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!


2021 In review

2021 in review

This is the time of year that modeling bloggers often tally the year and the progress they have made. I’m honestly not sure how some do it, unless they keep a better tally of what they build and paint. I have tried to keep a hobby journal, but it never lasts long. I can barely remember to put paint schemes in my notes so I can add to units in the future…

Reading those posts, though, got me thinking. How much have I accomplished in 2021? I read through the posts I put up this year, and took some quick notes, and the verdict is: Not much. At least in numbers.

From blog posts the total is about 83 28mm models, 13 28mm vehicles, 4 Wild West buildings built (not painted), 25+ map hex tiles, and two large fantasy buildings for WFB and Mordheim. 69 of the 28mm models were painted in one month while I was on a work “retreat”. Which means painting was way off for the year. Way off. I’m sure I bought at least that many new models, 50+ just off the top of my head. And we all know many more magical little boxes of metal and plastic have arrived that I stashed and already forgot about. I also wrote eight whole articles. Eight!! Closer to one a month than 2020, but not there yet.

Musing on my low productivity, I can attribute it to two things. 3D printing, and Dungeons and Dragons.

I’ve talked about 3D orienting and the time sink it can be. Looking for files. Modifying files. Slicing files. Printing files. Printing more files. Printing more files… I’ve printed A LOT of files this year. From arms, heads and torsos for 28mm models, to modular wall pieces for WFB or DnD, to Star Wars ships. I have printed a little of everything. In fact, both printers are burning through resin and filament as I wrote this. A WW1 trench knife in resin for my daughter, and one of 10 L Columns I need for a large fantasy building. The Ender has basically run non-stop for weeks now. Ever since I rebuilt the hot end (the doohickey that melts the plastic) after a battle with a clogged nozzle. And that was months after a battle with a broken extruder. Plus, a trio of punctured FEP films on the resin printer (all my fault) slowed resin printing. Yes, printers can be temperamental. A minor issue can cause headaches until you figure it out. I also dealt with older filaments not adhering to the build plate. Fresh filament solved that. When they are tuned up, printing is a breeze. When they aren’t… You want to toss them in the trash.

Solving the various issues took time. Watching videos. Reading articles. Staring at all the tiny screws holding parts together. Luckily, my nephew KP is a 3D whiz and usually can solve an issue, or point me in the right direction for a solution. He figured out the extruder issue when I was beyond frustrated. He encouraged me to rebuild the hot end. Without his help, the printers might be in the trash! Thanks buddy, you the man! Having a more experienced 3D printing friend can help climb the steep learning hill.

While I worked on other things, the Ender chugged away at the 100+ individual pieces I need to build the Alchemists Guild from Printable Scenery. I have most of the round tower printed and assembled, and I have about half through printing the square tower. That is the real help of 3D printers. They work mostly unassisted. With filament printing I can pop a print off the bed, prep the bed for good adhesion, and start a new print in about a minute. Simple. When it is running right. At this point I consider both machines pretty essential to my hobby pursuits. In fact, I am trying to convince my wife I need another Ender 3! Twice the productivity!

The other distraction has been DnD. After not playing for decades, we started up in that lost year, and continued through 2021. Time I might have spent painting minis has been spent prepping for games, making maps, or writing my own adventures. And playing. My daughter is a bit busy in her senior year of high school. Between band, AP classes, sports ad everything else, we never have as many free evenings to play as we would like. DnD has still been something that has taken time from mini painting and terrain building. Not a distraction or waste, just another thing.  I do not regret a moment of family game time, and DnD has led to many memorable moments. In fact, I was thinking I could use this blog to record our ongoing campaign, in the vein of some early short stories I posted here. If nothing else, it gets me writing, and stores our adventures.

That’s it. 2021 was busy and complicated and less productive than I would have liked. I do like to think what I built and painted were quality models, and that helps. Some of the blogs I follow are veritable machines of productivity, churning out armies in the time I paint squads, and filling tables with terrain while I smash on building a single building. I am still trying to decide if it is inspiration or discouraging. Either way, I will keep at it. My gaming hobbies help as a refuge from an increasingly crappy job, and that is priceless no matter how slow I paint models.

How was your 2021? More productive? Less? Any new projects or interests? let me know in the comments.

Happy holidays, Merry Christmas, and hopefully Santa left you a pile of metal, plastic and resin under the tree!

BG out

PS Sadly, this was written IN 2021. Before Santa’s big day even, hence the ending. And just now getting around to posting…