Congrats! You got a 3D Printer for the holidays! With it you can print pretty much anything you can imagine, from toys to household items. But before you grab your hardware and dive in, there are a few things you need to keep in mind.
1. Get Safety Gear
If you received a resin 3D printer like the Elegoo Mars or Prusa SL1, congratulations! You now have the ability to craft almost anything from a pool of liquid resin, cured by UV light. It's pretty awesome, like watching the final scene from Terminator 2 in reverse. But here's the thing, liquid resin is highly toxic. Breathing in the fumes or touching the resin, even just a little, can have serious health effects. You're going to need a few things to make sure your new hobby doesn't make you sick.
Incidentally, if you got a filament printer like the Prusa i3 or a laser cutter like the Glowforge, your printing materials are non-toxic, you don't have to worry about this step. Though I would recommend a set of noise-cancelling earphones if you're going to work near the Glowforge while it's in operation, it gets really loud.
First off, you need disposable gloves. I like these black gloves from Venom Steel. Not only are they tear resistant (which can be important when you're trying to pry a reluctant print off the print bed), the color makes it easy for me to see when I actually have resin on my hands so that I know not to touch anything else.
Second, you'll want a respirator mask, like this one from 3M that's made for solvent work. It's easy to take on and off, won't restrict your breathing, and has filters that you can easily change out. Most importantly, it works! I often don't realize how bad the air is in my office until I take it off. Side tip here, if you have a room with good ventilation, make that your 3D workshop! An air purifier that can automatically detect when there are pollutants in the air, like the Dyson Pure Hot + Cool, can be helpful as well.
Lastly, it's important to remember that, as long as your 3D prints are still tacky to the touch, they're still toxic. They have to be washed and cured before they can be safely handled. There are lots of ways to do this, some are as low tech as rinsing them with isopropyl alcohol over a bucket and then setting the print outside to cure in the sun. But if you want to make your newfound hobby a lot more enjoyable, grab the Prusa CW1.
With this device, you pop the print bed off your Prusa printer without having to touch the print, attach it to the lid of your rinse tank, then press the button to rinse. After that, you remove the entire tank, scrape the print off the print bed, then put it back in the device and press the button again to cure and dry the print. In all it takes about 10 minutes - that process can take hours if you're doing it manually. The CW1 may be pricey, but it's worth every penny (oh, and if you live somewhere that you need to preheat your resin before using, the CW1 can take care of that as well).
2. Read the Manual
You've got all your safety gear ready? Great! Now go read the manual. No. Seriously. First off, it's essential to read the manual just to assemble your printer. Even Elegoo Mars and Prusa SL1 pre-built kits have some assembly required. But if you just slap the parts together without reading how to properly calibrate the pieces, you're going to end up with more failed prints than successful ones.
The Prusa SL1 has an exceptionally good assembly tutorial built in to the printer itself, so you could almost skip the rest of the manual. But the manual is as much a primer in how to print with a resin printer, giving you an idea of what to watch out for and what to try if your initial prints don't work out the way they're supposed to.
I was especially happy that I'd read it after my Elegoo Mars prints wouldn't attach to the print bed. While the Elegoo touts that you'll be up and running in five minutes, I prefer Prusa's more measured approach. Going fast, it's easy to miss small calibrations.
The Prusa i3 also comes with a prodigious manual. With filament printing, it's even more important that you're confident in your calibrations before you start your first print. There's nothing worse than walking away from a job and coming back to find a tumbleweed of extruded plastic encasing your printhead (which you then have to disassemble and clean).
The Glowforge is the only real exception. It's assembled and calibrated at the factory before it arrives at your door. The online tutorial (all of Glowforge's operational software is controlled via browser app) walks you through everything you need to do to get started.
3. Be Patient
The one shining maxim to keep in mind when doing anything involving 3D printing or laser cutting is that it takes time. A lot of time. Even relatively simple prints can take half a day. And that's OK. For resin and filament printers alike, it can be necessary to slow things down on the fly so that the light or heat can have a little more time to set the plastic in place.
And some things just take longer. The Glowforge, as massive as it is, is a precision machine that can do amazing things like etch the lid of your Macbook with a design of your own creation. But doing something that precise requires pinpoint accuracy and minute calculations. It can't be rushed.
Or maybe you're just printing something really big or complex. The first job I had for the Prusa i3 Mk3 was a box insert for my latest board game acquisition, Star Wars: Rebellion. It was absolutely perfect when I finished (I even traded out the Prusament filament mid-job for a sparkly black for the Imperial components), but finishing took nearly a full week. Not all of that was printing; there was some down time. But there wasn't a piece that took less than 13 hours to actively print.
You'll have to have patience with the learning curve as well. Not every print is going to turn out the way you want to, whether that be from a miscalculation in the slicing software you used to generate the model, an issue with your material, or a problem with the hardware itself. The key is to take the time to work the problem, figuring out where things went sideways and trying again. Which brings me to my next step.
4. Always Be Tinkering
3D printers and laser cutters are precision machines that use messy materials. Resin gets everywhere and can cloud your UV film. Dust and particulate matter from your last cut can obscure the lens of your Glowforge. Filament can get blobby and harden around the printhead. The takeaway is that your 3D printer isn't an appliance. While resin printers (and the Glowforge) are impressively finished devices and look like they should be "press a button and walk away" affairs, they require constant care.
Keep notes on how your last print turned out. Maintain records as to when you last cleaned the system and checked your essential elements (lenses, UV film, etc.) to make sure they were clear and free of obstruction. Ensure that the resin you're using is fresh and if you're using the CW1 that you've changed out the isopropyl if it's been a while.
And don't be afraid to go online if you can't quite figure out what's going on with your printer. Prusa and Glowforge have robust online communities and there are forums for enthusiasts for every brand across the internet. When my i3 Mk3 stopped printing smoothly, it took a single Google search to get my answer. I downloaded a file from someone who had developed a test pattern for my printer and spent ten minutes or so adjusting the heat of the print bed so that the filament melted more uniformly.
5. Get Creative
After you've printed the starter models that come with your printer and cut a few things on your Glowforge, you'll want to hit the internet for even more things to try.
For Glowforge, their community has enough free plans that you could spend the next month trying out and tweaking ideas before you even started to think about making something of your own. Actually, I recommend doing that a little bit. It's enlightening to see how others put together their project files and the kinds of results different settings and materials have on your end project. And there's no reason you can't make "basic" projects your own. I cut a box on my Glowforge to wrap a present for my wife and 3D engraved a picture on the lid to give her a hint of what was inside.
For filament and resin printers, you have even more options. Thingiverse is my current favorite for finding 3D models to slice up for printing. Most plans are free (and many accept tips) and are ready for download.
And while many of us aren't 3D modelers, there will come a time when you want to make an .SVG file of your own. Adobe Illustrator has a free trial that will let you try your hand at making your own models. You can either stick with Illustrator or feel free to ask what your favorite model makers are using.
Now go have fun and make all the things!