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Works in Wax

Whether it's 'Burnt Sienna' or 'Dirt,' America's tots still love crayons

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 21, 1996


To paraphrase a current author, some of life's biggest mysteries I encountered in kindergarten. For example:

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Can anyone tell red-orange from orange-red?

Why does midnight blue look so mysterious?

What is sienna and why do they have to burn it?

If you don't recognize these names, then you haven't lived an American childhood. As any child can tell you, red-orange, midnight blue, and burnt sienna are crayon colors. Crayola crayon colors - the best-known, best-selling sticks of colored wax on the planet.

Last month, Binney & Smith, the Easton, Pa., company that manufactures Crayola, made its 100 billionth crayon. Despite all the diversions of modern childhood - television, computer games, even electronic art sets - the old-fashioned notion of coloring endures. Today's crayons may come in more colors and styles, but the basic principles in making them haven't changed in decades.

On this particular day at the Crayola factory, Dave Butz is making "washable" red crayons. The process begins in a big heated vat where liquid paraffin wax and a pigment mixture are kept warm.

Mr. Butz starts by turning on a faucet that dumps a slightly gooey red mixture into a bucket. Butz pours that over two long metal trays peppered with holes. The red wax oozes into the empty pores, which are deep and thin and tipped at the bottom - just like a crayon.

When the holes are filled, Butz scrapes away the extra wax on the top and waits anywhere from four to seven minutes (depending on the color) for the water-cooled mold to turn the warm wax into a hard crayon. When it's ready, the mold automatically pushes up the hardened wax out of the holes. Up pop 2,400 red crayons.

Butz gathers up the bright sticks, stacks them onto a special shelf, and checks his work. Any crayons with chipped ends or broken tips are sent back to the mixing vat to get reheated and remade. (The tip is especially important because it's not supposed to break even when a child presses down on it with four pounds of pressure.)

Once the flawed crayons are removed, Butz takes a long spatula-shaped paddle and stacks the crayons in preparation for wrapping.

New machines

Years ago, people wrapped and packed the crayons by hand. Today, machines do it all. The crayons go from the wrapping machine to a device which sorts a rainbow of eight colors at a time. The machine shoves the crayons into those familiar cardboard holders, which are then boxed into the popular 64-pack of crayons.

Indeed, even Butz's manufacturing station is old-fashioned. These days it's only used to make specialty crayons, like the washable kind. Regular crayons are made with a molding machine that does all the steps automatically. "We're the last of a vanishing process," Butz says.

Whether made and packaged by man or machine, however, crayons look to be an enduring element in the American child's lexicon. Binney & Smith - which also makes clay, Silly Putty, and paints - turns out 2 billion crayons each year. That's enough to circle the earth's equator 4-1/2 times. Parents buy enough of them in a year to make a giant crayon 35 feet wide and 100 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty.

"I can't tell you 30 years out," says John McCue, Binney & Smith's marketing director for crayons, but "over the next four to five years and even longer, there will be room for these types of products." Children from age 2 to 8 still spend an average 28 minutes a day coloring, he says. By age 10, an American child has typically worn down 730 crayons.

Little Jack Hanson is still working on wearing down his first few. The Pittsburgh area two-year-old seems at first more interested in throwing his plastic purple ball than in drawing. But as the nursery attendant colors away, he keeps coming over to look until he finally picks up a fat orange crayon and sends it skidding along the white-lined paper.

(Coloring tip for two-year-olds - and parents who've forgotten how: Push hard on your crayon to get the brightest color. If your fingers get tired, that's a good sign.)

Dissatisfied with thin orange lines, Jack picks up an orange marker - a Crayola mini-stamper that creates a smiley face when you press down on the tip. Jack tries drawing with it instead. More faint orange lines.