Damon Swanson is a grandfatherly figure. He stands among his circus sculptures like a larger-than-life ringmaster. He once hand-crafted his circus-themed models and figurines, but now uses 3D printing technology to create his works of art.
Swanson has been creating circus models since 1965. Then, he hand carved wooden sculptures of elephants, railcars and other classic circus images. As he aged and his vision started to fail, Swanson struggled with the tiny details required of his works of art. His engineering career served him well as he embraced new technology, and in 2012 he began working with 3D printers.
A former engineering manager at Honeywell defense, Swanson’s background in technology allows him to speak of the complex printing process like a 20-something explains the latest smartphone. To him, the technology comes so naturally, it’s hard for a layman to keep up.
The simplest explanation: Swanson creates a 3D model through computer software—a far-more-complicated Photoshop program of sorts. Once the image is complete (a process that can take days depending on the details required), he sends it to the 3D printer.
The printer itself is fairly small. A spool of plastic filament feeds through the printing mechanism where the model itself is created. Instead of trimming the model from a larger piece of plastic as in woodworking, the printer actually creates the model from scratch.
Still a relatively rare technology for the consumer, not many companies make quality, affordable 3D printers. Affinia in Chanhassen makes Swanson’s printer of choice, and John Westrum, vice president of Affinia, marvels at Swanson’s dedication to the technology.
“Damon utilized his experience and love of technology to become a very proficient modeler,” Westrum says. “He has no problem utilizing the latest software and hardware tools to advance his knowledge of 3D printing, scanning and design.”
After Swanson began creating the circus models using the 3D process, he connected with the Circus Model Builders Club, a group dedicated to keeping the memory of classic circuses alive. Now he showcases his works at conventions.
3D technology also allows Swanson to share his models online. Thingiverse is an online community where folks can download digital designs for personal use. Swanson uploads the 3D images from his computer onto the site, under the fitting name of Ringmaster. Anyone can download the digital copy of the model, and if they own a 3D printer, can create their own sculpture using his design.
Swanson makes models as a creative outlet and as a way to utilize his engineering background in retirement while promoting vintage circuses.
“It’s closure,” Swanson says of his creations. “You think something in your head, and the real closure is when it’s sitting on your desk.”