3D Printing a Custom Support for an 18th-century French Clock

3D scanning and printing have made their mark on popular culture in the past couple of years with eye-catching headlines like “Researchers Closing in on Printing 3D Hearts” and “Tools of Modern Gunmaking.” Many museums have also started using 3D printing to foster greater engagement and creativity between their visitors and collections. As a cultural institution, one of the main challenges when experimenting with new technologies is to understand and evaluate how it can be used to benefit or bolster our collection and mission, and try to get beyond the initial “whoa—that’s cool!” factor.

The MakerBot

Museums and 3D Printing

Last year the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted several “3D Hackathons,” first with artists and programmers and more recently with a select group of visitors. These events are designed to encourage participants to create 3D models of objects from the Met’s collection. Earlier this year, the Brooklyn Museum created 3D-printed objects with the goal of helping blind or partially sighted visitors interact with art in a new way. Likewise, the conservation team at the Smithsonian Institution has experimented with building custom 3D crates for particularly fragile objects traveling on loan to other museums.

Our Project

It was with these ideas in mind that I sat down with Head Objects Conservator Lesley Bone to brainstorm how we might use 3D printing to serve the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. We decided to build a custom cradle to hold the intricate interior of an 18th-century French clock as it undergoes conservation in preparation for exhibition.

The clock, made by Jean-André Lepaute (1709–1789), will be on view in the newly restored Salon Doré period room in early 2014. However, in order to get it ticking again, the clock must first visit several timepiece experts. Our goal for the 3D-printed cradle is to provide the clock interior with a stable support that will hold it in an upright and secure position, while affording the clockmaker easy access to all its interior gears. With so many experts examining this rare object, it’s important that it not be excessively handled, turned over, or propped up with makeshift equipment.

A clockmaker works on the intricate interior of the 18th-century French clock

Clockmaker examining the interior gears of the 18th-century clock

Satisfied with our objective, we ventured to Techshop in Menlo Park, where we were fortunate to work with a wonderful tutor, Chris Sasek, and to use one of Techshop’s MakerBot Replicators to fabricate the cradle we envisioned. (One of the wonderful things about being in the San Francisco Bay area is the multitude of resources devoted to learning about new technology.)

Chris Sasek and Lesley Bone discuss the model design

Chris Sasek and Lesley Bone discuss the model design

Working closely with Chris, we calibrated the exact measurements of the clock base. Then, using Autodesk Inventor, a 3D computer aided design (CAD) application, we designed a “clip-in” model type for the support, making sure we did not exceed the maximum dimensions allowed by the MakerBot 3D printer.

Chris Sasek using Autodesk Inventor a 3D computer aided design (CAD) application

Chris Sasek using Autodesk Inventor a 3D computer aided design (CAD) application

First we printed the top piece of the support—the precise area where it touches the clock—to test that our measurements were correct. After a few tweaks and alterations to the prototype, we printed the entire support, one thin layer of ABS plastic at a time. 

The final product fits the clock’s interior perfectly, and together they are ready to visit the clockmaker over the next weeks.

The clock fitted into its 3D printed cradle

The clock and cradle support attached

While 3D printing is still in its infancy, the biggest developments likely to emerge in the next couple of years include the variety of materials used (like liquid metals and stem cells) and the size of the printed object (from replacement human ear cartilage to jumbo jet components). Here at the museum, we definitely look forward to experimenting more with 3D printing in support of conservation and preservation techniques.