In the early 1970s, the prices of energy products skyrocketed. Although the initial crisis lasted only a couple of years, its effects were still felt throughout much of the decade in what is now known as the Oil Crisis of the 1970s. This increase in energy costs heavily affected the plastics industry, and made the top-quality cellulose acetate plastic used to mold Breyer models both difficult to source and much more expensive – over double its usual cost per pound. To make producing models more economically sound during this time period, Breyer instead turned to colored and mixed batches of plastic from various suppliers.
When painting Breyer models, white areas such as socks, face markings, and pinto patterns are “masked” and left unpainted, letting the white plastic show from underneath. When molding a model out of brightly colored or swirled plastic, this technique no longer works – the colored plastic needs to be covered with white paint to create a blank canvas before painting the rest of the model. This thick, white basecoat is the hallmark of a “chalky” model, a nickname derived from the fact that the stark white points make a chalky model resemble American chalkware figurines.
Chalky #141 bay Grazing Mare, #4000 palomino Classics Arabian Foal, and #6 palomino Family Arabian Foal compared to their non-chalky counterparts. (“Normal” models on left, chalky models on right.)
Although the 1970s created the chalky models that are the most well-known to collectors today, the first chalky Breyer models were created two whole decades before the Oil Crisis hit. Although exceedingly rare, chalky models from the 1950s do indeed exist! Model horse hobby historians have theorized that this stark white “chalky” finish may have either been a way to give the plastic models a luxurious look that mimicked porcelain when paired with the high-gloss finish of the era, or it simply was a way to restore flawed models destined for the cull bin into sellable product. This would have saved money for the company and reduced waste.
Chalky “Old Mold” Proud Arabian Mare and Foal, dating to the late 1950s. Photo by Kelly Weimer
Some chalky models are more common than others – for example, chalky #99 Appaloosa Performance Horses are relatively easy to come by, while others such as the appaloosa and pinto Indian Ponies (#174 and #175) are much more scarce, as are chalky Stablemates models. The stark white coats of chalky alabaster models are also particularly desirable. If you are shopping around to add a vintage chalky to your collection, be aware that “slightly chalky” or “chalky-looking” models do not exist – a model either has a basecoat (or is molded out of chalky plastic, as we will discuss later) or it doesn’t.
Is My Model a Chalky?
This is a question commonly asked by both those new to vintage model horse collectibility, and seasoned veterans alike. Unfortunately, chalky models are notoriously difficult to identify from photographs alone. Even in person, chalky finishes can range from being blindingly white to a much more subtle, opaque white. Plus, on models with no white markings such as Midnight Sun and the original bay Thoroughbred Mare, evidence of chalkiness may only exist under chipped paint or in extremely subtle highlights of the coat color.
Here are some qualities to look for in your model when determining its chalky status:
Bright White Markings
The most easily recognizable trait of chalkies is their distinctive white basecoat. The plastic used in making Breyer models is slightly translucent, which makes it appear as more of a soft white than stark white. This plastic can also yellow with time, especially if exposed to cigarette smoke. The white points on chalky models are noticeably brighter than a normal model’s.
“Normal” plastic model on the left, and chalky model on the right – the chalky finish is a much more brilliant white than the unpainted plastic.
Loss of Mold Detail
Applying chalky basecoats was a “quick and dirty” process in the 1970s – the model was slathered in enough white paint to hide the colored plastic underneath in one fell swoop, which sometimes lead to a loss of mold detail on these models. The thick coat of white paint settled into the tiny nooks and crannies of the sculpture, smoothing them out.
Tail from a chalky Pacer compared to a non-chalky model – note the way the paint has filled in details about 2/3 of the way down the tail.
The paint used on Breyer models is specially formulated to bond with the model’s plastic, creating a much more durable finish. However, when applied to the white paint of chalky basecoats rather than the usual unpainted plastic, the paint would sometimes “bead up” on the model’s surface, which created this speckling effect when dry. This lack of bond between paint and plastic is also why the finish of chalky models is quite fragile and prone to damage.
Speckling in itself does not automatically mean a model is chalky – the same pattern can also be created by a faulty, sputtering airbrush, for example – but it’s a good sign to take a closer look at your model to see if it might be something special.
Speckling on a chalky Pacer’s shoulder.
Pooling, Waffling, and Wood Grain
Hooves are helpful when it comes to chalkies! If you’re stumped on whether or not a model is chalky, flip it over and look at the underside of its hooves. Like with how the thick white basecoat settles into small details on chalky models, it also tended to “pool” underneath the model’s hooves as gravity pulled the excess paint down.
The thick white paint also tended to pick up details of the surface the model dried on – some as just impressions, but others quite literally! Models placed on metal drying racks sometimes have a pattern known as “waffling” underneath their hooves, which was picked up from the small circular holes in the racks. Models were also dried on wooden racks, which can lead to a woodgrain pattern dried into the hooves, or in some cases a chip of the wood itself! That’s right – if you have a chalky model, you might have a literal piece of Breyer’s Chicago factory sitting in your collection!
Pooling and embedded wood chips.
Wooden drying racks that were used in Breyer's Chicago factory can be seen in the background of this photo.
Rubs Reveal All
The basecoats of chalky models are thick and difficult to remove – just ask anyone who’s tried to strip one! – but if you manage to find one with a rub or chip, you may be able to see a hint of oddly-colored plastic lurking underneath. Some collectors also opt to remove a small bit of paint from underneath a chalky model’s hooves to take a peek – this practice isn’t considered something that devalues a piece if done only to the underside of the hooves, but as always, be careful with sharp instruments around model horses!
It’s important to remember that not all chalkies are molded in solid, oddly-colored plastic – in fact, many are made of multiple colors swirled together, including white. If you see white plastic underneath an area of rubbed paint, don’t fret – it’s not an automatic fail on the chalky test!
Dark purple plastic showing through missing paint underneath a hoof.
Colored Plastic Models
In addition to the white basecoat chalkies of this era, models that were painted with dark, solid coat colors (usually bay Thoroughbred Mares, Midnight Suns, and Justin Morgans) were also painted over colored plastic. However, these models tend to forego the white basecoat due to the fact that no white points were needed.
These models exist in a liminal space between “chalky” and “not chalky” – by strict definition of a white basecoat, they are not technically chalkies, but are often grouped in with chalky models due to the presence of the oddly-colored plastic and the fact that they were produced during the same era. These models are usually identified by chips and rubs down to the plastic that show the colored plastic underneath.
Other models, especially bovines, elephants and donkeys, were also molded out of a light grey plastic during this period. Their “white” points are left unpainted, showing the colored plastic underneath. The difference is subtle, but on close inspection is becomes obvious that the light grey points on these models are bare plastic, not shading.
A #81 Standing Donkey molded out of light grey plastic.
Chalky Plastic Models
Chalky plastic is a less common version of the chalky model than basecoat chalkies. Chalky plastic models were created with a denser white plastic than normal that has a similar look to a chalky basecoat. The plastic used in Breyer models is specially formulated to have a degree of translucency (i.e. bright light is able to pass through it), but the plastic used in chalky plastic models is much more opaque. Even to the experienced vintage collector, chalky plastic models can be quite difficult to identify, especially in photos.
Although only tangentially related to chalkies, “pearlies” are often grouped with them in discussions. This is understandable, as they are another 1970s variation that has to do with the base plastic of a Breyer model.
Unlike modern models with a pearl finish, which is applied with special pearly paint, the pearl of vintage pearlies is embedded within the plastic. The pearly plastic was another type that Breyer experimented with during the Oil Crisis. Generally, it was only used on smaller models such as Classics and a handful of Traditional foals – the Rearing Stallion in both bay and palomino are among the most common. Like with chalkies, vintage pearlies are “all or nothing” – there are no “soft pearlies,” “partial pearlies,” or “pearly-like” models. A model was either molded in pearly plastic or it wasn’t.
A pearly palomino Rearing Stallion compared with a normal plastic bay Rearing Stallion. The glittery finish of a vintage pearly model is part of the plastic itself, not applied with paint.
The need for chalky basecoats subsided with the Oil Crisis, and molding in typical white plastic had returned by the end of the 1970s. However, chalkies did not disappear completely in the following decades. A couple of notable chalky releases from later years include the dapple grey Hanoverian created for Horses International in 1986 (which were made from painted over #58 bay models) and Excalibur the Hackney, a 1997 BreyerFest special run. Many Excaliburs were created from flawed Giltege models (a Just About Horses special run from the year prior), and their paint is notoriously fragile because the white basecoat did not adhere well to Giltedge’s glossy finish.
Pluto the Lipizzaner, released in 1991, was the first chalky model in the regular line since the age of the Oil Crisis. He was followed by a handful of other chalky 1990s releases such as the Lakota Ponies on the Foundation Stallion mold and General Lee’s Traveller.
1986 Horses International SR dapple grey Hanoverian, which is a post-Oil Crisis chalky model painted over a RR #58 bay Hanoverian. Photo by Kelly Weimer
Vintage chalkies were born out of necessity, but in recent years, chalky white basecoats have been used as a conscious design choice on some modern Breyer models. A chalky basecoat can up the contrast in the final paintjob and provide and ultra-matte finish. Chalky finishes have also been used on some Vintage Club models, such as Kiowa and Lillian and Molly, for some extra retro flair!
Bellevue, Breyer’s most recently-produced chalky model, has a unique twist – these models were created from a batch of vintage Mustangs molded in varying shades of grey plastic. Their hooves were purposely left unpainted to show the grey plastic underneath, which resulted in a wide array of hoof color variation in the run.
A selection of modern chalkies: Bellevue (2020 Seattle Soiree SR), Sona (BreyerFest 2017 Diorama Prize), Rhian and Cadell (2019 Premier Club), General Lee’s Travller (1998-1999 RR), and Triumph (BreyerFest 2019 Open Show Reserve Grand Prize).
Another fun use of the chalky basecoat was with the #1706 Indian Pony, produced from 2013 to 2015. This fellow provided two nods to Breyer models of yore in one – 1/6 of the run was produced with a chalky basecoat and warpaint, as a nod to both the original Appaloosa Performance Horse’s chalky and non-chalky variations, and the original Indian Pony’s warpaint and no-warpaint variations!
Chalky and non-chalky #1706 Indian Ponies. Note how the chalky finish ups the contrast in the dappled buckskin coat, and makes his white markings pop!
From its humble beginnings as an economic necessity to its current iteration as a tool in the arsenal of Breyer’s design team, the chalky finish is one of the most fascinating quirks in the world of Breyer models. Next time you see a vintage model at an antique store or flea market, take a closer look before moving on – you may have discovered a piece much more collectible than it appears at first glance!