What I’ve learned from 20 months of 3d printing

Just under two years ago I jumped into the t3d printing hobby with both feet. I ordered a pair of printers the same day, a FDM filament printer and a resin DLP printer. I had recently received a settlement check from a lawsuit and had a little extra cash to spend, so I bought both types printers since I had a use for both.

Leading up to those purchases I had been finding or buying printer files, so when the printers arrived, I had a pile of possible files to print. I had been watching videos, reading articles online, and talking to a guy I worked with who had been printing for years.  I also was talking often with my nephew who was a 3d printing pro. I thought I had a good idea what I was in for. I knew I had to slice the files before I could print them, though I wasn’t 100% sure what that actually meant. I knew I needed supplies, spools of PLA (or other materials) to feed the FDM printer, and bottles of resin for the DLP printer. I had learned that I needed some method to clean and wash the resin prints, and some way to cure the prints as well. I made more than a few amazon purchases as I rounded up supplies, and went on a hunt for a good, high-strength (93%+) alcohol for washing prints. Who knew the alcohol was going to be the toughest item to source locally?

Supplies in hand, and printer inbound, I awaited delivery day. The resin printer showed up first. It is an Anycubic Photon, and out of the bow was mostly assembled. I’ve written a bit about my initial struggles with that printer here, and I will only touch on resin printing briefly.

FEP films kinda suck. If a print fails and adheres to the film, there is a decent chance you will ruin the film trying to remove the stuck prints. Replacing it is more tedious than hard, but it takes time and money to do. As a word of warning, find out as much as you can about a particular resin, even if the color differs, before you start printing with a new color/brand. I found out the hard way that grey resin (mine is from Elegoo) needs much longer layer cure times than black. Which makes no sense to me, but a ruined film, and several failed prints attest to. I switched to grey after I started printing multi-part miniatures and was having trouble removing the supports. Black on black on black is just really hard to see what is what, and even where exactly the supports attached. I had hoped the grey would make that job a little easier. As of this writing, I still haven’t successfully printed with the grey resin, but that is mostly me being lazy. I am pretty sure I have the settings now, and its just a matter of filling the resin vat and pressing print. Other that resin issues, just remember to have an extra FEP film or three on hand.

With my FDM printer, there have been a number of issues to resolve.

The forst upgrade I did was only to add lighting. My printers are in the basement, and there is ok lighting for most things, where the printers sit is a little dark. I added a strip of dimmable LED lights to the Ender to provide lighting directly on the printer. It is this item from Amazon. I printed a diffuser bar to cover the lights (I had some translucent filament on hand) because the LEDs are BRIGHT!

Many of the problems I have had are related to bed leveling. With both printers, actually, so watch A LOT of videos and read more articles on leveling for your particular printer. And level that bed!

The printer I bought is a Creality Ender 3 v2. The v2 model adds a few of the upgrades most people put on the Ender 3, solving some issues such as bad power supply location (and cheap/bad power supplies), noise, and upgrade possibilities. It also adds a corundum glass bed, in an attempt to solve adhesion issues. The v2 also swaps motherboards from the original Ender 3, adding what is called a “silent” board, which I guess decreases noise. Since I only have experience with the silent board, I don’t know how much difference that actually is, but my printer is fairly quiet. It’s mostly the fans that make noise. The new board also has ports for a couple other upgrades, like a filament runout sensors, auto bed-leveling sensor, and I think more stepper motors (for a second Z-axis screw drive). In general, if you are considering an Ender 3, pay the difference and get a v2. Though, I will give you an even better option by the end of this article.

Assembling the Ender took me a couple hours. Mostly because the instructions are both poorly written, and printed in a really small font. I had to watch an assembly video to make sure I was doing everything correctly. Eventually, I was assembled and ready to go.

It took me a few tries to get the bed properly leveled, and for the print to stick to the glass. Through some trial and error, I found the best filament for ease of adhesion, was from Atomic filament. Their basic filament is rock solid, and stuck extremely well to the glass bed. So well, in fact, I had to freeze one large print to get it to pop free. The only down side was cost. Atomic PLA filament is about $30 a kilo. If you are going to be an occasional printer, and want to really cut down on printing hassles, stick with the Atomic PLA. I was going through too much filament to continue to pay that much, and needed a cheaper option. I found Printed Solid’s Jessie PLA, and at $20 a kilo, I was pretty excited.

Until the prints wouldn’t stick to the glass bed. More leveling. More videos.  A few text strings to my nephew. I settled on hairspray to increase the tackiness of the bed. Eventually I was able to get printing again, though it’s a narrow band of not enough/too much hairspray on the bed that was making me rethink my choice of filaments.

While that was happening, the original extruder broke. Why Creality is still putting a plastic extruder on their printers is beyond me. But, mine broke, and I found out through a bit of research that almost all of the plastic ones do. I ordered a new all-aluminum extruder and swapped it out. If you do, watch more videos! You will need to confirm or change the e-steps (exactly how much filament is pushed through) with a new extruder. It’s not hard, but to ensure good printing, you really need to follow this step.

All metal extruder. Blue tube is the Bowden tube.

Back in business, right? Wrong. I was having continuing adhesion issues, and was leveling the bed far too often. Bed springs. Swap the bed springs everyone said. Another order. Some more tinkering. More bed leveling. New springs seemed to help some. I was leveling less, but still having adhesion issues with the Jessie PLA.

In the midst of these other issues, I had a couple nozzle clog issues. I had to swap nozzles to fix one. Then, while using an older roll of filament I bought off a guy (long story), I had a clog that would not clear. I ended up having to rebuild the hotend entirely, new heat block, thermal break and heatsink. I was pretty proud of myself for pulling it off. I even had parts to do it again if necessary. Back to printing.

Top row L-R: Original bed spring. Upgrade spring. Current silicone bed mount. Middle: PTFE tube. Bottom row L-R: Brass nozzle. Bowden tube coupler.

Still fighting the adhesion issues, but I was getting plenty of successful prints once I had that perfect coating of hairspray on the glass.

Then, I had a catastrophic failure.

Before you say “Dang dude, you have A LOT of issues with 3d printing, there is no way I want this hassle!”, I promise this is mostly because my Ender runs basically 24/7. I print so much, and so many things. Most of my issues are simple wear and tear. But I’ll give you a list of items to swap straight out and avoid the hassles I have had.

The failure. Right.

I was printing an articulated slug for my daughter. It’s a minor character in the Brandon Sanderson Skyward series of books, which my daughter loves. I started a rather lengthy print before I went to work, made sure it as adhering properly. I called my daughter to have he check on it before she went to school and she sent a picture of the mess on the bed. It was horrible.

Solid block of PLA wrapped around the heat block.

I had her stop the print and turn off the printer. It wasn’t anything she could deal with. I had ordered a new fan for the hotend already, so I was planning on a minor upgrade, but this forced my hand. I spent hours trying to save the hotend, using a soldering iron to carve off hardened PLA. I got it mostly clean, but there was PLA encasing the wires to the thermistor and heating element. No joy. I was going to have to replace the entire hotend… Which I had just rebuilt…

I ordered another hotend, but was so frustrated with both printers (the grey resin fiasco occurred at the same time), that they just sat. I got deployed again, and they got ignored for about six months. I had a large terrain piece that was 3/4s finished, but needed another 20+ parts off the Ender to complete. Plus I had about 60 map tiles from Hexton Hills to resin print, not to mention all the figure models I had recently received for ma Kickstarter. My heart wasn’t in it. I needed a break, I guess.

While the printers were idle, I was having a personal debate about both resins and filaments.

Should I keep fighting with the Jessie PLA and hairspray, or should I go back to the more expensive Atomic PLA? With the Jessie PLA I had to watch every print start. Frequently I had to stop the print, and either add a bit more hairspray, or clean the bed completely, and start over. I was getting frustrated, and wasting time and filament. With the resins, I had to listen to the first few levels print and hope I heard the “pop” of the print breaking free from the FEP film. If it failed, that was a serious pain to clean up.

I was just about to bin all the Jessie PLA and order more Atomic PLA, when my nephew mentioned how much he liked his PEI print bed. PEI (Polyetherimide) seemed like a miracle surface. No tape, hairspray, or glue sticks. PLA and ABS stick great. Or so the claims are made. After my nephew got it, and fell in love with it, he convinced me to give it a try. Around the same time I paid him to replace the hotend for me. He has more experience, more time, and actually likes tinkering. I have money. We both won.

Back to PEI, I ordered it, installed it, and wish I had done this months ago. My new bed surface has PEI on a thin sheet of spring steel that attaches to a magnetic sticker on the aluminum bed. When the print is finished, I pop the PEI sheet off, give a little flex, and the print pops free. I can literally push print and walk away now; I have zero fear of the print not sticking. Jessie PLA works great on PEI, so I am one very happy guy.

one brand of PEI. Lines are smears of filament from a too-close nozzle or reference lines of filament from the last print.

While I was installing the PEI bed, I also added a CR Touch auto bed-leveling sensor, and silicone bed supports (replacing the upgraded springs). Ideally now, I will almost never have to level the bed again. I will verify its level occasionally, but I can let the CR Touch do its thing. Coupled with the PEI bed, my Ender is now basically a push-to-print device.

The small device with the colored wires is the CR Touch sensor

Well, until I had Bowden tube issues.

The Bowden tube directs the filament from the extruder to the hotend. It’s a plastic tube, mine are from Capricorn and made of PTFE, a super slippery plastic material. Something no one tells you at the start is that the couplers that hold the tube in place wear out. Yay.

So, with all the wear and tear on a printer that works like a draft horse, my couplers wore out. Luckily, I caught it before it wasted filament and time. But in my laziness (Or stupidity. The jury is out). I only replaced the tube and not the couplers. Until it happened again and I started researching online and found out the couplers wear out…

And of course, my half repair used up the rest of the spare tubing I had. Or thought I had. Once the new tubing arrived, I found another spare I had stashed.  As I type this, I replaced the couplings and the damaged tube. And then put the Beast back to work.

I only have about 2,000 files still to print.

So here is what I would do if I bought another Ender 3 v2.

  1. Replace the extruder with an all-metal version
  2. Replace the springs with silicone solid mounts.
  3. Add a CR Touch auto-leveling sensor
  4. Replace the stock Bowden couplers with upgraded parts
  5. Add a magnetic PEI build plate

Or, let Creality do all the work for you and just order the Ender 3v2 Neo, which has all these upgrades already installed. At $299, it’s a great deal, too. Besides all the hassles, I spent $260 on my Ender 3v2, and spent at least $75-100 on upgrades (not counting the new hotend). Save yourself time and hassle, and get the much-improved Neo.

As a note, I am in no way sponsored by Creality, I am just passing on info and experience. Hope it helps!

BG

12 thoughts on “What I’ve learned from 20 months of 3d printing

  1. Dave Stone October 7, 2022 / 10:21 am

    Some very useful information in here Harry, and thanks for sharing

    Liked by 2 people

  2. borderguy190 October 7, 2022 / 10:29 am

    I hope I help someone, Dave. There were days I wanted to bin both printers!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pete S/ SP October 7, 2022 / 10:59 am

    Great post- I’ve been struggling with mine a lot… it is long term out of commission until I can find the time to properly look at it sadly. Glad you are able to keep yours running.

    Cheers,

    Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

    • borderguy190 October 10, 2022 / 11:48 am

      That’s too bad, Pete. I hope you find a solution. Wish I could help!

      Like

    • borderguy190 October 10, 2022 / 11:49 am

      I am, John. Though I wish I had another FDM printer. When a long print is going and I need a small part for something else, I am stuck. SWMBO doesn’t see it that way though. lol

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Guru PIG October 10, 2022 / 6:05 am

    Thanks Harry. Haven’t made the step yet, but it is only a matter of time!

    Liked by 2 people

    • borderguy190 October 10, 2022 / 11:50 am

      The ability to make small detail parts for scratch building, or even print stuff that is OOP is such a boon. Looking forward to your jumping in!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. rantingsfromunder October 10, 2022 / 7:09 am

    Wow Harry this is a hobby in itself! I have to say that I think until they are like DVD players and you just pop in a disk (or something) and press “print” I think I’ll hang back from investing in one of these terrifying machines!

    It was interesting reading you experiences though (you are a braver man than I!)

    Cheers Roger.

    Liked by 2 people

    • borderguy190 October 10, 2022 / 11:52 am

      I think there are a lot of people thinking the same thing, Roger. Unfortunately I am not sure it will ever really get there. I just got back from a 3d conference and while there were incredible advances, there are some things that will always be a tinker’s field. Too many moving parts (literally) and too many points of possible failure. I hope I am wrong, and we get a true “replicator” tech someday.

      Liked by 1 person

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