We’ve had our 3D printer for just over a year now so it seems a good time to review what we’ve made on it and to assess its use as a propmaking resource.

Firstly we bought our Makerbot from http://www.robosavvy.com for around £1700 and we also bought a session of training with them. Since then we’ve also discovered iMakr: London’s first 3D printing shop situated conveniently in Clerkenwell. http://www.imakr.com

3D training

Initially whilst learning how to operate the machine we made use of Thingiverse http://www.thingiverse.com which can best be described as an online free catalogue shop you can download and print objects from their ever increasing list of open source objects. We’ve downloaded and printed Dalek cufflinks, a sippy cup which is made entirely from a spiralling straw, a model of Stonehenge, an iPhone cover with cogs and some fine scale model wickerwork furniture.

>First Printed objects

I made some vases copying Navaho designs and they are actually watertight!
we also made some spear points, half 3D, half MDF.

Meg Courage made the handle for a phonograph, Hannah Stewart made its wax cylinders, and James Stallwood made the horn.


Neville Billimoria printed a scale model of Theatre Technology’s video mapping project.


vid mapping

George Walters made a vintage top handle.

Spinning top

Our First years Hellen Bassett and Imelda Cox made some silver goblets for their Pompeii project

Pompeiian vases

Sasja Ekenberg and Kim North made two defibrillator pads,
Kim sasja

I challenged myself to copy an 18th century inkwell,
and we’ve also made Satyrs horns.
Our most complicated make so far was the set of growing noses for Pinocchio using the combined talents of Anna Driftmier, Katie Wheeler and myself with lots of AutoCAD advice from staff members Andy Wilson Edd Smith and Abi Emmett. The noses were hollow so they were comfortable to wear and freelancer David Field sanded and filled them and fitted tiny magnets inside so they clipped securely to the mask.

Pino Noses

Most recently Jonathan Gilmer made a 1:25 scale motel sign for his model box project for The Mountaintop.


The Makerbot is clearly a wonderful machine. Ours cost £1700 and prices are coming down. Entry level machine kits can be bought from Maplins for around £600. But there are some limitations in what they can do in prop making.

The first limitation is size: our 3D printer can only print things about the size of a loaf for bread or a shoe box. The maximum specified dimensions are 28.5 x 15.3 x 15.5 cm ( 11.2” x 6.0” x 6.1”) and I’ve experienced problems pushing objects to these maximum dimensions.

The next limitation is speed: The time it takes increases exponentially the bigger you go. A sugar cube takes about 5 minutes, an object twice as big as a sugar cube will take 20 minutes: four times as long. Three times the size is 45 minutes and and four times the size is sixteen times as long at an hour and 20 minutes. The is the tipping point as if we were to print a loaf of bread it would take about three days and any competent prop maker can carve a loaf of bread from polystyrene in about an hour so it would be pointless to do this on a 3D printer.

However if the project were a detailed medieval casket the size of a loaf of bread with arches, recesses and lots of small architectural details then 3D printing might again be a contender.

The next limitation is quality: 3D printing is a prototyping technology. If you look closely at a 3D printed object you can see the 0.1 x 0.4 lines of plastic from which it is made. For work on stage this isn’t too much of a problem and half an hour with filler paste and sandpaper can get rid of this problem completely but it doesn’t produce high quality work right off the bat. This might be a problem for close up film work.

Reliability is the next issue: a 3D printer is a complicated piece of machinery which needs regular maintenance. Projects can be scuppered by a tiny piece of grit getting into the drive shaft, someone sneezing over a half made print can stop the next layer from adhering properly. The plastic feed can snag, someone can accidentally turn the machine off, or bump into it, or there could be a power cut, the nozzle can also clog. Each of these things could cause a project to fail half way through production.

Tempting as it is, the machines are not safe to be left running overnight. Whilst you don’t have to pay eagle eyed attention to them every minute, if you walk away you can return to find the extruders have been pumping spaghetti like strands all over the bench for all the time you were away. As mentioned before printing takes time and something going wrong half way through can mean you don’t have the time to complete a project as you cannot correct the fault and continue, you have to start again.

The final limit is your own ability:
To be a useful tool for a propmaker, the propmaker needs to have skills in programmes like Sketch up, Autocad or Vector works . It is important for propmakers to acquire these skills and for prop workshops to embrace this technology and invest in training. There is a growing outsourcing market in 3D printing. People come up with an idea or concept for a 3D print then take it to a commercial outlet or hire someone else to design and print it for them. Here at the Guildhall we’re working to ensure that our students have the skills to make use of this new growing technology themselves. We’ll keep you posted on what we do next.

Just as I’m writing on the limitations of size on 3D printing I come across via http://www.treehugger.com and Designboom , a youtube video on 3D printed houses . Wow!