My research explores unconventional methods of creating three-dimensional type with materials and techniques unique to type design — such as ceramics and desktop 3D printing. This research reflects on the development of the digital fabrication and the unconventional typographic practices in the new digital age. I have made three-dimensional ceramic type as a series of typographic explorations to challenge and seek a new way to create tangible type in three-dimensional space.

I am a graphic designer and a maker who loves 3D type. Many graphic design professionals and type designers have worked in 2D space exclusively to create type. This practice has influenced the “glass box” that limits type creation in the high contrast between type and background. However, 3D type letters, as opposed to type printed onto paper, do not lie on the static space of a page. These letters thus acquire new characteristics such as texture, structure, volume, and even interactivity.

As an artistic and typographic practice, 3D type is convergent since artistic expression, construction technique, and materiality each have a role to play to create letters in three-dimensional space. This new technology would provide good tools for unconventional typographic practice. I like to share what I have learned from my creative practice.

Building My Own Tool 

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In 2014, I made handcrafted ceramic pieces in order to create modular type — I made plaster molds and cast piece by piece. Since the summer of 2015, I have also been interested in the possibility of combining typography, ceramics, and 3D printing as an alternative way of using high-tech features. Desktop 3D printing drew my attention especially because it does not need the space and equipment for a clay studio. I can make more intricate and a greater variety of modular designs with the new tool. With the self-built delta type 3D printer and an auger extruder, I am able to print small and medium scale 3D printed ceramic objects up to 300mm tall with a diameter of 300mm.

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My ceramic 3D printer was built based on a delta style 3D printer. In the summer of 2015, I purchased a DIY 3D printer kit. I have been playing with the open source delta style 3D printers to figure out what I can do with this new tool and technology. There are several different types of 3D printers and RepRap is one of the famous open source projects. RepRap printers are able to produce its own parts — not every part, but it is able to print some parts — and make it self-replicative. Because many can build their own RepRap machines at low-cost, they are one of the most affordable 3D printers for designers, artists, and makers.

For me, the most exciting feature of these DIY 3D printers is that I can build my own tool and customize it to make something. Because there was no 3D printer that could print clay, I needed to make my own printer. Simply put, I made my own tools to make something I was not able to make with my own hands. When I researched making a DIY ceramic 3D printer, I found a post on the Make: and was really impressed. Although I did not use Jonathan’s version, it helped me to see my way to doing it as well, and I did it on my own way.

Pneumatic Clay Extruder

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After building and calibrating my first DIY Delta style 3D printer, I created my own clay extruder. At first, I tried to use glue dispensers, but they could not really extrude clay well. Also, I couldn’t use higher PSI to extrude clay because of some safety issues. Eventually, I fabricated my own clay extruder and container with PVC pipe that could withstand higher PSI. The trickiest part was making it airtight and withstand up to 80 PSI. The pipe says it can resist up to 330 PSI, but I have not tested higher than 95 PSI.

note: PVC is not a safe material for pressure. Please other materials such as steel to avoid possible injury.

I made a couple of prototypes using PVC pipe and couplings and the 4th version was working properly without any leaks. Although I made a good clay extruder, it was still not easy to print clay. It required several test prints to find the right PSI and slicing configurations. Early works were simple geometric shapes and had some issues, but I was very excited to make new ceramic objects.

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Medium Size Delta Printer
Over the summer, I made a decent number of prototypes and I wanted to make a printer specialized for clay. The next step of the new project was creating my own 3D printer that can print small and medium scale ceramic objects. Because the first printer was not able to print bigger pieces, I wanted to build a scaled up version. As I mentioned, RepRap is able to produce its own parts, making it self-replicative. One day, I realized that my 3D printer is able to produce a new printer, and I wanted to fabricate a bigger version of a delta style 3D printer. There were numerous technical and mechanical problems.

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To make the printer, I printed parts using my 3D printer and ordered parts: steel shafts, motors, switches, Arduino, etc. To make top and bottom parts, I used a sheet of MDF, but I did not get the accuracy I wanted without CNC. So, I tried finding a space that had a laser cutter to cut plexiglass. Finally, I was able to access to a laser cutter in campus of Appalachian State University after moving to North Carolina for a new job.

Although I had all the parts, I struggled to make my printer run properly for about two months. It had a problem with calibration, and I did not know how to fix it. Because I had no idea about the firmware for Arduino and the Ramp board and no one could teach me, I googled information to learn how to create the right firmware. I tested more than 40 different firmwares. It was a tedious job to test so many different configurations, but that is what I am good at. On Sunday, October 25, 2015, I solved the problem and my printer began working properly. I tested the calibration with a pen and paper because it shows gradation depending on the subtle Z value and allows you to find calibration. The first word I wrote with my printer was “HI”. Now I can write more complicated words with my machine. I made a Holiday card for my friends with the machine.

I have studied graphic design for more than 10 years and do not have a degree in ceramics or engineering. Although I have some knowledge of ceramics from art elective courses and some coding knowledge, it was not enough. Definitely, it took time to teach myself how to build my own 3D printer and clay extruder. However, I am a natural-born maker and good at tedious jobs. I begin with an ambitious idea and am willing to deal with endless troubleshooting. I made a prototype with an idea, tested the prototype, documented the result, and make another prototype like other designers who highly value the power of the design process. In order to resolve problems, I need to learn through making and document the progress. I learn from every failure and success.

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Clay is a fascinating and sensitive material. It was essential to find the right viscosity of clay. It should not be too soft or too solid. If the clay is too solid, it cannot be extruded smoothly. And if it is too soft, it has a greater chance of collapsing while printing.

I started with low fire white clay because it has fewer particulates and is soft enough to be easily extruded. Since the clay is normally not soft enough, it should be mixed with extra water. I have to add extra water to make it soft, but this caused collapsing while printing.

The early prints were not complex and were relatively easier to print. However, complex 3D models are not easy to print because of collapsing. My temporary solution for the problem was using a heat gun to let the wet clay dry faster. Recently, I installed three 120mm fans to the printer and that blow air across the printing bed. It is not the ultimate solution, but it helps.

I have a couple of ideas to solve this problem in a more effective way and will test them out soon. Because I cannot use supporting materials, I had to think about how to design self-reinforcing structures without supports.

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Since I can reuse unfired clay, I have reclaimed most of my misprints. However, I appreciate the collapsed prints and misprints since they leave some commentary on the promise of digital fabrication. My artist friends love the collapsed or dropped prints. So, I do not reclaim some interesting misprints and sometimes I print something and drop it to make something totally new – I call it collaboration with gravity.

To make my latest typographic sculpture, I intended to make messy misprint at the bottom and gradually print the following layers well. Although it is even more difficult than normal print, it shows interesting textures and I want to play with it more.
building my own tool, an auger clay extruder

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In the summer of 2016, I wanted to make a new extruder because I could not print more complex shapes with my pneumatic clay extruder. According to my research, a few glue dispensing companies and some people are using an auger valve to control the paste extrusion.

Again, I took advantage of the 3D printer to make my own tools. I designed auger screws and housing on Rhino and printed them out. For more than three weeks, I have designed and tested 56 different screws and 8 housings. The screws and housing are printed with PLA. Since there was a leak on the extruder, I needed several tests to solve the problem. My auger extruder shows pretty impressive results. The combination of auger #55 and the housing #7 was working well together although there are some issues. I plan to develop it even more.

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Printing and Firing Clay and Precious Metal Clay

I have printed different clay bodies: white clay, stoneware, porcelain, and precious metal clay (copper). Most of the clay bodies are very similar if they do not have grog (particulate matter). However, they have different shrinkage rates. That is why you need to test the firing process.

After the successful prints, two basic firing steps follow; bisque and glaze firing. During each firing, the clay reaches certain temperatures to ensure that the clay bodies mature into ceramic. Different clay bodies should be fired at the different temperature to mature the clay bodies, in other words, to vitrify the clay. The shrinkage happens at the vitrification stage. When you get clay from pottery supplies, it tells you what temperature you should use – it is called cone in ceramics. The name derived from pyrometric cone used to gauge heat work. These days, I am using mid-range porcelain (cone 5-6. 2167 – 2232F)

Printing precious metal clay (aka PMC) is an exciting collaborative project with Marissa Saneholtz. Metal clay is made out of very fine particles of metals such as copper, bronze, and silver. These metals mixed with a binder and water to make it clay-like. Since it can be shaped like soft clay, it may be used for making jewelry and small sculptures. They are relatively expensive compared to other clays and metals. The copper clay is the most expensive material I have used.

PMC requires a similar printing process, but is a little different. As with other clay bodies, I mix a piece of clay and water until it reaches a certain consistency. Since it is an expensive material, I cannot print a big piece and I try not to waste it. After printing the print, it has to be dried before firing it. Once dry, the clay is hard, making it easy to make some finishing touches. However, it could be fragile and delicate depending on the design. The clay can be fired in a variety of ways, but we used an electric kiln to fire the 3D printed PMC. After firing, they need to be tumbled to be polished. For more details, see my page on the process here.

This material brought us different challenges. The shrinkage rate was higher than with other clays and they have cracks sometimes. She turned the cracked piece into a beautiful brooch with a 3D printed ceramic object. We found the shrinkage rate and produced small 3D printed copper objects. It is just the first round and we plan to explore it more.

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Process of 3D printing clay

Step 01: Produce a 3D model using Computer-Aided Design (I am using Rhino).

Step 02: Convert CAD drawing into STereoLithography file (STL).

Step 03: Slice the 3D model and create G-code (I am using Repetier Host Mac).

Step 04: Setup machine and load clay into DIY clay extruder.

Step 05: Let 3D printer to its job. Printing time may vary depending on the complexity and the size.

Step 06: Remove the printed object from the machine and let it completely dry.

Step 07: For ceramics, bisque firing and glaze firing. (PMC also needs two step firing processes)

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Software

I am a graphic designer and have used Mac computers for a long time. So, I am using Rhinoceros 5 for Mac to design the 3D models. I have only used Rhino about one year and it was not easy to adjust to 3D CAD software. As my 3D modeling skill gets better, I can design more complex shapes. When I need to design some organic shape, I am also using Sculptris. Sculptris is an interesting software for the digital sculpting. Also, I use Slic3r to generate g-code and Repetier host 1.0.1 for Mac to control the 3D printer. When I need to design a 3D type or a complex design, I design some shapes in Adobe Illustrator and import the file into Rhino. When I need a 3D scan, I use an MS Kinect and Skanect to 3D scan human figures or objects.

 

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What’s Next?

I am in academia and it is my job to share what I have learned from my research. I want to share my work with creative people through conferences and exhibitions. My students would be able to take my digital method class that covers 2D and 3D design and digital fabrication. I have tested what I can make with this new technology and will make more and test more. I plan to apply for some research grants to build a bigger printer and larger clay extruder. With the new printer, I want to print human-scale 3D typographic sculptures with clay or concrete. Also, I hope to share some new explorations with the new machine here on this blog in the near future.

Thank you for reading. I am always looking for opportunities and venues to show my research. Please contact me if you are interested in a workshop, an artist talk or an exhibition.

You can see my latest work on my Instagram.