n-chkins into our lives named Bowie and Chase.  They are both two years of age as of this new year.  I had planned vet expenses and possible emergencies into the budget for ourselves, and I think that was the right thing to do.  After coming back to Pennsylvania on Aug 1st, our dogs had horrible looking skin, they were losing patches of fur, and our sitter for the week was avoiding the topic of their condition to focus on a few lame interactions with passer-bys on walks.  Our boys can be a handful so this didn’t seem like misdirection at the time, and honestly it couldn’t all be misdirection as our guys are 90 lbs each and any one person would have trouble walking them near a really big distraction.  About 3 days after returning, we were more concerned because their skin was getting worse, and our boy Bowie’s skin was nearly entirely bald and bleeding.  He looked horrid.  It was in our week absence from the home and studio that they had contracted Sarcoptes scabiei mites, or more commonly known as Sarcoptic Mange.  Our studio shifts were done on rotation during that time.  Between my wife and I, we would take turns watching the dogs to make sure they did not chew a hole in their skin.  The time watching was really difficult and exhausting, but so was working on our projects alone.  You can’t implement a new standard of studio when there’s no time to practice or plan together.  We became disjointed as a working force and as a couple.


After the 6 week treatment of our boys came to an end, I think the damage had already been done.  We had no patience for each other’s shit, and our respective roles were confused.  It took a lot of effort in communication to implement the changes we wanted from the beginning of August after our trip to PNW.  We began to meet formally twice every day when we finally could, we spoke about our relationship frankly, and worked on our definitive vision for the studio.  By our most recent challenges with the weather, I think that vision of our workflow is finally starting to take shape in a way we can both find some pride.

 4. Weather -

Compared to everything before this, I believe Weather is the short and simple final hurdle that we’ve had to overcome.  The world is changing, and our weather for the past couple years has been less than predictable.  I have not had a single year without weather concerns living and working in Pennsylvania.  One thing which was particularly difficult this year was that the Summer was wet, and the Winter has had sudden and deep drops in temperature.  This has largely been caused by tropical storms and oceanic weather patterns just fucking up the coast.  To combat high humidities, we began to determine the dew-point on any given day because as long as the dew-point was not very high, a mold can go through depressurization without accumulating moisture.  Part of what we do is to pressurize molds when the technique requires it.  When the mold is depressurized, the temperatures inside the pressure pot drop suddenly, and if the molds are exposed to moist air, moisture will begin to accumulate first to the cooled air and then to any objects within that atmosphere.  This is an issue for heat and high humidity, but on the opposite end of the spectrum things can get too cold, and even if that cold air is dry, it can still be just too damn cold.


Cold introduces its own set of challenges, but in cold weather, the properties of everything from the colorants to the resins change.  The viscosity changes, the surface energy changes, the solubility changes, and on a more obvious level, the pot life and cure times change.  In an environment under 60°F, there is not enough ambient thermal energy for the catalyzing exothermic reaction to operate as intended.  This can be good if intentional.  A longer cure with lower heats will cause less shrinkage, but this involves stepping up the heat little by little until desired cure temperatures are reached.  We’re dealing with changing the atmosphere of our space in what is a repurposed space built into our home, so we had to be careful.


Careful means doing our best to learn about safe ways to reduce humidity and control temperature.  We have not yet a great method for cooling our space, but thankfully heat can be a friend if you prepare for lower pot life work.  When it comes to heating, we implemented a UL certified micafilament electrical heater and Roxul insulations to prevent any overheating or to prevent a malfunction so that heat could not cause damage to the structure of our home studio or any flammable supplies used in making or preparing keycaps and molds.  It’s still a WIP and there’s room for the space to be improved.  I’m tired as hell just thinking about it.  I get kind of sick and tired… Did I say weather was the final hurdle?  It is but I want to revisit the first section for a moment.

1.(again) Participation and Promotion -

At the end of July up until October we were working full steam to take care of our scale.  During this time we had strings of refund requests which, coupled with personal crises, gave me the opportunity to flip shit.  I did, and I acted like a fool in the process.  We had nearly 300 key spots returned, and I was on my phone responding to emails during inappropriate times with inappropriate responses.  I was challenged by the high volume of requests.  The confidence that being motivated and determined gave me, was whittled away little by little over those months, and I showed my ugly sides many times.  It was in our policy as far back as May, I was unable to take returns for full value, but the truth is I wasn’t prepared to just deny truly upset and desperate sounding people their hard earned meal papers.  Everything was a discussion which was tailored to that situation, and I did my best to engage even when I didn’t want to.  I still don’t believe I’m personally equipped to do this as well as I should be, but it was certainly challenging enough to where I may have improved-- a little.  Due to the returns of orders with sometimes 30 or more keys, we opened up 4x4 again for one night on Discord as a number of new fans had missed out on the sale, and were stuck waiting almost a full calendar year for my next run of stuff.  This brought our numbers up but the sale concluded with 1403 total keys purchased.


Time has passed and tested the abilities of HWS, our family, and the patience of our fans, foes, and friends.  I’m certain we are close to finishing 4x4.   Today we have taken pictures of 1000 finished keys.  We now have at least 40 molds in production at any time, and our pull rates are very decent for the volume of keys we produce.  The situation has me pretty embarrassed, but also very excited and hopeful to continue our work.  While I would like to I don’t think I can give an accurate estimate of when it will end because I’m just that bad at estimating, but I’m sure Wifu will go over this with me and we’ll have something to share.  We always have at least something to show for our struggles and work.  Just as this is meant to share new challenges we encountered moving through 4x4 it and other recent developments are something to show for the patronage we have received.


Thank you for your time.  Thank you for your support.