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The making of Ivor

    Not so long ago in the top left-hand corner of Wales there was a railway. Not a very long railway or a very important railway. It was called the Merioneth and Llantisilly Railway Traction Company Limited. And it was all there was.

    In a shed in a siding at the end of the railway was the locomotive of the Merioneth and Llantisilly Railway Traction Company Limited. It was a long name for a little engine so his friends called him Ivor.

    Now in the mornings Jones the Steam, the engine driver, would come down the hill.

    'Morning Ivor. Jumping cold this morning.'

So began the series of stop-frame animation films written by Oliver Postgate, drawn by Peter Firmin and with music by Vernon Elliott. The first series, in black and white, was broadcast on ITV from 1958. The series was revived, in colour, for the BBC from 1975.

    Ivor the Engine was Smallfilms' first production, and drew inspiration from Postgate's World War II encounter with Welshman Denzyl Ellis, a former railway locomotive fireman with the Royal Scot train, who described how steam engines came to life when you spent time steaming them up in the morning. Postgate decided to locate the story to North Wales, as it was more inspirational than the flat terrain of the English Midlands. The story lines drew heavily on, and were influenced by, the works of South Wales poet Dylan Thomas.

Most people of about my age either encountered the b&w series when they were children, or the colour version when they had children of their own. However, apart from the occasional mention of the phrase 'Ivor the Engine' these programmes entirely passed me by, as I was twelve years old before my parents were given a TV, and it only received BBC1. I was in my late twenties before I was given a TV set, and was out at work when children's TV programmes were broadcast. (Never have been much of a telly watcher – the last one went in a skip well over ten years ago as I hardly used it. And, no, I don't use the BBC's iPlayer either.)

On a bit of a whim over the Christmas holiday at the end of 2018 I watched a few episodes on YouTube. And was promptly blown away so, on New Year's Eve, I ordered the DVD of all the colour episodes. The excellent stories and wonderfully low-budget filmmaking enthralled, in a way that the better-known Thomas the Tank Engine programmes do not begin to match.

After watching all the colour episodes a couple of times I tracked down the earlier b&w series via YouTube (these only appeared as a VHS tape compilation and have never been released as a DVD).

Credits, acknowledgements and further information

Everything about this web site owes a deep debt to Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate.

There's a fan website for Ivor (though it seems to be stuck in 2008).

There is information about their company, Smallfilms, here, here and here.

There's a video of interviews with Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin and an hour-long programme of Oliver on his own. See also this Google search and this one too.

All screengrabs on this website are from the Ivor the Engine DVD and copyright Smallfilms/Peter Firmin. Photos of the models of Ivor are by me.

The making of Ivor

Sunday 21st July 2019

A light's just come on in my brain. I'd acquired a considerably quantity of Hornby track, clockwork locomotives and rolling stock across the winter of 2016–17. But setting out track and 'playing trains' had only limited appeal. As recounted elsewhere I much prefer scratchbuilding and kit-bashing to actually running the rolling stock – though 1/43 scale used for Hornby O gauge is a bit fiddly. However emulating Ivor the Engine requires very little rolling stock – one loco, less than half a dozen wagons, and at most three coaches (see below). And there was something appealing 'low tech' about modelling Ivor on a clockwork-powered chassis!

The overall aim is for a room-sized indoor layout with the track set out on baseboards just above waist-height with simple painted backdrops behind. These backdrops would emulate Peter Firmin's backgrounds to the animations, although perhaps in a more 'painterly' style – perhaps somewhat John Piper-esque?). The ambience of the backdrops would be a very grey/rainy day – except at Tewin beach, where the sun always shines ;-)

A montage of the background drawn by Peter Firmin showing (from right to left) Jones the Steam outside Ivor's shed, the water tower, Owen the Signal's signal box and the landscape behind Llaniog.


John Piper landscapes (though not depicting the top left-hand corner of Wales)

Even the ground surface could be simple 2D painting e.g. print out sleepers and ballast as three strips (centre and two sides) and lay on top of Hornby ties.

Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin worked quite strictly to a map which could be simplified for a model layout – and allows the option for an oval of 'main line' too (although not on baseboards less than three feet deep).

A reduced version of Smallfilms' map

Discontinuities between background sections could be masked with 2D trees. This would allow some baseboards to be 'modular' i.e. could be put together in different configurations if transported to a village hall or wherever. Middle-distance hedges etc might also be 2D. Only Llaniog station might need to be modelled in 3D, and then perhaps only in low relief.

The dragon's volcano could include an impressive set up of LEDs and smoke… Both the volcano and Mr Dinwiddy's mine could continue below the surface and would become visible by looking underneath the baseboards.

These are my initial notes for what is needed to make a simple Hornby clockwork-powered indoor layout based on Ivor the Engine:

rolling stock:

  • Ivor with Jones the Steam; flickering LED firebox ?;
    optional extras:
    • Idris the dragon in the chimney
    • Eisteddfod prize silver wreath for chimney
    • three eggs (for top of coal bunker)
    • fish in newspaper (for top of coal bunker)
    • Mr Dinwiddy's boots (for top of coal bunker)
    • hat box (for top of coal bunker)
  • cattle wagon(s) with sheep
  • coal wagon (with removable load)
  • Bluebell's adapted wooden hopper wagon
  • the bunting-bedecked wagon used to transport the choir
  • three OTT first class coaches (these appear in episode 14)
  • the steam crane?
  • Mrs Porty's donkey cart (static, not powered!)
  • Juggernaut ?

essential scenery:

  • Ivor's shed
  • the water tower
  • Owen the Signal's box
  • Llaniog station (with Dai Station) with lights; possibly with the boss' landau Rolls (see episode 12); possibly with interior of Dai Station's office visible?
  • Llaniog station tea room (with visible interior?)
  • backdrop of Llaniog town
  • Grumbly station (with lights)
  • Grumbly gasworks
  • Mrs Porty's house (with interior visible, including loft; cuckoo clock in tree near Ivor's shed) and Bluebell (inside house)
  • Smoke Hill
  • Mr Pugh's farm (with chickens and Old Nell the sheepdog)
  • Mr Pugh's coal pit
  • Mr Dinwiddy's gold mine; also bubble-making machine?
  • Tewyn halt and beach
  • assorted bridges
  • Charlie Banger's Circus
  • Alice the Elephant (at the gasworks?)

plus some intertextual references:

  • a posse of Noggin the Nog-style Vikings on Tewyn beach
  • Bagpus-like cat (at Llaniog station?)
  • someone watching The Clangers on a TV

sound effects:

  • Ivor's 'pssht kopf'
  • Jones 'Good morning Ivor. Jumping cold… '
  • Grumbly choir
  • Dai Station and 'The Regulations'
  • possibly the complete sound tracks of all the episodes running as a loop?

late July 2019

Took apart a decidedly scruffy Hornby 0-4-0 tank engine. The paint was badly faded and there were more than the usual number of dents and bits broken off. But the motor and controls were better than the rest of the Hornby locos I own. The con rods between the wheels are missing, but not too tricky to replace.

Thankfully the cut-out-and-make version of Ivor available from the Smallfilms web site is exactly the right size to fit the Hornby chassis. Possibly coincidence, possibly not… The only difference is that Ivor's wheelbase is impossibly short, so the distinctive panels covering the top part of the wheels will have to be 'approximated'.

But the print out can be used as a 'working drawing' for the cab and some other parts.

Reduced versions of the cut-out-and-make version of Ivor available from the Smallfilms web site

Saturday 10th August 2019

Yesterday and today I've been taking screengrabs from the Ivor the Engine DVD to allow copying of the backgrounds and other 'inspirations'.

Today I began to put together an Ivor-like body to fit on a stripped-down Hornby clockwork chassis. So far so good, although the LED firebox isn't on as the Hornby motor protrudes into the cab.


The boiler is a length from the cardboard core of a roll of fabric. The cab is from 1.5 mm plastic card, with some commercial polystyrene 'L'-section 'supporting' the cab roof and the coal bunker.

Although 1/43 scale [but see remarks later!] does seem a tad fiddly after working at 1/20 scale, I'm coping so far. Not looking forward to doing all the yellow lining, has to be said!

Sunday 11th August 2019

The very flared chimney on Ivor looked like it could be tricky, as I don't own a lathe or anything similar. However a rummage in the bits box revealed a white ABS bracket for a cheap and nasty set of curtain rails. A few moments with a tenon saw (the one I bought from Woolworths as a teenager and still going strong about fifty years later) and a rub on a half-round file and the chimney was ready to mount using hot-melt glue. A short length of grey PVC water pipe became the 'dome' (which, in the wonky way Peter Firmin drew Ivor, became the over-size cover for filling the water tanks).

Monday 12th August 2019

A stop off at B&Q yielded a copper pipe fitting for reducing from 15mm to 10mm diameters – a slice off the end will add the decorative profile to the top of Ivor's chimney.

Yesterday's breakthrough was to use empty Biro tube to connect the control knobs to the control rods. These had to be cut as the knobs wouldn't unscrew – I have a distant memory of supergluing the brass knobs on because they repeatedly fell off… For slightly complicated reasons this means that the boiler and front part of the chassis can now be glued to the cab. And, once that was done, two non-prototypical 'sole plates' along the length of the loco provide some necessary structural integrity. These are partly hidden by an attempt to emulate Ivor's distinctive wheel covers. All these parts cut from 1.5 mm plastic card.

Before the wheel covers where glued on I put some red paint on the spokes and hubs of the wheels. Suspect a second coat will be needed, probably after I've remade the con rods.

Tuesday 13th August 2019

Mostly putting on primer, then more filler, then sanding down, then more primer. Lost count of how many times. Also cut two lengths of 6 x 15 mm strip wood for the buffer beams, sanding away the centres to clear the Hornby couplings. All-in-all starting to look like a model of Ivor rather than a collection of miscellaneous parts.


Wednesday 14th August 2019

Although I've bought 1:43 scale people (which seem more like 1:50 scale to me… ) it's suddenly dawned on me that Peter Firmin drew people considerably over-scale for the rolling stock. Which means 1:32 scale people are needed. And – even better – means that Britains farm animals can be used for Bluebell, the sheep, chickens, etc etc. And maybe even Alice the elephant too…

Friday 16th August 2019

Took a photo of Ivor in his grey undercoat. Then painted the green parts green (Hooker's Green to be specific), the red parts red (crimson to be pedantic) and the few black parts black. Hooker's Green is an old fashioned pigment and doesn't go on as a consistent shade, so no surprise that a second coat was needed. A slight inconsistency will be allowed to remain as this mimics Peter Firmin's distinctly splodgy way of colouring Ivor. (Note to nerds about Hooker's Green.)

My skills at painting are well short of doing the yellow lining with a brush. However cutting stencils into sticky-backed plastic (some yellow and black PVC hazard tape had the best amount of stickiness, without wanting to pull away the green paint) did the trick. The lines which needed to be filled with yellow paint were cut using the old trick of two craft knife blades spaced apart by part of a third blade.



21st August 2019

Today's the day the handrails went on to the sides of the cab and around the smokebox. Copper wire supplied as part of plant-labelling 'kits' from a garden centre was the right diameter. Next up are the three organ pipes which replaced Ivor's original whistle.

30th August 2019

In the last nine days Ivor has almost been finished. The organ pipes went together from brass tube supported by aluminium wire. The M&LRTC 'logos' on the tank sides and smokebox door were printed out from the illustrations for the paper cut-out version of Ivor to be found online. Truth to tell the replacement con rods are still pending.

Ivor with Idris

And, in the meantime, no less than four wagons have shaped up. All are based on Hornby wheels and 'chassises' (yes, I know the plural is just 'chassis' but it seems to read all wrong… ) with the original 'bodywork' stripped off. Sometimes the wire part of the coupling was missing so needed replacing. This is easy peasy with some piano wire and a pair of pliers (though a third pair with rounded jaws helps gets the bends right). I'm not quite sure what Imperial gauge wire was used by Hornby but it works out at 1.3 mm. However 1.0 mm piano wire works a treat.

Two of the wagons are low drop-side ones which feature in a number of episodes. I've yet to create the wooden 'fencing' which fits in them to transport sheep. For that matter, I've yet to create any of the loads which they carry.

The third wagon is for carrying coal from Mr Pugh's coalmine to Grumbley gasworks; again a removable load is still on the job list.

The fourth wagon is the one with all the decoration and bunting which is used to take Grumbley Choir to the Eisteddfod and to Tewyn beach. I'll need lots of standing figures to fill it, but they are currently in transit from Cornwall.

Most of the modifications have been done with lollipop sticks and coffee stirrers (glued with Uhu impact adhesive) apart from the coal wagon which is polystyrene sheet plus some lengths of extruded polystyrene profile (glued with polystrene cement).

That leaves Bluebell's wagon, which Peter Firmin drew as the chassis of a small wooden hopper wagon – sans hopper – 'borrowed' from Mr Dinwiddy. It needs to be considerably smaller than the other wagons so I will scratchbuild from wood once some suitable small spoked wheels have arrived in the post. Or at least I hope they will be suitable… (There is a Plan B.)

In addition to these wagons the animations also feature two wooden-sided wagons with higher sides, used to carry a large assortment of packages (and 'The General') to Llaniog is the snow. But as I don't plan on modelling the snow, and am not keen on making a large number of packages, then these will get overlooked.

That just leaves the three distinctly OTT 'stage coaches' which carry passengers in a couple of episodes. Although Peter Firmin drew them with bogies (!) I'll model them on four-wheel Hornby wagon chassises. Not a high priority but I will take them on when I feel like something fiddly.


The various coaches

A trip to the collectors' market at Loughborough this morning came up trumps with Britains farm animals. Only one stall had any but they included a donkey, some sheep, a goat, a chicken and a sheep dog. The original lead figures, not plastic. The paint was well rubbed, but what the heck.

Once I got home all of them were sprayed with grey primer. Truth to tell the goat lost her horns and 'beard' so now looks like a shorn sheep… After the primer had dried then top coats of acrylic paints in the right shades created Bluebell the donkey, Old Nell the sheepdog and more realistic-looking sheep and the chicken. More chickens and sheep required, but some is better than none!

Left: Old Nell the sheepdog (with some of Mr Pugh's chickens).
Right: Bluebell the donkey with Mrs Porty, Evans the Song and Jones the Steam.


3rd September 2019

Bought a battery-operated 'Christmas train' with a tender, open cattle wagon and parcel van plus an oval of track. Cost all of 15 – and it's O gauge. OK, the flanges on the wheels are too deep to run on Peco's SM-32 track. But they work just fine with Hornby tinplate track – and, of course, on the plastic track supplied. Yet to take the loco apart and assess the suitability of using the motor and associated wheels – but the wheels do have rubbery tyres so won't have the problem of plastic drive wheels spinning uselessly on metal track. There's no reverse switch, but that can be overcome. I'd also need to work out how to silence the dreadful and overly-loud sound effects! So there may be a battery Ivor as well as a clockwork Ivor… But Plan A is to use the motor for the 32 mm gauge part of my 1:20 scale layout (mostly running on 45 mm gauge track), not this one. The couplings might well be used on that model too.

Back to making Ivor and his rolling stock. The Christmas train's tender quickly lost its wheels. (This is the Plan A alluded to in the previous blog entry.) The wheels are moulded with spokes in a lurid red plastic – but that's just what's needed for Bluebell the donkey's 'hopper wagon' (at least the chassis of a hopper-less hopper wagon). Some lengths of strip wood were cut off and sanded then glued together. Some polystyrene profile extrusion was used for the internal bearings as Peter Firmin's drawing of Bluebell's wagon has internal bearings. Two different shades of woodstain gave a suitably weathered look, although the wheels need some paint on them too. Couplings were cobbled together from suitable-shaped chain plus a pair of small screw eyes.

Roughly at the same time the coal wagon acquired a removable load. A few pieces of polystyrene sheet created a false floor. Some tile grout was shaped into a suitable mound. When that had dried I painted on a generous amount of PVA glue then dunked the assembly, upside down, into a tub of perlite. Once the PVA had gone off I then sprayed quite generously with Photomount and dunked in the perlite again. A few minutes later I gently brushed off all the 'loose' then gave two coats of matt black spray paint. It matches the coal in Ivor's bunker.


Assorted wagons under construction



How they supposed to look

The open wagon that's not kitted out as a sheep wagon now has a removable load: a wooden crate with a pair of boots on top – these of course for delivery to Mr Dinwiddy. The visible parts of the crate are from coffee stirrers, glued around an almost cubic off-cut of wood (see photos above). The boots are from a 1:16 scale Star Wars figure of Luke Skywalker who now has no feet. But I only bought him to take his head off to add to an otherwise 1:20 scale figure on the G-gauge layout.

If Peter Firmin had intended Jones the Steam and Dai Station to be accurately in proportion then their heads would be about one-seventh of the total height,
not about to one-fifth.

    At the risk of too much information, the ubiquitous Star Wars figures are about 1:16 scale. Putting a larger head on a 1:20 figure makes them look more like illustrations of people. Peter Firmin – the artist behind Jones the Steam, Dai Station and all the other characters in Ivor the Engine – and Rowland Emett – the inspiration for my G-gauge layout – both knew and used this 'trick' of drawing human figures with oversize heads. However this means that most mouldings of people supplied for use with models look wrong – even though strictly they're right! So I have an increasing collection of headless Star Wars figures. Any offers?

The wagon for taking the Grumbly and District Choral Society to the Eisteddfod and Tewyn beach is still waiting for bunting.

The two open-sided wagons need the letters 'M&LRTCL' on each side. Way too small for my handlettering skills (more accurately, my total lack of such skills) so a Plan B awaits trials.

And Ivor is still without con rods.

At least one more wagon load is planned – the dilapidated wooden turret that Ivor requested to be set up near his shed as a bird house.

If I can work out how to replicate wickerwork at 1:32 scale then the 'hamper' for transporting Evans the Song's pigeons will also manifest.

The only major items of rolling stock still essential are two or three stagecoach-like coaches.

Today's the day I started putting together this web site. All the previous text had hitherto been saved in my wordprocessor format.

4th September 2019

Uploaded the first version of this web site.

And then corrected numerous typos and grammatical mistokes.

Better photos of the wagons will follow in due course.

7th September 2019

Yesterday's fun-time activity was making the dilapidated 'turret from the old chapel' which Ivor requests to be set up as a bird house near his shed. Quite small but lots of components to make it – not least the individual tiles. More parts and time than most of the wagons! A quick count up after it was completed suggests over a hundred pieces – mostly cut-up coffee stirrers and tiles cut from thin black card, but underneath is some polystrene sheet and foam-core board.



Just to irk the purists the second photo shows the turret in the drop-side wagon with the crate and boots for Mr Dinwiddy. This never happened. The crate and the boots appeared in one episode and the turret in a different episode.

And the purists will also complain that Peter Firmin's drawing shows concave gothic arches above the louvres whereas the model has convex valences. To which my response is that life is too short for making eight miniscule gothic arches when the ends of coffee stirrers are just the right shape for valences. They're curved – what more do you want?

Today's the day the first of the OTT coaches starts construction. Indeed it may be the only one. This would fit with the episode when Mrs Porty is taken to Llantisilly to purchase the about-to-be-closed railway (although in a later episode three such OTT coaches plus the bunting-bedecked wagon make up Ivor's train – the only time he is seen pulling four vehicles behind him).

Apart from using polystyrene sheet and ABS extruded profiles instead of wood then the construction bears some resemblance to coachbuilding in that there's lots of parts fixed together as framework and panels.

The coach before painting, giving more clues as to how the sides were assembled.

Much quicker progress for the 'stagecoach' than for the dilapidated turret! All structural parts made – and mostly primed – by lunchtime (and it was an early lunch too… ). Can't put the roof on until I've glazed the windows and can't do that until I've sprayed the top coat on. And can't put the top coat on until the glue holding the ends has dried.

I put the polystyrene sheet aside when it came to the two ends and the roof. These are curved so, although possible in 0.5 mm polystyrene sheet – indeed that is how I envisaged construction – it is easier in thinnish card which can be 'pre-curled' to roughly the right shape.

A foam-core card rib runs the full length of the roof on the inside. Less for structural reasons (though it will help) but more to give something to pin the five ventilators into. I doubt if stagecoaches ever had roof ventilators, although early railway coaches did. Whatever, Peter Firmin drew Ivor's coaches with an overly-generous number of ventilators, so I'll be raiding my stock of beads some time soon.

How the coaches supposed to look

Of the three possible colour schemes for these OTT coaches I opted for the black and gold one. Mostly because it is the most OTT. And also because I had suitable paints on the shelf.

7th September 2019

After a slight delay 'cos I was away the OTT coach is coming together nicely.

Finally bit the proverbial bullet and brought the crates of Hornby track in from the garage and laid out about 30 feet around two sides of the lounge and the length of the office. Sadly Hornby never made a suitable Y-shaped set of points to replicate the turning triangle outside Ivor's shed (though it can be approximated with the larger curves, but won't look in proportion to Peter Firmin's drawings). So I can now send Ivor and the rolling stock on journeys of just over 300 yards each way. Well, at 1:32 scale it's just over 300 yards.

I may make a simple shed for Ivor and a painted backdrop of the water tower, Owen the Signal's signal box and Llaniog station. How much more scenery I attempt remains to be seen.

The OTT coach almost completed. Door knobs and hinges are needed, plus the
fleur-de-lys logo of the M&LRTCL in the centre of the door panel.

10th September 2019

The bunting-bedecked wagon is now bedecked with bunting. The passengers have arrived from Cornwall but are not yet painted.

As Bluebell the donkey's wagon is small it is also light. And Bluebell is a lead casting so raises the centre of gravity perilously high – especially at the speeds a clockwork Ivor dashes along. So some pieces of lead sheet were added under the chassis, but above the axles. This also improved the clearance at the top of the wheels which, hitherto, was rather minimal. Now weighs 124g instead of 91g (all including Bluebell). Not a massive difference, but significantly lowers the c-of-g.

16th September 2019

The Grumbley and District Choral Society all ready to set off for the Eisteddfod. Evans the Song will be placing the silver wreath they won last year around Ivor's chimney before they depart.

In accordance with my earlier rant about heads needing to be bigger, the 1:32 mouldings had heads with were decidedly small by any standards. So some 'surgery' with a junior hacksaw resulted in the bodies acquiring 1:24 scale heads. And a couple of the 'stouter' passengers are entirely 1:24 scale mouldings but with a section of the legs around the knees removed. (Yes, my 'bits box' is somewhat macabre… )

All such modifications were strengthened by drilling 1.5 mm holes and fitting panel pins (with the heads snipped off) into the holes. As the holes are slightly oversize for the pins this means that everything lines up even if the holes are not perfectly aligned. Polystyrene cement (not solvent) filled in the rest of the holes and any gaps.

Some of the figures had their trousers or skirt 'retailored' using Milliput. A blob of Milliput became a peaked flat cap. The colours of the clothes were inspired by Peter Firmin's somewhat eccentric notions of fashion.

Members of the Grumbley and District Choral Society dressed up in their best togs to rehearse for the Eisteddfod.






Ivor and his rolling stock

What next?

As the Hornby clockwork drives make the wheels go round ridiculously fast there are plans to make a battery-operated (and probably radio-controlled!) version of Ivor. But not anytime soon as other obsessions – mostly making pots and resuming work on the 1:20 scale models – are scheduled to take over the available space in the workshop. However painting uses a different space in the house so painted backdrops might yet come about. But don't hold your breath waiting…

The more observant (nay, obsessive) have commented that Jones the Steam and Dai Station are both conspicuous only by their absence. This has been Duly Noted in the annals.


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