Should I print my own models, or hire someone else to?
Should I print my own models, or hire someone else to?

Many of us were initially attracted to 3D printed vehicles because of the cheaper cost compared to injection molded kits from major manufacturers. That’s how I got into it at least. It turns out I may have had slightly more fun 3D printing and was crazy enough to attempt doing it as a career.

Full disclosure: I own and operate IGL Printing, and a major part of my business is selling 3D printed wargaming models. I print licensed copies of vehicles by Marco Bergman and Deweycat. Models I’ve already produced at least a single copy of are listed on my website at www.iglprinting.com, but I can print any of their items or other custom requests from Thingiverse. 

Buy a 3D printer, stick it to Big Minis and save money!

A 3D printer can quickly pay for itself if you have time, patience, and space. When I first started printing, I used an Ender 3 along with an EZABL from TH3D Studios and a glass bed. That works out to about $300 in parts, plus $20 per roll of Hatchbox PLA from Amazon. I’ve since added more upgrades to my Ender 3, but those are mainly for making production on a small commercial scale less painful and aren’t related to print quality.

At $20 a roll one could easily print 10 vehicles with plenty of failed prints and “wasted” support material. An Ender 3 running all day maybe costs $0.50 USD. Let’s aim high and say that makes my cost $3 per model. If I’m saving over $20 per model by not buying the injection molded version, I should have my printer paid for in no time at all right?

A few problems there:

  • Print Times

It can take at least 8-10 hours to get a great quality print of a single vehicle like an M4 or a T-85 and that’s not accounting for print failures. If you’re new to 3D printing, that means it could take a while to outfit a large fleet of tanks and transports.

  • Part Failures

I’ve had a cooling fan burn out, which resulted in having to order a $10 part from Amazon and sitting anxiously for two days while the machine accomplished nothing. Bed auto level probes go out and need replacing.  Sometimes you accidentally push the hot nozzle into the build surface and have to start from scratch or fix the surface somehow. Although you don’t need a soldering iron or crimp connectors to get started with the machine, you definitely will as soon as repairs are needed and that can add to the cost beyond just parts.

  • New Hobby Education Time Sink

You’ll need to learn how to use slicers and how to dial in your slicing profile to produce the quality you seek. I spent probably close to 80 hours before I felt familiar and comfortable with first Cura then Simplify 3D, and I’m still constantly learning things about this software. You’ll need to understand how things like temperature, speed, and a whole multitude of settings impact the final product. If you’re into the hobby of 3D printing itself, its a lot of fun, but if you just want some cheap Bolt Action minis you might find yourself spending less time playing a reinforced platoon and more time fiddling with machines and software.

  • Space

An Ender 3 takes up about 18 x 18 inches of tablespace. Once you set it up, you really don’t want to move it around since this can knock the machine out of level. And you’ll need a place to store your filament, tools, spare printer parts, etc. Ideally, you’ll want a place that’s climate controlled and draft free, since fluctuations in room temperature and humidity can induce print variations.

Sometimes you just want to play the hobby you already have, and not pick up a new one!

I believe that there is room in the hobby for 3D printed models to be a common thing. That doesn’t require someone to also be a 3D printing technology enthusiast. The reality of 3D printing is that owning a printer and making your own prints isn’t for everyone, but just about everyone has some want that 3D printing can accommodate.

“But Ian, if it only costs $3 to make a model than how come you sell them for about $17 plus shipping?”

That’s a great question and one that comes up a lot in the 3D printing business. If you got a buddy who does good work and will sell you one for the cost of materials, awesome; keep that friend happy! If you want to pick up a new hobby, welcome to the community. You’ll find it a very welcoming group full of professionals and hobbyists alike who love to share best practices.

Like any business that involves craft goods, the materials are often one very small part of the overall cost. 3D printing businesses have to account for taxes, depreciation to cover machines and parts wearing out, advertising, office costs, licensing, taxes, insurance, maintaining a web presence, credit card processing fees, and software costs. They need to be able to meet order deadlines even when machines break or need maintenance. Anyone selling a 1:56 scale tank for under $10 is either cutting corners in the product quality or massively undervaluing their time, labor, and expertise. And at the end of the day for people like me, it’s our livelihood. 

What to look for in buying 3D printed models

Most of the 3D printed wargaming vehicles and terrain found online are the work of a few talented artists. These artists publish most of their designs under a Creative Commons license which permits individuals to print as many copies as they want for personal use. Want to make one as a gift or have a friend willing to print it for the actual cost of materials? That’s all good. Typically though, these licenses restrict commercial printing to those who they have signed a licensing agreement. If someone is advertising 3D printed tanks for sale on Etsy, eBay, an independent storefront, or Facebook group they need to have an agreement in place if they are printing items that have a -NC or Non-Commercial license noted on the artist’s page. Those who don’t are in violation of the artist’s intellectual property rights and can face having their listings taken down at the very least, if not possibly subject to other legal penalties. So whenever you see a listing for a 3D printed item, verify if it has a licensing agreement, comes from an open license source, or is the seller’s own design. 

The artists who do this are true hobbyists who do what they do out of love for the community. The artists I license with either donate all of their royalties or have me make a donation on their behalf to charitable causes such as multiple sclerosis research or the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The fact that their intellectual property rights are being respected and that sales of their work are promoting good causes motivates them to continue adding to the ever-growing library of freely available design files.

The money spent on buying from a reputable print farm will help you get the models you want for a good value and quickly. When you buy from printers who have licenses with artists you also support the continued creation of new prints and help to make our hobby more accessible to others by keeping the cost of entry lower. 

Rant over, here’s the short version of what to look for when buying 3D printed wargaming stuff:

  • Pictures of the printer’s actual work (If the only pictures are those that the artist put on Thingiverse, run)
  • Layer height and overall print resolution (Cheap, corner cutting printers will use 0.2 – 0.3 layer heights to print quickly, but the final look is awful. My work is done at 0.12mm layer heights. Thick layers are fine for things like boxes with flat sides, but not for vehicles)
  • Mention of a license agreement or that the work is an original design
  • Community reputation (Are there satisfied customers? Reviews? Is the printer a jerk on social media? Do they communicate well with buyers and follow through?)

Any questions for Ian? Feel free to fire away in the comments section!

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Contact Us