A choice of steel

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post on removing plastic jewelry from my Kickin’ Wiccan shop on Shapeways. My thoughts on plastic back then were:

  • Photos of plastic jewelry can look cheap.
  • It was not worth customizing jewelry (such as rings) in plastic because I wouldn’t make enough money for the time I spent adjusting the design; if I charged more for my time, the price difference between plastic and steel became insignificant.
  • My skill in 3D design is sufficient that I don’t have to make test prints in plastic anymore.

I’m beginning to think that the same logic may apply to steel as well.

All of the above points on plastic can apply to steel to some degree, though price is a lesser issue. But a new one comes up: customers have different expectations for items printed in a material named “stainless steel.”

Plastic is plastic, and if a potential customer orders an item in, e.g., “green polished strong and flexible plastic” they’ll get what they expect. When customers see the words “stainless steel,” I find they expect a surface that looks like stainless steel cutlery, even if I include a picture of my jewelry in stainless steel.

Let’s take a look. Here is a picture of my large pentacle ring in stainless steel:

Bronze-infused steel cropped

It looks exactly as Shapeways describes on its steel materials page: rough with visible print lines, infused with bronze from the printing process. Here’s a video that demonstrates how Shapeways prints its steel items:

I’d wear it, if I wasn’t already wearing a version of the same ring in brass. But even with the picture, I had a customer complain to me that the ring wasn’t stainless steel and the surface wasn’t smooth. I had little choice but to refund his money.

Shapeways offers a variety of coatings and polishes for steel items. Here’s the ring printed in “matte gold steel”:

Matte Gold Steel cropped

And here it is in “polished gold steel”:

Polished Gold Steel cropped

The color is consistent, and the polished version is smoother, but they certainly don’t look like cutlery. What the customers probably expect is something like looks like the “raw brass” version:

3D pentacle raw brass black felt cropped

I try to temper the customers’ expectations on my Etsy shop by calling the material “bronze-infused steel” instead of “stainless steel.” I also describe the material in detail the FAQ section of the stop, but Etsy places that near the bottom of the page so it’s easy for the customers to overlook.

The lesson learned so far: You can show the customers a picture of what they’re going to get, and they still might not believe what they see!

For now, I’m leaving the steel versions of my jewelry on my shop pages; it’s a sturdy material and I personally like the rough texture effect. I’m getting test prints done of more of the items I sell so I can put up pictures of the steel versions.

I’ll see if this is enough to keep my customers aware of what they’re getting.

A Story of 3D Printing

I like to print test samples of the items in my Kickin’ Wiccan shop on Shapeways. I realized recently that I’d printed in enough materials that I could share a visual story of how a polished-metal item is printed by Shapeways.

The process begins with a model created in 3D software. Here’s how my large pentacle ring looks to me in my 3D program, Cheetah3D:

Computer image

I sent this computer model to Shapeways. Their first step on the road to a polished-metal version of the model is to 3D-print the model in castable wax:

Castable Wax cropped

The next step after the wax print is to make a mold from the print and use it to cast the metal. Shapeways has a video of the process:

The result is a mechanically polished version of the piece. Here’s that version of the ring, in what Shapeways calls “raw brass”:

3D pentacle raw brass black felt cropped

Next comes the hand polishing. Here’s the ring after that step. This material is called “polished brass”:

3D pentacle polished brass black felt cropped

Shapeways offers a variety of materials to plate over the polished brass. For my test prints, I like to get rhodium plating: its color is distinct from polished brass; gold plating looks similar to polished brass. Also, rhodium is shinier than silver and creates nice reflection effects as I photograph the jewelry for my shop.

3D pentacle rhodium paper cropped

That’s the story of how polished-metal items are printed. Like all good stories, I hope this one ends: And they all lived happily ever after.

Evolution cropped

Polishing the Storefront

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post on why I removed plastic items from Kickin’ Wiccan, my jewelry shop on Shapeways. This post, like the last one, was inspired by the advice I received from the talented artist Vann Godfrey, and what I learned from putting his advice into practice.

Shapeways offers 3D printing in a wide variety of materials. They include semi-precious (brass, bronze) and precious metals (silver) that can be printed with or without polish (“raw”). Shapeways also offers metal plating over polished brass (14k gold, 18k gold, rose gold, rhodium). When I created a design for my shop, I normally printed it in raw brass. Then I’d photograph it and put up the picture in my Kickin’ Wiccan shops on Shapeways and Etsy.

I picked raw brass as my “standard” material because it was a lighter color than bronze, and so looked better in photographs, especially against the black felt backdrop I used. Here’s my basic pentacle pendant in raw brass:

Also, I prefer the rough texture of unpolished metal. Here’s a ring I wear I wear every day, based on my large pentacle ring, which I printed in raw brass:

Of course, unpolished jewelry costs less than polished jewelry, since Shapeways does its polishing by hand. Vann recently looked at my samples of jewelry. His comment was that while many, like me, would be content with raw metal, it was polished metal that would capture their attention. This was especially true for my shop photographs. I put his advice to the test, and printed some of my items in polished metal. Vann was right. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of two prints of my Wheel of Hecate ring. On the left is the ring in raw bronze, on the right is the ring printed in 14k gold-plated polished brass:

A potential customer might settle for the ring on the left, since it costs $20 less. But to get them to click on the item in the first place, it’s better to show them a picture of the ring on the right.

Here’s another example. This is my Triple Moon Goddess ring. The ring on the left was printed in raw (unpolished) silver; the ring on the right in rhodium plating over polished brass:

The raw silver ring isn’t bad. In fact, even without manual polishing, silver jewelry from Shapeways tends to come out smoother than brass or bronze does. Here’s a different picture of the silver ring that shows how reflective it is; you can see the black felt reflected in the front face:

But it pales in comparison to the polished rhodium-plated ring. (It doesn’t hurt that rhodium is more reflective than silver.) Here’s the rhodium-plated ring on that same piece of felt. The reflection is so good that the front face ring looks transparent:

The same ring against a better choice of background. Shapeways’ polishing is so good that this photograph almost looks like a digital render:

So I should print all my samples in polished metals from now on, right? It’s not that simple. For one thing, Shapeways’ design rules for polished materials are stricter than for unpolished ones. For example, take another look at the side-by-side comparison of the Triple Moon rings. I had to change the original 3D model used for the ring on the left slightly in order for Shapeways to print the polished ring on the right. Can you detect the difference?

Some of my designs may not be adaptable for polished materials. Consider the pentacle pendant at the top of this post: the points at the tip of the star are rejected by Shapeways’ automated scan for printing in polished metal. I could “file down” the tips of the pentacle in the 3D computer model, but that might detract from its appearance. Or consider this oak leaf pendant:

The polishing process would almost certainly remove the fine detailing on the surface of the leaf. There’s a balance:

  • Marketing: A better visual appeal.
  • Detail: Can this design be polished?
  • Cost: Can I afford to print polished models? Will the customer be turned off by a higher price on my Shapeways storefront?

I’ve learned I have to include these factors in my future designs.

A ring of Triple Moon rings. Starting clockwise from seven o’clock: 14k gold-plated polished brass, raw silver, raw brass, raw bronze, rhodium-plated polished brass.