Starting something new will always have a learning curve, but an article like this can help that curve climbing to become easier.

Photo by Alec Richter

3D printing is a technology that has enabled people of all backgrounds and professions to create, but like all new technologies, there is a certain learning curve when it comes to 3D printing. Fortunately for you newcomers, I'm going to provide you with a list of ten tips to keep in mind as you begin to experience the 3D printing process.

Bed leveling and Z offset

The first step in creating successful 3D prints is leveling the bed of your 3D printer and ensuring that the first layer is properly spaced from your nozzle; this is the base for each subsequent layer. The nomenclature may be confusing to some - it means that the bed is always the same distance from the 3D printer nozzle no matter where you are on the bed.

Many 3D printers have sensors to automatically calibrate the 3D printer bed to ensure that the nozzle is at a constant distance from the bed. However, this is not an industry standard and there are still many 3D printer models that need help calibrating and leveling the bed. These printers usually have some form of screw or knob on the underside of the bed to adjust the angle of the bed and how far it is from the nozzle. You should follow all the leveling instructions included with your 3D printer, but generally leveling the bed is done as follows:

Note: Three points define a plane, but many printers still use four screws to level the bed, with one in each corner. This can still work, it's just a little harder to do perfectly.

  1. Tighten all the screws at each corner so you have enough room to loosen them later.
  2. Z Axis Home On some printers Z0 (home) may be too far from the bed even when all screws are loose. In that case, you'll need to move the Z-minimum end stop a bit lower to calibrate.
  3. Turn off the printer or select "Release Motors" or "Turn Off Motors". Most printers have something similar in the LCD menus. This will allow you to move the print head without the motors being locked in place.
  4. Move the printhead over each screw that aligns the bed, place a piece of paper between the nozzle and the bed, and loosen the screw until you feel a slight resistance when you pull the paper. The paper should not be "locked" between the two, just enough pressure to feel the resistance as you move the paper.
  5. Repeat this for the other screws. Make sure each screw pinches the sheet of paper with equal pressure so you have an even bed.
  6. After adjusting all the screws, check your work by moving the nozzle over the screws again and making sure they haven't shifted from previous settings.
  7. Start printing. You can make adjustments while the 3D printer is printing to fine-tune your first layer.

Once you level it, it should stay level for a while, and every now and then you may need to slightly adjust a screw to get it back level.

Adjusting the leveling screws

Change thread

Unlike paper printers, you can't just open the tray and change the filament like you can change ink cartridges, there's a process that can be counter-intuitive if you've never done it before.

Unloading the filament on some 3D printers can be as easy as an "Unload" button, where others will require going through the process manually. To remove the filament and replace with a different color or material, you must first heat the nozzle, otherwise, if the filament is cold, it will stick to the inside of the nozzle and be impossible to remove.

  1. Start by heating the 3D printer to the printing temperature of the material you have in it. If you are trying to remove PLA, set it to 200°C, ABS to 230°C, etc.
  2. Once it's up to temperature, release the voltage on the filament by releasing the idle. On some 3D printers, this is done by pushing down or pulling some sort of spring lever that applies pressure to the filament.
  3. Press the thread lightly until a small amount comes out of the nozzle. This makes the tip of the thread hot and malleable and will make removal cleaner and easier.
  4. Once you see the thread coming out, gently pull it to remove it from the extruder. This removes most of the thread, but there will likely be some leftover when you put the new thread on.
  5. Cut the tip of the new filament at an angle and insert it into the extruder, making sure it feeds correctly. 
  6. If the media is different from what was previously loaded, the temperature should be set to that print temperature that is higher.
    1. If you have printed with ABS and are switching to PLA, leave the temperature at 230°C.
    2. If you have printed with PLA and are switching to ABS, increase the temperature to 230°C. 
  7. Manually push the filament to the nozzle or control the extruder from the menu to feed the filament.
  8. Once you see that the new material is coming through cleanly and with no color mixing or burnt material from the previous thread, then you are done!
Replacing the filament, Step 2: de-energize the tip.

The right material for the job

The more you 3D print, the easier it will be to choose the right 3D printing filament for the specific project. There is no one-size-fits-all thread that works for everything, so over time you will learn which materials work best. Take PLA for example : PLA is ridiculously easy to print, if not the easiest material to 3D print, and comes in a range of colors (some even sparkle or fluoresce), but PLA is not designed to work in warm environments like in the sun or in a car. 

ABS can survive outside for a while before UV light breaks it down, but there is a steeper learning curve to successfully printing with ABS. You can use PLA for your basic prototyping or indoor, cool applications and save the ABS for warmer, functional applications. It is important to be able to weigh the various advantages and limitations of different materials in order to choose the filament that will give the best 3D printing results.

Phil's Cruiser printed entirely with PLA.

Replace nozzle

Replacing nozzles is a normal part of maintenance that can change your normal print quality simply by replacing a worn nozzle. Or you may want to upgrade - nozzle material or hole diameter so you can print with different filaments at a higher speed. Knowing how to remove and replace a 3D printer nozzle is an important tool to have in your 3D printing toolbox.

The gist of it is: heat the hot end to loosen the thread from the nozzle, use channel locking pliers to hold the heating block, use an appropriate size wrench to unscrew the nozzle, and reverse the steps with the new nozzle without applying enough force on the nozzle to break it - just squeeze with one finger.

Nozzle replacement using a wrench

When to use support for more complex models

Some models cannot be printed without support, and others lose important features by including them. It is important to be able to determine when a model fits into one of these categories to improve your chances of 3D printing success.

  1. Scenarios to avoid the use of supports. Just because a model has overhangs doesn't mean it needs support; the general rule is if the angle is greater than 45 degrees, think about adding support, but some models are specifically designed to not need supports even when you break this rule. Bridging is a 3D printing technique that allows a completely flat surface to be printed in air if there is an edge on either side to join; bridges will not require support for successful 3D printing.
The bridge between the 3D Phil protectors is highlighted in blue.

Cylindrical holes in the side of a model also usually do not need support, although there are sections of it at angles greater than 45 degrees. If you don't have proper layer cooling, you may notice a little sag on the ceiling, but otherwise it will 3D print successfully.

Benchy's round nose holes can be printed without issue on most 3D printers.

Internal functions can be filled with support and be difficult to remove. Take some of these engine parts for example. They have internal channels that would be completely filled and almost impossible to remove without damaging the finished 3D print.

3D model of an intake manifold that has internal cavities that would have impossible to remove supports if used from the inside.
  1. Scenarios to consider when using supports. Most 3D models will need some form of support. Sections that are completely unsupported and in the air will need some scaffolding to use as a base before the rest can be printed. Others may be at a positive angle, but extreme enough to require supports to create a better bottom surface.
3D model of the engine body with support only where necessary.

Knowing when to use props is something that takes learning, but as you progress as a 3D printer user, you will begin to determine when props are and are not needed and to what extent. Almost all 3D printer slicing programs (slicers) can identify where supports are needed according to user-defined criteria and generate support structures. More advanced slicers even give you the ability to add or remove individual supports so you can manually correct any problem areas. Over time, you may find yourself designing your 3D models to not require supports at all and instead using clever design techniques to bypass the need for support structures.

Adaptive support that allows you to mark and delete specific sections of support.

Adhesives for beds

Bed adhesion is a huge factor in the success of 3D printing, which is due in part to the compatibility of different 3D printing filaments and bed surface materials. Each build surface has its own advantages, such as maximum print temperatures, materials they work well with, and ease of removal for finished 3D prints.

To summarize the basics:

  • Glass is great for PLA (heated) and nylon (heated with PVA glue).
  • Magigoo and 3D Gloop for material-specific bed adhesives
  • LayerLock Garolite (with PVA adhesive) for nylon and nylon composites.
  • LayerLock powder coated PEI for general purpose printing (with PVA glue for flexible materials and PETG as release agent)
  • LayerLock Polypropylene for polypropylene
  • Flexible and magnetic spring steel sheets for easy print removal and material change
  • Buildtak for universal printing (avoid printing too close or the 3D prints will weld together)
  • PEI for universal printing (use PVA as a release agent for PET or flexible materials)
PEI is extremely flexible, making removing parts simple and easy

Have the right tools

As you build your mental 3D printing toolkit, don't forget to consider your physical toolkit as well. The more you 3D print, the more you'll learn which tools are most important to you, which don't work as well as you thought they would, and where there are gaps in your toolkit. To get you started, here are some tools I'd recommend:

  1. Spatula. The spatula can easily penetrate under 3D prints, allowing you to remove your 3D prints.
  2. Cable cutters. They are extremely useful for removing support material, making a nice, clean cut when trimming filament before loading, and cutting out any imperfections in your 3D prints.
  3. Brass brush. Brass is soft enough that it won't damage your nozzle when it needs to be cleaned of any buildup.
  4. Set of hex keys. When you need to open your printer or assemble multi-part models, you'll need a variety of hex keys.
Calipers are an essential tool in any designer's toolbox for reference measurements or for designing your own 3D models.

Sharps Safety

Point your spatula away from you when removing 3D prints. It's quite easy for the 3D print to suddenly come loose and all the power behind the spatula goes into your palm. Try to carefully work the corner of your impression and slide the spatula under it, working all the way around the 3D impression. If this still takes too much force with no progress, don't force it by hand, tap the handle lightly with the handle of a screwdriver. 

Or you can avoid these problems altogether by doing some upgrades or using different adhesives to make the part easier to remove. The Buildtak Flexplate system allows you to remove the flexible surface of the bed so that it can be bent and rotated to easily remove the finished 3D prints without tools. Or use an adhesive like Magigoo on glass that sticks the parts to the bed really hard but pops out with a gentle nudge when the bed cools.

Model knives are other sharp tools that are easy to be careless with when trying to clean finished 3D prints, just be careful with sharp tools for your safety.  

Ask questions

Everyone is a beginner at some point, and being bad at something is the first step to being kind of good at something. Don't be afraid to ask questions when you don't understand what's wrong. In general, the 3D printing community is very open to helping newcomers, so here are some helpful tips when looking for guidance:

  1. Be descriptive. Even if you don't think it's part of the problem, explain it anyway. It is much better to inform too much than not enough because maybe that one setting that seems unimportant to you is actually the whole reason your 3D print is not coming out right. Include what 3D printer you have, any mods to it, print settings, material and brand, bed glue, photos or video, anything you can provide will just better inform someone reading.
  2. Use forums for your 3D printer or wherever applicable to ask for help.
  3. Once you figure out how to fix what went wrong, be sure to report back to your original thread and update with what fixed it. You may end up helping someone else who is facing the same problem.

Be a sponge of knowledge

Reading help forums, community posts, or industry specific articles can only help further your knowledge of 3D printers, how they work and how they don't work. Maybe what you're reading doesn't apply to what you're working on right now, but it comes into play in the future and helps you solve a problem before you need to seek help. 

Don't be afraid to reprint and start over

The filament is generally not overwhelming to complete the project. 3D printing mistakes should be rare by following the steps outlined here, but even professionals have off days and scrapping a 3D print is normal to happen. Consider it all part of the iterative process of 3D printing.

These tips are a good place to start, but there's a lot to learn on your way to becoming a 3D printing expert. The information provided here has helped many in their 3D printing journey and if you feel there is anything else to add that was important to you, please leave it in the comments below so others can study with you. Happy printing!


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