Scholars Replicate Indigenous Flutes with 3D Printing

January 18, 2023

8 min read

Classical and Irish flute headjoint and embouchure experiments, designed in Fusion 360. Courtesy of Jay Loomis.

The repatriation of Native American artifacts from museums back to their tribes of origin has been a hot-button topic as of late, particularly how long the process has often taken since the Native American Protection and Repatriation Act became US law in 1990. Yet even when repatriation does happen, the artifacts can be in poor repair or outright damaged.

In many cases, museum curators have used arsenic on Native American artifacts as a preservative, which makes them poisonous to touch and unusable when returned to their original tribes, says Jay Loomis, an enthnomusicology graduate student at Brown University. Loomis has partnered with Formlabs and a group of other scholars and clinicians to develop a system for creating functioning, 3D-printed replicas of a very specific type of artifact: Indigenous wind instruments such as flutes and whistles.

“The 3D-printed replica is meant to serve as a guide for Indigenous instrument makers who want to use the instrument to inform their present-day practice,” Loomis says. Those instrument makers may prefer to model their creations off of original flutes, but while many of the originals are held up in museums, tainted with arsenic, or otherwise damaged, replicas can be a substitute.

Loomis collaborates with Indigenous musician and flutemaker from Jemez Pueblo, Marlon Magdalena, the Instructional Coordinator at the Jemez Historic Site in New Mexico, who tests the replicas for how they sound and play, as well as uses them as guides for crafting new flutes with traditional materials such as wood and leather. Loomis also works with Dr. John-Carlos Perea, Department Chair and Associate Professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University and a musician, who gives qualitative analysis on the musicality and playability of the replica flutes.

Dr. Perea also helped emphasize to Loomis the importance of “Indigenization,” which has put at the forefront of his mind the creation of collaborative relations between museums and Indigenous communities. Loomis says, “I constantly ask myself: How am I taking into account Indigenous perspectives? How do we put Indigenous priorities front and center in this work?”

The Process of Replicating an Indigenous Flute

The particular Indigenous instrument at the center of this project is a Native American block flute in the Haffenreffer Museum at Brown University dated approximately to 1875-1910. It is no longer functional because its cedar wood has split, and the sound-producing mechanism (the embouchure) is slightly separated from the body of the flute, making it unable to create musical sound. “Not every instrument is a good candidate for replication,” he says. “Some instruments in museums are ceremonial objects that should be returned to their original Indigenous community or left alone.” 

Loomis also attained permission from the museum to move the artifact for research and scanning. His contact at the museum, Dr. Robert Preucel, is a Brown University Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Haffenreffer Museum. Dr. Preucel has described this approach as a unique form of “digital repatriation,” because by returning a 3D-printed instrument that replicates an original but with repairs, it serves as a form of reparation for taking the artifact away from Indigenous communities in the first place.

Preparation for design work on the embouchure of the flute.
Preparation for design work on the embouchure of the flute. Courtesy of Jay Loomis.

With permissions in hand, Dr. Preucel connected Loomis with Scott Collins, Imaging Clinical Specialist at Rhode Island Hospital, who had worked on CT scanning artifacts before as part of a working relationship between the hospital and the museum. Collins CT scanned the flute and prepared a 3D mesh image. Loomis then imported the mesh into Autodesk Fusion 360, converted it to a solid body image, and then edited it for printing with a Formlabs Form 3 3D printer.

3D Scanning the Flute

Replicating the flute was not just a straightforward matter of scanning it and then feeding a 3D file to the printer to make a playable flute. First there’s the precarious nature of moving and handling and aged, fragile artifact. If the CT scan doesn’t come out as expected, “there’s not a lot of room for trial and error,” Loomis says. For example, a piece of tin tied to the original flute body—an essential part of its sound production—presented a challenge because the CT scan can’t accurately render the metal part. Instead, Loomis took careful measurements and “sculpted” the part in Fusion 360.

While developing this process for replicating Indigenous wind instruments, he’s learned the importance of high image resolution in the scanning and design phases, because some definition in lost when converting the 3D mesh image into a solid image. Loomis needed the solid image to split the flute body into sections to be assembled after printing. While the loss of detail in this process is minor, Loomis is researching how to maintain as much detail as possible, so that the 3D printed replicas can be as exact as possible, recreating subtle surface markings and even the grain of the original wood.

Non-toxic 3D Printing Materials

Loomis and his collaborators are still measuring and evaluating how the specific materials they use to 3D print flute replicas affect the sonic results. While most people won’t hear much difference between replica flutes printed with different materials, they are striving to create 3D printed replicas with the best combination of authentic sound and playability. So far they have used a number of different Formlabs 3D printing resins for instrument replicas, such as the Draft Resin for its low-cost rapid prototyping print speed and the industrial-grade Rigid 10K Resin, which Loomis loves for its weighty feel and white matte finish reminiscent of fired clay.

Original whistle (bottom right) and two 3D printed replicas using Formlabs Draft Resin and Biomed Clear Resin.
Original whistle (bottom right) and two 3D printed replicas using Formlabs Draft Resin and Biomed Clear Resin. Courtesy of Jay Loomis.

As part of the spirit of reparation in replacing unusable museum pieces with near-exact functional replicas, the team uses only non-toxic resins, “given the history of Indigenous ceremonial objects being treated with arsenic as part of ‘preservation’ efforts in museums,” Dr. Perea says. Loomis chooses only non-toxic, biocompatible resins for wind instrument mouth pieces. For their projects at the Haffenreffer Museum, he opted for Formlabs’ BioMed Clear resin, which he says equals or beats the polymer composites that have traditionally made up mass produced, injection-molded recorders and other plastic wind instruments in terms of strength, density, and stiffness.

“And I’m thrilled with the sound of the flutes we’ve printed,” Loomis says.

SLA vs. FDA 3D Printing

Those results come not only from the materials, but also the method of printing. The Formlabs Form 3 is a stereolithography apparatus (SLA) 3D printer, which utilizes liquid resins, as opposed to the plastic filaments used in the more affordable and user-friendly fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printers. Loomis previously produced wind instruments from FDM printers that sounded quite good but did not offer the level of physical detail he prefers. “I always knew there was room for improvement,” he says, “specifically in surface details and the ability to create complex acoustic architectures that include overhangs and other details that FDM printing would not accommodate.”

With SLA 3D printing, Loomis has more freedom to create highly detailed mouth pieces and surface details such as wood grain, engravings, and ornate decorations that are important defining features to many Indigenous instruments.

Fusion 360 Bridges the Past with the Present

While Loomis would love if replicating an Indigenous flute were as easy as scanning, printing, and playing, in reality it’s more complicated than that. However, Fusion 360 provides vital tools that ease the difficulties of creating fully functional, printable replica instruments.

After taking several hours to watch tutorials and explore Fusion 360’s functions for the first time, Loomis was able to design a press mold for a Chinese ocarina using the software. Since then, he has become a power user. Fusion 360 has allowed him to experiment with unconventional headjoint forms for wind instruments, with contours and edges around the blowhole. “Once I figured out some basic drawing and modeling functions, it was really easy to build on the knowledge,” he says. “The software makes it easy to create bulges, dips, creases, and contours that would be impossible for me to do by hand.”

Original flute in the Haffenreffer Museum (top) and the 3D printed replica (bottom).
Original flute in the Haffenreffer Museum (top) and the 3D printed replica (bottom). Images from CT scan by Scott Collins; courtesy of Jay Loomis.

Because the Haffenreffer Museum Native American block flute is too big to print in one piece, Loomis splits the scanned 3D image of the flute into pieces to be assembled after printing using tenon and mortise joints. While the original Indigenous flutes have very thin-walled tubes, Fusion 360 enabled Loomis to make the joints thin enough to firmly connect tube sections without modifying the original instrument’s dimensions.

Loomis also says that Fusion 360 made it possible to repair the original split wood in the digital model, and to create a functioning embouchure to restore playability to the replica. “I like how easy it is with Fusion 360 to translate an idea in my head into a 3D, digital image that I can examine from any angle,” Loomis says.

Next Steps Toward Indigenization

While Loomis and his collaborators still continue to develop the process for achieving the most exact replicas of Native American block flutes, they are also in conversations with several museum curators in Europe and the Americas about initiating new wind instrument replication projects, each of which present unique challenges. For example, Loomis is exploring how to generate accurate 3D images of instruments by combining surface scanning with X-Ray imaging when a CT scanner is not available.

Meanwhile, they continue to focus on Indigenization. “Our project does not end with a 3D printed replica of a flute,” Loomis says. Discussions are ongoing with Indigenous scholars, artists, and instrument makers about how these protocols for replicating instruments from museum collections can serve the unique needs of different Indigenous communities.