Dalliances with a 3-D Pen
By: Brandy Stark
I started to do wire bending as an undergraduate in college when I took a course in beginning sculpture. I quickly learned that I am not good with clay, marble, or wood, but I am a mistress of metal. I am a Stark, after all, and while Tony has his iron, I have my aluminum, brass, and bronze for my artistic mediums. However, 20 years is a long time to bend metal and my form of expression has left me with a two-fold issue: First, my arm, back, neck, and shoulders tend to be more sensitive these days to the repetitive motion needed to make intricate twists to the metal. Second, in order to keep the pieces interesting I continue to push myself to work with new artistic mediums. I have combined the metal with fused glass, polymer clay, and found objects. My latest acquisition to my retinue of artistic media is the 3-D pen. These work with heating a specialized plastic that quickly hardens as it cools.
My journey to this point started off with the desire to buy a 3-D printer; I had the idea to create what would essentially be prints of my sculptures. In my research, I learned that the printers are currently too expensive for me to purchase and too difficult for me to maintain as a one-woman operation. I was delighted to learn of the Interactive Lab manned by the ever-patient and multi-talented Chad Marin at St. Petersburg College/Seminole Library. We have made some progress in this endeavor, but to date my works remain too complex to print. New programs and technology, mixed with a bit of patience and time, bring us closer to this goal, however.
In the meantime, a friend suggested that I try a 3-D pen. He sent me a link to a Kickstarter campaign video, which I looked at with some interest. Since the pens were not readily available I dropped the idea for a time. Only recently did I go back to look for the pens again. This had led me through quite an adventure over the past month or so.
My first experience showed me the possibility of what I could do with 3-D drawing technology. I found and ordered a 3-D pen off of eBay; it was a mid-priced no-named version that I later learned came from China. I was very excited when I first started to apply the pink filament to the skeleton of my metal sculpture. This quickly turned to devastation when the pen first started to jam and then broke; I had used it for a total of 3 hours. Additionally, it was at this time that I learned that there are levels to the quality of filament that these pens used. The product came with filament starter kits, but the plastic was so brittle when dried that I could hardly handle the piece. However, my curiosity was certainly piqued. I decided to try again.
The second pen that I worked with is a Lay3r product. I did a bit more research and ordered this through Amazon.com, where it maintains a 4 ½ star rating. Though more expensive than the first pen, I decided that I wanted a pen of quality. This certainly feels more substantial with a heavier frame. It is a little more awkward to handle and it extrudes a finer melted filament, but also provides a much nicer control over the artwork produced. The Lay3r filament is also a much higher quality that is malleable; I can actually hold the works when the plastic is hardened without fear of breakage. I was pleased to note an instruction book and a customer service card included in the shipping box. I did have some trouble with the pen jamming with one of the filaments, but the customer service e-mail correspondence was timely and concise. The issue has been resolved and I am impressed with the company. Of the pens that I have tried, this one is my favorite.
I have purchased one additional 3-D pen called The Air Pen. It was half the cost of the original pen that I bought and I got it off of eBay. It has the same basic build as the Lay3r, but it is lighter in weight. Initially, the pen did not seem to evenly heat the filament which appeared to be slightly bubbly when extruded; however, this issue did clear up. I have not yet worked enough with this pen to say conclusively how it will do, but my hunch is that its lighter build and cheaper cost may be a liability more than an aid. Time will tell.
In the manner of technique, the pens do require a bit of practice. The filaments are not difficult to use but it can be a little work to get them properly wrapped around the metal wire. In order for the filament to hold its form well, the extruded plastic needs to be connected with itself. However, I have been able to make fairly intricate patterns with the pens; I can pull the filament straight or leave it in curly masses. Moving my hand faster produces a thinner line; concentrating on a smaller area makes the filament thicker. The various colors make my wire works really pop since the filaments are brighter than colored wire and easier to control than metal paints. I find working with the pens very relaxing as I enjoy creating the abstracted patterns of skins over my sculptures; the best way for me to describe the sensation is similar to a spider spinning a web (though without the messiness of any biological factors).
Be aware that the pens have small fans within them and do make a humming sound when plugged in. I have noticed that some of the pens start out fairly quiet but the hum does reach louder, though not unbearable, sound levels. The pen tips do heat up a lot – to the level of skin burning with prolonged contact. I have not had an issue burning myself (the secret is to not touch the metal tip), but with longer use the entire pen can become slightly uncomfortable to hold due to the heat emitted.
My final assessment of the 3-D pen is this: the technology is there, but it’s not yet perfected. Breaking two pens within 2 weeks certainly shook me a bit, even with the positive outcome that I am currently experiencing. Of the three different pens that I have tried, only Lay3r offered any form of customer service information. Be careful of the filaments ordered as well. There are small color kits available. These are good to experiment with but the smaller coils certainly do not go far. Higher quality filament is pretty much required for more porous works; the cheaper priced plastic is simply a waste of time and effort since it breaks apart so easily.
Price fluctuations and differences make me suspect that the builders are still trying to assess the market. I saw the original pen that I ordered at an eBay auction with a starting bid of $.01, to a similar pen style listed on Amazon for $75. Since I started exploring the 3-D pen, the prices have gone down considerably but they still average $50 – $120.
As an artist, I find the possibilities that the 3-D pens offer as intriguing. I am going to continue to practice with my metal and materials to see what works best. Regardless of purpose, these things really are fun and open up avenues of creativity even to satisfy curiosity as to how they work.
Samples of my works: