Playable 3D printed ocarina experiment

Having seen a few uninspiring 3D printed ocarinas, I was curious if it is possible to create a playable musical instrument using current technology. Playable meaning in tune, with good ergonomics, a good appearance and a musical tone. This is how it went.

I produced a 3D model of my current Pure Alto C. I followed it's dimensions closely but reduced it to a 10 hole, increasing the chance of getting a playable high end. When proofing a technology it makes sense to use the best implementation you can get access to. To this end I had it 3D printed by Shapeways, who reportedly use 'million pound grade' machines.

3d printed ocarina

3d printed ocarina layers

My first impressions where generally good. Out of the box the ocarina had a smooth but powdery finish somewhat like unglazed earthenware. The detail-resolution attained by Shapeways' process is impressive. Its orders of magnitude better than anything I have seen out of consumer-grade filament machines. Ergonomically it handles much like the ceramic version, but is considerably lighter.

Shapeways uses a laser sintering process, fusing successive layers of powder. Unfortunately the cleaning process had not removed this powder from the windway, leaving the ocarina unplayable. After clearing the windway the ocarina was able to produce a sound through its entire range. However the roughness created from the layers had not left a smooth enough finish inside the windway. This caused turbulence and left the ocarina with a noisy, edgy and harsh tone. The tone improved considerably after polishing the wind-way with some fine sandpaper.

As I had deliberately undersized the holes, it was not in tune, as their size is greatly affected by small changes in the chamber. It was subsequently tuned by opening out the holes using the same process used in my ceramic ocarinas. These could be measured and the model updated appropriately, which would make future ocarinas in tune.

It plays and sounds ok, but pales in comparison to the ceramic ocarina it was based on. Due to the layered nature of 3D printing, a considerable amount of detail resolution would be required to create a smooth enough wind-way 'out of the box'.

As of the current point in time, obtaining prints of this quality is very costly. The ocarina in this post cost just shy of £50, due to the need for hand finishing, the market price would have to be £80 to £100 plus shipping. Consequently selling them is uneconomic.

Material safety is also an unknown, plastics are well known for leaching toxic chemicals.

Once the price comes down 3d printing could be a means of producing bass ocarinas, and contrabass ocarinas. The reduced weight alone would be very welcome, as ceramic bases are very heavy and this weight hinders agile playing. Contrabass ocarinas are also difficult to make out of ceramic as they are prone to caving in.