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What is tin lithography, or tin litho?

Tin lithography is a manufacturing process involving printing a design on tin plated steel, then forming the metal into a design. Lithography is the specific printing process in this case.

Tin lithography is something of a lost art today, or it is at least much less common than it used to be. Tin lithographed toys were, in some ways, the cheap plastic toys of their era, occupying a lowbrow space alongside cast toys made of pot metal. Today the process is largely used for gift boxes and novelty items.

How tin lithography works

what is tin lithography

The Marx train and the yellow Hipwell house in this image are vintage tin lithography from the middle 20th century. The shoe store is modern tin lithography from the 1990s.

Lithography is a form of printing that dates to the early 1800s. It was originally invented in Germany, just one of the reasons so many lithographed toys came from Germany in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The original process involved etching a design into a flat sheet of limestone. Later, the process replaced the limestone with metal, which was much more conducive to mass production. An artist drew the design onto a plate and then chemically etched the plate. To print, you would coat the plate with ink, then run the plate against the printing surface. Ink from the impressions would transfer onto the surface.

Printing more than a single color required multiple passes with different plates. You had to be certain to register the plate with the printing surface so everything would line up.

This process is one of the things that gives vintage lithographed toys a distinctive look. When you look carefully at the design, you can see that they frequently used a small number of colors, and clever use of the design would make three or four colors look like a bit more. But to a modern eye used to seeing modern printing, the design looks distinctive.

In modern printing, we use four colors, but work on the same principle as an inkjet printer, mixing four very specific colors to create an infinite combination of colors.

The cheapest tin lithographed toys just left the ink on the metal and called it good. Slightly more expensive ones applied a clear coat over the whole thing to protect the ink and protect the metal from rusting. The tin plating on the metal protected the metal from rust, but the additional clear coat increased the rust resistance.

What tin lithographed toys were like

The art of tin lithography didn’t stay confined to Germany. The city of Nuremberg was a hub for the technology for decades, but by the early 20th century, a good number of American companies like Ives and Dorfan, and less heralded companies like Non Pareil and Unique Art were using the process as well. And during the 20th century, the technology made its way to Japan. One of the ways Japan rebuilt its economy after World War II was by producing and exporting inexpensive toys.

On this site we spend a lot of time talking about tin lithographed trains, but all manner of toys were produced using these methods. And even as diecasting and plastic displaced it, production using legacy tooling continued for decades. The reason for that was pretty simple. The molds for plastic and die casting were expensive, and if you cheaped out on them, they could wear out and become unusable in a manner of 5 or 6 years. This was a major factor in the Colber Manufacturing Company leaving the toy business.

Meanwhile, their competitor Marx used their tooling for tin lithography for almost four decades. The designs they came up with in 1934 could still be used in 1972. If the printing plates wore out, they just made a new plate. The rest of the tooling was still good. Marx stopped using the lithograph process because the tooling was no longer OSHA compliant. It still worked, it just didn’t meet modern safety standards.

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