Digital Sculpture Tools for 3d printing

3d printing for digital sculpture is quite different than 3d printing for other purposes. If you want to create a traditional, realistic sculpture, like the Bernini bust pictured above, you'll want the final product to have:

  • high level of detail
  • high quality, long lasting material

First, the high level of detail. You'll want a 3d modelling program that allows you to sculpt organically, like digital clay, rather than the "hard surface" approach favored by 3d programs like Maya. There are number of 3d modelling programs that contain digital sculpting capability but these are two that I've used personally:

  • ZBrush
  • 3D Coat / 3DC printing

ZBrush is the standard bearer for digital sculpting but has a steep learning curve with a.. ahem, unique UI. I've used it successfully but learning it is a major investment. I eventually moved to 3DC printing (a 3d printing focused version of 3D Coat), which offers 100% of the functionality I actually used in ZBrush but in a more traditional UI and cheaper price. There are also free tools to get started like Sculptiris that may be more than sufficient for your needs.

Once you decide on a tool, you'll probably spend long hours in the saddle trying to create something that can be called "art". But eventually you'll export an STL file (the standard format for 3d printing) and just hit the print button, right?

Well, not that simple. If you want a sculpture or jewelry in metal (bronze, silver, gold, etc.), you'll need to first create a model in castable resin and then go through the ancient lost wax casting process to create the final product. Or send it to Shapeways to have them do the same.

There are some very expensive printers that sinter metal (powder) directly, but they're a long way off from becoming affordable enough for the home craftsman. For reasons that aren't totally clear to me, Shapeways uses these SLS printers for aluminum, but not other metals.

There are a few consumer clay and ceramic 3d printers, if that's your favored material. I haven't tried these but they looked pretty neat at the Maker Faire. For obvious reasons, there are no Carrara marble 3d printers.

Therefore, if you want to print a finished sculpture directly at home, using only your 3d printer, plastic of various types is the only material. And SLA/DLP printers, that cure resin with a laser, as opposed to FDM printers, are the only ones that give the high level of detail required.

I have a Peopoly Moai SLA printer, which has been a reliable companion, as long as the files themselves are pre-processed correctly, which would require a blog post in of itself. FormLabs is a more expensive option, with a reliable history and better customer support. There are many others in the space nowadays. Expect to spend anywhere from $500 to $5000 for one of these printers.

In terms of consumer 3d printing in general, I would say it's still the Wild West of Early Adoption. No matter which printer you choose, expect to spend time learning, post processing files, calibrating the printer itself, etc. It's really not plug and play yet, but the rewards are great if you persist.

Finally, there's the issue of size. 3d printing anything larger than a thumbnail is absurdly expensive from a service like Shapeways. On the other hand, if you have your own 3d printer, you can print something larger for cheaper. My printer has a 13cm x 13cm x 18cm capacity. The resin is expensive though. About $50 a pop and might make 30 small items if you're lucky.

I'm not trying to discourage you. There's never been a better time to use 3d printing for art. But go in with your eyes open and be ready to learn.