Introduction: Turn a $3 Childs Toy Into a Work of Art

About: Dust City Designs. Inspired by the Playa, built in Denver. Dust City Designs is dedicated to building anything your mind can create.


I've always been fascinated by 3D modeling. It is such a new and fascinating area of new age art. One of the most fascinating things about 3d modeling is switching to, and working in a wire frame model. This view shows all the little facets that make up our models. It is such a fascinating a beautiful mode to work you. We are able to see how thousands of lines and faces work together to make a completely skinned model. When we've worked with these wire frame models enough we start to see wire frames in everything we look at. However we never actually see this wire model in the tangible world. So I wanted to bring the digital wire frame model into the tangible world, and this is how we did it.

The goal of this project was to see if we could take a $3 childs toy and transform it into a wire frame work of art! I also wanted to use either free or open source software for this project so that anyone could recreate the processes we used to create this work of art.

This project is definitely a lot of work, but the end results are absolutely beautiful. I really hope this Instructable encourages other people to use technology to bring beautiful, large scale art work into this world! We need it!

Step 1: Setting Up to Turn Our Toy Into a Digital 3d Model

This first step is probably one of the single most important steps in this entire process. If we aren't able to capture a great 3d model then it will show in our final work of art.

For this step we will be using Autodesk's 123D catch. There is a desktop and mobile version of this software and both of them are FREE!! While the mobile version seems to still work very well, we decided to use the desktop version so that we could use a nice DSLR to get the best pictures possible.

Here's what you'll need for this step:

  • Your childs toy
  • A digital camera
  • Tripod
  • A couple of fill lights
  • Stool
  • Piece of newspaper
  • A 2'x2' piece of plywood (optional)

I've been playing with 123D Catch for a while and the best tip I have for successful results is good lighting! It really makes a difference in the quality of your 3d model. I find that you have less missing pieces and better texture in your final 3D model. You'll also want to put your toy on a piece of newspaper, while it isn't required, it does help to once again to produce the best results.

You really have to put some thought into how you're going to take these pictures as 123D Catch only allows you to upload 70 pictures per file. So I decided to split my shot up into 3 different levels. The first level would involve taking 28 pictures, the second layer would consist of 28 pictures and the top layer would consist of 8 pictures. I also split each level into 4 quarters with each quarter consisting of 7 pictures. The top layer would consist of 8 pictures taken at 45 degrees from the previous picture. Using a tripod for this capture allowed me to make sure all the pictures were taken on the same level and also helped to keep track of where the last picture was taken and how far to move the camera for the next shot. It also helped to make sure that we didn't have any blurry pictures.

Like has been stated before lighting is key for this process. So I have two flood lights for this part of the process, one setup on each side of the camera. This ensures that we have adequate lighting with no shadows. I move these lights around the model with me as I photograph.

Once we've taking our pictures it's time to upload them into the 123D Catch program!

Step 2: Uploading to 123D Catch

Now that we've taken all of our pictures it's time to upload them to 123D Catch!

For this step you will need:

  • Your photos of your toy
  • A computer
  • 123D Catch

You can download the desktop version of 123D Catch from the link below:

123D Catch Download link

Whenever you upload your pictures to 123D Catch, it will upload them to Autodesk's cloud. This process can take a little while so just be patient. This is probably a good time to pat yourself on the back for all those wonderful pictures you took!

Uploading your pictures to 123D Catch is pretty easy. Just follow these simple steps!

  1. Launch the 123D Catch software
  2. Click "Create a new Capture"
  3. Select your 70 photos and click Open
  4. Name your capture
  5. Enter your email
  6. Add some tags
  7. Select a category
  8. Add a description
  9. Click Create
  10. Sit back and wait, you'll be notified when your Catch is ready!

Step 3: Cleaning Up the Model

Once your Catch has been uploaded and processed you will be notified through the desktop app or email.

Since we did such a good job setting up our photo shoot there really isn't much editing that has to be done. If for some reason a few pictures didn't get properly stitched in you can view this youtube tutorial on how to manually stitch in those photoshere. Since we used good lighting and the newspaper I didn't personally have to stitch in any pictures.

We do have to cleanup this model a bit though and 123D Catch makes this super easy. We need to get rid of the newspaper and wood that we set the bear on top of for camera reference. There is also a little rock on the back of one of the bear's feet that I want to get rid of.

All you need to do to delete unwanted pieces of the 3D model is to left click, draw a loop around your unwanted material, and hit delete. It's as easy as that. When you select a piece of the model it will turn red.

I also find that as you get closer to the part of the model you don't want to delete, changing into wire frame mode really helps to differentiate between the parts you want to keep and parts you want to get rid of.

Check out our video as it shows you how we cleaned up our bear.

Once your model is cleaned up you need to save it. Since we are going to be using 123D make in our next process I saved it as an OBJ file. This file is easily read by 123D Make and transferred into this program beautifully.

Step 4: 123D Make

Once we have our 3D model, we need to do a few different things to get ready to send out files to the CNC Router. 123D Make is another free program from Autodesk. With this program we can scale up our 3D model and then choose the style we would like to use bring our model from the 3D digital world back into the physical world.

Here's what you need for this step:

  1. Your 3D model (OBJ) from 123D Catch
  2. 123D Make
  3. A computer

You can download 123D Make from Autodesk for FREE at this linkhere.

123D Make is an extremely versatile program and will allow us to scale up our bear, create an interlocking slices structure, and will then export all our files to DXF so we can easily cut them out on the CNC machine. It allows us to setup our material thickness and input the dimensions our of our CNC table so that our pieces will be able to be easily cut out. It will also label all of our pieces and slots for us, which is a must to put together this intricate piece.

I made a video walk through of this process as some parts are a little hard to explain without actually being able to show you.

Here are the basic steps though to creating our 3D bear model.

  1. Import the bear OBJ file that we saved in the last step
  2. Adjust the height of your object, we went for 72 inches!
  3. Create a new manufacturing setting
    1. Enter the length of the CNC table*
    2. Enter the width of the CNC table*
    3. Enter the material thickness**
    4. Enter the width of the cutting tool
  4. Choose a construction technique, we used interlocking slices
  5. Adjust the number of 1st axis slices, we used 33
  6. Adjust the number of 2nd axis slices, we used 13
  7. Set your slice direction. We moved the slice direction 90 degrees so we had better detail in the face
  8. Export your file to DXF!

*When you setup the length and width of your CNC table I like to set the output to be a bit smaller than the actual cutting area of the table. So our CNC table is 48"x96", therefore we setup our material size to be 47"x95". This prevents the software from cramming too many pieces onto your board and having pieces touching each edge of the plywood and causing mis-cuts.

**I would highly suggest adding a bit of thickness to your material thickness. This thickness will dictate how wide the slots are on each piece. If you do the exact thickness it's going to be a pain to slide all the pieces together. We added .02" to our slot size and it was still a little difficult to get some uprights to slide into place.

When you are adjusting the number of 1st and 2nd axis slices there is a balance game you are playing. We want to have a good definition of our bear without having to use a million sheets of plywood. The more slices you have to, the harder it will be to get some slices slotted into place, especially the uprights.

We had a bear height of 72 inches, 33 horizontal pieces, and 13 uprights and had to use 12 sheets of OSB plywood.

Step 5: Creating Our G-Code for the CNC Router

Now that we have our DXF files created, we need to create the G-Code that we can then use to operate our CNC machine.

What you'll need for this step:

  1. Your DXF files
  2. A computer
  3. Cambam*

*While Cambam isn't necessarily "free" you do get 40 free uses before you have to buy it. Once your 40 uses are up you can buy the program for an extremely reasonable price ($150.) We use it at our shop for all of our CNC projects and I absolutely love the software. You can download it here.

Step 6: Time to Cut Out Our Model

It's time to fire up the CNC router and cut out all these pieces!

What you will need for this step:

  1. All of your G-Code files from the last step
  2. A CNC router, ours is a 4'x8' shopbot
  3. Sheets of plywood. We used 12 sheets of 15/32" osb plywood
  4. Straight shank router bits. We only went through 3 bits for all those sheets.
  5. Marker
  6. You'll also want the original DXF files with the number systems on them.

In our last step we created all of the G-Code that we needed to cut out the parts for our bear. Now it's time to cut all of them out. We're going to keep this part pretty brief as every single CNC router is different.

There are a few very important details to remember during this process though. The single most important part is to label EVERYTHING! Label each piece as it comes off the router, label every single slot. If you skimp on labeling for this step its going to make life very difficult when it comes to assembling all the pieces.

We made a little time lapse video of the router cutting out just one of our boards. It took about 9 hours to cut out all of our 12 boards for this project.

Step 7: Assembling the Big Bear!

Now that we have all of our pieces cut out, its time to start assembling them! This part of the process definitely requires you to pay attention! Hopefully you labeled all of your pieces really well, because it's necessary for a successful assembly.

Things you'll need for this step:

  1. All of the pieces we previously cut out
  2. Rope
  3. Eye hooks
  4. Jigsaw

One of the first things we need to do for this step is organize all of our pieces. We created 4 piles of our 33 horizontal pieces. 1-10, 11-20, 21-30, 30-33. We also organized our vertical pieces. There weren't as many of these, but we did need to pick out a couple to form our first uprights. Based off our directions from 123D make, we chose upright 4 and 9 to use.

Once you have picked out your first two uprights you need to screw an eye hook into the top of them. Then attach a rope to these and suspend the pieces from the ceiling. We have an exposed ceiling in the shop, so it was very easy to throw the rope up and through the exposed beams and tied them off to the wall.

Once you have these pieces reasonably stable, it's time to start adding horizontal pieces. We started and the feet and went up to the head. This part went together pretty easily.

The tough part came when it was time to add the other vertical pieces. Remember earlier when I mentioned adding a little extra width to your material thickness? Well we didn't add quite enough and trying to get some of the vertical pieces in proved to be a challenge. We eventually cut some of the large pieces into a couple smaller pieces. This is where the jigsaw came into play. These smaller pieces didn't have as much trouble being slid into place. They also didn't affect our structural integrity.

We eventually added another support rope coming from the nose of our bear and up to the ceiling. The bear wanted to leave backwards a bit to much for my comfort. By attaching a rope to his nose we we're able to secure him upright.

Step 8: Cutting the Steel Rods

Now that we have our entire word form built, it's time to start cutting our steel rod to start creating a wire frame structure around it. For our wire frame we decided to use steel rod. I used 1/4" hot rolled steel rod. We bought it from our local metal store and payed $3.25 for a 20 foot long stick. We ended up using about 600 ft for this project.

Here is what you need for this step:

  1. 1/4" Steel Rod (We used 600 ft to cover our bear.)
  2. Bandsaw with a metal cutting blade (a chop saw could be used as well.)
  3. Extra band saw blades (We went through 2)
  4. Heavy gloves (the steel rod gets really hot from being cut)
  5. Painters tape
  6. Hearing protection
  7. Eye Protection

***Safety is of the utmost importance during this step. You have an extremely sharp band saw blade and your fingers very close to it. You're also cutting a lot of steel and it's very easy to get distracted. Make sure you observe a proper safety margin between your fingers and the bandsaw blade. Also make sure you use eye and ear protection. This can be a very loud process with little flints of steel flying everywhere.***

Since we aren't trying to go for a perfectly shaped structure, such as a geodesic dome, we want a bunch of randomly sized pieces. However we do want some structure to the size. So I decided it would be best to make 4 different "sized" rods. We did this by putting pieces of painters tape on the band saw. We would then cut all the pieces of the rod for that size between the two edges of the tape. This would give us a bunch of randomly sized pieces but within a certain size parameter. Our sizes ranged anywhere from 1.5" up to 5".

Cutting all these rods down to size was definitely time consuming. So we had one person cutting the rods, while I started welding. This also allowed us to see which sized pieces we were using the most of. Don't cut up all the rods before welding. You will also want to see which size you are using the most of.

Step 9: Time to Weld

We have our wood model put together, the steel rod is all chopped up, now it's time to get welding. This is by far the most time consuming process during the entire project. It is a fun challenge though it's awesome to see the piece come to life as the cage gets built around it!

Here is what you will need for this step:

  1. Wire feed welder (We eventually ended up using 2 welders)
  2. A LOT of wire for the welders. (We went through 8 pounds.)
  3. Auto-darkening welding helmet (You have to have an auto-darken, non auto just won't work.)
  4. Welding gloves
  5. Long sleeve cotton shirt
  6. Hose with water source
  7. Spray nozzle with mist setting
  8. Needle nose pliers

***Fire Safety: We are welding steel rod right next to highly flammable osb plywood. The extreme heat from welding can catch the wood on fire. During our entire time of welding we never had a bigger flame than one that would come out of a lighter. We were able to quickly blow out the fire and never had to use the water hose. However you want to make sure you have a water hose and sprayer attached and at the ready at all times.***

***Welding safety: Welding can be extremely dangerous if you don't take the proper safety precautions. You risk serious injury to your eyes, skin, and lungs if you aren't careful. Make sure you have a proper welding helmet, proper clothing, and proper ventilation. For more information on welding safety click here.***

There is only one way to start this process and that's from the bottom up! The bottom of the feet is probably the hardest piece to do. You have to create a profile on the ground around the foot by welding rods together. Once you have this loop setup you can start going up and things get a lot easier.

You'll start to develop a technique on creating your wire mesh frame after a bit of practice. What we did is dumped a bunch of our metal rods on the floor. We would then use a pair of needle nose pliers to pick up a piece we thought would fill our gap between rod ends. If it was too big or too small we could hover the rod over the top of our pile until we found one that fit just right. Once you find a piece that fits, you just tack weld each end to the other rods.

You will definitely need to have an auto darkening helmet for this part. You will be holding the rod pieces in precarious places and even trying to flick your head down to pull your helmet down will end up moving your rod out of place.

This is a very time consuming process, so put on some good tunes, and get welding!

Once the form is completely en-caged you can remove your guidelines!

We put together a little time lapse of the entire process in a video. It really is cool to see the cage grow around the mold!

Step 10: Burn Night!

We have the bear completely covered in our steel wire frame cage. There is just one problem though, we need to get the wood out of there. There is only one way to do that, FIRE!!!!!!!

What you will need for this step:

  1. Your wire cage wrapped bear or other animal.
  2. Some water logged 2x4s
  3. Hose with spray nozzle
  4. Fire extinguisher
  5. Long poles for moving coals
  6. Kerosene or diesel (Do not use white gas or gasoline, their vapors are highly explosive)
  7. Blow torch
  8. Wide open space with nothing flammable around
  9. A week-long rain storm to water-log everything around the fire (Optional, but we loved having this.)

***Fire Safety: You are about to light a massive amount of wood on fire. Every safety precaution must be taken! Make sure you have a water hose and fire extinguisher available and ready to go. Also make sure that you are clear of all buildings and everything flammable. This fire will get extremely hot. Also make sure you can legally have a fire in your area. Make sure to soak everything around the burn area with a generous amount of water before starting your burn.***

So before we start our burn we want to make a small burn platform to keep the bear elevated. This will ensure that the back area of the bear isn't sitting in red hot coals and over heating the metal. We want to ensure that all the metal rods stay completely straight. We used a few stacked up 2x4s to create this elevated platform. They had been outside all week during some of the worst rain we had seen in years. They were completely water-logged and therefore wouldn't burn.

It's now time time bring out the bear to our burn area! The combined weight of the metal and the wood was pretty heavy. So we invited a few friends to our burn night. With 5 people we were able to easily move the bear to the burn platform. We brought him out and set him up on top of our elevated burn platform. We made sure he was secure and wasn't going to try and roll off of the 2x4s.

OSB does have a certain amount of fire retardant mixed into the wood. So we're going to need something to get this fire started. You have 3 options here. Lamp oil, kerosene, or diesel fuel. Under no circumstances should you use white gas, or gasoline. These fuels release an insane amount of flammable vapors. If you pour either of these fuels on your piece and strike a match you will be quickly enveloped in fire. So don't use them. Lamp oil, kerosene, or diesel all take a bit of time to ignite and burn in a predictable manor.

Once we've doused the bear in fuel it's ignition time! Grab a blow torch and start lighting the fuel. The fire does take a bit to get going and you may need to add some more fuel to the fire. Due to the non-explosive properties of the the kerosene we used, you can just toss some on there using any sort of container. Just stand back a bit. The fire will get going though and it will get HOT!

As the fire starts to burn up the wood, ash and coals will start to fall out the bottom of your piece. Use the water hose and spray nozzle to spray down these coals. It will keep your piece from getting to hot on the bottom. Don't worry about getting a bit of water on the fire, once the fire is going its a bit of work to put it out. Just make sure the piece is staying semi cool.

We also used some VERY long steel poles to poke at the wood inside and help it to fall through the bottom of the piece.

As the piece continues to burn, make sure to be constantly spraying the coals that have fallen out of the piece to keep to much heat from building up underneath.

Once the insides have burned down enough, it's time to put the fire out. Since we have open feet on the bottom of our bear we can actually pull some decent sized unburned chunks of wood out of the bottom. Make sure you soak both the coals and the wire frame sculpture itself with lots of water. The steel is extremely hot and you want to make sure every single hot spot is gone before grabbing the structure.

Once the piece has cooled down it's time to set our piece back upright and give it another good bath. There was lots of ash all over it, so a little extra hose down will keep all the ash outside where it belongs.

Step 11: Clean Up/ Placement/ Conclussion

Well our project is almost done! Even though we hosed down the bear with a garden hose there is still some black left on him. So it's off to the car wash!

Things you need for this step:

  1. Car wash
  2. Quarters

We took our bear to a local car wash and gave him a good scrub down. Washing a giant 6' tall bear will get you some funny looks at the car wash! Well worth it though.

Then it was off to a local park to grab some photos. I will say that the bear is extremely difficult to photograph, but that is part of what makes it so interesting! We've finally brought a wire frame 3D model into our tangible world and it is just as beautiful as I thought it would be!

This piece was originally intended to be a piece of yard art for a very special friend of mine. We were hoping to plant ivy around it and let the ivy slowly create a "fur coat" on the bear. Once she saw the piece though it was immediately deemed "too beautiful" to be left outside. So inside it went, and into the living room. We had to take the entire front door off the hinges to even get it inside. Had we even made this bear an inch taller, it would have not fit into the house.

Mind for Design

Second Prize in the
Mind for Design

Backyard Contest

Participated in the
Backyard Contest