A New Toy

I have a HP Sprout 3D Imaging/workstation with a Dremel 3D printer.sprout-workstation-jpeg

I submitted a grant proposal in November to a project called Blended Realities spearheaded by the Yale School of Architecture in collaboration with Hewlett Packard to help Yale faculty and students incorporate 3D technologies into their ongoing research and project work.  My proposal was to 3D scan a feathered taxidermy mount of a sandpiper from the CT Bird Hall and print four sandpiper models of varying sizes  from 7.5″ to 6.25″ to fill in missing birds.


Semipalmated and Western sandpipers in the CT Bird Hall. MIssing: Semipalmated Sandpiper in non-breeding plummage and Western Sandpiper in Breeding plummage.

I received notice that I had won one of the grants in mid-November and by the first of December I had the workstation in my lab. My 20-something volunteer, Stefan Hurlburt helped me set it up. We decided to jump in with the sandpiper, so we opened the Bird hall case with the sandpipers and grabbed a non-breeding Baird’s sandpiper taxidermy mount (one of the four missing birds is a Baird’s Sandpiper breeding adult). We set it up for scanning and got our first data file.

sandpiper-scan-isandpiper-scan-iiThe scanning part was quite user friendly and went without a hitch. The next step of getting it sent over to the Dremel tool so it could be printed, stumped several of us. Nicole Palffy-Muhoray did some troubleshooting and solved some of the problems-enough to print one of the stock images on the Dremel: a tyrannosaurus head. We still couldn’t find the right way to get the sandpiper going. That took another 20-something, Marcelle Nietlisbach, the son of Linda, my talented volunteer bird painter. In a matter of an hour or so, Marcelle had the sandpiper printing at half scale.

Marcelle with first sandpiper print

Marcelle with first sandpiper print

Having solved the problem, he was about to leave me to print it at full scale. I stopped him and asked him to set it up and get it printing while I watched. My plan was to take notes and use them for further printing, but he moved so fast and was making decisions that seemed obvious to him (opaque to me) that note taking was not useful. He started the printing at about 2pm and 9 hours later the print was done.sandpiper-scan


The topography of the scan (is that called 3D pixelization?) is visible so this print isn’t finished at a high enough level to just paint and put into the Bird Hall. I am planning to use a combination of sanding and skimming a thin layer of wax over the scan to be able to add fine detail to the wax. I will add glass eyes, add a cast beak and legs for final painting. The scan will serve as an armature and save me many steps in my usual bird carving method. Also, making four birds from one scan rather than carving all four will be a huge time savings.

Posted in 3D Scanning and Printing | Leave a comment

Fly in the Ointment

The Bog diorama features a fly stuck in the receptacle of one of the pitcher plants in the foreground. The original preparators, directed by Ralph Morrill, glued actual dead flies onto a plexiglass surface inside the pitcher plant as if the flies were caught in the watery liquid. Two problems with this illusion were apparent: 1. The flies would only last about 6 months before some living insect (yes, there are insects like carpet beetles living inside the dioramas.) would devour it and 2. the plexi surface was too deep inside the pitcher plant, making the fly hard to see when it still was there.

Eunice Palffy-Muhoray convinced me that it was worth it to trash the old pitcher plant to remove the plexi surface so we could reinstall it inside another plant.


We discovered that they had put sand in the bottom to hold the plexi platform inside the plant. Eunice found another plant and put pieces of ethafoam inside to do the same thing. Actually, the fit was so good, that the lip of the plant holds the plexi surface now. We positioned it just below the upper surface.

Now for the new fly. Ray Pupedis didn’t have time to make one, so I got out my fly-tying stand, a fish hook, and some peacock herl (a long reflective feather). I bought a rubber winged insect model from the art supply store, clipped the wings and legs off, and skewered it onto the fishhook. I wound the peacock herl around the rubber body, tied on a pair of small “dumbell” eyes, and a pair of mylar wings. I made legs from size “0” black insect pins bent into shape. It’s not perfect, but it works and the viewers will be able to find it.


Ray Pupedis, Peabody’s entomology collections manager laughed when he saw this! He promised he is going to make another one that won’t be quite as bad as this one!!! OK Ray, you’re right-now give me your best stuff!

The bend of the hook was clipped off and the fly was epoxied onto the plexi in the pitcher plant and installed in the foreground of the diorama.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment


I have a new assistant, Collin Moret, who comes in full days on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Since he is a 20-something and can get in and out of the dioramas a lot easier than I can, I put him in charge of painting the Leatherleaf leaves. This is a one leaf-by-one leaf process. The leaves are fragile and can break off the stems even though we previously used a ph balanced white glue to adhere most of them to their stems. This makes the painting a precarious job and has to be done very carefully. We find that we can only paint for about an hour and then have to take a break.


Collin painting. Note the “rosette of pitcher plants near his knee.

We also brought up the finished pitcher plants and at the end of the day, we installed two rosettes of seven to eight plants in the foreground.


We have enough plants painted for two more groupings of them. Eventually we will install a total of six or seven groups of the pitcher plants, but we have to first finish painting them!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Revisiting The Bog

Today I opened the Bog diorama, by myself! The glass is hinged at the top and by removing seven screws the glass swings out and I can prop it open on two adjustable stands far enough that I can squeeze around the sides and access the diorama. Today I brought up a portable generator and my airbrush to see if I could change the color of the sphagnum moss to make the jump from three dimensional foreground to the two dimensional background painting. The moss painted on the background is green, but with vibrant yellows and oranges. The foreground moss was collected from the Child’s bog in Northwest Connecticut in the 1950’s. It was soaked in glycerine to keep it springy over time and to avoid it crumbling as it dried. The original painting on the moss has faded over the years to a sickly green in some places and a dead-looking brown in others. I chose a high-keyed yellow paint to spray on it to see if I could get the tie-in to work better.dscn0488

I purchased a color-fast fabric paint from Jacquard. I bought it because the colors are stable and are water-based. The fabric colors become color-fast when they are ironed, but they also can come with an additive that does the same thing without heat. I bought a James Perry Wilson palatte: two yellows, two reds, two blues, yellow ochre, burnt umber, and white. I decided to use the cooler yellow straight out of the container without mixing it. I included the color-fast additive, thinned it with water, and put it into the airbrush container.


Note the color of the foreground matching the color of the background.

I started spraying in a corner where it would be less noticeable if the paint was not right. The color went on to the sphagnum beautifully. I was worried that the glycerine treatment of the moss might make adherence a problem, but this worry was unfounded. I stepped back and it appeared that the area where I sprayed was a perfect match with the background painting. I kept airbrushing away and indeed, the straight yellow was what was needed. This was complete luck to find the right color without having to mix a lot of paint and it was also very lucky that I stumbled upon a color that combined with the existing color of the moss to generate the right color. There have been times when I had to paint the original white first before I could lay the right color over that. I went over the entire foreground spraying yellow over the green as well as the brown sphagnum moss. I used cardboard baffles to keep the paint off the background painting and off the Snowshoe Hare. I moved the snake, the green frog, and the bog vole while I painted around them.

I did notice that the only color missing was the orangish color, so I mixed an orange color, sprayed that in a few areas, and discovered that an orange color turns brown rather than orange. I wasn’t so lucky here. It may be I will try some thick oil paint laid on the moss with restraint in places to add some of the color impressionistically. I finished recoloring the moss in an hour!

Throughout the foreground are short shrubby plants called Leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata). The shrubs have small oval leaves and some are painted green, but many are brown and dead-looking. The overall look of the foreground is that much of it is dead. I spent the rest of the day painting the leatherleaf leaf by leaf with green oil paint.


It is likely that the shrubs were sprayed with latex to hold them to their stems as they dried, but if this was done, the latex has turned brittle over time and is no longer effective. White glue will be added to strengthen the connections of the leaves to their stems.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Into The Bog


We opened the glass yesterday in the bog diorama and put a plank down into the sphagnum moss. I have been wanting to get in to make this diorama look more alive and now with the glass front open, I have started by removing all the pitcher plants. These will be repainted in brighter colors. Eunice Palffy-Muhoray has already started on some of them, ones we were able to remove last month from a side door with limited access.


The pitcher plants are 100% the real thing, dried and painted. When the diorama was initially constructed, the paint was applied with an air brush. Those colors were dark maroon and a muted green that don’t look like the living pitcher plants I saw recently, which had bright colors and highly contrasting veins.


The photographic reference, Eunice’s painted pitcher plants, and all the ones removed from the diorama that still need to be painted.

I also removed the flowers that will need their colors pumped up. The flowers are dried real flowers, but the stems are made from painted steel wire. Like the pitcher plants, the colors are too muted and the living stems transit from a light lime green to a dark maroon near the flower head.


One of the pitcher plants has a plexi insert that usually has a housefly glued onto it. The housefly specimen is an actual fly and it usually lasts about one year before other insects in the diorama (yes, there are living insects in the dioramas!) get to it and eat it. I want to put in a model of a housefly to circumvent this problem. I found these blowflies on the internet created by Grahm Owen as props for the TV show, Breaking Bad:


I’ve asked our entomology collections manager, Ray Pupedis to try his hand at tying one or two. Ray, in addition to his insect expertise, is an accomplished fly fisherman, fly tier, and bamboo rod maker. Of course, as an entomologist, he wants to know the genus and species of flies that might get caught in pitcher plants. Just creating a generic fly is not in the cards. Ray is researching the fly now. Stay tuned for another blog post about his work on the bog fly.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Northern Water Snake


Note light showing between the snake and the log

A Northern Water Snake (Nerodia s. sipedon) model is located on a fallen log in the Shoreline diorama. Light can be seen between the snake and the log, which immediately destroys any illusion of reality. This has bothered me for many years. I initially thought that the model had been jostled from its position on the log and that I only needed to fiddle with it enough to get it back into its correct orientation. I made several unsuccessful attempts to reposition it and finally realized that the cast had distorted over time making a good fit impossible. I decided the only way to fix this problem was to cast a new snake.

The model was made in the 1940’s from an actual Northern Water Snake. The snake was collected, euthanized, and put in position on the log. This may have been tricky and pins may have been used to keep the lifeless snake hugging the log. A plaster mold was made over the snake and log. When the plaster had set, the snake was removed. The plaster was dried and liquid latex rubber was slushed into the mold and the excess poured out. The rubber was left to dry and another layer was poured in. Layer after layer was added into the mold to make the final rubber cast.  The latex cast was removed from the mold and then trimmed and painted with oil paint. Over the intervening 70 or so years the latex became hard and brittle and it distorted enough not to fit on the log.


1940’s latex snake cast taken off the log in the Shoreline diorama.

I inherited several old plaster amphibian and reptile molds saved in my storage area when I took this job. Unfortunately, this particular water snake mold had not been saved. Since I couldn’t find the original plaster mold, I made a new silicone rubber mold of the latex cast. I generally use platinum-cured silicone rubber because it lasts longer in my mold archive than the tin-cured silicone. Platinum silicone is slightly more expensive and is more easily inhibited by other substances with which it may come into contact. This proved to be the case with the latex snake. There was intermittent inhibition of the silicone over the body of the latex snake where uncured rubber was left behind. I’m not sure what caused this, but my guess would be that any contact with any of the old, exposed latex might have inhibited the silicone. The inhibition wasn’t extensive enough to redo the mold and I was able to get a passable cast in polyester resin. I chose polyester resin so I could heat the cast to make it pliable enough while hot to form fit to the log. Before I heated it, I drilled small nail holes over the body so I could nail it into place while it cooled.

After the cast was reformed to the log and cooled (it will now keep its new shape), I removed it from the log, cleaned up the cast, re-sculpting some of the areas marred by the inhibition, and painted the entire cast white to prepare it for final painting in oil paint. Greg Watkins-Colwell, the herpetology collections manager, provide an alcohol specimen from which to refer for painting. When it gets reinstalled, I will nail it onto the log just to be sure there will be no further distortion over time.


Polyester resin cast (note nail hole in the body of the snake cast)

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Grass Restoration

dscn0472I have encountered some new challenges as I continue with the renovation of the Peabody Museum’s stunning Shoreline habitat diorama. As you can see from the photographs, the foreground grasses are looking quite “tired”. These are 100% real clumps of grass collected back in the mid 1940’s. I believe the grass was soaked in glycerin by Ralph Morrill, the foreground artist, to keep them from drying out and getting too brittle. He then hung them bottom side up to dry, which initially helps to hold the grass upright. Green spray paint was applied since they would lose their color over time. There are three types of grasses here, each with unique problems to solve. There are the low-lying clumps of grass that look to me like they have been trampled by years of unsteady preparators entering the diorama to clean the inside of the glass and provide occasional maintenance. dscn0476There are the spindly tall grasses topped with heavy seed heads that, over the years, have gravitated, top first, toward the ground. And lastly, there are clumps of sedges comprised of long arching blades of grass. The sedges seem like they are in the best shape of all of the grasses, but to me, they look less than robust, like they might be drooping too much.dscn0473

Before going too far into the restoration of the grasses, it is important to consider the original conception of this area of the foreground. Albert Parr framed and innovated the ideas for the Connecticut dioramas during his directorship of the Peabody from 1938-1942. Parr was critical of the kinds of habitat dioramas he had seen in New York at the American Museum of Natural History in the Southern Asian Hall and the African Hall where all evidence of human impact on the environment was whitewashed away. Parr thought that any habitat displayed should have evidence of human occupation embedded into the presentation and into the educational curriculum and he designed the Connecticut Hall with that in mind. A note: Parr’s idea of depicting human impact was to become a widespread paradigm for museum displays across the US, the Peabody’s Connecticut Hall was the first exhibit hall of this type. As Patrick Sweeney, the botanist pondered the grasses in the Shoreline diorama, we noted that the grasses are species seen in disturbed environments such as a footpath. Indeed, there appears to be a path curving in front of the cattails and heading toward the pond in the background.

Parr’s philosophical context for how the foreground was designed makes my work more complicated. Patrick suggested that maybe I shouldn’t do anything to the “tired” looking grasses and leave them as if someone had just walked over them. This idea conflicts with my view that the diorama appears shabby. While it may be a realistic depiction of a degraded habitat, does it translate that way to the everyday viewer or does it diminish their appreciation of a beautiful Connecticut coastline? When Parr became director of the American Museum of Natural History, he had a beer can dropped in the foreground of the Desert diorama. Again, this was injecting realism at a base level into a pristine environment. The beer can became a beacon for educators to discuss issues of litter and pollution, but it also looked like the foreground artist might have left behind contraband from a clandestine liquid lunch. The offensive beer can was removed.

In lieu of making too big a deal of this, I made a decision to try to remediate the shabby look. I figured that without labeling, most visitors would miss the nuance intended by the “tired” grasses. I make a lot of these decisions as I work on the Peabody dioramas and on the one hand, I always try to bring the scientific staff into the mix to make sure the science is correct, but in aesthetic questions such as this, I make my own informed guess at what would look the best.

To start, I chose to work on the tall drooping grasses (Latin name?) because they stood out as most in need of help. These fallen grasses almost completely obscured some of the members of the family of black ducks in the far right corner. When I entered the diorama, I found that some of the grasses were laying on top of the taxidermy mounts indicating the extent of their droopiness. I tried placing thin, stiff spring wire into the clumps to prop up fallen grass stems. These wires disappeared into the grasses and worked to some extent to hold up the existing grass. I also used wire “lassos” to hold groups of grasses to the upright wires. This lassos proved less effective as the wire holds groups of grasses unnaturally upright. I talked over these results with my assistant, Stefan Hurlburt, and he pointed out that the grasses have hollow stems and maybe we could run the spring wires up into the body of the grasses. Extra clumps of the long stem grasses have been in a box in storage since the 1940’s so we could run the spring wire into these grasses rather than remove the ones in the diorama. Stefan cut each individual grass off the clumps so he could get to the inside of the stems. The diameter of the spring wire I had was too large to fit, but I ordered thinner wire in 3’ straight lengths relieving the task of straightening coiled wire. Stefan patiently inserted this wire into the grass stems high enough so that the grasses should stay upright and be able to prop up other droopers. They are all lined up ready to be installed.dscn0469

Stefan and I removed most of the small grass clumps  from the diorama and brought them back to my lab to work on. I made a decision to add new blades of grass that were sliced out of thin strips of paper and painted green. Stefan spent a lot of time gluing insect pins to the paper blades and inserting them into the clumps.dscn0468dscn0467

I liked the way they perked up the grass clumps. We got quite a ways down this road before I remembered that even the restoration of grasses should have curatorial input. And I’m glad I did because Patrick Sweeney came by, looked at our restoration work, and gave it a resounding thumbs down! He wasn’t exactly sure what type of grass we were working with, but he was almost positive that they would not have had flat blades of grass like the kind Stefan was putting into the clumps. Luckily, the paper grasses were only held in place by the insect pins and were easily removable with no damage to the clumps Patrick thinks the form of the new grass will probably be rolled or conduplicate, though he will let us know for sure once he researches it.

Finally, our attention was directed to the sedges. Stefan did some research into what we might be able to find commercially. We had a sample that looked good sent to us. The grasses are made from a PVC and were a very good match. Stefan cut off individual grasses from the larger bundle and glued spring wire 5”-6” up the blade of grass. Stefan mixed up a more yellowish green and repainted them to match the diorama’s specimens. Since this looked like it was going to work, we asked to have three more bundles sent and were told there was a $250 minimum order which would be more like three cases of grass bundles, so that ended that. Our next choice will be to harvest some of the grass from the diorama, glue spring wire to the blades and reinstall them into the sedges.dscn0474

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment