Introduction: (Pier 9 AiR) the Improbable Mystic (3D Printing Feet and Putting Them on a Bed of Nails)

About: Artist, medical illustrator, bibliophile. Interested in visual storytelling and random nonsense. Make stuff in my free time. In this little corner of the internet you will find some of my DIY projects as well …

This is a whimsical Instructable project involving 3D printing. It is fun.

On the first day of my Pier 9 artist residency I walked up to my desk to see this glorious object perched there, made by previous AiR Gabriel Kaprielian. A foot with a flower growing out of it. I was smitten. I decided I too must make something grow in such a fashion, but wanted ideally to grow a plant through a foot, that is, plant a plant and have it root through the sole of the foot to the earth beneath it. As you see above, as with life, so with art, nothing turns out exactly as you plan it. Read on to find out why....

Step 1: Scan Your Feet (or Chosen Appendage)

I started with the feet.* A fellow AiR and I traded foot scanning, using the Pier's hand held Artec Eva 3D scanner. (There is a great Instructable written by the illustrious Gabe Patin on how to do such things here)

The results are above. Interesting to note: 3D scanning does not provide a perfect scan of the subject. In the case of my feet, the toes were webbed and the heels were blocky and there were strange digital artefacts surrounding the appendages themselves. All of this would need to be cleaned away to prepare the feet for printing and art making.

* You may want to tell your own stories with random human joints, but the same technique will apply. If you want to 3D print them you are going to have to scan them.

Step 2: Clean Up the Model

Although I had used Maya, Mudbox and Cinema 4D before, this was my first experience with 3D modelling specifically. The objective was to get a clean useable mesh of the feet that would 3D print. I was introduced to Meshmixer, a sweet little program that cuts to the nitty gritty of cleaning up and prepping 3D meshes for printing. It has basic sculpt tools, mesh refinement tools, copy/paste/mirroring options, etc.*

Cleaning up the model

Cutting out the webbing between the toes created an open model (a model with holes in it) and faces on both sides of the toes had to be bridged together and then re-sculpted (in Mudbox) to bring back the curves and character of the feet. The mesh then had to be closed up again into a watertight model.

Making the object solid was not an option because I wanted a hollow inside to plant things inside. This meant using an extrude command (with a negative number to extrude inside the foot, and bridging that new inside-out foot to the outer shell creating a single mesh that is still hollow.) (att: extruding the wrong amount will result in the mushroom-like atrocity you see in the image above. Don't panic. Command z and try again.)

caveat: Meshmixer is very buggy on a Mac. I am waiting with great anticipation for a version of the program that will not randomly crash even upon opening a digital file. In this case I had a PC loaner to get my project done, and a large part of my problem may also have been that my own Mac is from the dark ages (2008); you have to pedal it to make it run, which means likely the graphics card or some such thing is not up to speed.

Step 3: Add Holes to the Model Feet

Holes were added to the feet in Meshmixer by appending a cylinder to the file, duplicating it repeatedly, and then using a boolean difference to subtract those circular diameters from the bottom soles of the feet.

A consideration for those scanning/printing other appendages: if you want them to be hollow you will have to think about ways to get support material out of the model post-printing. Given the shape of the foot the support material in the toe area would have been all but inaccessible to cleaning or scraping out; when making my inner surface I erased the toes since the resin I was printing with was not going to be transparent and therefore no one would be the wiser.

Step 4: 3d Print Your Feet

I printed my feet on the Pier's Connex Objet 5000 printer in Vero white resin. Have patience, aspiring 3D printers! The print took 12 hours (for both feet), and I highly recommend tiny iterations beforehand to make sure you are happy with small details/texture/ etc.

I love that moment when you create something and there it is and it looks every so slightly like it has taken on a life of its own, such as the photo above of my feet in the water power cleaning machine. They look rather forlorn, like someone cleaned their feet and then forgot to take them home.

Pro tip: KEEP A FIRM GRASP ON YOUR FEET WHEN YOU REMOVE THEM FROM THE WATER POWER CLEANING MACHINE. I suffered two broken toes at this step (of the 3D resin variety).

Step 5: This Is Art, People, a Few False Starts Are Necessary.

I want to point out at this juncture that false starts in drawing (my general chosen medium for art projects) are much easier to solve than false starts in any other medium. They don't involve buying unnecessary materials, they don't involve complex experiments, they involve pencil to paper, like or don't like, crumple up and throw away.

The above images were my idyllic forays into preparatory plant / root growing for my art project. I had a vision of a bell jar filled with earth (and holes corresponding to the holes in the feet) and luscious dramatic roots swooping through the inside, peeking out of the glass, and holding those feet to that curved surface with mammoth reliability.


A series of experiments later I had a bunch of lovely tomato plants with thin delicate roots crying out for a garden to live in, that I couldn't possibly fit into two feet, much less two feet fashioned out of toxic resin.

Talks with experts at the Pier and beyond had also made it clear that drilling into a non-flat glass surface had an 80% or more failure rate which I couldn't bear to attempt.

So. I had two feets with holes in them and no story to tell.

Step 6: Think About Feet, Think About Holes, Find Some Wood.

I started thinking about feet with holes in them. Why, by gum, would a pair of feet have a bunch of holes in the bottom? This is when the bed of nails occurred to me. I know of this phenomenon only through novels and carnival sideshow tales, but a bit of googling revealed that indian mystics believe lying on a bed of nails can bring about corporal release and spiritual enlightenment.

I thought to myself, what a load of pap. All lying on a bed of nails would bring me would be tears, remonstrances from my travel insurance company and possibly a visit to the hospital which-I-would-like-to-avoid-if-possible-thank-you-very-much.

And thus my story was born. A pair of ghostly white feet, one standing on a bed of nails, the other one (obviously the critical thinker of the pair) perched on the edge about to step off.

A gifted piece of hardwood from a Pier 9 benevolent donor provided me with a piece of wood that had a glorious knot in it which inspired some visual dynamics to the piece.

I used putty to adhere the nails to the surface to decide initially on placement, angle and length.

Step 7: Design Your Nails

Of course it's never as simple as a bit of putty on wood. Fellow makers, we all have our strange procrastinatory strategies, mine is making things difficult. Suddenly I had visions of a mathematically perfect spiral fibonacci-like sequence of gleaming nails rising majestically out of that knot of wood, swooping out over the surface and then down off the edge like the end of a good novel. I ran in a panic to our resident Pier 9 mechanical engineer proclaiming "I need to learn mathematics and I need to learn them NOW!"

He pointed out that it wasn't rocket science, it just needs to look good. And he was right.

Don't let your artworks become an internal resumé of all the things you can't do, people.

I did, however, do iterations nonetheless. Points on paper, followed by nails on scrap wood, until I came up with a satisfying design for my bed of nails.

Step 8: Drill Homes for Your Nails

The most sophisticated tools I had used before this residency were a hammer and the occasional drill, so imagine my glee when I was led to the (I don't even know the name of it) thing that holds a hand drill in place at different angles to allow you to drill holes accordingly. I also tried a digital level device, but in the end I went with the drill press and its adjustable bed, clamping the wood to the bed, adjusting to the appropriate angle for each row of nails, and creating the design that way. But for those of you without a snazzy drill press bolted to your workshop floor, the drill holding doohickey pictured above will do much the same job.

Step 9: Nail 'em In

chuckling only slightly when it is pointed out to you that you are in fact nailing the sharp side of the nails (aka towards your hands as opposed to into the wood) A rubber mallet helps.

Now perch those feet on top of those nails, and if you feel so inclined display on a thin podium to give the further illusion that they are about to step off a long path of meaningless suffering into the freedom of...who knows what.

And with that I give you 'the improbable mystic'. Thanks for tuning in.