The Art of 3D printing musical Instruments that sound & play as if they were the handcrafted original.

“It became apparent that it’s possible to recreate the complex bore shapes using 3d printing without the need of specialist shaped reamers for each different instrument.”

David has been a customer of Monocure 3D for a little while, one day he called the M3D office and we started chatting. I always enjoy asking the customers what they are using their 3D printers and our consumables to create. This is a question that totally unpredictable responses are not uncommon, lots of the ideas that are being made with 3D printing technology amaze me. After David told me that he was replicating traditional woodwind instruments and 3D printing them was one of these occasions. David was kind enough to give me some of his time, we sat down and I asked a few questions so I could better understand his process, pleasure & pain and his experience with you. I started by asking him how long he had been making instruments the traditional way.

I took a woodwind repair course at Merton College in London around 1989. Still got most of the first set of pipes I made from plans! Bruegel Pipes in D. I then went into repairing, restoring and conserving old woodwinds, especially early flutes for several dealers around the southeast of England. I got my own lathe and started making instruments, but mainly not highland ones, and no, I don’t play amazing grace! I moved to Queensland in 1994 along with all my tools. Had real jobs and became an active member of the Australian Association of Instruments Makers for many years.

2. Please explain the traditional methods that you used to make them.

Traditional methods for woodwinds are quite simple, get a bit of wood and make a hole down the middle.. then put some holes in one or both sides and some way to blow into it, in the case of flutes it is another hole in it or bagpipes and oboes they need a reed. Making holes that are straight is easy, just a drill, but when it needs to be conical, then you need to make reamers to follow the required profile. Flutes and recorders use large holes, but oboes and pipes are very narrow, so the choice of timber is important, it needs to be straight close-grained.

3. How long on average would it take to make an instrument from start to finish when doing it traditionally?

Putting a hole through the middle of a bit of wood can be catastrophic, and so I tend to cut the blanks to near the length required and drill a pilot hole through of about 4 mm depending on the final bore. I will leave it like that for at least two or three months, to ensure the wood isn’t going to fail. Then I will bore the interior, using a wood lathe, steadies and reamers, if it still stays in one piece.. the outside is turned to approx size, tone holes measured and drilled. Outside decorative rings are also turning in a contrasting material; these also strengthen the sockets where the joints join.

4. When/how did you discover 3D printing was going to be a suitable technology for replacing the traditional methods?

I have known about 3d printing for a long time through a friend at the National Physical Laboratory in the UK; he was working with French ethnomusicologists to 3d print some ancient instruments using SLP methods in the early 2000s. In 2018 I became involved in another musical instrument project a laser cut and 3d printed Hurdy Gurdy, The Nerdy Gurdy, developed by a Dutch engineer to make a playable instrument more affordable. I ended up beta testing the kits, I then got my first Aldi 3d printer! It became apparent that it’s possible to recreate the complex bore shapes using 3d printing without the need for specialist shaped reamers for each different instrument. So much so I have made instruments no one else has bothered to before.. and possibly some of the originals haven’t been played in almost 400 years. So to reproduce affordable and accessible replicas of these important instruments became my plan.

“To turn a wooden flute there is about an 85% wastage […] even with failed prints it uses far less raw materials.”

5. How does the time & cost compare when 3D printing to the traditional methods?

To turn a wooden flute, there is about an 85% wastage. Time-wise It certainly takes less time to turn down a bit of wood on a lathe than to print it, but even with failed prints, it uses far less raw materials.

6. What materials do you use?

For the wooden instruments since I first started in the late ’80s, I ensure I know where every bit of wood I use came from. In Australia, we have some of the best timbers in the world. There is no shortage of amazing offcuts. As for printing, I use PLA for the instrument bodies, for the ornamental rings I’ve found white resin looks amazing.

7. Without telling us all your secrets, please run us through some of the processes involved from start to finish?

I need good dimensions to create the 3cad and STL files. There has been a lot made available of instruments in museums around the world. These plans are very well detailed, and often have information on how the original instruments play, sound and how they are tuned. I redraw them into 3cad then export the individual bodies and parts to STL. For a four joint instrument, I only print one bit at a time, it doesn’t take much more time, and that way if something goes wrong, only one part needs reprinting. After printing there can be a lot of tuning and adjusting.

8. What 3D printers do you currently have and which is your favourite?

Currently, my workhorses are an Ender 5 pro and Ender 3pro with an extender to print up to 500 mm high for filament and a Creality 002R resin printer.

9. How do you finish the instruments? Do you paint, stain or varnish them?

I only use white or light grey PLA. Lately, I’ve become a convert to Monocure3D Matte White filament and for the rings the white TUFF™ resin. I sand the outsides, then use wood stain on it, and we’ve started sealing it with traditional shellac or French polish. The rings on the layers make it look as if it’s turned …

“if you tell someone “it’s 3d printed” there are preconceptions, so best just to play them”

10. How do the 3D printed instruments compare to the sound quality of the traditional ones?

This is where things get a bit complicated if you tell someone “it’s 3d printed” there are preconceptions, so best just to play them, or better still let other musicians play them! There is a massive community worldwide where we collaborate on one’s ideas and concepts, many of these are at music schools around the world and studying at the highest levels. Their musical and ethnomusicology credentials are spread very wide. It is often those not so good at something that will demean what they consider inferior.

11. Have they ever been used for a live performance? If so, please tell us more!

Yes quite recently, I’ve been collaborating with an incredible locally based flautist and maker. We’ve made/printed four replica early flutes. He played one for two of his three pieces at a concert of baroque music here in Brisbane. The other musicians knew, and at first, they were sceptical, but soon realised these are seriously good instruments. While he mentioned in an introduction that he’d been working with me and was excited to play such amazing instruments, he didn’t mention it was printed plastic! It was a very emotional experience. Many of the instruments such as the replica recorder bodies do not play in a pitch that anyone else does, I have gained a bit of a following among makers worldwide, most were sceptical at first but now can see we can replicate details that are almost impossible using traditional methods…

“most were sceptical at first but now can see we can replicate details that are almost impossible using traditional methods…”

12. How many different types of instruments have you 3d printed? Please name some.

A lot of recorder bodies, around 20 different ones all based on original 17 and 18C instruments. The Sub bass Racket.. its bore goes back and forth, if it was not folded it would be about 2m long! The flutes, 4 different models, but several versions of each one. Just now working on a copy of an early 18th C oboe, made two, one is somewhat ready to go, the other is not even fitted together yet… I am also fascinated by an instrument called a musette du cour, it is perhaps the most complex form of bagpipe ever made and was popular in France in the royal court in the 17th C, a lot of music was written for it, and there are only perhaps 4 makers still producing them today… I have an ongoing project in trying to produce an affordable version… I’ve printed a few different ones, but yet to get one working with its keys let alone set up with the 6 to 8 reeds it needs! Work in progress, you could say.

13. Do you sell 3D printed instruments?

Only if someone is totally aware of what they are getting, but as a rule, happy to loan them out to be played but not interested in selling them.

“Anyone can make something look pretty, but if a musical instrument doesn’t work then it’s a waste of materials.”

14. What advice would you give someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps and start printing musical instruments?

I’ve given talks and lectures in the past to woodturners clubs, and I’ve always said the same thing. Anyone can make something look pretty, but if a musical instrument doesn’t work, then it’s a waste of materials. It takes a lot more than putting a file in a printer …’s been a massive ongoing learning cycle.