By: Brandy Stark
(Self portrait in a butterfly mask made with wire and 3-D pen).
I am a wire artist by trade; as such, I wrote a piece for Project Educate on wire wrapping. However, when there was a call for information for the artist's tool box, I wanted to share my latest endeavor: 3-D pens.
Initially, I wanted to see if I could create prints of my sculptures with a 3-D printer. There is a local center associated with my college that does do limited free projects, but the scanning and input technology has not caught up to my bending practices. Unless I can make a computer file (which is complicated by my standards), 3-D printing was not in my future. However, a friend of mine noted the interest I had with the printer and suggested that I try a new item: the 3-D pen.
(First - third attempts)
The first time I looked up 3-D pens was with a Kickstarter project; I opted to wait and see what happened with these results. I checked again about 8 months later and discovered a small array of pens available. I chose my first one, an inexpensive model that came from China. I waited with baited breath until the day it was delivered. I used the pen for a total of 3 hours before it broke in the middle of my first wire/3-D pen construct. However, it was enough for me to be hooked.
The basic design is such that the pen contains an internal heating element that melts a specialized plastic filament. Once extruded through the end of the device, which is shaped somewhat like an over-sized pen tip, the filament dries within a matter of seconds. In essence, the artist is drawing with all three dimensions with the filament hardening into the shape desired.
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).
(Less pen, more metal)
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 current assessment of the 3-D pen is this: the technology is there, but it’s not yet perfected. I have tried about 8 different pens ranging through four different models in approximately 5 months. I have not tried so many by choice; they break quite easily. I just answered a question from a woman whose pen worked only one time before it broke (I advised her to contact the manufacturer to see what could be done). Because they are new I was able to get refunds or replacements for several pens, but the time delay remains a frustration. I have learned that one should only use the pen for an hour to two at a time; they have small parts that do not seem to hold up well with periods of longer use.
The type of filament used is also important. There are different qualities of plastics utilized; the first type I tried dried into such a brittle form that I could not handle the sculpture. Currently, I use filament kits that I order off of Amazon ranging from $10 to $20 for 5 shorter strands of different colors; these produce a much stronger result. Colors range from monochromes (black, white, greys and silvers) to all shades of the rainbow, glow-in-the-dark [I am awaiting my first spool to come this week], solid colors and clear/opaques. Oddly, I have found that the clear filaments are much more brittle in their original state and more likely to cause pen jams. I offer an additional word of advice with these kits as well: they give one plenty to experiment with but none of the colors will go far. A best, though costly, practice is to order larger spools of single colors (which I believe are also used by 3-D printers) for about $40 each.
The pens also fluctuate in price. The cheapest pen I have tried sold for about $30; the most expensive was about $150. Since I started exploring the 3-D pen, the prices have gone down considerably but they still average $50 - $120. I did engage in a second Kickstarter campaign for the next generation of 3-D pen ($150, including 5 tips for texture, a stand, and several longer strands of sample color filaments). The newer model, I hope, will resolve some of these issues. I cannot wait for it to arrive!
(Most current works)
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. I have gotten a lot of compliments on the wire/filament pieces. I have written a few pieces on my experiences and have been asked to talk about my experiences to a few groups. Artists seem excited by this new medium and the public is curious, but I still find that my fully metal works have an easier time finding new homes than the hybrid works. It may be, in part, that I am still in an experimental state and have not found my full artistic voice with this medium as of yet.
Questions? Comments? Other pen users out there? Please offer some feedback. Regardless of art sales, I am excited to keep trying this new product. I feel that it does elevate the status of my works to a new level of artisan craft. I cannot wait to see where it goes from here!