45th Annual Meeting, Sustainability, May 31, “Fast, Cheap, and Sustainable: 3-D printing exhibition book cradles,” Fletcher Durant, Sara Gonzalez, Lourdes Santamaria-Wheeler

You could hear the mental wheels turning in the room as conservators scribbled notes and thought: “Where is my nearest makerspace? How many custom mounts will I need for my next exhibit? And how nice would it be to not wrestle with an overflowing closet of book cradles?” This talk provided a futuristic vision of an endlessly sustainable cycle of 3-D printed exhibit mounts that are created on-demand with precision and recycled for the next show – an elegant, zero-waste utopia. Of course, reality isn’t quite there yet, but Fletcher Durant, Sara Gonzalez, and Lourdes Santamaria-Wheeler have been developing prototypes at the University of Florida and are moving us toward the future.

When discussing 3-D printing it’s good to have actual 3-D printed examples on hand. The audience was lucky enough to get a feel for the size, heft, color, and surface texture of the Florida prototype. Thanks to my hand model, Suzy Morgan!


Fletcher presented on behalf of the team, starting with an overview of the standard book cradle options for library and archives conservators and the advantages, drawbacks, and costs of each approach. The University of Florida library system has a robust exhibit schedule, mounting 15-20 exhibitions a year, requiring hundreds of book cradles. Storing these cradles is a challenge and logistics are complicated by the fact that the conservation lab is off-campus. Commercially produced Plexi cradles are expensive, take up lots of storage space, and are not always the appropriate size and fit for the books. Custom mounts made of mat board are more functional than the Plexis, but there are costs and waste associated with creating them, an off-campus lab means complicated construction and transport logistics, and as Fletcher noted, they’re not always the most attractive things to leave the lab. Custom mounts out of Vivak® (PETG) are also popular, aesthetically pleasing and can be constructed/modified in the gallery space, but they cost $10-15 each and still have to be stored after use.

Florida has three 3-D printers available for student and staff projects. The machine is a Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) system, which is an off-the-shelf widely used consumer product. Students are charged $0.15 per gram of filament used, and the average projects require 100g, or $15.00. One important limitation to note is the size of the printer; it can only accommodate approximately 14” x 14” x 12.6”, so average-sized book cradles are fine but anything larger would have to be assembled from multiple pieces.

I’ll leave most of the technical details to the authors in the postprints, but here’s a quick summary of the process: An STL (STeroLithography) file is necessary to produce a 3-D print. You can download existing files; thingiverse is one online source for sharing 3-D print files. Lucky for us, the authors have made their book cradle design available to us all here. You can also scan an existing object with a 3-D scanner to create a file. Or you can create your own original design: Fletcher recommended tinkercad as a good design tool for beginners. 

Fletcher did note that, if you’re not already familiar with 3D design and printing, the initial learning curve can be steep and it’s worth it to work with someone more familiar with the process at first, but once your initial design in ready, minor modifications to the size, face angles, and spine opening can be done quickly.

Materials mater, of course, especially to conservators. There are many, many kinds of filaments available to use in FFF printers, but they all vary in terms of their environmental impact and their ability to pass the Oddy test or meet other standards of exhibit case appropriateness. At Florida, they use Nylon PLA, a plant-based product with no off-gassing. In theory, after the exhibit the book cradle should be able to be shredded, melted, re-formed into filament, and re-used. The authors are working on establishing an in-house recycling program at Florida, but Fletcher noted that realistically you can only get five uses out of the nylon filament. They’re also hoping to Oddy test more filament options.


A few other notes and observations:

  • Printing a complete cradle takes approximately 10 hours; this is hands-off time (they set the printers to run overnight) but it does mean they have to plan carefully about when to print – since students are also using the printers, they try to avoid scheduling large print jobs during finals week.
  • A modification of the design could include slots for book strapping.
  • The surface of the cradle is slightly rough; if desired, it can be smoothed with solvents or by sanding.
  • They have also created mounts for objects (pictured below), which Fletcher thinks might be a more realistic use for this technology in library exhibits. He’s also excited about the idea of using 3-D scanners and subtractive technologies to carve Ethafoam for custom housing inserts.


Whether or not the zero-waste book cradle utopia ever comes to fruition, understanding the process of 3-D printing and the materials involved is important, since we will begin seeing (if we haven’t already) 3-D printed objects entering our collections.