Small things lead to big business

Simon Eccles
Friday, December 18, 2020

Christmas is coming and a lot of kids will be lucky enough to be given a model railway, still a popular hobby even in these days of PlayStations and smartphones. Big kids like model railways too, and it turns out that this year they didn’t want to wait for Christmas.

The printing industry has suffered from the Covid-19 crisis along with everyone else this year. There’s no playing down the terrible human and economic costs. But on the lighter side, one of the unpredictable effects of the spring lockdown was an immediate run on stocks of Metcalfe Models & Toys’ flatpack printed card kits of model railway buildings. Online stores sold out, so did any remaining hobby shops, and social media was awash with model railway enthusiasts excitedly reporting that they’d found a stash in obscure corners of the web.

Metcalfe already had an enthusiastic following for its extensive range of card kits in their distinctive green flatpack boxes. Each includes a complex set of printed and die-cut sheets which can be assembled to make everything from platforms, footbridges and stations through to hotels, churches and industrial units, with accessory sheets of cobblestones, tarmac and other surfaces as well. They are affordable, intricate enough to present a challenge and look realistic when they’re built into a scale scene. Faced with the prospect of time on their hands for untold days and weeks confined to base, model railway buffs decided to get on with improving their layouts, and put their orders in.

This proved a mixed blessing for Metcalfe, which is a small and highly specialist printing company set up almost 30 years ago. It’s based in Bell Busk, a tiny village in the countryside 11km north west of Skipton in Yorkshire (its boxes carry the slogan ‘Made in YORKSHIRE which can’t be bad!’). High demand meant lots of orders coming in, but the lockdown meant that the company was closed up for four months in total.

Hard work by all meant that orders for replacement stocks started to be fulfilled and in the past month the company was even able to announce a Christmas surprise. For Metcalfe fans, the best news of the year was the introduction of a set of modular kits to build a medieval stone castle of pretty well any shape and size.

Kitchen table beginnings

The company history goes back to the early 1990s when it was set up by Nick Metcalfe and his wife Judy, working on their kitchen table. He was working for a printing company in Skipton at the time.

“The idea for the business had been milling around in my head for some years,” he says. “It was in a Dublin gift shop where I saw a card cutout model of an Irish cottage and I thought the markup on that was huge. A sheet of card for £5! It got me thinking. As a boy my primary school teacher Marjory Roberts had christened me ‘the Cardboard King’ due to my skills in making just about anything from card. I used to love making card kits, especially those you used to get on the back of cornflake boxes.

So Nick and Judy Metcalfe started their business part time. One of their first products was a cutout Punch & Judy theatre for children, though it was a scale model of the nearby historic Embsay Station building that set the course for the years ahead. Nick says: “I persuaded my boss to rent the equipment to me at weekends when it was not in use. Judy worked from home packing and selling by mail order, while I worked full time during the week and printed kits at the weekend.

“That was in 1991 and by 1995 we needed to make it full time. I left my job and we started from an industrial unit in Skipton. As there wasn’t enough money from models alone, we took on commercial print as well for the first four years, but by 1999 we were making much more from models than print. So we ditched the commercial printing, sold our bookbinding machinery and started investing in the equipment we needed for the job.”

This meant there was no need to pay town centre rates, he says. “So we bought a run-down Grade II-listed smallholding, in the Aire Valley at Bell Busk, in the middle of a flood plain that regularly flooded to a depth of four feet.” After a year of raising the ground levels they moved in. “The business was shoehorned into the adjoining barn. A year later we built our warehouse in the croft next to the barn, and in 2010 we built our present day state-of-the-art office and works. We now have planning for a large two-storey extension.” This was intended for this year but has now been postponed until 2021.

Last year the company shipped over 250,000 kits and passed £1m in sales. Despite the challenges this has been a good sales year too, Metcalfe say: “So far, even after shutting down for four months, we are on track for much higher sales this year.”

People and production

Today the company employs 13 people: four in print production, three in admin and the rest in packing and dispatch. Most of the printing is done on a single-colour Heidelberg GTO litho press. “We print on to white card and then laminate it onto a greyboard backing before die-cutting,” says Metcalfe. Laminating has been done on a Lamina 1110fa, but a new Thermotype Glueline laminator from the US has just gone live.

There’s also an OKI digital toner printer that can handle thick media and plastic. It can print white, though Metcalfe says this isn’t dense enough for the clear windows, so they are screen printed.

The first kits were supplied with a knife for users to cut them out themselves, but in 1997 Metcalfe put in its first die-cutter – today it has a Heidelberg Cylinder and a Heidelberg Platen. There’s also a bank of five FB 1500 laser cutters supplied by GS-UK in Nottingham, in continuous production making intricate fine detailed components and small complete ‘Mini kits’ as well as test shots of new designs.

Early in 2019 Metcalfe replaced a 30-year-old Polar 76EM guillotine, bought secondhand, with a modern new Polar 78 ECO, bought from Heidelberg UK.

All repro is done in-house (Metcalfe says it’s a bit “old style,” with an Agfa Accuset filmsetter). “Our packaging is outsourced to a local company, Briggs Print and finished by packaging company Pharmacarton in Batley. We also tend to use Solopress a lot for all our publicity and instruction booklets, etc. They can’t be beaten on service and speed.”

The colour box labels front and back are printed on a Vortex Memjet based inkjet, and attached by an Atwell applicator line.

Designing such complex multi-part printed and cut sets takes skill and experience. “The design work is mainly done by myself or our designer Matt Jackson,” says Metcalfe. “We use Illustrator, Photoshop, etc, although we have just invested in SolidWorks ready for our new 3D print facility. This is on hold during the Covid crisis, but hopefully will be up and running next year after our extension is ready.

“Occasionally we use an actual building, as with our new ‘Town End Cottage’ which is based on a famous house in Lacock in Wiltshire. But most of our buildings are imaginary and loosely based on the real thing, with artistic license thrown in.

“Our latest range of Castle Kits took much of the summer to design, although the instruction leaflets took nearly as long. Writing a manual explaining how to build a complex kit and make it idiot-proof can be quite a challenge. Even though we know how they go together ourselves, putting it down on paper so someone who is a complete novice can easily understand them is not easy. Things that seem obvious to us can be a complete mystery to someone else!”

Kit ranges

Metcalfe concentrates on the two most popular model railway scales, 1:76th (for HO/OO gauge rails) and 1:152nd (N gauge). Between the two scales it currently offers about 150 kits on its website It made a few 1:48th (O gauge) kits in the past but they were slow sellers, Metcalfe says.

Nick Metcalfe signs and keeps the first completed kit box of any new type. Most kits are produced in runs of about 2,000 and then usually retired as the stock sells out. This is much to the disappointment of enthusiasts, so there’s a secondhand trade in unbuilt discontinued models. Popular lines may be re-run and Metcalfe says that consistent good sellers are the range of Terraced Houses, Signal Boxes and the modular Station Platforms. “We have high hopes for the Castle Kits,” he says. “There will hopefully be lots of new designs, but as yet we don’t have any details. Just our Castle range to design all over again in N scale!”

So, Christmas greetings to printers and railway modelers everywhere.

The Coaching Inn, Manor Farm and Signal Box kits were bought by your writer, so that’s his December spoken for!


© MA Business Limited 2021. Published by MA Business Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, London, SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 06779864. MA Business is part of the Mark Allen Group .