Get the Most Out of Your Printer

It’s been a couple weeks now that I’ve atad a fully functioning 3d printer, and other than the weekend I was away on business, I’ve been printing at least every other day. Some of my prints worked well, and some were abysmal failures. Good thing is, they seem to be getting better as I go. I thought I’d put together a quick list on some of the tips I’ve learned over the last couple weeks.

1. Make sure the extruder is the right height off the bed

While there’s probably a good measurement for this, I honestly haven’t found it, and I’ve found an almost intuitive feel about it anyways. Here’s what I do, and it goes hand in hand with leveling the bed anyways. I start by lowering the extruder to 0 on the Z axis, or just basically setting it to it’s home position in one corner of the bed. When doing this, keep an eye on it. If it looks like it’s going to crash into the bed, you should probably stop it.

Next, slide a sheet of paper under the extruder. If it doesn’t fit, you need to move the stop for the z-axis higher off the bed. If it does fit, I’ve found it needs to be so that you can slide the paper around and feel just a small amount of resistance. Not a ton, but there should still be a little there. I know, right? Not super helpful, but it should be pretty easy to move that paper around. Adjust the z-axis stop to make that happen.

2. Level the bed

This step basically makes sure when the extruder is at the 0 z-axis position, it’s actually the same distance from the bed no matter where on the x/y plane it is. I do this very similar to how I described settings the height of the extruder. If you’ve already done that, move the extruder to another corner of the bed and do the same thing, but this time, instead of moving the z-axis stop, adjust the bed leveling for that corner. You’ll probably have a screw or something for adjusting that. If you do, you don’t need to move the screen very much, it’s fine adjustments. Go ahead and do that for each corner of the bed, and you’ll probably find that as you do one corner, another will go slightly out of alignment. Keep going back and forth until they’re all about the same resistance with that paper.

3. Ensure the filament is sticking to the bed

The first step in having a good print is laying a good foundation. If that first layer sucks, you’re going to have a bad print. Now setting the extruder height and leveling the bed are great starts to this. Next, it’ll depend on what sort of 3d printer you have. If you’re lucky enough to have a printer with a heated bed (like I do), consider yourself lucky, they’re awesome. Basically the filament needs something to help it stick to the initial surface (it sticks to itself really well though), and what the heated bed is doing is warming the print surface, which makes it stick better. The specific temperature depends on the material but somewhere in the 55C ballpark is a good place to start. Once the print is done though, you’ll notice it continues to stick rather well, probably too well to the surface. When your print is done, turn off the heated bed and let it cool down. When the glass plate cools down, the print will pop off pretty easily.

If you don’t have a heated bed, there’s a little bit you need to do to help it along. You’ll probably find that your printer needs a little help getting the filament to stick to the bed. While I have a heated bed, one of my cats actually pulled off one of the wires to mine, and I had to be without one for a little while until the soldering iron I ordered showed up. While there’s a couple different methods, the one I found that worked best was using blue painters tape. Before printing, lay down several strips of blue painters tape to cover the print bed (I used the extra wide rolls). Make sure you don’t have edges handing off that’ll get caught on something if your printer’s bed moves. This blue tape surface will help it immensely with laying down those first layers, and when it’s all done, the tape comes cleanly off the bed. However, I did find that it was much tougher getting the print off the surface that it was with the heated bed, and I had a couple prints (large base area) that stuck to the blue tape and I struggled to get the blue off. I ended up painting the model anyways so it wasn’t a big deal, but it was kind of a pain.

4. Use good filament

I severely underestimated how varied the quality of 3d filament could be. When I got the printer, I had some filament that was coming in the mail, but it was taking a while and I was impatient so I went to Fry’s Electronics and picked up a roll of whatever they had on the shelf, and it’s been a struggle. I originally though it was mostly my print settings, and configuration, and spent a lot of time trying to improve those, which probably helped me in the long run anyways.

When my new Hatchbox roll showed up in the mail, it was night and day. Where previously I was having problems with the material extruding at a constant rate and sticking to the bed, this roll from Hatchbox was butter. It went down smooth, seemed consistent, and my prints instantly went from “meh” to “wow that looks pretty nice”. I haven’t experimented too much with different brands, but I will definitely continue to buy all of my filament from Hatchbox. You can find them on Amazon or at http://hatchbox3d.com. Literally one of the best things you can do for your prints.

Repeat after me: If you buy cheap filament, you’re gonna have a bad time!

5. Orient your parts so they print well

This is definitely a try and see what happens, but you’ll pick it up after a while. Basically because your objects exist in 3d, you can print them in a number of different orientations, on it’s back, face, left, etc, and sometimes this really matters. For once, you’ll find that things like circles often print better in the X/Y plane vs using the Z-Axis, so orienting it so circles print that way will result in better prints. A big part deals with printing supports as well. Your slicing software may build in supports to your model for printing, which are basically little pillars or other shapes of filament that’s lightly added on and supposed to be broken off when it’s done. They’re usually added for overhangs, or spots where there needs to be a layer of filament where there isn’t anything to really attach to. The more you can limit supports, the better your print will turn out and the less of a chance you’ll have of supports that don’t cleanly break off. If you can rotate your model to avoid them, definitely do.

Like I said before, this list is far from exhaustive. I also haven’t talked about what happens when things go wrong, like an extruder gets clogged, because I thankfully haven’t had to deal with anything major like that. When I do, I’ll let you know. If you have any questions or any additional tips, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.