Outdoor Alaska: 3D-printed taxidermy sprouting in Anchorage
A caribou rack with a broken tine rests on a bench at Knight's Taxidermy.
Russell Knight points a tool resembling a staple gun at the animal's undamaged antler while a computer generates a 3D model of the antler.
By mirroring the unbroken antler, Knight will print the missing part of the caribou rack, marking his first 3D printed reconstruction job on a mount.
The new technology opens up a whole new level of quality and efficiency to his work.
"The only other option I have is to run threaded rods out and hand-built it with epoxy putties. With a 3D scanner, I can scan this now, transfer it into my computer, do a little computer work, zip it over to my 3D printer and print it out."
Knight says he first realized the potential benefits of 3D printing on taxidermy four or five years ago, but really became interested in the last couple of years. Six months ago, the shop brought on Jack O'Ryan, owner of computer service company Jack's Macs, to help keep the project on track and running smoothly.
"It is kinda cheating a little bit. But the thing is when it's printed, while it'll be a close facsimile, it still won't be absolutely perfect," Knight said. "There's not a machine. In taxidermy, there's nothing that you can feed into an animal and it comes out mounted. So I'm looking for ways, because Alaska's remote, to make my own parts, to be able to download anything that I need."
Because each item printed is created from a computer file, 3D scanning and printing allows people across the globe to share access to blueprints allowing anyone with a capable 3D printer to create the item.
Knight's vision is to create a library of taxidermy models that would allow anyone to print the cast used in mounting an animal.
While some purists might be uneasy, Knight points to the etymological roots of the trade.
"Taxidermy is a Greek word. Taxi means to arrange or move around. Dermis means skin. So we arrange and move about layers of skin, but in the process of that we encounter all kinds of problems, like this horn is missing," Knight said.
In the long-term, Knight thinks there could be big cost savings.
"I think it adds flexibility to the trade... If I can take this and cut it down from an eight-hour job to a three-hour job, I get to charge the client less. And that's my whole goal is to make taxidermy cheaper, make it quicker, make it more accessible," Knight said.
To this point, most of Knight's printings have been smaller-scale replications of a cave bear skull he scanned, as well as models of the extinct Irish elk, which Knight purchased the rights to reproduce. Other items were built to serve purposes in the shop.
The next big project is scanning and printing a large moose rack. Since the item is significantly larger than what most printers can create, it will be printed in several sections.
"So is there a direct benefit to a hunter for this? Maybe not right now, but there will be in the future," Knight said.