Products and Design

The Incredible Nautilus Project

After an overwhelming response to the Nautilus project we featured last week, including a re-tweet by Wired’s Chris Anderson, we asked Alexander to share the whole story of how that incredible project came to be. This is an amazing example of a project that combines traditional hand craft and 3D printing to create something that couldn’t be made any other way…


The story of the Nautilus begins thusly: I was driving my 6 year old daughter to school one morning, about two or three months before her birthday, and I asked her what kind of toy she might like for her birthday. I usually start to ask her this question well in advance of her birthday because she very rarely says she wants anything. We had been previously watching the 1954 film “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” based on Jules Vern’s book, and my daughter had fallen in love with the main characters. I should say that she fell in love with some of the characters, because she absolutely loved Captain Nemo and hated Ned Land like poison. So when I asked her what she might want or her birthday, I was not completely surprised to hear her say, “I would like the Nautilus,” but nor did I take the request too seriously. After all there wasn’t really a toy Nautilus that would be very appropriate for a six year old, excepting some terrible small plastic models made by slave labor in China. So I told my daughter that although she might like a Nautilus submarine, there wasn’t one to own. She did not appreciate that answer.

But her request got me thinking. I have almost three decades of modeling experience (building tanks, aircraft, ships, and dioramas) as well as miniature painting experience, strictly as a hobby. And over the last eight years or so, that skill set developed further when I renovated our house. In particular I developed extensive wood working skills. And since my daughter’s birth I have also dabbled in making toys for her. So it occurred to me that I might be able to actually design and build a Nautilus from scratch. That is what I decided to do.

Nautilus front

After telling my daughter that I intended to build the Nautilus for her as her birthday present I got to work. Without going into detail here about all the various stages of the project and the endless challenges I faced – the challenges were many and multifaceted, and would easily require thirty pages to lay out – I brought the Nautilus to its first stage of conclusion on 17 December 2012, after six months and more than 500 hours of work. I gave up counting the actual monetary cost at a certain point since doing so was causing me, mentally, to avoid working on the project. I am sure the current cost – excluding all labor – is over $3000.00, but I would not be surprised if it were a lot more than that by the time it is finished. The second stage of work, in which I am currently involved, is the further decoration/renovation of the ship, which I fully expect will drastically change the look and feel of the dollhouse for the better. I see this stage as lasting another two years.

With respect to Glenn and 3D objects, the story is quite interesting. One of the first design challenges I had in building the Nautilus was what to do about the iconographic Bullaugen (large portholes) in the salon of the ship, the diving ring and the diving helmets. With regard to the former, at first I tried to find large size O rings from a variety of machine manufactures to serve as the Bullaugen, but I was unable to find anything suitable, since the size, the type of material and weight were factors: I needed something that was 6-8″ in diameter, light weight (so that it could be mounted and would not put too much stress on either the bonds holding it, or the deck of the ship under it), and capable of being decorated. But during my failed search for O rings, I came upon a site,, that introduced people working on projects to people that could help them with those projects. It was here that I met Glenn, who is also an active Shapeways community member.

I owe Glenn a great debt of thanks for his kind generosity, beautiful work and patience. Glenn agreed to design the two Bullaguen, which we would then send to Shapeways to be printed in 3D. He also agreed to design the diving ring in the dive room, and the helmets for the crew. With respect to these latter two projects, I decided in favor of 3d printing because there was simply no other objects that could be suitably modified or pressed into service that would provide the proper look and feel. No one is making dollhouse scale (1/12 scale) diving helmets, as you can imagine (“Tea anyone in the parlor? Don’t forget your certified to 1000 feet brass and copper diving helm!”) I did find, at one point, keychains with brass diving helm decorations, but the helms were too small for the dolls’ heads, and I wanted the dolls to be able to “get dressed” for diving and going through the diving ring.

For the 3D projects to work, I had to go through the film multiple times taking photos of the objects from various angles. Glenn then worked up the initial take and we went back and forth discussing the design as it developed. This process worked very smoothly with respect to the two Bullaugen and the diving ring. And I had to be very prudent in this process due to cost, since the objects themselves were not inexpensive to manufacture and Glenn had his costs for design.

Nautilus detail

Things almost came to a screeching halt, however, in the design and manufacturing of the helmets. Here we had a variety of issues that caused us many problems and drove the unit cost far beyond what either of us had envisioned. To make a long story short, in creating the helmets we experienced design snafus (things crept into the design that neither of us actually visually caught), miscommunication (especially visualizing differing measurements and proportions), and uncertainty (how would things really fit and look on one of the dolls). The result was that the first 3D helm we printed was expensive and unusable. It was, in fact, three times too large for the dolls, and would not fit through the diving ring. The second attempt at the same helm was stopped in production by Shapeways because of unworkable geometry (a sincere and heartfelt “thank you” to the team! Ed note: You’re welcome!), and had to be redesigned again. Only the third time did we finally get a product that we could use, and, by then, costs had exceeded the budget by a wide margin. Even then I had to modify Captain Nemo to be able to wear the helmet, though for the rest of the crew the helmet was a perfect fit. As a consequence of the costs I am still buying helmets one at a time!

Nautilus people

The ship itself is entirely handmade, handpainted and hand decorated by myself. So, for example, there are somewhere between 3000 and 4000 brass 1/8″ brads in the ship serving as “rivets,” all of which were put in by me by hand, and which constituted THE most repulsive decorating project in the Nautilus by a wide margin. The contents of the ship are either handmade by myself or handmade by someone else, and sometimes they are joinly made. For example, the bookshelves in the ship are partly made by me out of teakwood. I then enlisted a coppersmith I found on etsy and had him manufacture the copper “spirals” that mimic the style of the shelves in the movie. After receiving those, I glued the teak shelves together, stained them by hand, glued on the copper spirals and sprayed the entire shelving with lacquer. These were installed into one bedroom and the salon.

The map cabinet in the Navigation room, as yet another example, was made entirely my myself out of mahogany that I carefully cut, shaped, drilled, stained and painted. I then bought 7mm copper o rings and glued them onto the front of each map hole in the cabient. Finally, I manufactured fifteen sea charts for it. The strange clocklike mechanisms in the Nautilus are also made by myself by hand – they were a huge and physically painful project (bending copper on a micro scale bites into the fingertips terribly). But most of the furniture and some decoration pieces are made either by individual craftspersons (books, looking glass, porcelain, rugs by L DeLaney and evminatures, to name but two of my favorites), or high end dollhouse miniature companies (especially Bespaq, and Reutters porcelain).

So here we are. They Nautilus is now in phase two, decoration and renovation. I am adding additional shelving, rugs, furniture, curiosities, books, maps, fishing nets and more over the next two years. The bottom level of the Nautilus will come in for special attention in terms of its redecoration. In my view it much be much more spectacular, given how difficult it is to see. There will be hidden treasure (ballast, as Nemo tells Ned Land), an entirely redesigned and decorated kitchen and more. And more 3D helmets are coming as well; I eventually want to have four or five for the entire crew!

Nautilus port side

I will now spend the next two years or so adding additional levels of detail…


What an incredible project! Congratulations Alexander, and I’m sure your daughter feels like the luckiest girl in the world!

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