If you’re about to get your first 3d printer, you’ve probably researched how to get into 3D printing. That’s about every maker’s first question, especially after getting inspiration from expert makers.
Now, like other professionals and enthusiasts, I wouldn’t say that 3D printing is difficult. But it’s challenging. Often, I tell my readers that the easiest way to learn 3D printing is to get a machine and learn everything about the craft from scratch. This is because learning never stops in the 3D printing world, even for experienced makers. Luckily, the more you learn, the easier and enjoyable everything gets.
Looking back, there are a lot of things that would have made my printing journey much easier if I had learned them early enough. I hope you’ll have an easier beginning and fewer challenges down the road by sharing them with you.
Things You Should Know Before Getting into 3D Printing
11. Knowledge of Printing Materials is Everything
You’ll come across different types of printing materials throughout your printing journey. Whatever type you choose to go with will depend on a few aspects, including your printer type and how strong or durable the printed objects need to be.
PLA is among the most popular FDM filaments because it’s generally easier and faster to print with. The fact that it requires comparably lower printing temperatures makes it usable with pretty much any FDM 3d printer. But bear in mind that its products aren’t really durable, and they have lower UV light resistance.
ABS is another common printing material among 3d printing nerds. ABS is not as strong or stiff as PLA, but it’s tougher and lighter. This combination makes it a much better option for prototyping applications.
On the other hand, nylon will be your go-to 3D printing filament when the items need to be durable. This material is commonly used for functional parts, such as medical equipment, prosthetics, connectors, and interlocking gears, thanks to its impressive durability to flexibility ratio.
Check out my other guide on 3D filament printing filaments for more information on the pros, cons, and uses of different 3D printing materials.
10. Learn about 3D Print Support and Bridge
Once you start printing, you’ll realize that objects with an overhang or bridge can be quite tricky to print without drooling or deforming. In 3D printing, an overhang refers to a part that extends outward from the main body of the print without any support. As an illustration, think of the two arms of the letter T. On the other hand, a bridge is a line of plastic extending between 2 points. Think of the bridge in the letter H.
Because there is nothing that offers support below the arms or bridges, the material would drool and deform or fall when printing if nothing is done.
There is one simple rule that governs engineers, designers, and enthusiasts in 3D printing: the 45-degree rule. This rule suggests that any overhang that extends at 45 degrees and below can be printed without any support. In a print with a 45-degree overhang, for instance, in the letter Y, each new layer is supported 50% by the layers below. This makes it possible to print the overhang without losing quality.
Conversely, overhangs over 45 degrees, in T, for instance, are easy to sag, curl, or collapse because the layers don’t self-support. So, secondary support is necessary to maintain quality.
It’s possible to print overhangs that extend over 45 degrees by tweaking your printer’s temperature and speed setting. However, it’s best to use support materials if you don’t want to compromise print quality and accuracy.
What are the best support materials for 3D printing?
If your printer has a single-head extruder, you’ll be forced to use the same filament that you’re printing with for the support structures. This will work just fine. The only drawback is that you spend a lot of time removing the support structures and sanding any protruding edges to get a smooth surface.
Notably, there are times when removing same-material support from your prints becomes impractical or time-consuming, if not impossible. This is where soluble support filaments save the day. These are support materials that dissolve when the print is submerged in water. This eliminates the need for trimming off the structures and sanding the edges after printing. PVA and hydrofill are among the best dissolvable support filaments when printing with PLA.
While soluble support filaments really add convenience to 3D printing, they can only be used with dual-head extruders. Don’t forget that the cost of these filaments also adds to your printing operations.
9. Learn How to Use Your Slicer
In the 3D printing world, a good slicer coupled with your ability to use it is as important as a high-quality printer. In simple terms, a slicer in 3D printing is the software that converts an object model into instructions that the printer can read.
When printing, you start by creating a digital 3D file of the object you want to print using a Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software, such as TinkerCAD (best for beginners; free) and Fusion360 (best for advanced makers; paid).
After designing, the next step is to download the 3D object as an STL file and open it in your slicing software. The slicer is responsible for creating the tool path (a.k.a .gcode) that the printer follows to print your intended object.
The market has hundreds of 3D printing slicing software ranging in price from free to hundreds of dollars. All of them differ in print quality and ease of use. So, the best slicer for you will depend on your budget and your level of experience.
Regardless of your choice of slicing program, what’s important is being able to fine-tune the settings to match your 3D object and the material you’re using.
There’s no ‘perfect setting’ that works for all objects and materials, so there will be frustrations along the way. For this reason, I recommend playing around with the settings until you figure what works best for a particular material or object.
In my experience, here are the basic slicer settings that beginners should understand;
- Layer height
- Initial layer thickness
- Print temperature and speed
- Shell thickness
- Fill density
- Platform adhesion type
And if you haven’t figured out the best 3D printer slicer software yet, Cura (free), Slic3r (free), Makerbot Desktop (free), and Simplify3D (paid) are among the most respected programs in the market today.
8. Make a List of Your Print Profiles
Unlike some years back, most printers now come with standard print settings to get you started. However, you can’t rely on the default settings to work for all types of filaments and every object you wish to print.
More often than not, you’ll need to configure some printing parameters, including temperature, flow rate, and layer size, to match the exact material that you’re working with. As you can imagine, this requires a lot of experimentation before you can identify the perfect settings for a particular material. This trial-and-error is not only time-consuming, but you’ll also end up wasting a lot of filament.
Luckily, most slicing programs today allow you to save off your profiles, so you don’t have to repeat the entire process each time. As you experiment with different materials and different objects, your saved profiles will go a long way in making your future prints a lot easier and less stressful.
7. Add Octoprint to Your System
As it stands, 3D printing technology does not support creating objects in an instant. Depending on the size and complexity of the object, the printing time may vary from as little as 5 minutes to several days.
When printing large objects, there’s always that fear of something going wrong when you can’t babysit the printer throughout the printing time. But that’s where Octoprint comes in.
Octoprint is a free and open-source Raspberry Pi-based application that allows you to control the printing process remotely. Most affordable 3D printers can’t be monitored wirelessly right out of the box. Raspberry Pi loaded with Octoprint offers an incredible solution here.
For those unaware, Raspberry Pi is a small computer complete with USB ports, HDMI, Wi-Fi connectivity, and Bluetooth that you can hook up to your printer instead of using your laptop or desktop. I recommend using Raspberry Pi 3 or 3+ as these are faster than the Pi Zero and don’t run hot as the Pi 4.
After getting the Raspberry Pi, the next step is to download and install Octopi Disk Image, which is basically the Octoprint software, onto the Raspberry Pi.
Thanks to its wireless printing capabilities, the Octoprint app allows you to turn the printer ON/OFF and even pause and cancel an ongoing project from anywhere in the world. You can also load new prints, control extruder and hotend temperature, and check the status of the prints without being physically present. I think being able to start and stop new prints remotely is not only convenient, but it will also save you tons of money in filament cost if something goes haywire.
6. Grab a Camera for Your 3D Printer
You can monitor your projects’ progress using the camera module in the Octoprint or by installing a separate 3D printer camera. If you’re going for the latter, I’d advise you to double-check that the camera is Raspberry Pi-compatible right out of the box.
Secondly, you want to go with a popular camera that the 3D printing community has explicitly tested. Unlike the Raspberry Pi camera module, most 3rd party cameras aren’t designed purposely for 3D printers. This means that you may not always get much help from the manufacturers. This is where you’ll find the printing community really useful.
You’ll also need to consider the video resolution. Most 480-720P cameras will make a solid choice if the resolution doesn’t matter to you. However, if you wish to create fun time-lapse videos out of your projects, you want a 3D printer camera that records at 1080P (or higher) for high-quality shots.
Lastly, the best camera for monitoring your 3D printing projects should have plug-and-play functionality. This is a huge bonus, as you’ll have fewer or even zero additional settings to worry about.
Here are some of the best cameras for 3D printer that are worth considering today;
5. Iron those Top Surfaces
This is another thing that I learned much later in my printing journey and which most makers don’t have a clue about today. You may have noticed with most 3D prints that the top surface is not always perfectly smooth. This happens due to the tiny gaps and ridges that the nozzle leaves behind when drawing the perimeter and solid infill.
Ironing is the process of giving these rough top surfaces a smooth and glossy finish. It’s done by running the hotend over the just-printed top layer with reduced extrusion. The hotend will flatten any curls or ridges, leaving you with pretty smooth tops.
Most slicers, including Cura and Prusaslicer, have this feature in their settings. Simplify3D doesn’t offer ironing function just yet. But you’ll find lots of useful tips on how to smooth out rough surfaces in this forum.
I should mention that not everyone finds ironing necessary. However, I bet it will be a handy feature when printing models with top surfaces, such as lids, boxes, logos, and nameplates. Also, ironing comes in handy when printing 2 pieces that will need to be glued together, so the surfaces have to be as flat as possible.
4. Know When to Use Skirts, Brims, and Rafts
Another critical aspect that you should understand before starting 3D printing is the difference between skirts, brims, and rafts. These are temporary but vital structures that improve the adhesion and quality of the first layer of your print.
Depending on your print model, pretty much any slicing software will let you choose between a skirt, brim, raft, or nothing at all.
A skirt refers to several lines of plastic that surround the area that the actual object will be printed on. Unlike brims and rafts, the skirt does not touch the 3D print, so it does not offer additional support in any way. However, it’s important for priming the extruder and pushing out any guck in the hot end before actual printing begins.
Also, I observe the skirts to determine other critical 3D printing properties, such as layer adhesion, the flow of filament, and bed leveling. Generally, skirts help you detect printing issues before actual printing starts- and this saves you precious time and money.
A brim may be viewed as a skirt that touches the printed part. When you select this feature, the printer will make a skirt and then make several passes inwards until it touches the edges of the print.
Brims in 3D printing are used to offer extra layer hold around the edges of the part leading to improved bed adhesion. These structures also help in preventing warping when working with filaments, such as ABS. Another area where brims prove reliable is when creating support for your overhangs’ supports. If your supports tend to break off when printing, a brim may offer a solution.
A raft in 3D printing is a flat, horizontal structure upon which the first layers of the part are printed. Unlike a brim that only touches the edges, a raft extends underneath your prints so that the part itself sits on it. There is usually an adjustable separation distance that makes it easy to separate the model from the raft after printing.
Rafts are commonly used with filaments that have higher chances of warping, such as ABS. They also help with adhesion, especially when printing large items that are supported by a flimsy base.
Of the 3, I only use rafts when it’s recommended with particular parts. This is because they have the highest filament wastage in addition to prolonged printing times.
3. Consider Bed Adhesives (only when necessary)
Bed adhesion problems will be common during your early stages in 3D printing. As you learn the ropes, you’ll discover different ways of avoiding these issues, for instance, printing on a well-leveled, clean glass bed and configuring the printing temperature to your particular printer and filament.
However, there are times when your prints just won’t stick onto the printing bed no matter what you do. If, for whatever reason, your prints won’t stick onto the build plate, then it might be necessary to use additional adhesion methods, such as glue stick, hair spray, or blue painter’s tape, or Kapton tape.
Of these, I would recommend a glue stick as it’s easier to apply. Also, unlike tape, which leaves residue or spray, which leads to sticky overspray, glue is much easier and quicker to clean afterward.
2. Print on a Good Bed (Preferably Glass)
If you’ve done your research on 3D printing surfaces well, you’ll realize that glass is among the most popular options among veteran 3D printmakers. I won’t say that a glass bed will be the best option for all of your printing scenarios. But I have a list of reasons why this is always my first upgrade whenever I get a new 3D printer.
First, glass is extremely flat. This means that your print bed remains consistently flat throughout the printing session. The fact that glass is thermally stable and naturally stiff also means that your print bed will have significantly fewer issues of warping and deformation compared to other materials.
Second, a glass bed boasts an extremely smooth and grain-free surface. If you keep your glass bed clean, it will reflect its smooth impression on your printed parts quite accurately.
Lastly, a glass bed is among the cheapest upgrades you can make on your 3D printer. Interestingly, it’s super durable, too! When handled with care, a glass bed that costs well under $15 may serve you for several years before the need for replacement.
1. Perfect Your Bed-Leveling Skills
There is no arguing that bed-leveling is a nightmare for most 3D printing enthusiasts. A level print bed is such a big deal because it allows even extrusion of the filament across the building surface.
When leveling your printer’s print bed, you don’t necessarily want to make it level to your floor. Instead, the goal is to ensure that the distance between the nozzle and the bed is the same across the build plate surface.
A nicely leveled print bed will ensure that the printing material is squished just enough to stick onto the surface of the bed. This is necessary for adhesion and to prevent your prints from getting detached during the printing process.
Also, keep in mind that if the print head is too close to the bed in particular areas of the bed, it may crash into the printing surface, leaving you with a damaged nozzle, printing bed, or both.
Most mid-to-top tier 3D printers come equipped with automatic bed-leveling capabilities, which offer a great deal of relief. But most cheap 3D printers require you to calibrate the bed manually. All in all, if you can perfect your bed leveling skills, your printing success rate will shoot almost immediately.
That’s it for the 11 things that you should know if you want to start 3D printing. As a disclaimer, this list is not exhaustive. I believe there are many other things to learn about 3D printing, and I’ll keep sharing them with you here.
An important thing to realize is that there is a vast community of makers using a similar printer to yours on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms. These groups are created to offer help and share knowledge, and I’d suggest that you check them out.
Lastly, the best way to approach 3D printing is to view and treat it as a hobby. Your printer won’t be a plug-and-play thing at first. There will be some struggles and lots of frustrations along the way. However, if you can be patient and view the occasional failures as part of the learning process, you’ll get better and better one print at a time!