Noodlestruding and the art of printing toys

There was a piece on Radio National this morning about Tove Jansson, the author of the Moomintroll books. It got me thinking about toys. I have a 4 inch high plastic model of her character ‘Snuffkin’ sitting on my windowsill in front of me. My wife has a complete set of the Moomintroll family, living in a plywood dollshouse I built years ago during an enthusiasm for dollshouses and dioramas. We also have a number of ‘Sylvanian Families’ characters.

I guess I never really grew up, and I still love small sculptures — ok, toys and dolls — so long as they’ve got some strange quality that speaks of myth and emotion. I don’t play with them, as such, but they inspire my imagination and sense of wonder. I do talk to Hush, the stuffy toy dog that watches TV with me. Is that over-sharing?

There is good reason to believe that anthropomorphism (the tendency to ascribe human-like attributes, emotions and intentions to non-human or even non-living things) has been a vital survival trait in human evolution. I could blather on about false-positives versus false-negatives, and relative survival rates and all, but its not my field and I’d surely make a fool of myself. I just accept that treating things as if they are alive and care about my happiness can make me happier, and touches something deep inside my tribal primate brain. I’m guessing this is part of why I have so many little toys, and puppets, and doll-like objects around me.

What’s the connection with 3D printing? With a bit — ok, a lot — of effort, I can hopefully make the cool toy-like things I imagine in my head. I get an undo button in a way I don’t when working with woodworking tools (which I’m hopeless with anyway, I’m just a tool junkie). And when something finally does print the way I want it to, I can make duplicates. Yay.

I spent a year studying at our local TAFE several years ago (TAFE is the sort of technical tertiary education for people who either don’t finish high-school or who want qualifications below university level. Plumbing, carpentry, office skills, agriculture etc). I signed up for a ‘Certificate III in Visual Art and Contemporary Craft’ hoping they could teach me enough drawing and painting skills to create the sort of miniature theatres and marionettes and other cool toys I’d been trying to build on my own. It’s the only art training I’ve ever had, apart from six abortive and unsatisfying months of compulsory art in high school back in the 1970s.

TAFE was fun, and stressful, and I learnt a lot. I didn’t learn how to paint things I was happy with, but I did learn that very few artists are happy with their own results at the time. Having finished is good, but deciding when to stop is hard.

One really big learning experience for me was that the gap between what the artist is trying to achieve, and what they do achieve, is only apparent to the artist. As we walked around the studio working the kinks out of our hands and necks (have you tried painting at an easel for 6 hours at a time? Its exhausting), we’d constantly be exclaiming our pleasure at the cool things our fellow students were doing. But none of us could see our own work with those unbiased eyes. We’d always be comparing our canvas with our internal image, and they’d always be different.

The happiest artists seem to have an experimental attitude, looking for synchronistic accidents and following flow. And when the happy accident makes something wonderful, you can’t do it again. Its like a gift from the gods, and there’s one reason artists in any medium tend to be superstitious. It goes back to that anthropomorphism I mentioned earlier. We look for patterns to explain our experiences.

The current state of DIY 3D printing reminds me of Artist printmaking. I have a small relief press in my art room, bolted to a tabletop. I carve a lino sheet to make the marks on the page that I imagine in my head. I fail. Always. Every time. I go through cycles of experiment and discovery and learning from mistakes. Eventually, hopefully, I end up with a plate that mostly makes some marks that I’ve decided I like.

Then I switch to production, to the repetitive part. But unlike sending a photoshopped digital photo to a printing bureau, an artist’s print is not easily reproducible. Top end artists get their print series done by expert printers who understand their own presses, the alchemy of the inks, ambient humidity, paper quality, printing pressure, all the myriad little details that can screw up or change the final result.

Its not easy getting 50 identical prints off a 3 foot square chunk of hand carved lino. I can’t manage 5 one foot square prints that’ll stand up to detailed scrutiny, but then I still don’t think I can call myself a printmaker.

Anyway, DIY 3D printing seems a lot like that. Lots of futzing about with modelling software (openSCAD, in my case) trying to get something that looks cool on screen. Then slicing the model up in different software (Skeinforge, or SFAct), so I have a file I can send to the printer. Then going back to openSCAD when Skeingforge doesn’t like the result. Repeat.

Eventually I have a Gcode file I’m ready to send to the printer using the printer control software (Pronterface). Then the printer’s own software (Sprinter or hopefully Marlin) drives the hardware.

I watch the printer do its thing, extruding a continuous thin noodle of hot plastic, as if building with a cake icing extruder (and yes, people have made 3D frosting machines, look up Frostruder). Btw, that’s where the term ‘noodlestruding’ came from – extruding a noodle. Its not a common term, perhaps not ‘serious’ enough, but I like it.

So the printer has done its thing. And if I’m Kliment, or Triffid Hunter, or Nophead, or one of the other expert reprap printer operators, it’ll be mostly what I want, and be mostly repeatable. People like them can print the essential parts for a reprap printer on their machines, in quality good enough to build another working printer. Me, I’m expecting to find myself in the ‘Ooh, how did that happen‘ and ‘should it really do that‘ and ‘Arrgh – the magic smoke got out‘ stage for a fair while.

While reprap printing masquerades as engineering, and needs some engineering skills, it also has a lot of art in it, and definitely some magic, in the Arthur C. Clark sense.

I’ve been reading fantasy fiction for a long time now. The Sorceror working alone in his tower(studio) in the wilderness, decoding cryptic and conflicting tomes (reprapwiki, blogs, IRC #reprap), sending minions out to find the perfect spell ingredient (plastic filament, stepper motor electronics) and ultimately changing the world, or at least making some glowy magical artefact that does something cool (glow-in-the-dark model starships, lost wax cylinder seals), is a trope that appeals to my aging intellect much more than the musclebound hero.

Hey, have I mentioned that PLA filament is bio-organic (made of corn starch) and breaks down in compost to provide soil nutrients? So there’s no guilt about adding to the planet’s stock of plastic pollution in landfill and ocean gyres.

It’s all good.

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