Electroplating 3D Prints

I’ve always been interested in 3D printing in different materials or even possibly coating prints with paint or metal. During my time at UVA’s architecture school, I printed in nylon, wood filament, and many other crazy materials. I’ve also tested smoothing ABS with acetone vapor (works wonderfully). However, I really wanted to try something new, especially now that Techshop was at my disposal. My friend/coworker Brett runs an electroplating class, which I decided to take one day after work. Basically, the idea of electroplating is to use an electric current to coat a conductive object (typically some sort of metal) with, well, a different type of metal. It’s extremely useful and can be used for many different things, such as to decorate, to harden objects, or to protect from corrosion. In Brett’s class, we plated a copper penny with nickel- the process was far simpler than I originally imagined. You mix together nickel acetate (easy buy from Amazon) with vinegar in a plastic container. Once that’s all nice and mixed up, you connect whatever you are trying to electroplate (in our case, copper) to the cathode aka negative side of a small power supply  (6V battery) and the metal you plan to electroplate with (nickel) to the anode aka positive side. Place both in the nickel acetate vinegar bath, turn on the power supply to about 4 V (best to keep the voltage low) and wait. You will begin to see a coating form over your penny!

I was extremely pleased with the results and wondered if I could somehow use the same technique to coat a 3D print. I did some research online and saw that many people had tried it and got some pretty awesome results. It seemed that the cheapest method was using a graphite based coating, which would make the 3D print conductive. I decided I would try out a combination of acetone and graphite powder- the acetone, in theory, would cause ABS plastic to melt a bit (remember acetone vapor smoothing) and therefore act as a adhesive for the graphite. I purchased some graphite powder and acetone and mixed it. Oh my goodness, the graphite got everywhere! My hands were covered in this stuff for days. But, the mixture turned out very well in my opinion. I found an old ABS print I didn’t mind testing on and coated it with my solution. Here is how the solution looked and the graphite powder I purchased (noticed I kept it in a plastic baggy at ALL TIMES):

Once it was coated, I used the same method as Brett showed in class, but rather than connecting a copper penny to the cathode, I connected my graphite covered 3D print (well, I wrapped nickel wire around the print to ensure it was secure and connected that the cathode). Unfortunately, I did not take any photos of that rig, but I do have a picture of how it turned out:


First try went way better than I expected. I honestly didn’t think it was going to work at all (my coworkers at Techshop had their doubts as well). The dark gray areas are places that didn’t take the nickel, but the lighter areas are locations coated in nickel- success! Now that trial 1 was over, it was time to move on to bigger things. Such as JEWELRY.

I designed a basic parametric bracelet in grasshopper and printed it on a Stratasys Mojo. It came out with a lot of support material, so it had to sit in the bath for a while. Here it is covered in support:


Afterwards, I coated the bracelet with my acetone graphite solution. I did about 3 coats since the design was so complex; I had to ensure I got every little crevice. Here it is as I’m beginning to coat it:


Alright, now it’s time to electroplate it! I set up the rig and connected the 3D print using A LOT of wire. I then carefully placed it in the nickel acetate bath and let it sit for 7 hours. It’s like watching paint dry:

Here you can finally see what the rig looks like. That rectangular object is my chunk of nickel, connected to the anode of my power supply. I had to rotate my bracelet every so often since my solution didn’t fully cover it. You can see the nickel beginning to cover the print:


After seven long hours, I pulled the print out and was amazed at the results and how well the graphite took the nickel. Of course, it wasn’t perfect. There were areas of the print that didn’t take as much and some areas looked a little clumpy. Additionally, the metal was not polished. I purchased some Simichrome and used that the polish it up. It actually worked pretty well. Here is an image of the final product:


Pretty cool stuff. I plan to test it on other objects, but for now I’m pleased I created a new trendy bracelet I can wear 🙂

3DDC 2016

On April 14th, I attended 3DDC, a 3D printing policy event hosted by Public Knowledge. I know this is a rather delayed post, but I think some of the topics brought up at the 3DDC event are worth discussing in this blog. There were panels of expert makers and 3D printing specialists, including some of our own from Techshop. The panels focused on 3D printing in regards to STEAM education, the environment, bridging the workforce skills gap, and the arts.

I attended the workforce gap and arts panels and was intrigued by some of the issues brought up by both the audience and panelists. For example, the workforce gap panel discussed the difficulties in teaching older makers how to use new technologies. As someone who grew up using a computer and learned to 3D model at a young age, I had never really thought about this. I always thought desktop 3D printers were relatively simple to use. Export the model as an STL, send it to the printer, make sure there is enough filament, hit the start button and *voila* a few hours later you have a print (ignoring the potential extruder clog- looking at you, Makerbot). But this process might not be as intuitive to someone who hasn’t used a computer from a young age or seen a 3D printer in action. While working at Techshop, I remember a lady calling in and asking if she could purchase ink and paper for our shop’s 3D printer. Of course it seemed funny at the time, but unless you’ve used a 3D printer, you probably wouldn’t know what the filament was made out of or how to load it into the printer. I can understand how learning to use this technology would be frustrating to an older audience. The panel discussed methods of teaching these new technologies to an older age group, from providing free classes at the library to holding workshops for retired veterans at Techshop. I believe you can “teach an old dog new tricks”, but it will take time and effort. Repetition and consistency is key in learning how to use machines and software; conduct tasks over and over until it is ingrained.

The first topic of conversation during the arts panel was using 3D scanning/printing to create replicas of famous pieces of art. The paradigm case: a 3D scan of Nefertiti’s bust. The bust is currently located in the Neues Museum in Berlin and is the subject of ownership conflict between Germany and Egypt. Two artists, Nikolai Nelles and Nora Al-Badri, snuck a 3D scanner into the museum and were able to gather enough data to create a detailed 3D replica of the bust, which they uploaded online and had this to say: “With the data leak as a part of this counter narrative we want to activate the artefact, to inspire a critical re-assessment of today’s conditions and to overcome the colonial notion of possession in Germany.” Though new information may have ousted the whole heist as a hoax, it brings up important issues with how we view the intersection of art and technology. What’s the difference between taking a picture at a museum versus a 3D scan? When does it become theft of cultural and artistic property? Does 3D printing an art piece make it a counterfeit? Does it matter who is overseeing the scanning and printing? Many museums are using the technology to preserve and document their collections. For example, look at the work the Smithsonian is conducting: http://www.3d.si.edu/. So what do you think? Is 3D scanning and printing detrimental or beneficial to how we see art?

The arts panel also brought in one of my favorite artists, Francis Bitonti. You might know him for his famous Dita Von Teese 3D printed dress (it’s killer). He is one of the most prominent and innovative artists using 3D printing and I’m excited to see what he has in store for us in the future. Here’s a picture of him during the panel, as well as his 3D printed dress. Overall, I had a great time at 3DDC and was left with many questions about the future of 3D printing.


Lasercutter Rotary Attachment: an Experiment

I recently started working at Tech Shop, a maker space in Arlington filled with 3d printers, woodshop, CNC routers, waterjets, and laser cutters. It’s a great place to work on your own projects or take classes to learn how to use the machinery. I work as a front desk assistant and therefore am able to take free classes- a pretty sweet gig if you ask me. About a month ago, I took the safety and basic use class for the rotary attachment for the laser cutters. In school, I used laser cutters to cut components of my models , yet I never knew a rotary attachment existed. Essentially, the attachment allows you to laser cut/etch on a curved surface. A very useful piece of equipment! Here is an image of my first project on it (Lord of the Rings nerdom):


After completing my first glass, I realized I could create some great gifts on the rotary. My friend Tori’s graduation is coming up and I thought it would be cool to make something for the occasion. Tori is a fantastic artist and appreciates handmade gifts; I decided it would be even cooler if I made something that incorporated her own art. I creeped through her facebook album of artwork until I found something I could easily etch on glass:


Beautiful design and only two-toned- perfect. First step, I needed to image trace and rasterize this bad boy in Illustrator. Super simple, took about a minute:
Afterwards, I had to resize the image to ensure it would fit on the glass I purchased. I measured the height of the glass and used that as the width of the image, then measured the circumference of the glass (used a caliper to measure the diameter then did the math) to use as the height of the image. I kept the opacity of the etch at 100% because I really wanted her design to stand out against the clear glass. I fit the glass on the rotary and let the laser do its thing. Took about 15 minutes to etch entirely, which I didn’t think was too bad. Overall, my handmade gift only took about 20 minutes. Safe to say, I will definitely be making more gifts on the rotary!

3D Printing or bust

First blog post- woohoo! I thought it would be useful to make a blog about my interests, specifically 3D printing and tech. It will definitely be nice to have everything written down in one place (you know, rather than on sticky notes floating around my desk). Some background information on me: I’m a recent graduate of UVA’s School of Architecture, currently working in DC as an Architectural Designer for Jacobs Engineering and the State Department. My hobbies include 3D printing and digital modeling (obviously) as well as gaming, drawing, cross-stitching, backpacking and hiking, binge watching Battlestar Galactica on Netflix, among many other things.

I hope to achieve a couple of things from this blog. Firstly, I want to learn more about the maker movement. By collecting information regarding fabrication, digital modeling, 3D printing, tech, etc. and compiling it here, I’ll have a solid record of everything I’ve learned. Secondly, this blog will be the impetus to become more involved in digital fabrication. With a busy schedule, it’s hard to devote time to a hobby. However, the urge to write blog posts will hopefully keep me active in my 3d printing/tech pursuits.

My plans for this year are to purchase a 3D printer and to create printable objects. I also need to brush up on my grasshopper (a plugin for Rhinoceros software) skills to continue designing parametric models. Hopefully I’ll be able to achieve some of these goals and write about them along the way!