Printing Insects, Printing Small

I am beginning to think about the next new horizon with which to use our 3D scanning/printing station. The bird models for the Connecticut Bird Hall are getting close to being completed and I will shift my focus to the North American Mammal diorama hall. Collin and I looked closely at each diorama to note where we might improve them. The mammal taxidermy in many of these dioramas need repair and recoloring, but there will be some need for creation of new leaves, installing new snow, and coloring groundcover and epiphytes.

Additionally, in the Desert diorama, there are dried specimens of scorpions and centipedes that periodically disappear as a result of living populations of carpet beetles inside the dioramas. Therefore, I would like to create 3D models of some of these invertebrate specimens. The sizes of the specimens pose a problem. We are looking into whether our scans are good enough or whether our printers are precise enough to pick up minute detail like legs and antennae. Also, the scanner doesn’t like dark, shiny surfaces (mostly what we have to scan) and the scans tend to go haywire.


Rhinoceros Beetle-Just the kind of surface that presents problems.

To see if it is possible to scan and print small bodies with small appendages, we have to experiment with testing removable surface materials.


We had to get specimens of less importance on which to practice. My colleague, Maishe Dickman is an avid insect collector with a special interest in giant Titan Beetles from the neotropics. The smaller specimens are not as important to Maishe, so he agreed to bring in several of the smaller ones for us to work on. He had them in the freezer, so they had to be thawed, pinned and dried.


Believe it or not, this is a smaller specimen!

Just the drying alone takes several days. In the meantime, Nicole Palffy-Muhoray, representing the Entomology Department, told me that we could use specimens from the Entomology study collection so long as we can wash off the surfacing materials we apply. I asked her how to wash a beetle and she brought over an ultrasonic jewelry cleaner! I was floored that this is how specimens are cleaned in the Entomology collection.


We picked out several beetles, scorpions, and centipedes from the study collection and began to experiment. I wondered how dusting might work. Collin sanded several sticks of chalk to dust and I have whiting that I use in mache, which also turns out to be chalk dust! I have confectioners sugar, which I have used in the past on my silicone castings and Kremer dry white pigment. I went online because I figure others have run into this problem and must have found a solution. The solution I found is to adjust the settings of the scanner and to use an opaque, matte “developer” aerosol called Spotcheck. Spotcheck is very expensive, so we will continue our experiments…

It took about five minutes to realize that dusting won’t work because the surfaces of the bugs are too smooth for the dust to grab on to. Gum Arabic, a water-soluble tree sap, was suggested at an art supply house as a reversible medium in which to add the dusting powders to create a paintable surface. This basically creates watercolor pigment and can be built up over several layers to coat the insects. Nicole went to Michael’s craft store and picked up some reversible children’s poster paints and a spray can of chalk dust as additional materials to experiment with.


Children’s poster paint-Paintbrush application is clunky


Spray chalk-Better application, though this is too heavy


Watercolor-Maybe not dense enough?

We will try scanning these three test subjects to see if the scans work and if the surfacing material can be easily removed. More to come soon.

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3D Update

The 3D work on the birds for the Connecticut Bird Hall continues to move forward. I thought I would write up an update on the latest work and post some photos.


Female Merlin falcon in process


Finished Merlin ready for installation

We are scanning study skins from the Ornithology collection. This is a male Ruddy Duck in breeding plumage. The study skins can give me accurate wing measurements and some sense of the body shape, but it mostly gives me a solid armature on which to sculpt the body.



Sculpted Ruddy Duck from the study skin scan

In the case of the Ruddy Duck, the head and tail of the 3D print were cut off on the band saw. The head was re-positioned on top of the body using a wooden dowel and epoxy. Clay was sculpted over it and a cast bill was added. A tail was carved in wood and the feather detail added with a wood burning tool. The clay model will then be scanned, printed at 97%, and coated with a thin layer of wax. Feather patterns will be sculpted over the wax surface and finally painted using the original study skin as a reference for color. Collin is exploring software (Sculptris and Meshmixer) to manipulate the scans on the computer screen rather than on the band saw.

We are also creating scanned models of extinct birds. I have almost finished the sculpting on the passenger pigeon.


Passenger Pigeon and Heath Hen (both extinct) at a preliminary stage


Passenger Pigeon almost ready to paint (it needs sculpted feet!)


Black-necked Stilt. We scanned a larger-sized Avocet and printed it at 80% to get the right size for this model.

The following photos are bird models ready for paint or in process with paint.IMG_0881


Long-billed Curlew (note the study skin from which the scan was made.)

IMG_0797 copy

Hudsonian Godwit, Red Knot, and Long-billed Dowatcher models ready for paint.

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Digital Project Accomplished!

The final four digital sandpipers were approved and installed this past Tuesday, April 11.

Colin Installing

Breeding plumage Western Sandpiper model installed next to the taxidermied non-breeding Western Sandpiper

Installation 4-11-17

R-L Two White-rumped Sandpipers, Baird’s Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and Western Sandpiper on permanent display in the CT Bird hall

Also, the Merlin carving is finished and awaits paint (and feet!).

Merlin carved

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Three D Experiments

Collin and I are wrapping up our Blended Realities grant proposal to produce four different species of sandpipers from one scan of a taxidermied bird. Today, he is painting the final touches on the last one, the White-rumped Sandpiper. When painting is completed, we will have our ornithology collections manager, Kristof Zyskowski, critique them, after which we will install them in the Connecticut Bird Hall alongside the previously approved, Baird’s Sandpiper. With four models produced from one digital scan of a taxidermied Baird’s Sandpiper, we had to print the models at varying percentages from the original. With each model that was reduced from the original, I made sure the wing and leg lengths were accurate for the specific bird. Each unique bill was cast in epoxy and attached to the models. All defining field marks were painted and the local color of the feathers was ascertained by matching it to a study skin from the collections. (see the previous blog post, “The First Digital Bird Lands”)



From L-R: Western Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, and White-rumped Sandpiper

New Horizons:

With the Blended Realities project well on its way, we are looking to other ways to use the SPROUT workstation. Recently, I sculpted a “gestural” model of a Merlin falcon in clay. I didn’t have a taxidermied mount to scan, so I am sculpting a clay model in the position I want for the Bird Hall. I have started with clay sculptures before and typically, I would make a 2 part plaster mold of the clay sculpture and cast a copy in wax. This would usually take eight to ten hours of my time.


Merlin Falcon “gestural” sculpture

In this case, Collin scanned the clay sculpture and it is now being printed out in plastic.

IMG_0534I will coat the 3D print with wax tomorrow and start work on the final model for installation.

Once the feather detail is carved into the wax, we will paint directly on the wax.  The 3D plastic sculpture covered with a thin layer of wax, painted to look realistic, is robust enough to install directly without having to make another rubber mold and cast. This is another big time and money saver


Taxidermy mount of a male Merlin falcon (note the perch hole for the missing female bird)

Another experiment came about when I discovered that the Long-tailed Weasel in the Forest Margin diorama had received a serious case of insect damage. We removed it from the diorama and decided to try scanning and printing it as is. You can easily patch the areas decimated by bugs with wax and there were other areas where the model had to be sanded using the original taxidermy mount as a guide. I know how to sculpt bird feathers, but I don’t have a lot of experience sculpting mammal fur. I’m going to get a lesson with Dorcas MacClintock and see if I can get something good enough to install in the diorama.


The taxidermy mount and the 3D print

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Wax covered model awaiting fur sculpting, glass eyes, and fore and rear claws!

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The First Digital Bird Lands

img_0374Collin Moret and I installed our first digital bird model into the Connecticut Bird Hall, a non-breeding Baird’s Sandpiper. The CT Bird Hall is an exhibit of taxidermied bird specimens found on the official CT bird list. We have been installing carved bird models to fill in missing birds so we don’t have to collect and taxidermy new birds that are hard to find and not good for Peabody Public Relations if we shoot birds locally. We scanned a taxidermy mount of a breeding Baird’s sandpiper from the CT Bird Hall to make the print. We are exploring the 3D technology to see if we can produce a more accurate bird model rather than sculpting one from scratch. We are lucky to have very good taxidermy mounts from which to work. Most of the birds in the CT Bird Hall were produced by David Parsons in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Parsons was an extraordinary taxidermist and artist who went to great lengths with his taxidermy to replicate living birds. The 3D methods we are employing are dependent on having a good taxidermy specimen to scan. Currently, we have 24 missing birds to add to the CT Bird Hall. Most of the missing birds are rare or have unusual plumage, but  we also hope to produce some of the extinct birds from Connecticut as well.

The method we have developed starts with scanning the taxidermy bird. (See my earlier blog entry from December 24, 2016 for details and photos of the scanning process.) The scan file is uploaded to the Dremel Printer and printed.


Our first print of the Baird’s Sandpiper

The printer isn’t fine enough to create a model that can be painted as is. The printer lays down layers of filament, row-by-row, which creates visible contours. I tried to sand the contours smooth, but the plastic is difficult to work and tends to melt when using high-speed sanding tools. So, we resorted to dipping the models into hot carving wax to get rid of the contours.img_0292

Care must be taken not to get too much wax on the surface or accuracy will be sacrificed. The Baird’s Sandpiper was printed at 100% and I am quite confident that the wing measurements are accurate and that the feather groupings like scapular feathers and coverts are in their correct place. When sculpting from scratch, getting these details right is a painstaking and time consuming process.

Glass eyes are inserted into the head using epoxy modeling putty. A beak is cast in epoxy from the taxidermy bird or study skin and inserted into the head.


Dental alginate is used as a mold material to cast the beak from the taxidermy mount.

Sometimes I cast the feet from the taxidermy mount with dental alginate, but in the case of the sandpipers, the feet are so small that casting them would have been difficult. My co-worker, Maishe Dickman, is very skilled at silver soldering and he produced eight feet for the small sandpipers in brass.


Maishe’s handiwork. Note, an epoxy cast of the intertarsal joint on one of the legs.

The feet are epoxied into the model and the feathers are carved into the wax to heighten the realism.IMG_0331With this model, I thought the beak was pointing down too far, so I took it over to the band saw and cut off the head. I used epoxy to glue it back together with the beak raised. I filled the in the neck with carving wax and blended it into the rest of the model. This kind of flexibility is important.

Collin then painted it. Collin uses acrylic paint from a company called Vallejo. They are highly pigmented and designed specifically for individuals working with scale models. It’s important that the color is correct and the field marks are accurate. A study skin of the exact bird in the specific plumage is acquired from the Ornithology collection and Collin matches the color. Sibley’s Bird Guide is consulted to make sure the field marks are clearly shown. Each finished bird model is critiqued by the Ornithologist before being included in the Bird Hall.


Note the field guide and the study skin (in the box) as painting reference

This method is giving us very good bird models in about a quarter of the time it would take to produce from scratch, AND I know they will measure out accurately.


Baird’s Sandpiper installed!

We have used the same scan to produce three more smaller sandpiper models. All we had to do is print them at smaller percentages.


Semipalmated, Western, and White-rumped Sandpiper models printed to scale and waxed.

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Bog Restoration Complete

img_0300-1With the repainting of the Bog Vole (a wood carved model), Eunice, Collin and I have completed the renovation of the bog diorama. The bog vole looked bleached out and not very alive. Collin painted it using 2D painting techniques to accentuate the three dimensionality of the model by painting highlights on the head, the back, the legs and even the ears! img_0296When I first painted this model 20 years ago, I painted the local color of the vole’s pelt and left the highlights to be accomplished by the diorama lighting, which didn’t give it the “umph” it needed to look alive.


The Bog’s foreground now ties in well visually with the background painting. The illusion of the three dimensional material blending with the two dimensional background was accomplished mostly by paint, spraying paint over the sphagnum moss and hand-painting hundreds of leaves of the Leatherleaf plants. The repainting of the pitcher plants added a much more dramatic, colorful, and realistic effect. Details such as painting the lichen on the dead snags, painting the new growth on the spruce a lighter green, and adding a fly in one of the pitcher plants rounded out the renovation. At some point I will get a skin of a Snowshoe Hare and compare it with the taxidermied hare to see if it needs recoloring.


The other two Connecticut dioramas are moving toward completion, as well. The Forest Margin is mostly complete. I have installed a newly taxidermied screech owl on top of the dead tree, replacing the old, bug-damaged one. img_0303I had to figure out how to get a ladder into the diorama and stabilize it on the uneven foreground without damaging the assorted foreground plants and animals. The dead tree was well rooted in the foreground, so I was able to prop the ladder against it.

I removed the long-tailed weasel from the stone wall to see if we could get some more color back into the pelt. On removal, I discovered that there has been serious bug damage to the fur. Collin recolored it as best he could with dry pigments and we reinstalled it on the stone wall for now.


Note the insect damage on the rear haunches


A new taxidermy mount (or a 3D printed model?) will be needed as a replacement. We also noticed that the puffball found on the label is not visible in the foreground. I rooted around near the ruffed grouse and found a very sad-looking puffball amid the leaf litter. puffball


I sculpted a new cluster of three that Eunice painted. img_0311Collin noticed that there is lichen on the painted rocks in the background and none on the fabricated rock in the foreground. He will paint some new lichen rosettes onto the foreground rock. Stefan is making new fern fronds to replace some old shriveled ones near the stone wall.

The Shoreline is ready for installation of the spring-wire-strengthened grasses. The carved and painted American Bittern is ready to get drilled and installed in a location within the cattails. A new American Crow taxidermy mount will replace the stiff-looking one in the center foreground. img_0312Kristof would like to see a Fish Crow there rather than an American Crow because they are more common on the shoreline, but for now without a Fish Crow to mount and the label indicating an American Crow, I will install the new American Crow.

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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.

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