A Complete List of 3D Printing Materials You Will Need For Any Project
We know that you are excited to jump right into 3D printing, but your brand new 3D printer can’t create cool things by itself. It needs materials, and it’s your job to get them.
So what are the things required by a 3D printer to function at its best? Here is a comprehensive list:
Materials for Preparing the Print Bed
No matter how eager you are, you cannot just load up a model and start 3D printing directly. The print bed needs to be prepared first, or your print will just slide right off it. Here are some materials that can help you do the job:
Most beginners tend to use blue painter’s tape, as it is easily available, doesn’t cost that much, and can be removed easily later. Basically, you apply a layer of tape onto the print bed before you start printing, and the print will adhere to it.
Take care not to overdo it though, as the extra tape can elevate the surface too close to the extruder nozzle.
For a print bed made of glass, another low-cost alternative is glue sticks. Just apply a generous coating of glue on the print bed and you are ready to start printing.
Glue sticks are messy; keep in mind that cleaning the print bed after the printing is done can be difficult. And that’s on glass – if your print bed is plastic, it might leave a permanent residue.
That’s why we don’t recommend glue sticks unless you are in a hurry and don’t have anything better available at hand.
Hair spray? What does hair spray have to do with 3D printing?
The thing is, hair spray binds very well when heated. Since you are going to be heating your print bed anyway, using a hair spray can give you excellent results.
Glue sticks and painter’s tape work well when you are printing a flat object. But when the area of contact is more limited, you need something with greater adhesive power, and that is where a hair spray comes in.
Spray it on a heated print bed right before you start printing, and watch as your layers stick perfectly to the bottom. Once the bed has cooled down, it is easier to separate your prints too.
Painter’s tape. Glue sticks. Hair spray. Don’t all these options feel like hacks?
Instead of repurposing materials meant for other purposes as workarounds, a better option is to use something meant for 3D printing.
BuildTak sheets are exactly that. These are specialized 3D printing surfaces that ensure maximum adhesion for your printing needs. Better yet, BuildTak sheets are designed to be easy to remove prints as well, without risking damage by scraping them off too roughly.
Consider buying a bunch of BuildTak sheets to make 3D printing a breeze and ensure that your prints never get wasted due to insufficient adhesion.
Filaments and Resins: What Goes into Your Printer
When you think of materials for a 3D printer, these are probably what comes to your mind. After all, while your printer can print without any adhesives (which is a bad idea) it cannot print without the appropriate material loaded in it.
But what are the different types of materials you can use for printing?
Fused Deposition Modeling or FDM printers use reels of plastic filaments as a material for creating prints. It does so by pushing the filament through a super-heated nozzle, releasing a liquified stream that solidifies with time.
There are many types of filaments available in the market:
PLA (Polylactic Acid) is the cheapest filament type, and appropriately poor in quality. Its only saving grace is that it is very easy to use, melting easily at moderate temperatures. This decreases the print time, making it a good material for quick prototype prints, where long term durability is not required.
ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) is stronger and more durable than PLA. As a result, most people prefer to use ABS for producing general objects with their 3D printer, for both indoor and outdoor use.
Keep in mind though that ABS is also rather heat resistant, making it harder to work with. You need to set your extruder temperatures quite high to be able to smoothly print with ABS.
PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol) is one of the few food-safe materials available as a filament. It also happens to be stronger than PLA, and even ABS. It is denser though, making PETG prints heavier than with other materials.
Polycarbonate and Carbon Fiber are special materials with a tensile strength many times that of traditional polymers. The only problem is that they are unusable by a normal entry-level FDM printer.
You need to buy a printer specially designed for working with the high temperatures required to handle these materials properly. The resulting prints are extraordinarily durable, good enough for fabricating heavy-duty tools and parts.
Stereolithography and SLS
These printers have a different workflow from FDM printers. Instead of using a heated extruder to melt a filament of material, they use UV rays and lasers on a vat of polymer, creating solid layers that stack up to the final printed object.
A stereolithography printer uses liquid resins, which are plastic polymers that solidify on contact with UV radiation. Like with filaments, there are many categories of resins available, including tough resins with tensile strength and durability on par with the better filaments.
All resins tend to give a smoother finish than FDM printers, besides not trapping any dirt or germs between the layers, as the printing process takes place underneath the resin, in the absence of air.
SLS printers, however, do not use resins. They use vats containing powdered materials; usually metals or metal-derivatives.
Their lasers fuse the powder into a contiguous solid layer, creating prints that seem to be cast in a metal workshop, with no visible seams.
Not only are such printers stronger than anything you can get from an FDM or a stereolithography printer, but are also more finely detailed, owing to the pin-point precision of laser light.
Equipment to Help You Print
Although you do not need any specialized equipment to print anything on your 3D printer, there are some tools that can make your life much easier. Here are some of them:
3D printers, especially FDM printers, are bad at sharp corners and thin edges. More often than not, you will be left with extrusions and blobs of material that stands out like a sore thumb.
A simply utility knife is all you need to slice of such extraneous features and whittle the edges into a fine, feather thin border.
A knife is also useful in prying off your prints from the bed without putting pressure on the body of the printed object, or separating a print from its support material.
Unless you have a printer with a really good print resolution and used the slowest printing speed, your print likely has bumps and an uneven surface. Similar to the knife, sandpaper is a tool that helps you give some finishing to your prints.
Sanding is necessary to get that perfectly smooth look and to polish up curved surfaces. To begin with, you should get sandpaper of average grit, though most hobbyists recommend using various grits one after another for the best results.
If you are looking for a ‘professional’ finish, just sanding is not going to be enough. While rubbing with sandpaper can get rid of the most visible bumps and deformities, you need a coat of primer to make it truly smooth.
Primers can be applied by a brush or better yet, a spray can, giving your print an even surface that is perfect for displaying as it is or painting. Ideally, you need multiple layers of primers for the perfect smoothness.
3D printers can usually use only a single material at a time, making all of your prints monochrome. Even if your printer can use two filaments, that only gives you two colors to work with.
Paints can let you bridge the gap to a store-bought product, allowing you to touch up the looks of your printed objects just as you like them.
Paints come in many varieties, from oils to enamels, lacquer to acrylics. You can use a paintbrush, a spray can, or even an airbrush.
A paintbrush is easier to use but can lead to an uneven coat of paint unless you have some skill with it. Airbrushes are the perfect option, but with their steep cost and a steeper learning curve, not an option for beginners.
The best choice is spray cans. Spray painting is easy, quick, and gives your prints an even coat of paint without any blobs sticking to places.
Unlike the other tools on our list, this one is purely optional. Having a 3D scanner does not help your 3D printer or the prints you have already churned out of it.
What a 3D scanner helps you with is in obtaining 3D models of real-life objects, without having to go into a 3D modeling application. You can scale up and make modifications to the design, creating your own variants of those objects without too much work.
By no means though is a 3D scanner necessary; as a beginner, you will probably have your hands full just printing downloaded models. Get it only if you aim to get into 3D modeling yourself.
The Software Stuff
We have discussed all the physical materials that are needed for 3D printing, but what about the digital side? A 3D printer needs a blueprint to print any object, and those blueprints do not come out of thin air.
Here are all the applications you need on your PC to make your 3D printer work:
3D models are designed in special modeling software, exporting the results as OBJ or STL files that you can then use for printing. Even if you are downloading models off the internet, a 3D modeling software was used to create them.
Blender is an excellent free option to get started with 3D modeling yourself.
Even if modeling isn’t exactly your forte – and you don’t have any wish to start learning – you can use a modeling software for just fiddling with your 3D models, as making modifications is much easier than crafting one from scratch.
A 3D modeling application was optional, but a slicer is essential for your 3D printer. This is because your printer builds up objects in horizontal layers; without any software to ‘slice’ a 3D model into those layers, there is no way for your printer to print anything.
And that’s exactly what a slicer does. Its importance to the 3D printing process means that most manufacturers also provide slicing software to use with their printers.
MakerBot, for example, has released the MakerBot Print, a slicer designed specifically for their line of 3D printers.
Cura is another such slicer, developed by Ultimaker, the well-known brand of premium 3D printers. Cura is free, and popular not only with users of their own product line but other printers too.
If you don’t want to be bound to a proprietary (even if free) slicing software, Slic3r is the way to go. Slic3r is a free and open-source slicing software designed to be easy to use, even for beginners. Also, it works with almost every 3D printer out there, both FDM and stereolithography.
To Sum Up
It might look daunting at first, but your 3D printer does not really need that much to print incredible things. Many of the things we mentioned are optional –it would be good to have them, but their lack will not force your printer to grind to a halt.
This includes primers, paints, 3D modeling software, 3D scanner, and other quality of life tools.
On the other hand, there are materials that your printer just cannot work without. Filaments and slicing software, for example, are a part of this category.
Filaments (or resins) are the ingredients that get converted to your prints, while the slicer is what tells your printer how to print in the first place.
The best approach is to start 3D printing with the essentials and think about getting other materials and tools as and when you feel the need for them.