Using the Tools of the Future to Support the Past

Museum conservators recently used 3D printing to build a custom cradle to hold the intricate interior of an 18th-century French clock as it underwent conservation.

The clock was made by Jean-André Lepaute (1709–1789). To get it ticking again, the clock had to visit several timepiece experts. The 3D-printed cradle would provide the clock interior with a stable support that would hold it in an upright and secure position, while affording the clockmaker easy access to all its interior gears. With so many experts examining this rare object, it was important that it not be excessively handled, turned over, or propped up with makeshift equipment.

Chris Sasek at Techshop in Menlo Park helped the conservators use a MakerBot Replicator to fabricate the cradle. Working closely with Chris, they calibrated the exact measurements of the clock base. Then, using Autodesk Inventor, a 3D computer aided design (CAD) application, they designed a “clip-in” model type for the support, making sure they did not exceed the maximum dimensions allowed by the MakerBot 3D printer.

First they printed the top piece of the support—the precise area where it touches the clock—to test that the measurements were correct. After a few tweaks and alterations to the prototype, they printed the entire support, one thin layer of ABS plastic at a time. The final product fit the clock’s interior perfectly, and together they were ready to visit the clockmaker.