Luke Orford, CAD-Smith

Meet Luke Orford, our CAD designer and 3D Printing expert, who is helping the workshops blend the latest rapid prototyping technology with the centuries old skills of the master craftsmen at Grant Macdonald London. The results are hand-made, finely crafted works of art that simply couldn’t be produced a decade ago, and production processes that blend the best of high tech engineering with the very finest quality silversmithing.

After graduating from UCA Rochester (like  Zoë – see her post here) Luke was already experimenting with 3D modelling software like Cinema 4D, Rhino 3D and Blender, one of the few people in his year who were using computer aided design in their silversmith work.

“Drawing wasn’t my strong point and I liked computers, so I was always trying to experiment with CAD and 3D printing at college. In those days, it was a real challenge moving between different platforms and ways of working, and the 3D printers weren’t nearly as advanced as they are now. In many respects, these days the software is easier and tech is smarter, which means, we can do much more complex things with it.”

Unlike many people who see new technologies like 3D printing replacing traditional craftsmanship, Luke sees the potential of merging old and new offers a lot to both sides of the silversmithing equation.

“Every day we’re innovating and improving. We can 3D print complex, fine structures that would be impossible to make by hand, or take months in the workshop instead of hours in a printer. However, there’s no CAD technology or 3D scanner that could replicate the fine surface detailing and finishing skills of a master craftsman. You can’t print like a master polisher or chaser with thirty years experience, but when you blend those two things, the results are amazing.”

“One example of blending skills is 3D printing in a wax-based resin, then casting that into silver. Next a craftsman adds details, we can then use this to make a master and cast from that. It’s ten times quicker than producing the whole thing by hand from scratch.”

One of the things that has made Grand Macdonald’s pioneering use of 3D printing and CAD such an important step for the industry is the way the new tech works sympathetically with the rest of the workshop, and in some cases, has defined new processes that have enabled the teams to work faster and smarter, and offer new possibilities to their bespoke customers.

“There was a time when everyone cast from wax models, set in rubber mould produced from wood and metal hand sculpted masters. They don’t scale up and down, and you can’t adjust them. With CAD, I can take a commission from a private client or a commercial order and go from a 3D model on the screen to five different sized real life objects, with variations in shape within a few hours. It means our clients can feel their design in their hands, see it from all angles, before we make it. It means we can deliver exactly what they want, and incorporate the tiniest extra details or last minute changes.”

The workhorse of the new digital workshop is the Formlabs resin 3D printer, which uses laser light to turn a liquid resin into a solid object, layer by layer, a bit like a laser printer melting toner onto a piece of paper, in three dimensions. The finished model is then washed in a special isopropanol (alcohol) bath to clean it, and then it’s cured hard enough to work on in a special unit  depending on the resin used.

A master of the resin model is made in metal and finished with details before being used to make a rubber mould for traditional wax casting, or softer models can be printed in wax and cast straight away.

It all depends on the part you are making. Simple shapes can print direct from soft wax resin, but if it needs more detail than the printer can manage, we use a harder resin so we can work it, then make a traditional mould. You have to allow for all kinds of variables, shrinkage, and gas releases in the firing process or the rubber mould making, all things we’ve worked out by using the skills and knowledge of the master craftsmen of how materials perform.”

To create really high definition models, to test prototypes and create finished items that look as close to the real silver as possible, Luke uses a Solidscape S350. Which despite being able to produce up to 25 micron resolution (about as smooth as any 3D printer can go, it’s not nearly as smooth as a master polisher can go.)

“You have to design for the right machine, the right material, and the right kind of process to get the results you need. Getting that part of the process right is where I rely on the hugely experienced and highly skilled team here to use their knowledge of working silver and making by hand. It’s a blend of human ingenuity, what we do best, with performing incredibly complex repetitive operations, which is what computers do best.”

Luke’s work has been essential for realising the complex openwork ranges of Grant Macdonald cutlery and cufflinks, and the rapid prototyping of our Tusk range in different sizes, and countless bespoke commissions that pushed the limits of time and complexity. It’s helping Grant Macdonald, which was famous for its critically acclaimed, high tech electro-texturing forty years ago, remain at the forefront of blending the latest technology with skills that were around centuries ago, to make remarkable and unique designs.

So does Luke see himself as a new digital master?

A master? No. My tools are just another set of tools, like hammers, files, lathes and welders. I’m still a silversmith at the end of the day, and that means I’m still learning from masters who were making precious metals before I was born.  A CAD-smith, maybe? Ask me again in thirty years.”