Designer Taekyeom Lee built his own 3D printer and designed paste extruders to produce intricate 3D ceramic letterings and objects. His research reflects on the development of digital fabrication and the unconventional typographic practices in the post-digital age. In part two of his interview with Ginkgo3D, he shares with our readers his experience in perfecting his ceramic art pieces made with 3D printing. (Part Two)
Ginkgo3D: After some two years, you have finally achieved success in combining 3D printing with type and ceramic design. What do you attribute your success to?
Taekyeom: I have studied graphic design for more than 10 years and did not major in ceramics or engineering. Although I have some knowledge of ceramics and coding, 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, just like other designers who highly value the power of the design process. In order to resolve problems, I needed to learn through making and documenting the progress. I learnt something from every failure and success.
Ginkgo3D: How did your new machine work with the medium of clay?
Taekyeom: Clay is a fascinating and sensitive material. The key to successful use of my new machine was to find a right viscosity of clay. If the clay is too solid, it cannot be extruded smoothly. And if it is too soft, it has more chance to collapse while printing. I started with low fire white clay because it has less grog and soft enough to be extruded. Since the normal clay was not soft enough, I had to add extra water, but it collapsed while printing. The early prints were simple and relatively easier to print. However, complex 3D models were not easy to print because of the collapsing.
Ginkgo3D: And how did you deal with that printing problem?
Taekyeom: My temporary solution to the problem was using a heat gun to let the wet clay dry faster. Recently, I installed three 120mm fans to the printer, blowing onto the printing bed. It is not the ultimate solution, but it helps.
I have a couple of ideas to solve this problem more effectively and will test them out. Even now, I appreciate the collapsed prints and misprints since they leave some comments on the promise of digital fabrication. Also, I print some items and drop them to make some interesting shapes – I call it collaboration with gravity – since non-linear behaviour of clay could be a form of art.
In the summer of 2016, I had to make a new extruder because I could not print more complex shapes with my pneumatic clay extruder. According to my research, some glue dispensing companies and people were using the auger valve to control the paste extrusion. Again, I took advantage of the 3D printing to make my own tools. I designed auger screws and housing on Rhino and printed them out. I tested 56 different screws and eight housings over three weeks. The combination of auger #55 and the housing #7 was working well together although there are less troubleshooting.
Most of the clay bodies are very similar if they do not have grog. However, they have different shrinkage rates. 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 different temperatures to mature the clay body, in other words, to vitrify the clay. The shrinkage happens at the vitrification stage. When you get clay from pottery suppliers, they tell you what temperature you should use – it’s called cone in ceramics. The name derived from pyrometric cone to gauge heat work. These days I am using mid-range porcelain (cone 5-6. 2167 – 2232F)
Precious Metal Clay or PMC requires similar printing process but a little different. Like other clay bodies, a piece of clay and water is mixed until it reaches a certain consistency. Since it is an expensive material, I cannot print a big piece and will try not to waste it. After printing, it has to be dried before firing. Once dry, the clay is hard, making it easy to make some finishing touches. However, it can be fragile and delicate depending on the design.
I am using Rhinoceros for Mac to design the 3D models. Also, use Slic3r to generate g-code and Repetier host 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.
As an artistic and typographic practice, 3D type is convergent as 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.
Ginkgo3D: What’s next?
Taekyeom: I just finished the big first round with this new tool. There is more way to go and it is time to move to the next stage. As an academic, I want to share what I have learned from my research with creative people through conferences and exhibitions. In the near future, students would be able to take my Digital method class that covers 2D/3D design and 3D modelling/printing soon. 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 and/or concrete.
Also, I am playing with a print-and-drop process. As I mentioned earlier, I print something and drop it to make some interesting shapes – I call it collaboration with gravity – since non-linear behaviour of clay could be a form of art.
Ginkgo3D: One last question. Some people say 3d printed objects are not art because they have no ‘soul’. Do your 3d printed objects qualify as art? Do they have soul?
How do you define art and where does the artistic soul came from? I believe that most of the people would agree that art is a conscious use of skill and creative imagination and there are various branches of creative practice. We have developed and used numerous manufacturing methods to create artistic and practical objects. There is no clear line between what could be used for art and what could not be used. 3D printing is just one of many manufacturing methods that we, human beings, invented and developed, but it would not big enough to cause a paradigm shift in the artistic practice.
3D printing and my machines are just tools that I chose and built for my creative practice. I can claim that those machines qualify as a form of art since I built them with my skill and creative imagination. The artistic soul comes from the artist – the human being who intends and agonises to create something – not from the tool the artist uses. My 3D printer is a tool and it cannot make anything without me. I have spent time and efforts to put artistic expression to my 3D printed objects and type. I say that my 3D printed objects qualify as art with confidence since I chose 3D printing as a way of manufacturing. The idea, the process and the final product would be art, not just the outcome.
Editor: Readers can check Taekyeom’s latest work on
Portfolio website: http://portfolio.taekyeom.com
Editor: Taekyeom Lee is an interdisciplinary artist although he prefers to introduce himself a designer using artist’s material and artistic sensibility. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. He received an MFA degree in Graphic Design from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.