Dec 6, 2018

How to 3D Print – Simply Explained

If you're interested in getting started with 3D printing, this is the perfect place to start, whether you have recently purchased a 3D printer, are looking to purchase a 3D printer, or are still on the fence about the whole thing.

How to 3D Print What Do You Need?

A 3D printer in action. Source: Flickr

If you’ve recently purchased or received a 3D printer, congratulations! If you’re looking for a printer, we’ll look at some factors to consider in the following.

Probably the first question most people ask about a 3D printer is “What’s the biggest object I can print using this machine?” Most inexpensive 3D printers have relatively small build volumes — around 4 x 4 x 4 inches.

For a larger build volume — something like 8 x 8 x 8 inches — the printer will be significantly more expensive. Build volumes larger than about 12 x 12 x 12 inches will only be found in expensive 3D printers intended for small business or industries.

Some other questions to consider are:

  • How easy is this printer to use? Some printers are intended for beginners, have relatively few features, and are easy to use. Other printers have more features, often requiring more tinkering. Some printers are sold as kits and require more effort to get working than a printer that is already assembled.
  • Do you need to print using any specialized materials (such as metallic filament) or is PLA (the easiest and least expensive material to print) sufficient for your needs?

Note that fused deposition modeling (FDM) printers, which print using spools of plastic filament, are most suitable for beginners. If, however, you’re looking for something with a high amount of precision, consider a resin (SLA/DLP/LCD) printer. To get started, refer to our article on SLA Printing – 5 Tips and Tricks for Great Resin Prints.

Naturally, if you’re going to be using an FDM printer, you’ll need some filament.

Lastly, if you’re not yet ready to purchase a printer, you’ll be glad to know that there are service bureaus that will custom print and ship your models to your door for a nominal price. To find the best service for your needs, check out All3DP’s Price Comparison Service.

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How to 3D Print What Do You Want to Print?

A collection of 3D models. Source: Flickr

The easiest way to get started with 3D printing is to begin with 3D digital models that are available for free or for a nominal cost online. Perhaps the most popular site, with over one million models available for free download, is Thingiverse.

After you have a bit of 3D printing experience, you may be ready to design your own models. Your choice of software will depend on the type of model you want to design.

CAD software such as Tinkercad, Sketchup, and OpenSCAD work well for mechanical designs, such as gears, containers, and tools. Other software, such as Sculptris and Blender, work well for art and organic objects, such as people, animals, and monsters.

For more guidance, take a look at our article on the 30 best free CAD software tools of 2018.

Perhaps you have an existing object (art or antique) that you would like to reproduce. If you live in a major metropolitan area, you can probably find a 3D service bureau that can scan your object and provide you with a 3D printable model.

How to 3D Print Slicing

Slicing software splits your model into slices (or layers). Source: Flickr

Your 3D printable models will most likely be STL (stereolithography) files, although you may encounter other formats. In some cases, you must first convert such formats to STL before you proceed.

Prior to printing, you must run software to slice your model (since 3D printers print one layer, or slice, at a time). The slicing software produces g-code specific to your printer and the print material you’re using. You can think of g-code like instructions for your 3D printer.

Unless your printer requires or recommends specific slicing software, Cura would be a good choice. The first time you use Cura, you will need to configure it for the specific model of printer you are using, such as the size of your build plate.

For more help using Cura, refer to our in-depth Cura tutorial. Alternatively, we also provide a list of the best 3D slicer software (most of which are free).

How to 3D Print Printer Prep

A spool of filament loaded on the printer. Source: Flickr

Here are some general steps to prepare your printer:

  • Load your material. PLA is a good choice for beginners. It’s inexpensive and easy to use.
  • Level your print bed. If your print bed isn’t level, your model may not adhere properly. Some more expensive printers have auto-leveling capabilities.
  • Clean and prepare your print bed. Unless your printer manufacturer has a different recommendation, cleaning your print bed and then applying a thin layer of glue from a glue stick works well with PLA.

After you have completed your first few prints, especially if your prints are not coming out as well as you would like, you might want to calibrate your printer. For that, refer to our article 3D Printer Calibration Guide – How to Calibrate Your 3D Printer.

How to 3D Print Removing the Print

Using a metal spatula to remove a 3D print from the build plate. Source:

Allow the print bed to cool. PLA prints can usually be easily removed once the print bed is cool. If not, use a metal spatula to gently separate the print from the print bed.

License: The text of "How to 3D Print – Simply Explained" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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