You’ve probably heard of 3D printing. It was supposed to be a new «Industrial Revolution». People will be able to make anything in their homes! An update for your vehicle can be printed in minutes. It hasn’t taken over the world yet, but I’m here to tell you everything you need to know to get started.

This guide is available for download in PDF format. Download the Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to 3D Printing Now . Feel free to copy and share this with your friends and family.

Before we start, let’s clear one thing up. It will not be plug and play! Neither machine has problems or requires service or work. It’s not always the easiest hobby, but it’s very rewarding. If you’re still interested, then read on. If you want all the benefits of 3D printing (without any hassle), check out 3D Hubs and Shapeways online print services.

RepRap Prusa I3 3D Printer

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is a form additive manufacturing . Objects are built small layers overlapping each other one by one. This can be a rather slow process, but it has many benefits. For comparison, industrial process subtraction starts with a solid block of material and removes bits until the final product is obtained. Some examples of this are marble sculpture and CNC milling (this computer numerical control ). 3D printers are technically a type of CNC machine, but they are rarely referred to as such — it can get confusing!

3D printed part on the bed

3D printing has been around for a long time. Since the 1980s, designers and engineers have had access to commercial 3D printers—they often cost tens of thousands of dollars and sometimes require expensive support contracts for ongoing maintenance. The recent explosion of «hobby» 3D printing has been due to the expiration of a patent. 3D printing technologies will continue to grow as new patents expire in the near future. Currently, you can buy a 3D printer for your home for around $1,000 or less.

Look at this model of the Eiffel Tower. Notice how it appears when the bed is lowered. This is pretty indicative of what 3D printer models look like.


Before diving into 3D printing, here are a few common jargons you may encounter along the way.

A thread — material (often plastic) made in the form of a long core (for example, a cable). They are used by some types of 3D printers to produce objects.

extruder — the part of the machine where the material is melted.

Nozzle — a small hole from which the molten thread is pushed out.

3D printer nozzle and hotend

Bed — the surface on which the 3D printed object is created.

3D printer Bed

heated bed — a printed surface that is heated to ensure better adhesion.

stepper motor is a precise and powerful motor used to move various parts of the printer.

stepper motor
reprap — An open source 3D printer.

G-code — instructions for the machine, describing each movement necessary to manufacture the part. Does not apply to 3D printing.

Slicer is a piece of software used to convert 3D models into G-code.

Axis — reference line for movement. The three-axis machine can move along X (from left to right), Y (front to back) and Z (up and down).

Carriage — the moving part on which the extruder sits.

3D printer Carriage

What can be done

Almost all! 3D printed parts won’t replace traditional manufacturing techniques for mass production anytime soon — no printer has the speed or ability to produce the quality you need Where 3D printing really shines is in the prototyping and home production market. Let’s say the dial on your washing machine breaks and the manufacturer charges you $30 for a tiny piece of plastic plus shipping. Why not develop your own replacement and get up and running within a day, at a fraction of the cost?

Take a look at these ways to use a 3D printer. at home for more inspiration.

3D Printed Gameboy Case

There’s a reason Ford Motor Company has 3D printed over 500,000 prototype car parts, 500,000 automotive parts prototypes . Being able to change a component and then print it again is a huge time saver — even if that part takes five hours to process, it’s still a very fast process.

3D printed motor bracket

There are also fun things like these six games you can print at home.

Printer types

Now that you know what 3D printing is, let’s take a look at the different types of machines. There are two types of printing process: hardfacing modeling and stereolithography . They have their strengths and weaknesses, so here are the basics.

Fused deposition simulation

Fused Deposition Modeling, or FDM, is the simplest and most popular printing method. The print material is pushed through the hot tube. This tube is pushed around to draw the desired shape, just like putting a message on a cake. Temperatures vary depending on the material, however 200C / 392F is about the average for consumer plastic printing machines.

3D printed bracket

Popular Models:

  • RepRap Prusa I3
  • Makerbot Replicator
  • Ultimaker 3

It is currently the most popular printing process. Prices range from 200 to several thousand dollars. There are many different makes and models of FDM machines. They print the plastic in layers, each building resting on the previous bottom layer. Cars start from the bottom and build up. This can mean that complex shapes or objects without a flat axis to start from can be difficult to produce.

Models often have «lines» where each layer has been built. This can be smoothed afterwards if needed.

3D printed part of a brick wall

Approximate cost for 1 kg / 2.2 lbs of material: $25.


Stereolithography ( SLA ) is very different from FDM. This starts with a container of special liquid plastic (known as photopolymer resin ). An ultraviolet laser is directed at the top of the resin, causing it to harden (not the entire area, just a small layer). As with FDM, each layer is «drawn» and cured sequentially. These machines work from top to bottom, pulling the object out of the liquid.

Formlabs Form 2 3D Printer

Models created using SLA are extremely smooth, with incredibly high resolution. They print faster than FDM machines, however they are less common, more expensive and dependent on expensive resin.

Popular Models:

  • Formlabs Form 2
  • 3D systems ProJet 1200
  • XYZ Printing Nobel 1.0

Approximate cost for 1 kg / 2.2 lbs of material: $100.

Prices vary by model, although the average is much higher than FDM machines at around $1,500.

This guide will focus on FDM machines due to their relative ease of use and popularity.

Besides the manufacturing process, there is another important specification: the coordinate system. This is how each printer moves the hot end around the bed. The two main variations are known as Cartesian and delta . There are other systems (for example, polar ), as well as a few unique designs, though it’s best to stick with the popular system. Using a coordinate system that has been used by several thousand people makes it much easier to find possible problems.


Like a traditional inkjet or laser printer, Cartesian machines are pretty straightforward. They have X, Y and Z axes, with one or more stepper motors to control each. They will have a square or rectangular bed, and it would be quite common for the entire bed to move on the same axis. This is what a cartesian printer looks like:

RepRap Prusa I3 3D Printer


Delta printers also use the X, Y and Z axes, however there is one important difference. Delta machines hang the extruder on three arms in a triangular shape. They will almost always have a round printed bed that doesn’t move. These machines have been designed for fast print details!

Delta 3D Printer

They are ideal for tall, narrow models. They are only slightly more expensive and more complex than traditional cartesian machines, so they are a great alternative choice.

Print materials

Just as there are hundreds of different styles, sizes, and prices for printers, there are dozens of printed materials ( incandescent for FDM machines). The main two you should focus on right now are ABS and PLA . There are other materials that are gaining popularity (nylon for high strength and wood based for various textures), but they are not always easy to use.

blue filament coil

Polylactic acid ( PLA ) is a biodegradable plastic derived from renewable resources such as sugar cane or cornstarch. As a result, printing with it gives off a semi-sweet smell. It is one of the easiest materials to print and maintains high strength. PLA can be «viscous», making it prone to clogging. Make sure you follow all manufacturer’s recommendations.

ABS or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, is the material from which Lego bricks are made. Derived from fossil fuels, it is strong and durable. It is not biodegradable and printing with it may give off a strong «burning plastic» smell. While it can be tricky to print on, it is still one of the most popular materials. A heated bed is often required to prevent warping and poor adhesion to the bed. Details printed with ABS can be easily sanded and smoothed.

Both PLA and ABS are available in a wide variety of colors. PLA can be found in partially translucent colors if required.

Multi-filament spools

FDM machines use plastic in the form of a filament. Often provided on spools or spools from 500 g (1.1 lb) to 1 kg (2.2 lb).

Machine selection

When making a decision, it is important to choose the right machine for you and your needs. Are you buying the cheapest model on the market? Do you buy the most expensive one? What is customer support? Is there an active support community whose users may have solved common problems?

Determine the features that are most important to you. Reliability should be pretty high on your list, as should quality. There are machines that can print very fast, and others that can print huge objects. While not every machine can do everything very well, some models can do a reasonable job in many ways.

The choice of printer should not be made on a whim, or on the spur of the moment. I have had three 3D printers and I really regret buying my first one, for the reasons below.

One important factor to consider is maintenance. Most machines use the X and Y axes with belt drive, as well as the Z axis with a drive screw. Not all machines work this way, but it’s a pretty common design choice. Straps need to be sized and tightened, so if that’s not possible, this model might not be the best choice for you.

Z-Axis Bracket 3D printer

My first machine was reasonable, however over time the belts loosened and required regular maintenance and calibration (as is the case with all printers). When I went to tighten the straps, there was no way for me to do it and the manufacturers stopped trading. Moreover, since there was no community around this machine, there was not much information about this particular design.

X-Axis Belt 3D Printer

This leads to another important factor: community. There are huge online communities with many popular models, often with solutions to common problems. This information is invaluable in improving the quality of your prints and maintaining your printer.

The last important feature to consider is the cost of running. As shown above, filament is quite cheap. Many different manufacturers produce a range of materials and colors for almost any use and budget. A few select manufacturers have tried to introduce proprietary filament «cartridges» that allow you to buy only filament from that company. This is good for making money for the company, but a terrible deal for consumers. I recommend that you stay away from any machine that forces you to use a proprietary filament design.

For more on this, see our guide to the best budget 3D printers.


The RepRap project is an open source 3D printer. Many of the machines use 3D printed components, and the rest are readily available (usually from hardware stores). The RepRap community is huge and many problems have been solved thanks to this community.

The RepRap is one of the best machines you can buy. Not only is there a huge support community, but there are many tried and tested projects. Machines can be purchased as a kit or fully assembled. Hundreds of retailers sell their own set of popular kits, and replacement parts and upgrades can be bought cheaply from Amazon or Ebay.

Original RepRap 3D Printer

Many kits are sold at a very low price. While some of these aren’t bad in and of themselves, poorly assembled components or cutting costs in the wrong places (like the power supply) can lead to problems. Fires on 3D printers are rare, but they do happen, and while any 3D printer can start a fire, this risk can be reduced by purchasing from a reputable seller and choosing a machine that has generally good reviews.

RepRap 3D printer

If you’re looking to purchase RepRap, I recommend the Prusa I3 MK2 from Prusa Research. There is a huge user base, with hundreds of modifications and improvements available. This particular printer is available in a kit or off the shelf and is highly calibrated. Prusa Research designed the Prusa models themselves, and while it’s not one of the cheapest machines in the world, the design and configuration of this machine will really save you a lot of trouble down the road.

RepRap Prusa I3

First Seal

Now that you’ve chosen a device, it’s delivered and set up, it’s time to start 3D printing! I’m afraid buying a car is just the beginning of the process. Most machines work from an SD card or your computer. You can install Octopi, a Raspberry Pi distribution written for 3D printing, but it’s a bit advanced for today. Learn the basics first, and then you’ll learn everything you need to set up an Internet-controlled printer.

Regardless of how your machine is controlled, each machine receives instructions in the same way. These are several steps:

  1. Design or get a 3D model.
  2. Convert 3D model to STL format.
  3. Use «slicer» to convert STL model to G-code.
  4. Print the model using the G-code.

3D models

The first thing you need is a printable model! Thingiverse is one of the most popular model sharing sites, most of the models are already available as STL files. You can start with a test cube or a calibration model to make sure everything is set up correctly. If you are adventurous, you can create your own models. Many programs can do this. Google Sketchup is a popular free tool that is easy to learn:

Google Sketchup Cube

Be sure to check out our introduction to Sketchup first turn. Blender is another great tool that is a bit more focused on artwork than product design. Check out our selection of fantastic tutorials fantastic tutorials fantastic tutorials for Blender beginners.

If you are like me and not so good at art, then fear not! OpenSCAD is another free tool that allows you to create models using code! It’s easy to use, I designed this hollowed out cube with just five lines of code:

$fn = 100; difference() { cube(size = [10,10,10]); translate([10,10,10]) sphere(r = 6.5); } 

OpenSCAD hollow cube

Convert to STL format

Now that you have a printable model, you need to convert it to STL format. It means stereolithography, and it’s a fairly versatile 3D model format for 3D printing. Many tools can save files in this format. Almost all Thingiverse files can be downloaded as STL. If you are using Google Sketchup, you will need to download the SketchUp-STL extension to be able to export STL files.

Using Slicer

You may have heard of the slicer. These pieces of software will convert your STL file into a set of instructions called a G-code. G-code has been around for a very long time and is used on industrial machines as well as 3D printers. G-code often depends on your machine.

Cura slice 3D printer

There are many different slicers. They’re in mostly work the same way, and when you are just starting out with simple models, it doesn’t matter which slicer you choose. Your machine’s manufacturer may recommend one, and it’s even better if they provide a default configuration file or from the start!

Some popular options:

  • Cura
  • Repetier
  • Slic3r

There are many settings for your choice of slicer. Here are some of them and what they do.

Layer Height

This determines how thick each layer is. A lower number results in more layers and better print quality (at the expense of speed). A good compromise is 0.15 or 0.2 mm. Very high quality prints can use 0.05mm layer height, but this will be very slow! It is often recommended to use a thicker height for the first layer, as this helps to hold on better.

Here is a comparison between different layer heights. Left to right is good for rough:

3D Printer Layer Height Comparison

Shell thickness

That’s how thick the outer walls should be. You want it to be a decent size, otherwise the fill might show through. In any case, two to four wall thicknesses will be good, depending on your model.


The retraction helps keep prints clean by pulling the filament back into the nozzle slightly when not printing (i.e. when moving through a gap in the model). It can sometimes be difficult to fine-tune, so stick to the default settings or the manufacturer’s recommended settings.

Bottom / top thickness

3D printed objects are rarely 100% solid inside. This is done to save plastic and increase print speed. The top and bottom layers are solid so you can specify their thickness. Six layers is a reasonable number. Go too low and you may notice that the hollow is showing through or bubbling on the surface.

fill density

Expressed as a percentage, how durable the interior should be. Model designers usually quote this figure as some parts may require higher infill strength. Usually 20-30 percent is sufficient.

Fill out the template

An infill pattern is used for a hollow interior. Hexagons or honeycomb designs are quite common but generally not visible, stick with your printer/slicer settings. Here you can see a sample of the honeycomb infill in this cross section of the print:

honeycomb fill

Print speed

Print speed is a very important parameter. Printing too fast will almost always result in poor print quality. Slow printing will improve quality (but this will not always be practical). This should be set to the middle distance between speed and quality. Stick to your default slicer. A print speed of 70mm/sec would be quite fast. A speed of 40mm/s will be quite slow, but very high quality. This video highlights the difference in typing speed:

Print temperature

Temperature is another parameter that has a big impact on quality. Unfortunately, it depends on many factors. Perhaps your thermistor (digital temperature reader) is only accurate to +/- 5 degrees. Different materials have different print temperatures, and even different colors and manufacturers of the same filament can have different ideal temperatures. Start with your slicer defaults (approx. 210C for PLA , 230C for ABS ). If the temperature is too high, models may look bent or even burnt. Decrease the temperature 5 degrees at a time until you find a good level. You may need to do this for every single thread you use.

Bed temperature

If your machine has a heated bed (not all), set the default to slicer. Heated beds are required for ABS printing, but not always needed for PLA.

Heated beds keep the bottom of your prints warm (usually about 70C ). Without a heated bed, you may find that the bottom of a large piece cools down and peels off. This is called warping, and if the part peels off 100%, the print will usually be ruined. Think of a traditional printer or copier: how will the ink be in the right place if you rock the paper?

Support Type

Support is another setting that you may not need. If you are printing a complex model, perhaps a figure or a curved object with projections greater than 90°C, a support structure is needed to hold details that would not otherwise be printed. Think of it like scaffolding for 3D printed parts. This often leaves minor marks on prints that require cleaning. Support is not required for simple shapes and part sizing. In the image below you can see the supporting structure in the form of a thin plastic concertina.

3D printer support material

Platform Adhesion Type

There are two main types of adhesion here. The first one is raft, and that’s exactly what it sounds like. First a small raft is printed and then your model is printed on it. This reduces problems with uneven print surfaces. Rafts were widely used when the fun 3D printing first began, but now that the quality of the machines has greatly improved, they are not often needed.

fields are still used regularly. It’s like a skirt or outer layers on your model. They increase surface area and can help reduce warping. They are usually only one or two layers high.

Thread diameter

The thread is mainly sold in two diameters: 1.75mm and 3.00 mm with 1.75mm becoming more common as it heats up faster. Your printer will only fit one size. It is impossible to mix different sizes without changing the foot and extruder. Almost all filaments sold have some variation in diameter; higher quality thread has less variation. Thread with a highly variable diameter can run inconsistently and possibly cause clogging.

This filament diameter setting allows you to set the exact filament diameter. Measure the thread diameter at three places per meter and average the results. Enter this average diameter.

Flow percentage

The flow percentage is used to adjust the amount of plastic. By default, this will be 100 percent, but you can increase or decrease it as needed to reduce over extrusion or correct when extruding.

Nozzle size

Most machines come with a nozzle size of 0.4mm. A smaller nozzle will improve print quality, but at the cost of speed. 0.3mm nozzles are becoming more and more common. It doesn’t matter what nozzle size you use, just be sure to enter the correct size here.

If you’re not sure where to start, many slicers come with default templates for regular machines. If you have a popular model, a quick Google search for «Printer model cut settings» can turn up a lot of results. This is where your machine research could pay off. A printer with very good support or a large community could mean you can download someone’s settings, or maybe your manufacturer even provided settings — some of them do!

This video demonstrates very high quality printing. Like a lower bed height, a smaller nozzle can help improve quality (but it’s not the only way).


Your slicer will generate a G-code. This is a set of instructions for your model printing machine. This is often up to you, and contains your settings at the time. The last step is to print your model. You need to download the G-code to your printer. This is often done directly via USB, although many printers will execute G-code from an SD card.

I love keeping my SD cards clean and tidy. I create folders for different projects and add estimated print times to my G-Code files, along with any specific print notes. Make sure you remove any G-code that gives unwanted results. Most slicers will provide an estimated print time as well as filament usage and an estimate cost.

Estimated 3D printer print time


We hope that by now you will have a working 3D printer and you will be well aware of how it works. One of the most difficult problems is the problem of deformation. Even on ideal machines, this still happens. The main cause of warpage is adhesion to the bed. Sometimes the corner comes off the bed and «twishes», ruining an otherwise perfect print. ABS can be especially troublesome to warp.

3D Printer Deformed Print

Some general fixes:

3D Printer Deformed Print

Sometimes deformation occurs even when you do everything right. Some of the most difficult parts to print are large and flat. They can deform even with excellent adhesion and settings. What is happening here is the result of reduction. The top of the print is cooled at different rates in the bottom. This is enough to be a problem on certain prints. A heated bed helps a lot with this, or you can use a hair dryer to heat it up and then bend your part slightly after the fact.

Finding Help

It can be very frustrating when you don’t know why the print is failing. Here are some helpful resources to help you:

Why not consider a DIY project for your new printer? Checkout our hot buttons «self» quick access buttons or electronic D20 Die — two projects that use 3D printed parts!

Now you should know (almost) everything you need to start 3D printing! What printer are you using? What are the common problems you face? Let us know in the comments below!

Image Credits: FabrikaSimf / Shutterstock

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