Taking This Artform and Reimagining it for a New Generation

Clay is an interesting substance. It, essentially, is just earth, but when placed in the hands of a masterful artist and heated to just the right temperature, it has provided some of the most impressive art as well as been a staple cookware in multiple cultures. Clay is amazing, for sure, but unfortunately, not everyone has the artful skill to take a lump of clay and make anything apart from another ambiguous lump. Today, we are no longer strictly confined to the potter’s wheel thanks to 3D Printers. 3D Printing with clay has become a phenomenon and if you have yet to try it, you are missing out.

Where it All Began

Every story has a distinct beginning and as for 3D Printing with clay, that beginning was in 2009. The original author credited with the development of the concept was Studio Unfold, a Belgium based 3D Printing and design studio. However, the real emphasis on 3D Printers using clay as a viable material came in 2010 when Jonathan Keep, a UK based potter, decided to concentrate his pottery efforts on this style of art. In 2014, Keep even started a forum with the title of Make Your Own Ceramic Printer. Jonathan Keep has been instrumental in virtually all innovations in clay 3D Printing since 2010.

An example of what 3D Printing with clay actually looks like as a finished product.

Obvious Problems

With most 3D Printing materials, there is little issue during the extruding process. The nozzle can get clogged from time to time, but a simple cleaning will allow most materials to flow freely. General materials also have one thing in common. They all start out as solid pieces, heated to a degree, then extruded through the nozzle to ultimately harden on the other end. Clay, however, does not begin in this manner. Clay starts out as a semi-solid material and therefore, extruding can be a bit of a challenge.

Another issue that artisans have run into is the weight of the product. As clay materials move into the extruding nozzle, it becomes very heavy. Therefore, the print head of a clay 3D Printer must be very small. This limits the size available for the final product, but artisans have since come up with a solution to this problem. Instead of loading the extruder completely, an outside reservoir can be fitted to the 3D Printer to hold the necessary amount of material without negatively impacting the machine’s weight. It is for this reason that most 3D Printers who use clay as a material must invest in a completely separate machine or drastically modify their existing 3D Printer to accommodate the additional weight from the clay.

A Clay 3D Printer

Air Compression Feed

So, when 3D Printing with clay, you will have to make a decision. Either an air compression system or a mechanical fed 3D Printer. Both have drawbacks you should be aware of.

When using an air compression feed system pressure can build up within the plastic tubing causing it to rupture and sending clay pieces throughout the space. A pressure release valve is often necessary for successful air compression feed systems. Also, an air compressor system will be rather noisy simply due to the general noise of an air compressor. Additionally, this type of system requires manual adjustments making it difficult to get a precise clay flow through the 3D Printer.

Mechanical Feed

A mechanical feed 3D Printer is often the best option for those looking to 3D Print with clay. Clay is a natural substance and its pliability is highly dependent upon its environment. An air compression feed must be controlled manually making it difficult to adjust the extruder based on the needs of the clay. A mechanical feed system is much less finicky. It can adjust automatically to the needs of the clay making it easier, and often more cost effective to use this method.

One drawback, however, to a mechanical fed system is its ability to overexert itself. Often the pressure within the machine can be too much for the motor to handle, so when using one of these systems, always keep a close eye on your pressure.

3D Printing with clay is still a relatively new concept even though it has been around since 2009. Therefore, many avid 3D Printer enthusiasts have yet to work with this material. If you are interested in clay 3D Printing it is advised that you seek the advice of someone experienced in working with this type of material. Clay can be a difficult material to work with and there are a lot of factors to keep in mind. Above all else, we want you all to stay safe and enjoy your 3D Printing experience to the fullest.

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