Purchase Story

Three-Dimensional Printing and Antiques

Computer Column #339

John P. Reid, [email protected]

Three-dimensional printers controlled by a personal computer are well established. Owning one is the dream of many computer buffs, but there is surprisingly little mention of their use for making missing parts in antiques restoration. Perhaps there are reservations about the authenticity of such repairs, but responsible dealers and knowledgeable collectors manage such matters appropriately. The object is to restore an item’s original beauty and function without reducing its historic value.

Routine repair by replacement is an accepted part of the life cycle of such things as wooden ships, automobiles, and upholstered furniture. Joshua Slocum’s inspirational 1900 book Sailing Alone around the World noted that every piece of wood on his old sloop had been replaced piece by piece, yet the international registry still considered it to be the same vessel.

There is much information in the links listed below, but the URLs are cumbersome. Digital-edition readers can click on the links. Print-edition readers will find a clickable list of links at my web page (http://jnjreid.com/3dprint).


A computer inkjet page printer is a 2D or two-dimensional device. Inside, an ink cartridge zooms left and right on a rail, squirting colored droplets. Rollers move the paper down as the page is printed.

In a 3D printer, the ink cartridge is replaced by an “extruder,” which oozes droplets melted off a reel of plastic filament. The extruder is moved left and right, up and down, and back and forth on three sets of rails or swinging arms. A computer tells the printer where to deposit plastic based on stored data. It is a fascinating process to watch (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnIVrLqrEI8).

The second half of the equation is creating the data to be used. Two methods are common. If a duplicate part is available, the data can be created by a scanner made for 3D printing. Otherwise, a drawing of the desired piece can be made with CAD (computer-aided design) software such as the free SketchUp Make described in Computer Column #330 on page 3-B of the June 2016 issue. The data is exported in the required CAD file format.

Three-dimensional printers cost from a few hundred dollars to quite a few thousands of dollars. The price depends on how large a part can be made, the variety of filament materials that can be used, whether multiple colors are possible, and the speed of operation. Scanner prices are in the middle of the printer price range.

Learning to use the tools takes time. Expect botched jobs and messes to clean up initially. There are plenty of up-to-date books such as Make: Getting Started with 3D Printing (2016) and Make: Design for 3D Printing (2015) available as e-books or in print at online booksellers. Three-dimensional printing courses are popping up everywhere. Geek speak for 3D printing is “additive manufacturing.”

Case Histories

England’s Victoria and Albert Museum in London restored an elaborate chair once belonging to Marie Antoinette. It was part of a large suite produced in 1788 but now widely dispersed, so there was little guidance about the original finish or upholstery. Decorations were hand carved and had been damaged by cleaning. No two pieces were exactly alike. The elaborate crest with an “MA” monogram was photographed, and its left and right sides compared. The few other chairs with intact crests were compared as well. A consensus drawing was created and used to 3D-print a replacement for the missing part of the crest (https://3dprint.com/45399/marie-antoinette-museum-chair).

The British 46-gun frigate H.M.S. Unicorn was launched in Chatham, Kent, in 1824. It is now docked permanently in Dundee, Scotland where it is being restored as a museum. It is one of the oldest sailing ships afloat. The helmsman’s wheel was missing several handles. When the restorers had difficulty finding a woodturner to make replacements, 3D printing was suggested. An existing handle was scanned and new ones printed in gray plastic. These were deemed authentic and appropriate to the museum’s “please touch” environment (https://3dprint.com/16891/hms-unicorn-3d-print-ship).

Replacement handles of gray plastic made by 3D printing for the wheel of the 1824 H.M.S. Unicorn are looked over by British naval restoration expert Andrew Baines. Photo by Dave Martin, Dundee, Scotland.

Jay Leno’s famous garage uses 3D printing for making missing antique automobile engine and body parts. Three-dimensional printing of metal involves added steps. There are several methods. In one, finely divided metal mixed with a binder is used instead of plastic. After printing, the piece is fired to sinter or fuse the fine particles of metal into a solid. In another method, an easily melted material is used. The printed piece then becomes the pattern for a process similar to lost-wax casting. Leno has resources. The 3D printer he appears to use sells for over $30,000 (http://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/a4354/4320759).

Simpler parts can be replaced by using scanning and 3D printing. Casters from early 19th-century furniture are easy to reproduce. Nonmetal automotive restoration parts are regularly re-created with inexpensive 3D printers (http://www.rapidpsi.com/blog/case-studies/a-classic-auto-restoration-using-3-d-printed-parts.html).

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House in Hollywood, California, is now a museum and a candidate to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The restoration back to its 1920s décor lacked one thing. The original owner had a 1st-century A.D. marble relief from Roman Libya, Three Dancing Nymphs, which is lost. Cosmo Wenman, 3D printing and scanning consultant, created a replica of a similar marble relief that is in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Milled in plaster and painted to resemble marble, it is the first thing to greet visitors to the house (https://cosmowenman.wordpress.com).

Three-dimensional printing is being used on a grand scale to make replicas and museum miniatures of architecture and
artifacts allegedly des-troyed by ISIS in the Middle East. Photographs, drawings, and measurements collected for centuries by archaeologists are used as input to the printers. There are similar preservation projects around the world (https://3dprint.com/151973/3d-printed-artifacts-colosseum).

Antique musical instruments are seldom identical to their modern counterparts. Restorers are using 3D printing to make replacement violin bridges, brass and woodwind mouthpieces, and keyboard parts. Tool collectors are making 3D printed replacement parts such as wooden handles.

The British warship Mary Rose sank in 1545 with a loss of 500 lives. Swansea University is making 3D printed replicas of salvaged artifacts and human skulls for study by Tudor history researchers around the world (https://3dprint.com/155222/3d-printing-mary-rose-artifacts).

Ceramics are often extensively restored. Chips and missing parts are replaced, and tedious inpainting is common. Collectors sometimes carry ultraviolet lamps to identify such repairs. Three-dimensional printing is gaining a role in this field. When only shards are available and some are missing, scanning, computer software, and 3D printing can make exact replacements for the missing shards. For historic pieces, unpainted replacements often are combined with the available shards. The restored piece is strong enough for display while authentically representing the original object. For less important ceramics, missing chips, handles, knobs, and spouts can be 3D printed and painted for replacement (https://cfileonline.org/technology-inside-the-world-of-repairing-priceless-ceramic-art).

Business Opportunity

Three-dimensional printing is being adopted by many businesses including automobile manufacturers. An Internet search in most communities will find small businesses doing 3D printing. Their interests are broad, and few specifically support antiques restoration. Perhaps this is an opportunity in areas where antiques businesses are dense. I would be glad to hear from anyone working in this area for a future column.

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

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