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Preserving Wales’ national heritage through innovative engineering

13 January 2015

A collaboration between the Cardiff School of Engineering Additive Manufacturing Laboratories and Welsh Government has led to an innovative way of preserving Y Gadair Ddu (the Black Chair), an important part of Welsh national heritage, for future generations to learn about and appreciate.

A full-scale 3D-printed copy of Y Gadair Ddu (the Black Chair) was unveiled in the Senedd on Tuesday 13th January 2015. The First Minister, Carwyn Jones, and Cardiff School of Engineering Director Prof Phil Bowen attended the launch, where representatives from the press and media were able to see the Chair on display for the first time and find out more about its story.

The original Chair was designed and created for the 1917 National Eisteddfod by Belgian craftsman Eugeen Van Fleteren, who had fled from Belgium during the First World War where he was well known for the quality of his carpentry. At the Eisteddfod, the poet Hedd Wyn was posthumously announced as the winner of the Chair; he had died 6 weeks previously during fighting in Flanders. The bardic chair was draped in a black cloth and thereafter known as ‘Y Gadair Ddu’ (The Black Chair). It was taken to Hedd Wyn's family farmhouse, Yr Ysgwrn, located in Snowdonia National Park, where it remains today. Hedd Wyn's untimely death weeks before his greatest success as a poet struck a chord with Welsh people. The chair symbolised the empty chairs in Welsh homes and the loss of a generation of young men.

In 2013, discussions began on the possibility of replicating the Chair in order to tell its story across Wales as part of the First World War centenary commemorations. Cardiff University's School of Engineering, the Snowdonia National Park Authority (SNPA) and the National Museum Wales developed a plan to re-create the chair using modern technology. Cardiff University School of Engineering proposed that it would be possible to generate solid 3D Computer Assisted Design (CAD) data and to create a reproduction of the Chair (despite its large size) using an additive manufacturing (3D printing) technology known as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS).

A 3D scan of the original Chair was undertaken to record the design elements and level of skill employed in the making of the Chair as accurately as possible. A team of additive manufacturing specialists, based in the Additive Manufacturing Laboratories at Cardiff University School of Engineering, then built trial samples of elements of the Chair to demonstrate the intricacy of design and quality of finish that could be achieved using the SLS method.

The Chair was split into 20 large sections which were built in the Additive Manufacturing Labs using an EOS P700 large format SLS machine. The individual parts were produced in a three week period and continuously evaluated for accuracy and appropriate build quality. All 20 pieces of the chair were then sent to Drumlord Ltd, who fitted the chair with a hidden threaded bar and bolt network to be drilled within the structure of the chair to ensure the finished chair was structurally sound. Their craftsmen then filled and blended all jointed areas to ensure the continuity of the intricate and complex patterns within the original carvings and painted the assembled Chair.

Cardiff School of Engineering is proud to have participated in the manufacture of the Black Chair which will be used to re-tell not only the story of Hedd Wyn but also of Eugeen Van Fleteren, the Flemish carpenter who created the Chair. This partnership between heritage experts and innovative engineers is a fitting demonstration of how we can use cutting edge technology to interpret the story of important iconic objects rooted in Wales’ history and culture, and preserve them for the people of Wales.

At the event, Professor Phil Bowen, Director of the School observed that “often public imagination is captured when the worlds of science and technology and arts and humanities collide. Y Gadair Ddu is one such perfect example.” Prof Bowen said that he was “delighted that the combination of collaborative working and high value manufacturing technologies in Wales has been able to shine a new light upon one of the most poignant stories of the First World War. Through the vision of the partners and the expert execution of our additive layer manufacturing team, co-working with Drumlord Ltd, I believe that we have been able to do justice to the outstanding visual and technical achievement of the maker of the original Y Gadair Ddu, Eugeen Van Fleteren.”

Y Gadair Ddu will be on display at the Senedd until the end of March 2015.