The popularity of 3D printing continues to grow, with companies competing to create printers capable of making more and more professional-looking prints with very little margin of error. While most of the popular 3D printers use plastics, there are a wide variety of materials that these printers can use. If you search, you can find 3D printers that print using clay, liquid resins, metal, pancakes and even wood. That’s right… 3D wood printing is officially an option.
If you’ve never heard of 3D wood printing, it’s a bit different than the plastic 3D printing you may have seen. Instead of using a long filament, 3D wood printers use a powdered wood mixture and a laser to create 3D objects. The end result has a sand-like texture, but is technically made of wood. The question is, does 3D wood printing have any place in woodworking?
Lasers making wood
If the concept of 3D wood printing sounds strange to you, here’s a little more information on how it works. Similar to metal printing, wood printing uses a process known as “laser sinistering” in which a laser beam traces out the layers of a computer-generated model in the powdered print medium. The heat of the laser actually melts particles of powder together (yes, you’re melting wood) to form the hardened end result. As strange as it might seem, the end result is pretty strong; metal parts made using this technique are used in jet engines and other high-stress environments.
One good thing about 3D wood printing is that it allows you to create objects out of wood that you’d never be able to using other woodworking methods. You can print complex models that are hollow inside, and even interlocking pieces that feature moving parts. This means that in addition to complex designs with fine details, you could use 3D printed wood to make built-in joints or functional hinges that don’t have to be attached with screws or other equipment.
Just about anything can be printed out of wood, so long as there’s a 3D model created of it first. To prevent warping and other problems, most models printed using laser sinistering are hollow. As a result, 3D-printed wood models usually need one or more holes in them that you can use to get the excess wood powder out of the finished model. Without the drainage, you’ll end up with a model that has a solid outer shell that’s filled with the wood powder that the model was printed from. If you like the sound of that then you can forego the holes, though given that it’s powder you won’t add much in the way of weight or density to the final model.
Is it useful?
As 3D printing has become more consumer friendly, the question arises as to how useful it really is. Some people get a lot of practical use out of 3D printers, while others make a few random models and don’t do much with it beyond that. Printing with wood is no different; you could create models that are useful and serve a real purpose, or you could create models for the sheer novelty of printing something out of wood. Some might look down on the latter, but there really isn’t anything wrong with it so long as you’re happy with the end result. After all, how many woodworkers have made something random out of wood just because they felt like making something?
Is it really woodworking?
There are going to be some woodworkers who are really put off by the thought of 3D wood printing. While items printed in this manner are technically wood, some purists would argue that it isn’t “woodworking”… after all, you aren’t actually working with the wood at all. Instead, these printers just use a laser to melt together powdered sawdust to create something that has a different look and texture than any wood you’ve ever worked with. For people looking at it from this point of view, there will likely never be a place for 3D wood printing in woodworking.
Others might see things differently, however. While woodworking is definitely used to create, some also use woodworking as a way to explore what is possible with wood. For these woodworkers, a 3D wood printer could be just another tool for creating with wood. A number of woodworking projects make use of things other than wood, so it’s really not that much of a stretch to include wood that’s “assembled” instead of carved or cut under the umbrella of woodworking. Which way you see it is up to you, and your viewpoint will determine whether or not 3D wood printing could ever have a place in your woodworking toolbox.