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How to CNC machine ceramic artworks

Ceramic art project at the European Ceramic Work Centre

The EKWC (European Ceramic Work Centre) in 's-Hertogenbosch (NL) is an international workshop where participants and staff members explore the artistic and technical possibilities of ceramics as a medium. Experiments are being conducted to find new ways of presenting ceramics. About 48 participants a year, artists, ceramists and designers, get the opportunity to work for a continuous or phased period of three months.

One of the participants in 2004 was Christie Wright from the USA, who has created the series of Ceramic Mobile Phones shown on this page.

Base 3D geometry in DeskProto
Machined foam mould
One of the base geometries in DeskProto, and next the foam mould.

Christie states:
"Here are a few images from my project at the European Ceramic Work Center, The Netherlands. I was working on a series of ceramic mobile phones, seeking to express the connection between technology and handicraft. I wanted to turn the phone inside-out, bringing the functional circuits to the surface as decorative patterns. Choosing from a colorful variety of bodies, components and wire, individualized compositions can be created. I developed a process where a CAD machine was used to directly carve into the surface of the porcelain. The design was created from a mixture of spontaneous gestures and elaborately mapped patterns, from my hand to the computer, back to the hand, into the machine and so on."

Plaster production mould
Mouldings, before decorating
Plaster mould in two halves, and some of the resulting clay base shapes

Please take a moment to follow the complicated manufacturing process:
  • First the series of base geometries have been defined in 3D CAD, and transferred to DeskProto as STL files for toolpath calculations.
  • Each shape has been machined in an oversized block of foam. Around the (positive) geometry a rectangle formed cavity (negative) has been created, making it possible to use the foam block as a mould.
  • Next these moulds have been filled with plaster, creating the actual moulds for manufacturing the phones (plaster is the standard mould material for ceramics, as it absorbs water).
  • Using these plaster moulds the base geometries of the phones have been manufactured in clay (not yet baked: dried only).

2D toolpaths for decoration, in DeskProto
After 2D machining
2D toolpaths applied on the base shape, and the result after 2D milling.

  • Each clay 'phone' then has been fixtured in the CNC milling machine for the next step: machining a 2D pattern of lines on it's top surface using DeskProto's 2D milling option.
  • As a next step each block has been glazed. For the line a special gold-made enamel was applied.
  • After baking them all other elements of each phone has been assembled, resulting in a series of ceramic mobiles phones, of which two are shown below.

Applying gold enamel
Applying the gold enamel for the 'circuits'.

Nice detail is that the 2D milling resembles the way that real Printed Circuit Boards (at least prototype boards) are manufactured. As the gold-filled enamel is in effect conductive, these ceramic PCB's are indeed 'functioning'.

Ceramic Mobile Phone 1
Ceramic Mobile Phone 2
Two of the finally resulting Ceramic Mobile Phones.