There’s a huge gulf between borrowing a 3D printer and owning your own 3D printer. It’s like the difference between spending a couple of days cat-sitting (“aww, it’s so cute, it’s purring!”) and owning a cat (“just how many times can you fill that litter tray in a day??”).
Yes, I have my very own 3D printer, a Flashforge Adventurer 4.
3D printers are a fantastic invention, allowing you to conjure up all sorts of plastic bits and bobs from code you downloaded from the internet and some plastic filament.
I feel as though I’m living the Star Trek life.
But it’s important to keep in mind that a 3D printer is a printer, one of the most awkward, uncooperative, frustrating, exasperating, and possibly evil bits of consumer technology ever made.
3D printers can drive you to the point of hating everything and wanting to take a hammer to it and smash it into its constituent atoms.
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I’ve felt both the highs and lows, and I’m here to help you not make the many, many mistakes that I’ve made.
And believe me when I say that I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and tried to cut corners and rush the process.
1. Read your 3D printer’s manual
The manual will contain important setup information. Take your time and work your way through this methodically, especially when it comes to calibrating the printer’s nozzle to bed height.
How well — or badly — you do this will greatly impact the quality of your initial prints and how much fun or frustration you experience.
2. Understand that 3D printing is a mix of art and science
“A mix of art and science” is a phrase that I rarely use, but I feel that it is apt when it comes to 3D printing.
Over the past few months, I’ve absorbed a lot of information on 3D printing, voraciously devouring forum posts, websites, and YouTube videos.
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But I still felt totally out of my depth the first time I pressed print and saw code being transformed into a solid object in front of my eyes.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t read as much as you can about 3D printing, but nothing beats finding something to print, downloading the code, putting it through the slicer (a program that turns the code that makes up the 3D model into code your 3D printer can understand), and sending that to your printer.
This is where the learning happens.
3. Start by printing things you download
Head over to websites such as Thingyverse, Cults 3D, Printables, or the many others that you’ll find with a simple web search, and you’ll find plenty of things to print.
Sure, there may come a time when you want something custom or bespoke, or you might already be familiar with 3D modeling, but it’s better to start your 3D printing journey by printing things you can download.
This keeps things simpler in the beginning.
4. Keep it simple
Speaking of keeping things simple, it’s easy to want to become an expert overnight, and many will make things overcomplicated for themselves.
Don’t do this.
Your 3D printer will come with software that the manufacturer recommends you use.
Your 3D printer will come with a roll of filament (likely PLA, or polylactic acid).
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Your printer will come with a print nozzle.
Your printer will suggest the settings to use during printing.
The time will come when you’ll be ready to start experimenting with different filaments — PLA+, PET-G, ABS (watch out for that one, the fumes that come out of it during printing are awful), TPU, and much more — different software, and even start making customizations to your printer, but if you’re new to 3D printing, that time is not now.
5. Prepare for things to go very wrong
I was quite surprised that the first few prints I made turned out great. I thought I’d nailed it, not being sure exactly what “it” was.
But then things started going wrong.
Stringy prints. Prints that fell apart. Prints that broke when I tried to get them off the print bed. Prints that were supposed to come together to make a single item that, well, wouldn’t come together. Prints that took many hours and I only noticed the failure when it was done.
Things will go wrong.
And rather than become disheartened, see this as the real learning. Get your printer’s manual out and read it. Get online and read the forums and websites and watch those YouTube videos.
I find 3D printing to be quite meditative, and much like I enjoy watching my robovac go about its business cleaning up after me (and how I’ll use gentle toe-taps to encourage it to pick up something it’s missed, as opposed to me just picking up after myself), I enjoy the printing process.
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The preparation, the printing, tidying up the print, the clean-up.
It’s quite relaxing.
6. Accept that your prints won’t be perfect
Get used to the fact that you might have to tidy up your prints. They will need a bit of trimming, sanding, or even gluing bits.
Ignore the purists who think that prints must come out of the printer perfect.
It’s OK to tidy up prints by hand, rather than keep repeating prints in the hope of getting them perfect.
Have fun, because this will encourage you to print more and learn more!
7. Get some handy 3D printing accessories
You don’t need much. Here’s what I recommend to get you started: