Purchase Story

3D Printing for Restoration

Computer Column #347

John P. Reid, <>

There have been important technical developments in three-dimensional printing by computer since column #339 was published in the March 2017 issue. It is now even possible to 3D print with concrete. A giant printer is wheeled to a site to print garden seats or ornaments (1). (Numbered links to websites are listed in the sidebar. Readers with access to the digital edition will be able to click on them.) The creation of patterns for casting in metal is now easier as well.

Some ethical considerations about using 3D printing in antiques restoration remain. Relatively little has been published on 3D printing ethics. Socio-Legal Aspects of the 3D Printing Revolution by Angela Daly and 3D Printing: Legal, Philosophical and Economic Dimensions, edited by Bibi van den Berg, Simone van der Hof, and Eleni Kosta, are scholarly tomes not specifically aimed at antiques restoration. These books may be obtained from online book dealers in e-book formats.

Homeland security is a consideration. Unlicensed firearms have been made using 3D printing. One of the first was a plastic pistol named “Liberator.” The ethics question is complicated by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, the Undetectable Firearms Act, recently extended by Congress, makes it illegal to create firearms that cannot be detected by metal detectors.

It is clearly unethical or illegal if 3D printing is used to repair or duplicate an antique with the intention of fooling a buyer. Even if the buyer is aware of the work, the piece may pass into other hands in the future.

Counterfeiting a work of art is usually illegal. However, replicating artwork is sometimes done by a museum when the original is important but unavailable. A 3D-printed replica of Palmyra’s monumental Roman arch destroyed in Syria by ISIS was erected in New York City’s City Hall Park (2). Archaeologists had recorded detailed measurements of the arch over many years.

Antiques of all kinds are frequently repaired or restored. Conventions have developed over the years as to what is ethical. Furniture is restored using new wood. It sometimes takes a good eye to recognize the repairs, but such repairs are often acceptable. China and porcelain is restored with fillers and paints. Some showgoers carry a black light to detect this, but newer materials make this method ineffective. The Antiques Roadshow posted a web page (3) that suggests asking the dealer directly if there are known repairs. China duplicates in plastic are sometimes made by 3D printing to complete an heirloom table setting for appearance’s sake.


Architectural restoration uses 3D printing when the objective is to return a building to its period appearance. During restoration of the Peoria, Illinois, Marriott Pere Marquette hotel, many of the decorative ceiling medallions were found to be missing. They were replaced by 3D printing replicas (4).

Finding parts for antique musical instruments is often impossible. At the University of Connecticut, a 3D printing specialist brought old instruments back to life. Authentic mouthpieces for saxophones made by Adolphe Sax himself were 3D printed inexpensively (5). Now the sound of these instruments may be heard as Sax intended. Wind instruments have complicated combinations of keys with many options. The modern concert flute, based on the instruments created by Theobald Boehm in 1847, has been offered with dozens of variations to accommodate small or large fingers and special functions. Repairing 19th-century flutes is easier with the help of 3D printing.

The ancient technique of lost wax casting of metal is used with 3D printed patterns. This is often done with a polymer instead of wax, but wax is possible as well. There is a growing industry of restoring jewelry. A ring may have its decorations damaged by years of wear. Engagement and wedding rings are common victims. Catalog pictures are often available to guide in making drawings for 3D printers to make lost polymer or wax castings. The new precious metal parts can be attached by standard jeweler’s methods (6).

Some antiques have repairs as part of their life cycle. Automobiles, boats, and aircraft are expected to require spare parts. A wooden boat is the same boat after every part has been replaced over the years. Upholstered furniture is expected to be reupholstered, though there is little use for 3D printing in reupholstering furniture as of yet.

As a young computer engineer in the late 1950s, I was told by a Lockheed Corporation aircraft engineer that the fabled propeller-driven Constellation airliner was expected to require spare parts in its lifetime with a total cost equaling the plane’s initial cost. This has changed. A U.S. Air Force workhorse F-15 Eagle now costs about $31,000,000 and uses three times that in spare parts in its lifetime. There are companies making spare parts for small and large aircraft using 3D printing (7).

An antique automobile is no less authentic if it has been repaired. One success story is based on using 3D printing to make patterns for sand casting large metal parts. Louis Delage founded an automobile company in France in 1905. Delage cars did well in European road races before World War I. The company closed in 1953. A 1914 Delage racer eventually found its way to Australia. It was kept running until recently. One day water started pouring from the exhaust pipe, and the 103-year-old engine stopped. It was found to have a crack in the engine block between an exhaust manifold and the water jacket.

The one surviving Delage Type S race car, similar to these at the 1914 French Grand Prix, had its cracked engine block replaced using computer 3D printing.

This is the last known Delage Type S on the planet, and there is no Delage Type S engine block available in the world’s junkyards. The usual procedure would be to take detailed measurements of the old block. Then a group of wooden patterns would be made by sawing, carving, and sanding. The patterns could be used for sand casting. The precision surfaces of the finished casting would then be machined. The owner decided to take measurements of the damaged block with 3D camera scans and make molds for old-fashioned sand casting with a 3D printer. The car is running today. There is a fun video of the whole story (8).

Another interesting example is hidden upgrades to antique automobile lighting. Kerosene lanterns once served as headlights but are not legal on today’s streets. The inside of a kerosene headlight was carefully measured. A plastic insert was designed and 3D printed to hold batteries and an LED lamp. Where the insert is installed in the lantern, all that can be seen of it is the LED bulb where the kerosene lamp wick once was located (9).

Getting It Done

I have suggested that 3D printing might be a business opportunity in areas with lots of antiques activity. I tried to contact such businesses near me. They all had shut down. It appears that 3D printing has gone online as have many retail businesses. Search for one near you, and you will find at least one offering fast, cheap service over the Internet. One of the largest is 3D Hubs, based in the Netherlands, which manages a network of thousands of printing services around the world. We have not tried 3D Hubs but would be glad to hear reports from readers about using its services or joining its network.

Web Links

(A few are YouTube links with video and sound.)

  1. Concrete: (www.youtube.com/watch?v=0USFbc3ThRI)
  2. Palmyra arch: (www.forbes.com/sites/drsarahbond/2016/09/22/does-nycs-new-3d-printed-palmyra-arch-celebrate-syria-or-just-engage-in-digital-colonialism/#e220bc877dbd)
  3. China repair: (www.pbs.org/wgbh/antiquesfyi/tips/ceramic/index.html)
  4. Ceiling medallion: (www.youtube.com/watch?v=1l6lbKwXUKI)
  5. Saxophone: (www.classicfm.com/discover-music/instruments/3d-printed-instruments)
  6. Jewelry: (www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ow82fwCMbg)
  7. Airplane parts: (www.tctmagazine.com/3d-printing-news/aircraft-maintenance-service-magnetic-mro-begin-work-on-3d-p/)
  8. Delage: (www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2017/s4643555.htm#)
  9. Kerosene lamp: (www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eObnwWfqU4) You may opt to click “Skip Ad.”

Originally published in the November 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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