Making Music: Creating a 3D Printed Cello

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I teach an introductory design studio in which students are required to make a plan for teaching themselves something that they have always wanted to learn. Each of the times I have run this autodidact project, there are a surprising number of students who wish they could play the cello. Part of its allure is that it is the least squeaky of the commonly played string instruments. I have to admit that I do start the class by playing Yo-Yo Ma’s version of the Bach Cello Suites and the rocking version of Thunderstruck played by 2Cellos.

2-CellosSo what’s stopping them from living this dream?

The most common response is the cost of the instrument. Sure, you can buy a cello off Amazon for a couple hundred dollars, but you are going to get what you pay for and in cello terms, $200 is probably equal to the cost of the earplugs you will need to block out the sound of your neighbors yelling at you. Renting a decent cello will run you anywhere from $400 to $1,000 and at the end of the year, you have to give the cello back (or rent it for another year, obviously). Then, after you’ve gotten into playing, your teacher will suggest that you step up to a better instrument that can cost between $800 and $5,000.

And the sky is the limit.IMG_20141124_115203

So why am I telling you this?

Because Jason Adams wasn’t ready to give the cello up for lost and decided to 3D print his own.

Adams, a graduate from the University of South Florida, had spent his cello money on a Rostock Max v2 from SeeMeCNC in Goshen, Indiana, but that was okay because he was going to 3D print a cello with it. The impetus was more than just his love of music…it was a thesis for honors college. Adams took on the project with gusto, beginning with a search for precedents:

“As I searched the internet, I found a few different 3D printed instruments, but no 3D printable cello. David Perry’s F-F-Fiddle, a 3D printable violin, was one of the first instruments that I came across which gave me a glimmer of hope before going down the path of making my own stringed instrument.”

2DHe calls his creation The Str3Dvarius, a play on the name of famed instrument makers of the Stradivari family, whose most famous member was Antonio Stradivari. These instruments, produced during the 17th and 18th centuries, have a reputation for being the absolute top of the bill, so much so that the term Stradivarius or Stradivarian have become synonymous with absolute excellence. Instruments crafted during what is known as the Golden Period can have a value in the millions of dollars…making that $5,000 cello sound positively accessible.

Naming his creation in honor of Stradivari sets a high expectation for his instrument and while Adams may not have yet equaled the great craftsmen of the ages, there’s no reason not to shoot for the stars.TuningPegs

“My work began on September 24, 2014…four days later, I had worked myself up [from] a 2 dimensional mock-up to a 3D base model of a cello to which I could begin adding more intricate details,” Adams said. “By December 2nd, just over two months later, I had a model which could be printed and I attempted to create my first iteration, which is similar to the one seen in the video.”

The cello as currently designed is 95% printable with the exception of the string, the fine tuners (located at the bottom of the cello), and some of the fasteners that hold it together. All told, there are 17 parts that had to be modeled and printed before the instrument could be assembled. It began by collecting cello measurements that he found courtesy of the luthier Alan Goldblatt. Working in Autodesk’s AutoCAD 2015, he set about creating digital models of four main body pieces, four pegs, four worm gears, four retainer clips, and a bridge.

“I chose to print the bridge and retainer clips in ABS, mainly due to it being more pliable than PLA, allowing the strings to sit more snugly in the grooves of the bridge,” Adams said. “Part of the design relies on a 3-foot, threaded truss rod, inserted up the vertical center of the cello, which is meant to give the length of the cello more stability and to resist the tension of the strings once they’ve been tightened.”

temp_2.temp_taken_picturePrinting the instrument took eight days and Adams felt the assembly was simple and straightforward. The instrument is a full-scale 4/4 (there are smaller scale instruments used for children with the 4/4 being the final, fully grown cellists’ size) and stands at 1.2 meters. While this version has a thin body, Adams is working to develop one with a more traditional looking body. He is also toying with the idea of scaling up to create a 3D printable bass.

“In my opinion, my cello is much quieter than a traditional acoustic cello, but still provides the familiar warm notes. My intention with future iterations is to design my own 3D printable electronic pick-up, similar to those found on electric guitars, in order to give it amplification ability and the capability to be easily recorded in HD audio,” he said.

Further hopes are to be able to integrate printable instruments into school music programs. Overcoming the perception that STEM education and the arts are two entirely separate endeavors, this is the perfect representation of the ways in which 3D printing operates fluidly in both realms. It is quite possible that this would provide students with a more affordable way to access high quality instruments, all while learning about 3D design and production.

Now that is music to my ears.

Let us know what you think of this 3D printed instrument in the Str3Dvarius forum thread at 3DPB.com. Check out the video below of Adams playing a song from The Hobbit on his cello.



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