The Testor Corporation
The Testor Corporation
Wholly Owned Subsidiary of RPM Inc.
Sales: 50 million (2001 est.)
NAIC: 325510 Paint and Coating Manufacturing; 325520 Adhesive Manufacturing; 326199 All Other Plastic’s Product Manufacturing
Based in Rockford, Illinois, The Testor Corporation manufactures a wide variety of products for plastic and metallic model enthusiasts, model railroaders, craft enthusiasts, artists, and those engaged in various do-it-yourself projects. In addition to actual model kits, the company produces materials hobbyists need to build and assemble them, including model cement, paints, brushes, and assorted tools. Testor’s line of paints accounts for a significant share of its business. The company offers customers paints that can be applied with traditional brushes or airbrushes. Beyond its line of enamel paints, Testor also markets non-toxic paints that clean up easily with water.
Early Years: 1928-39
Testor’s origins stretch back to the late 1920s and stem from the efforts of two Swedish immigrants named Axel Karlson and Nils F. Testor. When Karlson emigrated from Stockholm to Rockford, Illinois, he brought with him a formula for nitrocellulose-based shoe cement. In 1928 he established a new company, Karlson’s Klister, to market his product.
In February 1929, Karlson convinced Testor, then the manager of an F.W. Woolworth store in Rockford’s Swedish district, to serve as office manager of his new enterprise. It was a relatively risky move for Testor, who began his career as a stockroom boy in Woolworth’s Chicago store on State Street and had worked his way up over the course of four years.
Karlson’s Klister ultimately proved unsuccessful, and Karlson returned home to Sweden. Seeing a new opportunity, Testor borrowed enough money to purchase the firm’s assets and found The Testor Chemical Co. After reformulating Karlson’s shoe cement, Testor began marketing the adhesive as Testor’s Household Cement. Sold in convenient tubes, the new product had a wider range of applications and became especially popular during the Great Depression, when it was necessary to maximize the life and utility of a variety of household items.
Testor began manufacturing its first product in a room on the eight floor of Rockford’s Tower Building, located on South Main Street. However, the company later moved to a location on Railroad Avenue. Subsequent locations included the Billstrom Building on 18th Avenue, as well as locations on 7th Street and Charles Street.
Operations at Testor were literally hands-on during the 1930s. According to a Rockford Register Republic article published on November 29, 1955,“Even in the mid-thirties, Nils F. Testor, the owner-president, and C. Roderick Stroh, now plant manager of the woodworking division, would come down to the plant at night and mix the batch of cement for packaging the following day. They used a 50-gallon barrel which they turned by hand.”
During the 1930s, Testor expanded in size and product offerings. It was during this time that the company began marketing to hobbyists by making cement intended for wooden model airplanes. By 1936, the company offered a line of cements and paints especially for hobby and model airplane enthusiasts.
The War Years and After: 1940s
During the 1930s, Testor established itself as a leading company in the hobby industry. In 1940, the company strengthened its commitment to hobbyists when it became a founding member of the Hobby Industry of America. Although Testor was prepared for continued growth and expansion, a number of roadblocks would slow the pace of progress during much of the decade.
One major challenge was the advent of World War II. Among those affected by the war were U.S. manufacturers, as resources became scarce and large amounts of raw materials were devoted to wartime production. In the wake of this and other challenges, Testor began marketing scale model airplanes made of balsa wood. The popularity of these wooden planes enabled Testor to weather a difficult period in its history.
Following the success of its balsa wood planes, Testor began selling engine-powered balsa planes that hobbyists could control from the ground via an attached line. Working in partnership with model engine manufacturer McCoy Products, Testor marketed kits in four different skill categories—freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior. Each kit contained an airplane, propeller, and fuel (all manufactured by Testor), as well as one of McCoy’s engines. These kits were sold until approximately 1952, when Testor turned its attention to making balsa wood hand-gliders.
Testor experienced a setback one month after the company moved into Rockford’s Buckbee Building when, on February 1, 1944, a fire completely destroyed the interior of the five-story structure. Several days later Nils Testor—who at the time of the fire was in New York on business—commented on the loss in the Rockford Morning Star, proclaiming: “Out of the ashes will come an even better thing.”As predicted, the company’s fortunes improved, and by the end of the 1940s Testor was able to focus on growth and expansion. It was around this time that Testor unveiled new products, including a line of enamel paints and plastic model cement.
Growth and Expansion: 1950-69
As the 1950s began, Testor prospered in the climate of a thriving American economy. The company added a second factory to its operations in 1951. This enabled the production of a greater number of products, including gloss enamel paints in 48 different colors, new adhesives, and fuel for model airplanes. The following year, Testor began to produce balsa wood hand gliders on a large scale, as well as model airplanes with plastic landing gear and propellers that were powered by rubber bands.
In addition to the company’s plants at 2305 Charles Street and 520 Buckbee Street, in January of 1952 Testor leased a third building to increase its manufacturing capacity. With the expansion of both its manufacturing facilities and its line of products, Testor began to grow as an enterprise during the 1950s. Midway through the decade, the firm made its first acquisition, purchasing Duro-Matic Products Co. in 1955. Based in Culver City, California, the company had manufactured the McCoy model airplane engine since 1941. In conjunction with the rapid expansion underway at Testor, Charles D. Miller, who had served as Duro-Matic’s president since 1947, was named as Testor’s vice president in charge of manufacturing. He and Nils Testor had enjoyed a close working relationship in previous years. Miller was serving as president of the Hobby Industry Association at the time of his appointment.
In 1955, Testor sold more than 50 million units of merchandise. By this time, the company had evolved into one of the nation’s largest buyers of small glass bottles and plastic tubes, respectively used to package its PLA enamel paints and cement. Additionally, Testor had become the world’s leading consumer of balsa wood, which it imported from South America. In addition to using balsa wood to manufacture toy airplanes, Testor also sold the wood in board, sheet, and strip form to consumers for hobby use. By the mid-1950s, Testor was also producing approximately 100,000 bottles of its enamel paint each day. In addition to paints and glue, the company sold lighter fluid in cans for 15 cents each.
In spring 1956, Nils Testor announced that his firm had opened a branch in Stockholm, Sweden, called Testor Produkter A.B. In the April 29, 1956 Rockford Morning Star, Testor said that the objective of the new office was to capitalize on the Western European market, which then consisted of approximately 275 million people. Two years later, Nils Testor revealed that he would move from Rockford, Illinois, to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he had established the Testor Balsa Co. for manufacturing toy airplanes, as well as the Testor Adhesive and Paint Co. Inc. These firms handled functions once performed in Rockford. By this time, operations in Rockford consisted of the Testor Corp., which held the primary responsibility of assembling, packaging, and selling the firm’s products, and the Testor Chemical Co., which focused on the manufacture of paint, enamel, lacquer, and adhesive. In late 1958, C. Roderick Stroh was president and general manager of Testor Corp., and Forrest K. Elson was president and general manager of the latter company.
Enterprise growth continued in the 1960s. By February 1963, Charles Miller had become president of Testor Corp. In order to serve customers in Canadian and European markets, Testor established a Canadian subsidiary in Weston, Ontario, in 1964. Four years later, Testor bolstered its Duro-Matic line when it acquired Wenmac Corp., a manufacturer of engine-powered cars and planes.
In 1965, the Jupiter Corp., a Chicago-based holding company, acquired Testor. At the time of the sale, Testor employed approximately 450 workers, 200 of whom were based in Rockford, Illinois. Nils Testor, who maintained residences in San Juan and Westport, Connecticut, remained the company’s chairman. Miller continued to serve as president and chief operating officer.
In 1969, Testor pioneered sniff-proof glue by adding mustard oil to its formula. The additive, which was intended to protect youth from inhaling harmful fumes, made sniffing glue extremely unpleasant, if not impossible. Testor made its formula available to other glue manufacturers at no charge and supported legislation in several states, including New York and New Jersey, which intended to make such additives mandatory.
The successful expansion of the Testor Corporation is largely due in part to the modernization of the facilities, the introduction of the latest in computer technology, and of course a dedicated staff and workforce.
The company ended the 1960s with another acquisition. Testor’s 1969 purchase of the Hawk Model Co. added plastic model kits to its product line. Hawk reportedly produced the industry’s first plastic model.
Progress in Plastic: 1970-79
In 1970, another acquisition followed the purchase of Hawk Model Co. That year, Testor acquired Detroit-based Industro Motive Corp. (IMC) to strengthen its production of plastic model kits at the Rockford plant. By that year, in addition to Duro-Matic and operations in Rockford and Canada, the Testor family had grown to include Testor R-C Corp. and the JTW Corp. In 1970, Forrest Elson was placed in charge of the company’s operations in Rockford and was named Testor Corp.’s executive vice-president.
In order to accommodate rapid growth, Testor announced plans to expand its Rockford facilities in January 1973. Specifically, the firm revealed it would build a 50,000-square-foot addition to its warehouse, along with a new manufacturing facility totaling 30,000 square feet. Together, the additional space increased Testor’s total warehouse and manufacturing space to 300,000 square feet.
Although fluctuating plastic prices initially had a negative effect on Testor’s production of plastic models, by the mid-1970s the company was fully committed to producing them. At that time, the firm also was selling drop cloths, knives, gluing tips, and sandpaper that could be used with its model kits. Testor continued to prosper and by 1978 achieved annual sales of $24 million.
Model Evolution: 1980-2002
Shortly after the 1980s arrived, Testor introduced a new line of high-quality snap-together model kits for intermediateskilled modelers. Although the kits were relatively simple to assemble and did not require the use of paints or plastic cement, they were designed with great detail so as to satisfy more advanced modelers. Among the models offered in this new line were the Rolls Royce Phantom II and a Peterbilt Conventional semi-truck. At the time, the latter model was the most complex snap-together product ever produced by Testor and was composed of over 50 different parts.
On January 17, 1984, RPM Inc. (Republic Powdered Metals) of Medina, Ohio, acquired Testor. At the time, RPM also operated such well-known companies as Bondex, Bondo, Mohawk, Rustoleum, and Zinser. That same year, Testor extended its international reach even further by forming an Australian subsidiary.
By the mid-1980s, Testor was producing models that were cutting-edge. One such model, the F-117 Stealth fighter plane, sparked a great deal of controversy when it was released. Even though the U.S. Air Force would not acknowledge the plane’s existence, Testor was able to paint what it believed to be a realistic representation of the exterior appearance of the top-secret aircraft by speaking to industry experts and reviewing articles and technical drawings. In the May 29, 1986, Rockford Register Star, Ernie Petit, then the company’s national sales manager, commented:“We do a tremendous amount of research. We accumulate everything we can learn and everything that’s already published, and from the information we gather, this is our best guess of what the latest stealth fighter is.”
When a real stealth fighter crashed near Bakersfield, California, in August 1986, the event only added to the controversy. With national attention focused on stealth aircraft, Testor was in the media spotlight. Consequently, sales of its stealth fighter climbed to industry record-breaking levels, eventually reaching one million units. Several years later, the Air Force acknowledged it had developed the F-19 Stealth fighter which, in many respects, was similar to the F-117 model produced by Testor.
In the February 1997 issue of FineScale Modeler, Testor designer John Andrews recalled:“There were senators holding up our model on television and saying they couldn’t get any information on the Stealth and here we had this toy company doing these models. We just happened to be in the correct place at the right time and we had a model.”
Although the Department of Defense did not provide Testor with information on the F-19 Stealth fighter, military sources have provided the company with blueprints, photo opportunities, and information related to other military aircraft. Such cooperation allows Testor to produce extremely accurate models. In addition, the company listens to customer feedback when determining which models it will produce.
- Swedish immigrant Axel Karlson forms Testor’s predecessor, Karlson’s Klister.
- Nils F. Testor joins Karlson’s Klister as office manager, then purchases the firm’s assets and founds The Testor Chemical Co.
- Testor begins marketing a wide range of cements and paints for hobby and model airplane enthusiasts.
- Testor begins marketing scale model airplanes made of balsa wood.
- Testor begins making balsa wood hand-gliders.
- Testor makes its first acquisition by purchasing Culver City, California-based Duro-Matic Products Co.
- Nils Testor announces the opening of a company branch in Stockholm, Sweden, called Testor Produkter A.B.
- Testor establishes a Canadian subsidiary in Weston, Ontario.
- Chicago, Illinois-based Jupiter Corp. acquires Testor.
- By purchasing the Hawk Model Co., Testor adds plastic model kits to its product line.
- Annual sales reach $24 million.
- RPM Inc. (Republic Powdered Metals) of Medina, Ohio, acquires Testor.
- Testor adds the S4 UFO to its lineup of models.
- Testor achieves sales of more than $91 million.
During the 1990s, Testor acquired English airbrush manufacturer Aztek. During that decade, the company continued to produce a wide array of interesting models in addition to modeling paints and adhesives. By this time, Testor’s model kits had evolved considerably from simple hand gliders made of balsa wood to plastic facsimiles of military aircraft like the SR-71 Blackbird Spyplane, the RF-4 Phantom II Spirit of America, and the V-22 Osprey, as well as land vehicles like the Sherman M4 Al tank.
In 1994, Testor added the S4 UFO to its lineup of models. According to the September 26, 1994 Rockford Register Star, the company based the design of its UFO on descriptions from a former government scientist who supposedly worked with such craft at Nellis Air Force Range in Nevada. Based on input from the same man, Testor released a model of Grey—The Extraterrestrial Life Form. In 1997, Testor unveiled its Ros well UFO model, based on the alien craft that supposedly had crashed in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico, 50 years earlier.
By the early 2000s, Testor remained a dominant force in the hobby industry. In addition to its operations in Rockford, Illinois, the company had manufacturing facilities in Europe and the Far East. Almost 50 years before, Nils Testor had commented on the success his company was experiencing in the November 29, 1955 Rockford Register Republic, remarking: “Where we are today doesn’t mean anything. We hope we never arrive—I hope we keep right on moving.”If past performance is any indication, Testor’s future will be characterized by continued success.
Racing Champions Erti (AMT); Re veil-Monogram.
“55 Years at Testor,”Rockford Register Star, May 12, 1994.
Boatman, Edie.“How Model Kits Are Produced,”FineScale Modeler, February 1997.
“Chicago Company Buys Testor Corp.,”Rockford Morning Star, May 7, 1965.
“Irritating Jolt Awaits Glue Sniffer,”Rockford Morning Star, July 16, 1969.
“Model Sparks Security Concerns,”Rockford Register Star, August 10, 1986.
Modeler’s Technical Guide, Rockford, 111.: Testor Corp., 1979.
“RPM Inc. Acquires Testor Corporation,”American Paint & Coatings Journal, January 30, 1984.
Schiffmann, William,“Testor’s Model of Mystery,”Rockford Register Star, May 29, 1986.
“Stealth Model Takes Off with Publicity,”Rockford Register Star, August 10, 1986.
“Testor Company Organizes New Branch in Stockholm,”Rockford Morning Star, April 29, 1956.
“Testor Serves Youth, Hobbyists and ’Do It Yourself Clientele. 50,000,000 Pieces of Merchandise Carry Testor Name in 1955,”Rockford Register Republic, November 29, 1955.
“Testor’s Terrestrials Launch New Model Toy,”Rockford Register Star, June 26, 1997.
—Paul R. Greenland