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The HMS Unicorn under construction in Chatham, Kent.

The HMS Unicorn under construction in Chatham, Kent.

3D printing technology is playing an invaluable role in the restoration of cultural treasures. One such treasure, the nearly two-hundred-year-old HMS Unicorn, seems likely the next on the list for a 3D-printing makeover. The HMS Unicorn, built in Chatham, Kent, 190 years ago, and docked permanently in Dundee, Scotland, is, according to the official website, “one of the six oldest ships in the world and Scotland’s only preserved warship.”

The ship, with its 46 guns, was, in its a day, an exemplar of masterful, maritime craftsmanship and is also, boasts the site, “a unique survivor from the brief transitional period between the traditional wooden sailing ship and the revolutionary iron steamship.”

Since it was docked in Dundee, the Unicorn has become a major attraction for both locals and tourists. In addition to the demands of active use, in its twilight years the ship has become a hands-on, learning environment for her berth in Victoria Dock in Dundee. While overseers wouldn’t have it any other way, the many years of active service combined with interactive discovery has brought the remarkable, old battleship to its current state of unfortunate degradation.

The HMS Unicorn’s custodians came up with a rather non-traditional solution to restoring the ship, beginning with its wheel, which, they explain “has some of its handles missing.” “Unlike a lot of other places,” said George Call of the Unicorn Preservation Society, “We do let people touch things and children in particular always want to spin the wheel,” they noted. Dundee, once a small but thriving shipbuilding hub, has unfortunately “lost many of its old shipbuilding skills,” said a Unicorn spokesperson. Locating wood turners who could produce new handles for the wheel in the original style in which they were made proved challenging. 3D printing, therefore, provided an excellent alternative, particularly given that the demand for absolute authenticity was less important to people involved in the project than a reliable and durable structural restoration.

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Rather than narrowing their choices, the Preservation Society is calling on both knowledgeable wood turners and people with 3D printing know-how to offer advice and expertise. Call remarked, “I spoke to someone about 3D printing and they told me they could take a 3D image of one of the handles then recreate one that is exactly the same as the original.” “The idea,” Call continued, “of using technology from today to help the ship is quite exciting.” Undoubtedly, it is very likely also far less expensive.

The project is still in its early stages, with the Unicorn Preservation Society requesting input from the public. They’ve asked for people who might be able to lend a hand, including assistance with funding, to contact the ship team. The official Unicorn website has a contact form, that includes the telephone number.  Let’s hear your thoughts on this story in the 3D printed ship restoration forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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