Foray Into 3D Printing With Clay At Haystack

Reuben Son
5 min readAug 6, 2023
Installation view of my final pieces for the 3D ceramic printing workshop at Haystack

In late July 2023, I spent two beautiful weeks on a granite island nestled against the Atlantic Ocean at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, where I grappled with ceramic 3D printing along with a cohort of 14 other students, 4 TAs, and our instructor Timea Tihanyi. For many of us in the workshop, myself included, this was our first time using CAD software and 3D printing workflows in general. The brisk pace of the workshop not withstanding, I was grateful to have this time and space to contemplate my four years of ceramics experience thus far, and to try to think through what it might mean to utilize ceramic printers like the Wasp or Potterbot (both of which we had the great privilege of utilizing during this workshop) within one’s ceramic and sculpture-making practice.

Printing on the Potterbot 7 (left); printing on the Wasp (right)

Over the span of the workshop, we collectively struggled through learning how to develop forms in CAD software (Womp, Tinkercad, Rhino), which could then be translated into machine-readable gcode via slicer software (Simplify), and finally sent to the printer. Throughout this workflow, we got used to having our hands largely removed from the process of fabrication, as we learned to think through, and around, the layers of technical interpretation and mediation throughout the 3D printing workflow. Going from someone who’d gotten accustomed to thinking about form via tactile-optical feedback, and instead adopting role of the designer, I found it helpful to take some time to throw pots on a wheel in the corner of the studio, and take plenty of swimming breaks (luckily, the Haystack studios are situated within a 10 minute stroll to some highly suitable beachfront).

Left: Haystack beachfront at low tide; right: wheel-thrown porcelain vessels

One of the unavoidable things about 3D printing is that it produces lines, which you could remove by hand after the printing process, but tends to be rather time consuming. In the lead-up to this workshop, I’d been spending time looking at a body of work by the 20th century Polish architect, Waclaw Szpakowski, who over many decades made a series of one-line drawings inspired by the meander motif, often attributed to the Greeks but perhaps preceding Greek civilization by thousands of years.

Example of one of Szpakowski’s single-line drawings, from a post-humous exhibition at Miguel Abreu in 2017.

Like Szpakowski’s one-line drawings, ceramic printers too predominantly operate by extruding a single continuous “line” of clay (though there are also notable exceptions, for systems like the Wasp, which is able to retract flow and therefore create many discontinuous lines over the print runtime).

In the main series of sculptures I prototyped during this workshop, I tried to work with this idea of the single, meandering line. I decided to invert traditional practices of applying ornamentation to surface, and integrated ornamentation into the form instead, resulting in sculptures that only visually allude to vessel-ware, while playing with the distinction of interiority vs exteriority (what gives a vessel its vessel-ness).

Screenshot of a “vessel” design in Rhino. The resulting sculpture is an inversion of classic Greek amphorae like the famous Diplylon Amphora, with the meader motif moved away from the surface, and into the form.

This question of the single-line became my primary preoccupation throughout the workshop, and I tried to think through different strategies for emphasizing this aspect of its fabrication. For example, in one prototype, I partially delaminated a completed print, literally pulling the line back off the form, and tied one end of it into a knot.

Knotted ‘meader’ sculpture hanging out in the hot box to dry.

Over the course of the two-week workshop, as I continued to work with/against/through these printers, I came back around to the core, unresolvable question of what exactly these machines were freeing up our hands to do, aside from signing the work, or a bit of touch-up. While I did find myself missing the tactile feedback of building up forms by hand, I did also find myself being less precious about each printed object, that while each object had been de-virtualized as a result of the printing process, its physical existence seemed somehow still tenuous, and in flux.

As the centerpiece piece in my final show, I assembled a mixed-media sculpture that included wood boards, a rock, a piece of seaweed, a barnacle shell, an unfired 3D-printed sculpture, and a ceramic imprint, produced by grating porcelain dust over another printed sculpture used as a stencil.

Mixed media sculpture with wooden boards, 3D printed porcelain column, 2D “print” with porcelain dust, found objects by the ocean.

The resulting sculpture plays with the idea of a print (in its different contexts) and gestures at notions of land art (Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, porcelain as earthen material), which came full circle when I brought the brittle, un-fired ceramic sculpture (what we call greenware) to dissolve into the ocean the hour before finally departing from campus.

3D-printed porcelain greenware returned to the sea/earth

Honestly, it was a lot to pack into two weeks … I’m deeply grateful to all the Haystack staff, all the workshop participants, the TAs in my class, and Timea for leading the workshop, to have gotten the support and guidance to work with clay in exceiting new ways. I’ll be on the lookout for more opportunities to work with 3D printing clay in the future, so please get in touch if you have any suggestions!

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