Every weekend, my wife and I try to get out of town and visit some neighboring city, island, mountain, or valley. This past weekend was no different — we hit up the 170+ antique stores in Snohomish, WA. While looking through the items from days gone by, I saw two “things” together in a case that made me immediately think of my Makerbot, and I had one of those “I can make that” moments. Or, rather, “I can remake that”.
A little over 100 years ago, a scientist created an early plastic called “Bakelite”. While still in use today for some toys and specialty parts, there was a time in the 30’s and 40’s (and possibly later) where companies crafted various napkin rings in animal form using Bakelite.
Today you can find, like I did, these napkin rings in antique stores, as well as on eBay, etsy, et al. While somewhat common, some can still bring big bucks. I came across a rabbit and a bird, and checking online when I got home, saw that the rabbit can go quite high ($90+ in some cases), while the bird starts at $1 but can go up to $80+.
Now, perhaps unlike the rest of the country, my wife and I still use cloth napkins, so I can still see an occasional need for napkin rings (well, very, very rarely). Regardless, the charm of these vintage napkin rings grabbed me: they were incredibly simple in design, basically a silhouette of the animal with a hole in the middle for a napkin, and extruded somewhere between 1/4 – 1/2 inch.
To start to design new versions, I first checked online to see what existed previously. Obviously I knew about the bunny and bird, but was excited to find there were elephants, fish of various shapes, chickens, different birds, and even different styles of rabbits. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I figured I’d start by recreating the bird I saw, as well as an elephant.
I could have grabbed a photo from the internet, brought it into SketchUp and simply traced the edges, but I wanted to start from square one. So I did a search online to see the average inner diameter of modern napkin rings, which ended up being around 1.25 – 1.5 inches (31mm – 38mm). I went with a size on the higher end of that scale — 36mm.
Drawing the circle with a larger circle around it, then removing the inner circle’s fill created the basic ring shape and I was up and running. The bird was first as it was the more simple of the two designs I wanted. A single, long “foot”, a tail, and a circle for a head with a triangular beak. One of the things I liked about the vintage ones were the rounded corners instead of sharp ones; these seemed to add a bit of whimsy to them and something I wanted to copy. Unlike the vintage ones, however, I did not put the small ridges on the top of the head, nor make the beak conical; I wanted to keep the first one really simple. The bird took all of 5 minutes to draw.
I extruded the bird to about 3/4 inch and, after switching to my Safety Orange filament, sent it to my Thing-o-Matic to 3D print. While it was going, I decided to start working on the elephant. I started with the same inner circles, easily added the “tail”, and then tried to work out the head. This proved to be quite difficult to do just by using SketchUp; ironically, I felt I really needed to sketch the shape with a physical pencil to get it just right.
By this point in time, my Thing-o-Matic was halfway through it’s process and I noticed that the edges around the feet (well, foot) of the bird had started to lift off the build platform. But I also realized that where it had gotten to was really as thick as it needed to be. A quick measurement showed around 9mm, so I rounded up to 10mm for the thickness of the next 3D print. I re-sliced, re-leveled the platform, and re-sent the file to the machine. This time — perfect. While the second bird was being produced, I finished the elephant’s head and was ready then to send it on as soon as the bird was done.
Making these two napkin rings was super fun as I got to sketch (both digitally and physically), think about how to turn simple shapes into cool things, and how I just saved myself possibly over $100 for the two Bakelite ones I saw in the antique store. They were so much fun that I couldn’t stop there.
I grabbed another piece of paper and started sketching out some more animals — or “zookins” as I decided to call them (think: zoo + napkins).
Based on the tail of the elephant, I knew I wanted to do a turtle, so that was first. Something about the turtle sparked a thought of a hedgehog and that little guy proved to be quite easy. My wife suggested a bat, but I totally blew that one despite multiple attempts at drawing different styles. A quick scan of my drawing paper, an import into SketchUp (scaling up so my circles were 36mm diameter), and I had an easy time of tracing my two, new, zookins.
I love when a plan comes together, and I can take something I see and translate it into something I can hold in a very short amount of time; having a 3D printer allows me to look at things around me and see many more opportunities than I had without one. Situations like these are great because they keep me on my toes — you never know when and where inspiration will hit you, and it’s great to be prepared with the right tools.