Bringing Back The Music With A MakerBot

Posted by on Thursday, August 2, 2012 in Uncategorized

Malcolm Messiter is a musician whose harpsichord had started to grow a little quiet. After 43 years of use, he says the many of the parts have become brittle, and not long ago they started to break. This is a little story you’ll want to read all the way through to the end.

We often hear that MakerBots are used to create parts that manufacturers don’t ship anymore. That’s exactly the problem that Malcolm had for his 1970 Robert Goble harpsichord. He tells me in email that there are probably several thousand harpsichords made in the same time period — the 1970’s — that use plastic jacks. The jack is the part that holds the plectrum, which plucks the string when you press a key. These parts are now irreplaceable.

Well put on your MakerBot Goggles and you’ll see things a little differently. To replace all the jacks on this instrument with custom wood pieces (there are 183 of them), Malcolm would have had to shell out something like £2000. That’s $3100. And having custom plastic pieces made for the job? Forget about it.

But Malcolm has The Replicator, which can make anything, including 183 harpsichord jacks, and then 183 more. And now he has a functioning harpsichord. As far as we know, and as far as Malcolm knows, he is the first to perform this life-saving operation on a harpsichord. Like so many people on Thingiverse and others in the MakerBot world, he’s a total pioneer.

UPDATE! Malcolm tells me that, all told, these pieces average 3.62 grams when he makes them at 75% infill and one shell. MakerBot sells Natural ABS for $43 per kilogram. This means the entire repair set costs about $28.48 in materials.

Now here’s what you’ve been waiting for. Malcolm isn’t a harpsichordist. He’s an oboist with a tinkering spirit. Check out the custom iPhone stand he made (pictured above) so he could tune his harpsichord with both hands free. If he hadn’t been able to fix these jacks, then this amazing self-playing harpsichord wouldn’t work. And that would be a huge tragedy. Sit back, relax, and enjoy a little auto-Bach.

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4 Comments so far

  • MakerBots Make Things for the Future–and Save Machines from the Past | Uber Patrol - The Definitive Cool Guide
    August 8, 2012 at 11:20 am

    […] might be screwed, but I was heartened to read MakerBot’s story of Malcolm Messiter, a guy who fixes old machines like me. Messiter’s machines, however, play music. His 1970 […]

  • 3D printing – can it shape the future of your business? - Sydney Business Month
    November 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    […] Making complex items that aren’t easy to make in any other way, or items that aren’t made any more – like the musician who used a 3D printer to replace 183 holders of the plectrums on his harpsichord. […]

  • Michael
    February 4, 2015 at 12:57 am

    The premise of this article is mistaken. Many styles of plastic jacks are available and can be made to work in a 1970s harpsichord like this one, for a fraction of the sum quoted. Handmade wooden jacks cost more, but closer to $1000 rather than $3100. Installing the jacks is the same amount of hand work regardless of how they were manufactured. MakerBot is not a panacea.

  • Ken DeLoria
    February 8, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    @Michael. Your comment may be true for some instruments, but it is not true for all.
    I have a 50 year old Harpsichord that uses plastic jacks and after searching far, wide and deep, there are none available…even though some websites say they can supply them. None of those websites had working phone numbers, nor did they ever return my email inquiries after months of trying.
    I looked into having custom pieces fabricated by hand, and the cost was prohibitive. As was the lead time.
    A friend is making nearly perfect replacements for me on his ‘Bot and the total cost for materials is well under $100.
    Even if I COULD have found replacements from a third party for around $1,000, as you’ve indicated, I would not have been able to afford it.
    I’m sick with cancer and have, perhaps, not enough time left to wait many months for some craftsman to make new jacks out of wood for money I don’t have.
    But soon I’ll have a fully functional instrument (the first three jacks have been printed, adjusted, tested, and work perfectly) and I plan to record some beautiful music, as soon as the remaining jacks have been printed, shaped, installed and calibrated.
    As far as I’m concerned, the MakerBot is the ‘hand of God’ bringing advanced technology to a decaying instrument that has the potential to lift hearts and raise beautiful musical energy!
    There’s nothing quite like a harpsichord. Because the tonal range is simplex, and the dynamic range is, essentially “note-on, note-off,” the composer or player focuses almost entirely on melody. I’ve written some of my best works on my harpsichord, and I’m looking forward to some live recording sessions with a bass player and hand drummer, to create some improvised works that will, hopefully, outlast me as part of my musical legacy.
    So what’s wrong with that? Are you a frustrated harpsichord jack-maker who is loosing business to 3D printing? I hope not!
    Ken DeLoria


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