SANTA DID IT again. Nestled snugly in our stockings on Christmas morning were brand new packs of crayons. Their waxy aroma reached us even before we reached the boxes.
They've come in handy. These days it gets dark early, and play moves indoors in the late afternoon. We're always on the lookout for inside fun that's clean and easy, and if it's creative, so much the better. Crayons fit the bill.
A recent house cleaning turned up 12 well-used boxes of crayons -- one each of Golden, Toys-R-Us and Fisher-Price crayons and nine of Crayolas. So when travel plans were taking us through Easton, Pennsylvania, where a Binney and Smith Crayola factory is located, we couldn't resist the urge to see Santa's crayon workshop.
Located in the middle of a Lehigh Valley cornfield, the factory produces more than one billion crayons a year -- apparently we aren't the only ones with 12 packages around the house.
In fact, according to Binney and Smith marketing research, 65 percent of American children between the ages of two and seven pick up a crayon at least once a day, and once they start, they color for an average of 27 minutes. When the crayons are new, kids color longer. Of course, Hallmark Cards knew all of that in 1984 when they bought Binney and Smith.
Our guide, Marjorie Arnold, hands out official-looking visitors' badges, our passports to Crayolaland, a cavernous production area that's filled with the aroma and aura of new crayons.
First stop is an old-fashioned flat-bed molding machine. Although much of the crayon making at Binney and Smith now is automated, the modern machines are difficult to clean; fluorescent colors and oversize crayons are still made the old-fashioned way.
Kenny Hendershot pours dark-colored paraffin into two trays, altogether a bed of 1,500 molds for extra large crayons. The wax settles in and we watch the clock -- it takes four minutes for the paraffin to harden.
Down below, where we can't see, cool water is circulating around the fingers of the molds, bringing the temperature down from 240 to 60 degrees, guide Arnold explains. As we watch, little round circles seem to appear in the top of the wax.
We learn that the liquid paraffin arrives at Binney and Smith in railroad tank cars and is transferred to a huge storage tank. From there it's pumped in proper amounts to the mixing vats. Earlier, Hendershot mixed the paraffin with a pre-measured amount of dye -- a secret Crayola formula -- to make the color of the day.
After four minutes he scrapes off the excess wax with a giant putty knife. The excess falls into a bucket to be recycled. Now we really see the top of those crayons.
Carefully Hendershot places a tray with 750 holes, the same number as the molding tray below, over the flat bed mold. He pushes a button and 750 crayons pop up into the holes of the upper tray. Although we are a bit disappointed to discover the day's color is brown, our eyes are glued as he pops out 750 more.
"That's awesome," says one of the children.
But the best is yet to come. The two trays are placed on a counter just behind Hendershot, while he adds more brown paraffin to the molds. Turning around again, he picks up a tray and with a flick of his wrists and a few thumps, 750 brown crayons come flying out. They land, points out, perfectly stacked along the shelf. He repeats the process with the second tray, and those crayons land on top of the first group. You have to be an artist to do that.
Hendershot quickly scrutinizes the crayons, looking for broken points or other irregularities. The rejects are melted again for a second try. All the others are fed into the wrapping machine, where each crayon emerges seconds later encircled by matching brown paper. Thus, the newborn crayons are ready to use.
At Arnold's suggestion, we move on to an automated rotary molding machine. This machine, which molds crayons in a huge rotating wheel, is making the children's magic color: red. Paraffin is fed into each section of 110 crayon molds. As the wheel slowly rotates, the wax hardens.
Three quarters of the way around, a mechanical arm lifts out a section of molds, and we see a flash of red as it feeds the crayons into the wrapping machine. Nine-year-old Brian thinks the mechanical arm is neater than the human ones. More important to Binney and Smith, it takes only one set of human arms to monitor four rotary machines.
Crayons made both ways are placed in heavy wooden crates and stored in the large central section of the production room. Arnold points to giant squares that have been painted on the floor, each with a name of a Crayola color -- lemon yellow, cornflower, periwinkle, brick red, spring green, magenta -- those wonderful Crayola names.
As we look out over the rainbow sea of open crates, it's challenging for the children. They want to reach out and grab a bunch.
"Are we looking at 7 million crayons?" someone asks.
Arnold eyeballs the area and decides that it looks a bit low. She should know, since she has worked in this room for 28 years.
"Look!" squeals eight-year-old Sherry Anne as we pass crates of "So Big" crayons for little people. "Aren't those cute?" They sport names such as leapfrog yellow and kitty cat black.
"Sunshine yellow," sounds out Rachel. "I bet the little kids love these," she says with all the wisdom of her six years.
There is more to see. Besides crayons, Binney and Smith makes markers, water colors, chalk and clay. Some of the children get a bit restless, but they perk up when we arrive at the Silly Putty production area, a favorite of kids who take the tour.
Another highlight is watching crayons combine to make the various assortments, and we are all mesmerized by the packing machines. Each color slips out of its own compartment, and the crayons march along in single file -- an animated rainbow. When they reach the bottom, a mechanical arm shoves the assortment into a box.
When we're finished, we take a preference poll.
"What do you like best, crayons or markers?" I ask the children. It's a tie, though one little girl votes for both.
"I like different things for different projects," this budding artist explains with a serious expression.
"How about asking the adults?" suggests one of the fathers. Except for two, they vote for crayons, a sign, perhaps, that markers were not commonly available when they were children. One of the adults who voted for markers is asked if he has children. He doesn't. "That's why you like markers," comments a mother, accustomed to cleaning up the mess that markers can leave on hands and clothes.
We learn that Crayola markers are now available in a washable version -- a response to complaints from parents and teachers -- and they also have a free, handy stain remover book (call 800/CRA-YOLA).
At the end of our tour, Arnold collects our badges and hands out boxes of 16 crayons. "Grown-ups get them too," she says when the adults don't reach for theirs, so our family collects three, plenty of good sharp points to use during the long winter evenings ahead.
Marti Weston teaches at the Potomac School and is a co-author of Washington Adventures for Kids.
CRAYOLA PLANT TOURS --
To schedule a tour, write or call Binney and Smith, Consumer Affairs Department, P.O. Box 431, Easton, PA 18044-0431, 215/253-6271. Group tours must be booked almost a year in advance, but families can get in on shorter notice. The factory is about 60 miles north of Philadelphia, off Pennsylvania Route 611.