Okay, you have taken the plunge and have ordered that 3D printer… and you are counting down the days until it arrives on your porch.
But there is other “stuff” you are going to need. You don’t want to buy anything that you don’t need, but you don’t want to get half way through your first print and realize that you need a widget that you don’t have.
We will assume that you will unpack, assemble and set up your printer as per the instructions. Again, I will refer you to YouTube for guides related to your specific printer. Read the manual a couple of times. Many of the printed manuals are a little overwhelming because, after all, they were written by engineers… engineers whose first language isn’t English. Take your time and double check your work. It’s all good!
So, what else will I need to have with my printer?
Well, you can’t run your car without gas, and you can’t run your FDM printer without filament. Filament is widely available on-line, direct from 3D warehouses and off Amazon and other online shopping sites. Even more than with the printer itself, with filament you get what you pay for. You will see some filament for < $9 a spool, and others for $50 or more a spool. Quality matters.
I am going to do more than “suggest” but strongly recommend that you start with PLA filament. There are wild number of different filament types, including metallic and wood filament – the wood filament can take a stain – and you might think “that’s just what I need to print some house for the terrain pieces!”… but even very experienced printers curse the wood filament as it jams in the nozzle and caused them much grief. When I first started considering getting into 3D printing, I thought I wanted to use ABS – the rigid plastic used by some injection molded plastic kit manufacturers as well as in LEGO. The problem with ABS is that is very tricky to print with at home (yes, some will comment “I use it all the time and haven’t had a problem with it!” but it’s not what you want to start off with). It gives off strong odors and requires proper ventilation to print inside. It is also very sensitive to temperature and requires an enclosure to keep a controlled environment during the print. It also has a strong tendency to warp during the print process.
So, start with PLA. Now PLA got a bum rap initially, and it wasn’t necessarily undeserved. It is sensitive to temperature, pre and post print. Don’t leave printed tanks on your car dash on a hot sunny day. The figures will distort with the heat. Low end PLA is not particularly strong. That led a lot of people to swing to ABS. I do use a regular high quality PLA for my terrain pieces – roads, houses, bridges etc., but not for models of tanks, and other vehicles. For those I use advanced PLA + (sometimes referred to as “PLA Plus” or “Pro PLA”)), which is actually considered to be stronger than ABS plastic. I pay about $40 a spool, but that is a Canadian price, and we pay more for everything. The curse of a large country with a significant taxation level. You will likely find it cheaper in the U.S. and elsewhere. No matter what, it worth it. There are many good brands, I have found eSun works well with my machine, but there are many others. Now paying $40 for a spool when you can get a no-name one for $9 may seem foolish, but I will get upwards to 20 models from a spool, dependent on the model size, and a better quality means better prints, fewer filament jams and a more consistent result. Oh, and yes, much less cursing.
Each box of filament will have its recommended range of nozzle temperature, as well as other information. You may have to adjust your settings to find the right match between the filament and your printer – you will see if you get stringing or other issues, but the adjustments are simple.
Filament does have a “best before date” and needs to be keep from moisture. It will arrive in a vacuum sealed bag, with a small packet of desiccant. Keep that pack and if you are storing the spool of filament after you open it, be sure to put it in a zip locked bag with a desiccant pack. You should use your filament within a year of your purchase. Leaving it out between prints is fine, unless you live in a rainforest, but just don’t for extended periods of time.
Last tip – check the size of the filament. In all likelihood your machine will use 1.75mm filament. Don’t order the 3mm (or 2.85mm) filament in error. It is easy to get confused with the dazzling displays of filaments on-line.
A few tools
There are a couple of tools you will need to get going, most which you may already have. A pair of fine needle hose pliers, allen wrenches, a little pair of snips – even nail cutters – to angle cut the end of the filament to feed it into the printer – that sort of stuff. You will also need a very thin blade putty knife. This is needed to ease the completed print off the printer bed, after the bed has cooled.
The two biggest issues you will have when you get started in 3D printing– and thereafter, but less frequently – is to get your first layers of the print to stick to the bed, and then to get the print off the bed. It seems counter intuitive but that is what happens- first the filament doesn’t want to stay on the print bed and next thing it won’t leave. The putty knife is used to GENTLY work under one corner of the cooled print and then “pop” the print off the build plate. You must be very careful to not damage the bed surface. You want a very flexible and thin blade. There are a lot of specialty tools offered, but they use the same concept of a quality putty knife.
Glue, painters’ tape and alcohol
When you start a print, you will want to ensure the first layer of filament bonds to the build plate; everything else builds on top of that, and if the first layer doesn’t bond, the print will fail. That is why 3D printers soon learn to never leave the room until the first few layers are down, and you know that print is going well.
What can happen if it doesn’t stick to the build and you are upstairs watching Ice Road Truckers? You will hear the printer purring along and think all is well, but it isn’t … this is what is happening…
… because the extruder doesn’t know that the base layer didn’t stick. So, it will keep on blindly churning on, spewing out hot melted filament that grows and grows, bonding with itself, and massing into a grotesque ball of grief.
Some printers come with special base plates- things like P.E.I. (Polyetherimide) coated build plates or aluminum plates. These sheets are also widely available as after market add-ons. I highly recommend them. There are good tutorials on YouTube as to how to apply one to your printer. These sheets help with the first layer adhesion. If you go that route be sure to get the correct size for your printer. A few millimeters matter.
You will want to have a glue stick – the same ones as kids use in school. I find the purple ones work better than the more common white one. A thin application will help if you have adhesion issues. Other cover their build plate with painters’ tape – the green or blue masking tape used in, well, painting, hence the name.
You will soon know if you need these; each printer seems to have different attributes, and you will know soon enough if you build plate adhesion help.
You will also need isopropyl alcohol – 90% if possible. The build plate must be clean, even oil from your fingers can mess things up. I buy it in a case of four bottle at Costco. You need to wipe the build plate down well before every print.
You should be some acetone if you can – it is a noxious solvent, but you won’t need it often and you won’t use much, but it helps with a real deep clean of the bed surface. It helps removes any crap that may be stuck on there.
Lastly paper towels. You will need them to clean the bed. And occasionally stanch the bleeding when you slip with the putty knife removing a print or with a utility knife cleaning a print. Wear your wounds with honor,
Some stuff you print for yourself
When you first get your printer up and running, before you print your first tank or whatever, you will want to some accessories for your printer. Check on Thingiverse for items like spool holders for your specific printer brand and model. Often the spool holder that comes with the printer is simply inadequate. You want something that will hold your spool, ideally separate from the printer, unless yours has a really rock solid frame. Also, a filament guide is a good idea if you printer doesn’t some with one. You want to ensure your filament has a clear unobstructed route from the spool to the feed tube, and the guide helps ensure that.
Thingiverse is great for this, as others have blazed a trail before you and have worked out a solution. If you haven’t used Thingiverse before, please note that the search engine is quirky, so correct spelling is essential to get the right results.
This hobby is much like any other. You learn by doing. And doing, like life itself, involves screwing things up. Things will go wrong. Don’t sweat it. Almost everything that goes wrong has a solution to undo it. There is a lot of support out there in YouTube videos, online articles and Facebook groups.
In the next chapter I will cover options for you if you want to get 3D printing down but are not ready to make the leap and get your own printer right now.