3-D printing, CT scans helping UConn engineers repair antique instruments

A UConn Engineering researcher works with a 3-D printer to produce an instrument component. (UConn Today)

A UConn Engineering researcher works with a 3-D printer to produce an instrument component. (UConn Today)

Researchers at UConn are bringing instruments back to life by utilizing CT scans and 3-D printing technology.

Dr. Robert Howe, an organologist with a background in medicine, led a presentation on the work that he’s done with Dr. Richard Bass of the music department and Dr. Sina Shahbazmohamadi of the engineering department as part of UConn’s Scholars Collaborative’s Conversations in Digital Scholarship.

Howe said that he became interested in using digital technology to examine 19th century oboes produced by the Trieberts family and later by the maker Gautrot, who continued to use the Trieberts name.

“The dating of their instruments has been porblematic to say the least,” he said

After Gautrot took over the Trieberts' family business, the oboes became more mass-produced but of lower quality.

Howe applied digital photography to these instruments, and the color macrophotography imaging allowed him to blow up the images and still see the details clearly. He said he found slight differences between the trademark castles that were printed on the oboes.

“When you blow them up to a hundred times, you can see differences in their form,” he said. He noted that these details were “only visible with magnification.”

Howe has also been able to discover that supposedly Mozart-era oboe reeds owned by a collector in Boston were actually forgeries by using micro CT scans.

“Reeds are typically studied by taking them apart, but once you take them apart they’re ruined,” he said.

My idea is to use 3-D printing to recreate instruments specifically for schools that don’t have a large budget. Producing a plastic instrument would be much cheaper than using metal.
— Leslie Prunier

Howe met Shahbazmohamadi in 2013 when he was using a micro CT scanner to examine the reeds at UConn’s Center for Clean Energy Engineering. Howe said that Shahbazmohamadi devised new and novel methods of imaging that made it possible to “see aspects of antique wind instruments that had never before been revealed.”

Their CT scans showed that the reeds were identical to the ones that would be used today, and were therefore probably forgeries.

Shahbazmohamadi also introduced Howe to methods of using Computer Assisted Design (CAD) files to permit the construction of complex models through additive manufacturing, in which an object is created by placing thin layers of material on top of each other.

This is preferable to methods involving measuring because it eliminates errors in measuring and the possibility of damaging the specimens involved, explained Howe. Additionally, CAD files can be manipulated to create copies with different dimensions.

Howe was able to use the printing technology to make 19th century saxophones playable again. He explained that modern saxophone mouthpieces that were made in the early 20th century or later don’t work with the original Adolphe Sax saxophones.

Using an original Sax mouthpiece from 1876, Howe could replicate mouthpieces and scale them up or down depending on whether they were used with a baritone, alto or soprano saxophone.

Howe said they were different from modern mouthpieces in that they require a harder reed, are more narrow, provide a less bright sound and help answer what he considers the key question: “What did they instrument really sound like at the time?”

When Howe tried to play an original 1864 Adolph Sax in 2003 with a modern mouthpiece, he found it to be “unplayable.” His newer replicated mouthpiece lets him play a whole half-tone lower, demonstrating the smoother tone during his presentation, he said.

“This is what it’s supposed to sound like,” he said.

Fourth-semester mechanical engineering major Leslie Prunier attended the presentation to learn more about the tools and techniques Howe used. As the chief financial officer of UConn’s 3-D Printing Club, an engineering student and a baritone horn player for UConn’s Pep Band, Prunier had a special interest in using technology to recreate instruments and is considering taking on the project for her eventual senior thesis.

“My idea is to use 3-D printing to recreate instruments specifically for schools that don’t have a large budget,” Prunier said. “Producing a plastic instrument would be much cheaper than using metal.”

Prunier connected with Howe and Bass after the presentation.

“I might get some help from them with my project if that comes to fruition,” Prunier said.