Ever since we got a 3D Printer and I learned how to use it, there’s a new thing my parents always ask me whenever I’m back at the homestead: “Hey James, can you print this for me?” A friend in my reenactment group once mentioned to me, “Why are you trying to print things all the time, when you could make them out of wood?” He had a point, especially for some simpler things, but I had just gotten a printer of my own, and I was riding high. But I still stand by my answer: “I don’t have space for a bunch of power tools, but the printer fits on my coffee table, and it can do whatever I want.”
If you don’t have a printer yet, you may not realize all of its possibilities, but once you use it a time or two, you realize what a powerful new tool you have.
Table of Contents
Why would I need a 3D printer?
When we bought our first 3D printer, I was surprised how much use we got out of it. We initially got it for printing model planes. Once we had it, we ended up using it for many other things as well. The biggest draw of a printer is that whenever you think “I wish I had this super-specific thing,” you can make exactly what you want, rather than going out to jury-rig a solution from the junk drawer, closet, or worse, a trip to the store. Where we live, the nearest store is half an hour away (longer if the roads are icy) and often has a limited selection; making constant trips back and forth isn’t really an option. But with a roll of filament and a few standard-sized fasteners on hand, you can make basically whatever you want. Just this last break, Mom showed me how she had been storing the inflations for her milking machine indoors: on the plastic shelving unit in the utility room, she had daisy-chained two plastic coat hangers, and she was threading the tubes through the bottom hanger. It technically worked, but it was haphazard, bulky and precarious. I repurposed a design I had already done for hanging my shaving brush, added space for a couple of bolts, and made a set of hangers that clamped onto the shelving unit’s upright post. No more coat hangers!
Even if the project is something that you could hypothetically do by hand, the printer can do it while you’re busy with other things, and it can do it with perfect replicability.
Our projects have included a lot of different things:
- Cheese press followers that imprint designs into the cheese wheels
- 600 event tokens
- Specialized crafting tools
- RC model parts
- Home furnishings
- Phone cases
- Leather stamps
- Toys and models
- Halloween costumes
- Precision parts
- And lots more!
Designing new parts can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be. If you just want to do things the easy way, Tinkercad is a free in-browser tool that is surprisingly versatile; most of my designs have been done with it. It works by putting basic shapes into your workspace, and either adding them to what you already have, or subtracting them. Would I try to design an entire working car that way? No. But for most things I need to toss together for the printer, it does its job easily, and it lets me type in exact measurements for what I need. So even though I have other options open to me, Tinkercad is still my bread and butter.
If you want to dive deep into modeling, Blender is completely free, and Fusion 360 is free to hobbyists. Blender is good at modeling organic shapes, but its user interface can be opaque. Fusion 360 is professional CAD software, which is great at making machines, and its learning curve is offset by a great stock of included tutorials.
If you don’t want to design things yourself, sites such as Thingiverse have massive libraries of things that other people have designed, that you can download for free and print off. Or if you have younger relatives (in their early teens, for instance), you can get them started with printing and designing in exchange for running print projects for you when you need it.
What do I need to look for in a 3D printer?
The important thing to keep in mind is that for your first printer, especially if you’re just giving it a try, you don’t want to break the bank. The reviews on the Lulzbot TAZ 6 may be stellar, but it’s a printer for enthusiasts, and it’s priced as such. If you’re just starting out, you can get a capable printer for far less. Just keep in mind that an entry-level printer will have fewer extra features, so you might have to deal with some tradeoffs. Here is what to look at and consider, so you can determine if a given printer will meet your needs.
Most printers that are feasible for home hobbyists use the FDM process: Fused Deposition Modeling. The printer starts with a roll of thermoplastic (aka your filament), pushes it through a set of gears (the extruder), and into a heated nozzle (the hot end). The hot end is moved over the print bed to deposit fine layers that build up to produce the desired parts. FDM is easy to use and very flexible in what it can do. Other methods exist, but are often unsuited to larger objects or are just plain expensive. If a printer is trying to sell you jugs of resin, UV curing devices, or it’s suspiciously tiny for a suspiciously large amount of money, it’s probably SLA, the second most common consumer printing process. It uses lights or lasers to cure photosensitive resin out of a pool. This produces small parts in truly insane detail, but it’s expensive, unsuited to large objects, and it’s more than most people will ever need.
Your printer has a finite area to work with, and this limits the size of your prints. Many cheaper printers keep their build volumes small for the sake of cost or form factor. Depending on your purposes, this can be a good or a bad thing. Maybe you need to print big things, or maybe you want a printer that can share desk space with other things. Many objects can be printed in multiple pieces to fit in smaller build areas, but some things can’t. The cheese follower, for instance, had to be printed at the size of the cheese press. There wasn’t a good way around that. Other things work better broken up into smaller pieces, regardless of the area you have to work with. Many printers have a build area that is a more or less eight inch cube, and that will work for the vast majority of prints. Smaller is entirely feasible, as is bigger, but don’t be swayed by a large printer you may not need, especially if size comes at the cost of other features.
Flexibility of materials
There is a wide variety of filaments out there, and not every printer can handle each one. Each type of filament has its own benefits and drawbacks, and it helps to know in advance if you’ll need to be able to use multiple types of filament.
PLA: Polylactic Acid, the garden variety standard filament. Enormous color selection, relatively low printing temperature, odor-free, easy to print, and good for most common purposes. It doesn’t need a lot of fancy temperature control devices, like heated print beds or enclosures, and its prints come out clean. However, it does come with drawbacks. Primarily, it has one of the lowest melting points of the commonly available filaments. This means that a PLA-only printer can be built cheaply, but it also means that your parts could distort in a warm car (ask me how I know). Structurally, it is relatively weak and can tend towards brittleness. In some situations, like printing an entire model plane, that’s a good thing. In most situations, it’s neither here nor there. But if you really need strength, you might look at the next two options.
ABS: Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene has long been a favored filament for both cosmetic parts and high-strength applications. It is far stronger than PLA, owing in large part to its increased flexibility, and it can tolerate much higher temperatures. Its color selection is a bit more limited, but it has the advantage of being soluble in acetone. This allows users to obtain glossy, smooth prints by briefly immersing them in acetone vapor, just long enough to melt the outside of the print and erase the layer lines. The tradeoff is that ABS is notoriously finicky, and getting prints set up properly with it can be difficult. It is impossible to print ABS without a heated bed or an enclosure. Not that you would want to do it without an enclosure anyway; ABS produces fumes and is best printed somewhere you can ventilate when you’re done.
PETG: Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol is the middle ground between PLA and ABS, and has been increasing in popularity in recent years. It prints slightly cooler than ABS and still needs a heated print bed. It will do fine without an enclosure, is less fussy than ABS, and does not produce fumes. Its print temperature is higher than PLA’s by about 50 degrees C, so it is much less likely to suffer post-print melting issues, and its layer adhesion is extremely good; a PETG print will be somewhat more flexible than PLA or ABS, and it will be much stronger than PLA for the same weight. PETG’s main weaknesses are cosmetic and pre-printing. It’s stringier than its counterparts, so you might end up with traces resembling hot glue strings on a PETG part. These are only a minor concern, since a quick hit with a heat gun will get rid of them entirely or let you brush them off with your hand. PETG parts cannot be vapor-smoothed, as they are rather chemical resistant. Also, PETG is very hygroscopic, so it will attract water out of the air and go stale like bread if it is left out, leading to failed prints. This is easily solved with a large plastic baggie and a bit of dessicant when not printing, and if the filament gets waterlogged, it can be dried out with a few hours in a 150 degree oven.
*Also a common thing you will find when looking at PETG: Yes, it is technically foodsafe. However, it will have come through a 3D printer that has probably run things through it that are not PETG, so the printer it came from is not food safe, and dyes used to produce certain colors might not be food safe. The resultant part will have a rough surface, so some models might be hard to clean. A print in uncolored PETG will likely be safe enough for temporary exposure to food (such as cookie cutters or cheese press followers) after a good washing, but it would be unwise to use it for long term contact, such as containers.
Flexible filaments: Filaments such as Flexible PLA, TPU, and Ninjaflex can range from “a bit more bendy than PETG” to “basically silicone.” These are great for hinges and parts that need to stretch, but not every printer can handle them. The filament itself will stretch and flex even more than the parts made from it, so your extruder motor may end up trying to push a string. Extra filament may spill out the side of the print head, rather than being successfully pushed through the hot end and onto the print. If you are uncertain whether a printer can handle flexible filament, see if you can tell where the extruder motor is, and how far away it is from the hot end. If all else fails, just ask. Some previous user has almost certainly given it a shot and can give you an answer.
Hybrid filaments: These are the filaments with particulates in them, such as carbon fiber, wood, bamboo, metallic powder, and glow in the dark. Exact printing requirements for these can vary, and they can have a broad range of characteristics for strength and cosmetic finish. They all have something in common, though: They are abrasive, and can degrade a normal brass 0.4mm nozzle. If you would like to get into these filaments, ask the userbase or tech support about upgrading your nozzle to a hardened one. If you want to print in wood, that often has large particle sizes and can jam the 0.4mm nozzle, so you will want to swap for a 0.5mm. Nozzle switching can be varyingly difficult on different printer models. I would recommend waiting to get into these until after you’ve become comfortable with PLA.
If particular materials are unimportant to you, then all the easier, but if there is something you really want to do, you should make sure your chosen model has that capability.
The most important thing for print success is how well the first layer of the print adheres to the bed. If the early layers peel off the print bed while the print is running, your part could have major imperfections, or come off the bed entirely and devolve into a meaningless tangle of plastic. Many print beds involve laying down a bit of glue stick or painter’s tape to improve bed adhesion on all materials, while others use a build surface such as kapton film that works for everything, but can potentially be damaged by grabby filaments like PETG. When printing anything besides PLA, you want a heated bed, or else the early layers will cool prematurely, which can cause warping or outright release from the build plate. PLA still benefits from a heated bed, but it can get by without.
The other component to bed adhesion is how well the bed is leveled and calibrated. Having a low corner can result in the nozzle trying to deposit filament on empty air, or a high area can collide the nozzle with the bed, potentially damaging the bed. Methods for bed leveling and calibration vary, and tend to be more involved on the cheaper printers. If you are not confident in your ability or willingness to handle more hands-on leveling methods, it may be worth springing for a printer that can do more on its own.
Printing inside an enclosure is the next step up from having a heated bed. While this is again less important for PLA, ABS requires it, and PETG can benefit. Heat from the extruder and the print bed will warm the enclosure and reduce warping tendencies, as well as helping to deal with low ambient temperatures. The other side benefit is that if your printer is in reach of children or animals, an enclosure will help prevent them from touching anything that shouldn’t be touched. The possible downside is that an enclosure will probably increase the printer’s footprint. Worst case, if you decide you need an enclosure after the fact, your printer will be a great help in making one yourself.
There are two ways of controlling a 3D printer: via direct connection to a computer, or by removable media. USB is the cheap way of doing it, and tends to involve leaving a computer plugged into the printer, with the control software running, at all times. This saves on electronic complexity for the printer, but at the expense of tying up your computer. Some printers can do this over wifi, which is more convenient, but in some cases may still need to be able to check in with the computer. Removable media, like SD cards, is much more efficient. The printer needs to know how to manage itself, but you can load up whatever files you want on the SD card, then plug that into the printer, and leave the printer up to its own devices until it finishes.
Also of note is the control software, generally called the “slicer” because its function is to slice your model into layers the printer can make. Most printers are usable with commonly available slicers, such as Cura (free) and Simplify3D (paid), but some of them only work with their own slicing software. This is not a deal breaker by itself, but if the proprietary software works badly, you may not have other options.
Your printer will have at least three motors running at all times, plus a cooling fan or two, and this can be somewhat noisy. I can usually tell when my printer starts doing something new by listening to the sound of the motors. It is important to remember that while 3D printing is an extremely flexible manufacturing process, it gets this flexibility at the expense of speed. So whatever noise the printer makes, you will likely be listening to it for several hours at a time. If you have a spare room to do your printing in, you may not care. If you live in a one-room apartment or a dorm, as I do, you may care very much. Noise tends to be inversely related to price, as noise reduction involves subtlety in how the printer is run.
Dual extruders and multimaterial
FDM printing is generally a single-color process. You load in your color of plastic, you hit go, and you have an object that is that color. Some printers can change this by using multiple extruders and multiple rolls of filament, so they can use different ones at different times. There are practical uses for this as well as cosmetic. Most importantly, you can load a filament such as PVA, which is soluble in water, alongside your regular material, and use the PVA for support or infill. When your print is finished, you submerge it in water, and everything that does not belong on the final print washes away. Multiple extruders will inevitably add complexity and thus cost to the printer, and can potentially make it less user-friendly. All solutions involve at least a little bit of wasted build area, whether that’s from multiple nozzles that can’t both use the entire space, or waste towers to clear out a single nozzle that runs all of the colors. Ultimately, it’s best to decide if you want to have a serious investment in 3D printing before springing for a dual extruder machine. If you really need multiple colors, make your print, sand it and paint well. Or you can print multiple pieces in different colors and superglue them together.
There are other features that can have effects on final print quality, but those tend to fall into the “bells and whistles” category, and the above things are what the following reviews will focus on.
Our top printer choices
We ourselves have two printers. Mom and Dad have a Prusa i3 mk3, while I have their older mk2.5. They are both very capable machines, with good sized build volumes, and the mk3 has the benefit of being extremely quiet; faint rattles from the filament coming off the spool are almost as loud as the rest of the printer combined. While these machines worked just fine for us as starter printers and have done most everything we have asked them to, they are not cheap. The mk3 is roughly a thousand dollars pre-assembled, and the Mk2S is only a hundred dollars less, and both of them have wait times of at least a month. So for our purposes, we will stick to beginner-friendly, low price point machines that can be acquired from Amazon. At time of publishing, all five of these are well under $500.
This is a solid entry-level printer – it’s an Amazon’s Choice for good reason. The touchscreen controls are easy to use, and it can be controlled by USB, wifi, or flash drive. Setup involves screwing on a couple of parts that would otherwise be damaged in transit, but the printer arrives almost entirely assembled. The build area is somewhat oddly shaped, at 9”*6”*6”, but for the very reasonable price, that much area is fine. The printer is relatively quiet, and bed calibration is electronically assisted. You will need to turn some adjustment screws, but the printer will let you know when you are in the right place, which eliminates the guesswork. This printer generally needs its own slicer software, downloadable from FlashForge’s website. The manual hints that although the printer can read instructions from other slicers, they may not run the cooling fans correctly.
User reviews consistently indicate a good printing experience, even after a large number of prints. Though the bed is not heated, which limits the printer to PLA, it has another useful feature that makes up for it. The print bed can slide out of the printer and be replaced. This makes removing your finished prints easy, and also simplifies cleaning the bed itself. Since this will require the use of a glue stick to keep models in place during printing, built-up glue can eventually cause print complications, and the bed will need to be cleaned periodically. When you can carry your print bed over to a sink or garbage can and take care of it there, it becomes much easier to do. You will want to make a filament holder early on to hold larger filament spools, but that and the lack of bed heating appear to be the only real drawbacks. If you aren’t looking for super-ambitious prints, this printer is an easygoing, foolproof choice at a low price point. Click here to see the current price.
QIDI Tech X-Smart Intelligent Printer
This is another Amazon’s Choice, and a user’s choice as well, with very solid ratings in the reviews. It’s overall similar to the FlashForge, with some notable upgrades that push the price point a bit higher. It’s still reliable and easy to use, it comes almost fully assembled, and it has a fully enclosed build space. The print area is smaller, just a six inch cube, but the array of other features makes up for it. Most importantly, the bed is heated, so ABS, PLA, and flex filaments are all usable. It’s fully compatible with 3rd party slicers, or you can use Qidi’s. The build plate is also removable on the Qidi, but Qidi uses a flexible, magnetic steel plate like our Prusas do. When it is time to remove your print, flexing the print bed will pop it right off, and then the magnets inside the printer will hold it in place when you put it back in. Most impressive at this price point, this printer features breakpoint printing, which is not normally seen for another several hundred dollars. Most printers, if the print is interrupted, will have to start over from scratch when the print resumes. For the Qidi, you can predetermine a place for the printer to pause, so you can do something like swap filament colors and resume when you are ready. In the case of a power interruption, the printer will automatically save its progress, and it can start right back up when it has power again. Qidi also makes a dual-extruder printer with a larger print area if you like the brand and want to upgrade. If you want some room for expansion, and are comfortable with one of the higher price points on the list, the Qidi is an excellent choice. Click here to see the current price on the QIDI Tech X-Smart.
The ADIMLab Gantry is part of a genre generally referred to as the “Prusa clone,” because it borrows the same form factor as the Prusa printer I use. It is not enclosed, but this makes up for exposed components with a smaller footprint. It has a heated bed and a variety of filament capabilities, and dual motors on the vertical axis, which help keep the printer level and improve print accuracy. Print area is quite large, at 12*12*16”. It only comes partially assembled, so you will need to install the vertical gantry on arrival. Assembly will only take a few minutes, so if you are willing to have a little bit of setup time, this printer can be very rewarding. Autoleveling is not included on this printer by default, but can come as an upgrade, which will require a bit of manual work to set up – best to save that until you’re comfortable with the process. Some reviewers mention minor build quality issues, most of which can be solved with a screwdriver. If you are comfortable with the idea of getting your hands dirty, this printer will be a capable first or second machine. Click here to see the current price.
Monoprice Maker Select V2
The Maker Select V2 is another Prusa clone, with a more standard 8*8*7” build area, from a very popular brand. It comes flat packed and will need a few screws installed and motors plugged in, but assembly is very quick and easy. Basically just raise the vertical frame and plug in the Z-axis motor, and you’re off to the races. It will print whatever materials you want and you can use whatever slicer you want. It comes with a heated build plate, and it can be used with a microSD card or USB. Reviews mention this printer will want some maintenance, but since it is a popular model, there is no shortage of tweaks and upgrades available on Thingiverse. If you like to “hot rod” your equipment, this might be the ideal printer for you. Click here to see the current price.
Da Vinci 1.0
This entry is controversial, but is one of Amazon’s initially recommended options, so I’ll cover it here. It has a heated bed and an enclosure, is capable of working in PLA, ABS, and flexible filaments, and the build area measures 7.8” on a side. It comes with everything you would need to start printing, including some sample filament, an SD card, and a glue stick. The downside is, this printer likes its proprietary parts, and that can cause some major issues. Particularly, the filament spool is only half- size, so a standard 1kg filament spool will not fit. Using filaments from outside sources will require manually winding them onto that spool beforehand, since the spool includes a sensor to tell when the filament is running low. No sensor input, and the printer does not run. Also the print bed calibration is manual, and many of the negative reviews involve having difficulties getting the calibration correct. Other difficulties include poor tech support and dissatisfaction with the included (and required) slicer.If you really want a da Vinci line printer, the favorite appears to be the da Vinci Jr Pro. That one only has a 6*6*6” build volume, but it supports 3rd party filaments if you print yourself a filament rack to hold the spool outside the printer. Click here to see the current price.
So which printer would I recommend most for a beginner? The Qidi X-Smart. The only real complaint I could possibly have with it, is that it’s smaller than what I have at home. For below $500, it has many of the most important features from a printer twice its price. So it’s affordable enough to be a good starter printer, but it’s fully-featured enough to give you plenty of room to grow before considering new equipment.
Will I need anything else?
When you buy your 3D printer, you will likely also want to pick up some extra filament at the same time. Many printers come with a random roll of demo PLA, but those are normally small and low quality. I recommend eSun 1.75mm PLA, which is my general filament of choice. I have never had jamming problems with it, it has an excellent color selection including transparents, it hits a very affordable price point, and it also comes in a stronger “PRO” variant for just a few dollars more. If you don’t see what you want in eSun, 3D Solutech also makes a good product that I have used many times; I generally use their gold metallic for event tokens for my medieval events. On thinner prints, it can be slightly translucent and end up looking a bit like butterscotch.
If you get a printer with a non-removable bed, you will likely want a print remover tool. These are essentially sturdy metal spatulas with rounded edges, so you can pry the print loose without doing damage to your print bed. This remover tool set is an excellent value.
If you think you might want to try 3D printing, give these printers and tools a look! If you’re an experienced printer already, what recommendations or advice do you have for a prospective newbie?
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