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3D Printing Action Figures: All You Need to Know

Jan 12, 2020

Action figures are popular, but sometimes you need something special. 3D printing action figures is fun and has amazing potential. Let's have a look!

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3D Printing Action Figures

Play or Display?

A 3D printed jointed figure on a Lulzbot Mini
A 3D printed jointed figure on a Lulzbot Mini (Source: 3DRep)

Some call them dolls, some call them action figures. Regardless, they’re fun toys to not only play with, but also collect. Mostly centered around popular movies or TV franchises, these toys give kids the opportunity to imagine living in their favorite worlds, while collectors can enjoy putting together the complete set.

But what if you could create your own custom action figures? With a 3D printer, a few downloaded models, and maybe even a scanned image of your subject, you can more or less create a custom action figure of, well, anything!

While it might be silly to buy a multi-hundred-dollar manufacturing machine solely for the purpose of printing action figures valued at a fraction of that price, it’s still a fun project for those who already own a 3D printer. Alternatively, maybe this is how to justify buying that one machine you’ve always wanted but couldn’t really afford…

If accessing a 3D printer won’t be possible or you just want to make sure those fine details come out crisp, consider using a 3D printing service. With Craftcloud, the 3D printing and price comparison service from All3DP, you’ll immediately find the best price and provider for your needs, with no added fees!

That said, let’s dive into the possibilities!


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3D Printing Action Figures

Acquiring Models

Thingiverse is a good place to start searching for action figures to print
Thingiverse is a good place to start searching for action figures to print (Source: Thingiverse)

Before you can print anything, you’re going to need a model! Let’s have a look at a few online places to find them.

Model Repositories

Odds are, there’s already a 3D model of an action figure you want to print. With the advent of 3D printing came a slew of online places to post 3D models, and these can help you find exactly what you need.

The main five include:

Some, like Turbo Squid, can get a bit pricey. After a point, it ends up being cheaper and easier to let the professionals handle it and just get an original. However, with that extra cost, you get some remarkably detailed 3D models with more articulation, just like the real thing. Also, you may be able to find models of characters for which no purchasable action figure exists. In the end, it’s up to you if the benefits justify parting with your cash.

Online Shops

Another option is a website like Shapeways. Here, you can find many mini-shops offering high-quality models for download – at a price. The downside is, you don’t really get the option to customize or alter the model, and the price can be a bit prohibitive. Still, it can be a great place to visit to get the lay of the land and see what’s out there.

Another place worth visiting is Etsy, another e-commerce portal for artists and modelers who offer products like custom 3D printed action figures, or even the 3D model itself. Prices range depending on how good the modeler is, but if you don’t have a 3D printer, and you want something you can’t get in the store, it’s a great place to check out.

There’s also a service called MyFaceonaFigure.com, which will create a custom action figure for you starting at around $90. (The two-pack for $120 is a better bargain.) You simply send them pictures of your subject, taken from multiple angles, choose from a wide array of action figure body styles, and they’ll do all the work.

Not interested in other people’s designs? Prices too prohibitive? Well, there’s always the option to go the DIY route. Let’s have a look!


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3D Printing Action Figures

DIY Option: 3D Scanning

Using Your iPhone to scan your own head in 3D
Using Your iPhone to scan your own head in 3D (Source: Uncle Jessy via YouTube)

Here’s where things get interesting. Using 3D scanning, you can theoretically create an action figure of anything or anyone. Another possibility is to use 3D scanning to remix existing 3D printable action figure models.

There are two main methods to accomplish this:

  • A 3D scanner is a device featuring optimized projectors or lasers with an array of cameras to capture and create incredibly detailed models of real objects. The downside is that this option can be very expensive.
  • Photogrammetry is the process of taking many photos of a subject, sometimes even hundreds, from multiple angles, and feeding these into a program that will create the 3D model. While relatively cheap, this can require some fairly heavy processing power, and the software isn’t always the easiest to use. Additionally, models can be lacking in detail and accuracy depending on your camera resolution and the number of photos taken.

For most action-figure related scanning, photogrammetry will likely suffice. In fact, there are even some handy apps for your smartphone to help simplify the process.

The largest downside of any 3D scanning is that you’ll have to edit your 3D model for defects. Also, for full-body scans, your model will be static, without articulation. This means you’ll need to spend a significant amount of time designing suitable joints for 3D printing if you wanted a fully-functional action figure.


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3D Printing Action Figures


AliExpress offers a vast selection of action figure accessories
AliExpress offers a vast selection of action figure accessories (Source: AliExpress)

Once you have your action figure printed, you may want to give it accessories, such as clothing, props, and other add-ons. You can likely use the above options to find a 3D printable version, or you can find them to purchase online.

This is where a platform like Etsy comes into play, but mega e-commerce sites like AliExpress have hundreds, if not thousands of action figure options for a very cheap price.


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3D Printing Action Figures


A mechanical dragon modeled in Fusion 360
A mechanical dragon modeled in Fusion 360 (Source: Autodesk)

Once you have a model, you can either customize it, or dive straight into printing.

To customize a model, you can simply open it up in a good CAD program and start modeling. For beginners, we would recommend Tinkercad, as it offers basic, easy-to-use features free of cost, and without needing to install a single program.

Once in the CAD program, possible edits range from “kitbashing” objects to create hybrid models, adding logos, or even sculpting using a program like Blender to create an entirely new character.


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3D Printing Action Figures


Adding custom tree supports for resin printing in PrusaSlicer
Adding custom tree supports for resin printing in PrusaSlicer (Source: Darragh's Blog)

When it comes to printing the model, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • You must first split it into its individual parts to preserve articulated joints that cannot be manufactured as a print-in-place mechanism.
  • Small mechanisms and joints may not print well. Choosing a good scale is important to ensure the best results.

Importing the individual STLs to a slicer program of choice, the next step is to enable supports or orient models for optimal printing. Here are some tips:

  • Overhanging parts will need supports to print well.
  • If a part has a lot of detail on one side, it is best to have this side vertically oriented, as the Z-axis of a 3D printer is much more precise than the X- and Y-axes.
  • Placing long parts or mechanically important pieces parallel to the direction of the layers will result in stronger prints. For instance, arms are better printed laying flat than sticking up into the air.

Now, it’s time to choose a material. While PLA is good for display models, it can be quite brittle and could snap on small parts during play. We recommend using either PETG, nylon, or a stronger blend of PLA (like PLA Plus) for the best printing results.

Of course, being familiar with your materials and settings ensures you’re getting the best quality out of your machine.

Once you’re satisfied with the settings in your slicer, you can fire away and begin printing!


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3D Printing Action Figures


Sanding a 3D print prior to painting
Sanding a 3D print prior to painting (Source: Formlabs)

Once printed, your action figure likely needs some work to get to the displayable quality of a shelf-bought toy.

  1. First off, remove any supports for your print. You may want to invest in a craft knife (if you haven’t already) to remove small artifacts and particularly stuck supports.
  2. The next step is fitting the parts. Using sandpaper or a knife, carefully smooth out joints and connections until they fit together nicely. Glue together any parts that printed in sections using something like cyanoacrylate (super glue) or modeling glue.
  3. Now, it’s time to paint! With 3D prints, best practice is to first sand the parts, and then apply a base coat of primer (usually found as a spray paint). If you don’t have access to a good primer, a single coat of a matte, neutral-colored spray paint will do the trick nicely.
  4. Using detail brushes, you can apply as much or as little detail you want. Many people prefer to use modeling paints, but for most purposes, acrylic paint will work nicely.
  5. Once detail painting is done, a coat of clear spray varnish is a good idea to prevent the paint from scratching off easily, and to smooth out the model.

The only thing left to do now is free up the joints! If you were careful while painting (or painted each part individually), this should be relatively quick and easy. In any case, carefully rotate each joint back and forth until completely free, using a craft knife to cut away any paint that might have seeped into the seams.

For a more in-depth guide to painting FDM prints, you may want to check out our guided tutorial. For those printing in resin, Formlabs has an excellent post detailing the process for for detail-painting printed parts.

Now, you should have a fully-functional, detailed, and painted action figure, ready to play or display!

(Lead image source: Kit via Twitter)


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License: The text of "3D Printing Action Figures: All You Need to Know" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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