As a collector of plates, I have long been interested in the manufacture of them through the years, from a hundred years ago when they were made by the MacDonald sign company, through the switch to prison manufacture in 1931, and the various site relocations. Ontario plates were made at the jail in Millbrook from 1957 until it was closed in 2003, at which time the manufacture was moved to the new Lindsay “superjail”. I have long been cobbling together what information I can about the manufacture, and the last time I discussed the subject of Ontario plate manufacture, I was limited to a few pixelated videos and a couple of Millbrook images that were taken by “abandoned building explorers” before the old jail was finally demolished in July of 2015. As for the new manufacturing line in Lindsay? A plate geek could only imagine. Ontario normally doesn’t put that stuff on public display. But, unexpectedly, a local news crew was permitted a tour of the facility in the spring of 2015. They weren’t permitted to roll any video cameras while inside, but they took dozens of still photographs, some of which are shown here. Not all were featured in the news spot.
Now, as far as copyright goes—I don’t own the copyright to any of these images, and by posting them here, my only goal is to educate the few people who visit this website with any regularity. I’ll desist if asked—but I can’t imagine anyone will care. That said, on with the tour:
At left, we start with prepped blanks-- with the sheeting already applied to the aluminum, and the curved corners already snipped. It’s known that these processes are also done in-shop, but there were neither pictures nor footage of these steps. If you look closely in one of the following pictures, you can see a stray piece of sheeting that's been stuck to a surface. Other pictures of the abandoned Millbrook prison show the same. In this picture, a cart of PRP (prorational reciprocity plan) plates sits on a cart, awaiting embossing. These plates will eventually be used on transport trucks. The four large machines in the background are the hydraulic embossers that will be used to press the border bevel and character shapes into the plates.
At right is a closer view of the hydraulic presses, which were made by the Hydraulic Press Manufacturing (HPM) Company in Mount Gilead, Ohio. HPM was founded in 1877, with the goal of manufacturing a better press for making apple cider. HPM has been operating continuously since, with different ownerships, and they’re now known as HPM NA (North America). This picture shows older presses which pre-date the Lindsay jail, so it’s quite possible that they were moved from Millbrook when it closed-- this hypothesis is supported by the Millbrook pictures that I have collected (not shown here), which show empty spaces where the presses may have once stood.
The dies are still inserted manually into the machine by workers, in between pressings of each plate, as was the case at Millbrook. On another side of the machine, another worker inserts flat blanks to be fed into the press. When making a pair of plates, two blanks resting face-to-back are inserted into the machine at once, and are pressed with the number simultaneously. New pairs of plates generally have a sharper die strike on the rear of one plate, and a duller die strike on the rear of the other, which reveals how they were nested while they were embossed. Since the dies must be manually changed each time, errors can happen, such as plates inserted upside-down, die misalignments, or too many plates made with a given number. If these errors are not detected at the embossing stage, they can be detected later on at the foiling stage. One picture above shows commercial plates AK-79232 being dumped into a hopper after pressing. At this stage, the numbers have not yet been coloured.
Before the move to Lindsay, Ontario plates were inked using a series of rollers. The ink was translucent, so some of the reflectivity of the background tended to show through the ink on close inspection. The newly-inked plates were dried by moving them on a conveyor through huge M-31 Wald curing ovens, which were ultimately abandoned in Millbrook. In Lindsay, this bulky and energy-expensive inking process has been replaced with a comparatively tiny machine that employs a blue-coloured foil that comes in small rolls. Inside the “foiling” apparatus, the foil comes into contact with the raised characters, and the blue pigment immediately transfers away from the roll and sticks to the plate. The colour on the characters is fully opaque using this newer technology. I presume the plates are heated and the pigment simply adheres to them on contact. The plate emerges from the machine with coloured numbers, and no wet ink to dry, and they can be handled immediately by the workers.
These images show a collector’s worst nightmare—the terrible shredding process that destroys any error plates. Near the left margin of the shredding pile image, the remains of a truck plate blank with a misaligned die strike can be seen on between the bolt holes below the “YOURS TO DISCOVER” slogan—the plate hadn’t been inserted all the way when the press closed. Error plates mean as much to geeks like me as mis-struck coins or misprinted stamps mean to collectors with more mainstream interests.
Assuming no errors, the paired plates are wrapped in plastic and set into an organizing template for counting. They are bundled into stacks of fifty pairs and boxed, with each box being clearly marked as to the serial range. Even back in the 1970s, Ontario plates were boxed in blocks of fifty pairs. A couple of years ago, I acquired a mint unopened box of fifty pairs of 1972 passenger plates, and I was the first to lay eyes on them since they left the factory in ’71. There were no bar codes back then, but the boxes were still marked with the serial range back then. Some things don’t change.
Pictures during the news crew’s tour showed pallets full of boxed plates, including passenger, commercial, farm, historic, and motorcycle. These, presumably, sit on the storage shelves until the next box in line is requested by a ServiceOntario outlet.
And so ends the modern-day tour. I personally will be watching the road for BXAV passenger plates, which is the bloc being made in the pictures, although there’s no telling where they’ll be issued… could be Cornwall, could be Kenora, or anywhere in between.