Many of the larger toy companies of the 1920’s through the 1950’s relied heavily on lithographed metal to give their toys depth, detail, and color. Firms such as Louis Marx & Co employed full-time artists proficient in this form of artwork. To make a truly good piece of lithographed metal, one needed to understand color blending, perspective, and shading, to name a few things.
To make a lithographed toy, you pass an uncut sheet of metal through an inking press to add ink to its surface. Each pass through the machine adds one color to the metal. The metal is coated or painted with a light “base coat” before beginning, to give the ink something to adhere to; this is usually a white or very light color, Inks are added to the metal beginning with the lightest color and progressing to the darkest to be used.
Early tin litho presses could only add two colors to the metal sheet. Later, that was increased to four or five. A skilled artist could blend and mix those colors to make twenty or more distinctive colors appear on the finished toy!
Each pass through the machine allows errors to enter the work. If the metal is printed “out of register,” the colors will not line up, and the final product will appear blurred, or completely useless. This is prevented by using alignment marks on the end of the metal sheets.
Only after all of the colors are applied and the ink has dried can the metal then be cut and formed to take on the final shape of the metal toy. This must be done using stamping dies which are well lubricated, so they cut or bend the metal where appropriate without scratching the printed surface.