How to: 3D Printing

img_0011Hello everyone!

So this guide was actually an email I sent out to one of my campers who was interested in purchasing a 3D printer and wanted a few tips. I’m taking out his name here, but all the tips are there. This is really geared towards the 3D printing novice – hope it helps!

Hi camper,
Hope the rest of your summer is going well. I just wanted to send you some info on 3D printing (modeling, slicing, printers and configuration). It’s basically a guide based on everything I’ve learned since I got my printer, and a few pointers to get you started. There are plenty of resources available to you, and please don’t hesitate to ask me if you ever need anything!

AutoCAD ( This is Autodesk’s most popular tool for modeling and it is completely free to download for students. This is the first tool I looked at because I assumed it was the obvious choice, but despite all the hype around it, AutoCAD isn’t the best tool for beginners. Its vast flexibility and powerful interface are much better used (and understood) once you’ve got a handle on all the basic modeling concepts and tools. I’d recommend starting with the tools I’ve listed below and working your way up.

TinkerCAD ( : Another Autodesk tool. It’s made for the novice designer, but don’t take what you’ve learned through this site lightly. All of the tools in TinkerCAD waterfall into AutoCAD and the rest of Autodesk’s more advanced software, so familiarize yourself with the tools like Extrude and Scale before you move on.

123D Design ( : Autodesk, again. This one is a little more advanced than TinkerCAD and a little less advanced than SketchUp. This will help you with understanding how to move through your workspace and offers a few more useful tools, but otherwise I’d just jump right into SketchUp.

SketchUp ( : This is a Google tool. Very, very user friendly, but be prepared for some not-so-nice graphics. It’s totally free with nearly the same flexibility as AutoCAD, and the tutorials for SketchUp are fantastic. Included in the SketchUp package is access to their 3D Warehouse where you can download models other people have made. SketchUp comes highly recommended.

Blender ( : This falls a little out of line with the tools I’ve listed above, but it’s something my sister uses and has been hooked on for years now. Blender is an animation tool that can also be used for modeling. I would rank it almost as difficult as AutoCAD to excel in, but if you get good at all the other tools and want to try it out, by all means!

Printing Software:
Slic3r ( : You won’t need this until you get your 3D printer, but Slic3r is an essential for turning your 3D models into code your printer can understand. Slic3r can take a few different types of model files (I use mainly .STL files) and allows you to place them on a “plater,” which is like a virtual printing bed. You will be able to move, resize and duplicate your models on the plater (the way you expect it to print on your actual print bed) until you are satisfied with the configuration. Slic3r will also allow you to change the temperature settings on your printing bed and extruder, add support material, and even configure your printer for a second extruder. Once you have made all the desired changes you can export your model in G-code (aka: printer code) and send it to your printer. The G-code tells the printer which motors move when, where and how fast. (If you’re confused about any of the terminology I used here, check the bottom of the email)

Craftware is a Slic3r alternative. I haven’t used it yet, but a CAD teacher at the high school recommended it to me.

Thingiverse ( : Okay, so at this point you’ve got your printer and your looking for some inspiration or a 3D model that you can just download and print without the hassle of actually modeling it. Thingiverse is amazing! I use it all the time for printing phone cases and other superfluous stuff that I really don’t need. You should definitely check it out, because it will give you some insight into the kinds of things other people are printing and (perhaps more importantly) the printer settings they are using. Thingiverse also has design challenges that you can enter into and usually the first prize winner gets a MakerBot Replicator 😀

Filament (“plastic”) for your printer is not cheap. Especially when you’re getting started, there will be times when you’re running a print and something goes wrong, you’re going to have to start the print all over again, wasting filament in the process. It will happen, and oftentimes those kinds of mistakes help you figure out exactly how to adjust your printer settings so that it doesn’t happen again, but nevertheless, you’ll want to find good quality filament at a low price. MatterHacker’s a sweet deal ( If you buy in-store (like at Home Depot) you’ll pay twice as much money for half as much filament. Look online for the kind of filament you want, but be wary of cheaper kinds! Check a few 3D printing forums to see what they say about that type of filament first.

3D Printers:
I hope you’ve found a 3D printer you like by now, but I just want to point out something real quick before you make your final decision. Anything and everything will go wrong with your printer at some point. Motors will stop working, filament will burn, your printouts will turn into globs of plastic on your print-bed. The best way to overcome all those issues is to build the printer yourself. You will understand how every piece of your printer fits together, which components should be adjusted and why, how each piece is wired. The biggest difference between getting a pre-build desktop printer and a kit is the learning experience, and I would highly suggest starting off with a kit. It takes a few days to assemble, but well worth the wait.

Another thing to consider after you’ve bought you’re printer is printing remotely. When I got started I had to save all the g-code files onto an SD card, put the SD card in my printer, select the model, so on and so forth. It was a tedious process! Then I hooked up a Raspberry Pi (a mini-computer) to my printer and downloaded something called AstroBox onto it ( The AstroBox download is free, and it lets you print from any device and monitor everything from print progress to extruder temperature.


  • Print Bed: The surface where your prints are made
  • Extruder: The piece that melts the filament and lays it on your print bed. Having a second extruder allows you to print with two different types of filament.
  • G-code: A new version of your model written in a way your printer can understand
  • Filament: The material that your printed model will be made of.
  • Support Material: Models that have pieces hanging in midair will not print. For example: the ceiling of an igloo has no support beam below it to keep standing. If a printer attempts to print the ceiling of the igloo, the filament will just fall away. The support material is a weak structure made of your filament that you can pull away once your print is finished.