3D Printing Tips

Don’s 3D Printing Tips

Welcome to my tips page. This is my first-person account of how I have walked through the mine-field of 3D printing and escaped relatively unscathed. My first month with my printer was NOT pretty. I was out in the field on an assignment and I had this really cool machine at home (this is January, 2014). I had been reading everything I could during the previous year about 3D printing. Much of my artwork is 3D based, and I’ve been working with 3D programs for two decades. There was NO WAY I was going to NOT be a part of this cool new thing. But every month a new printer came out that was better than the next. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and I dove in. I bought a low-end printer from China that I considered disposable. I would mess with it and then wait for the next ‘great’ printer to come along. I planned to take it apart to learn how it it worked, and hopefully be able to assemble it again. I did exactly that.

The day the printer showed up, I was out in the field for a month. When I could play with it, almost nothing worked. It drove me nuts.

In February I was back in my studio and I carved out a couple weeks to dedicate to this machine. First I printed with rafts. That worked, but it gave me sloppy edges. I told myself, it was NO RAFTS, NO SUPPORTS from then on. If I’m doing this, I’m doing it right. It reminded me of when I switched from FormZ (modeling) and Electric Image (rendering) to Lightwave 3D. We had taken a slip in Key West (we were live-aboard sailors at the time) and I had a new project come in. I simply said…from NOW ON, only Lightwave. It wasn’t fun, but it was worth it. Every day I’d take my laptop to the marina business center and force myself to get through that one assignment in a program I had no idea how to use. By the end of the month, I was a Lightwave user and still am to this day.

I felt the same way with my 3D printer in February. If I’m doing this, I’m doing it right. From now on, everything prints at 0.10 resolution, no rafts, no supports. Deal with it.

And I did. And it was rough. I had a print I wanted to give to a client to explain what I was doing. But my beds would fail for one reason or another. So I stopped trying to be complex and then printed out one piece at a time. It worked, but I knew I was still falling short.

The Cannon


I would go to sleep at night trying to work through all the problems. I knew what I WANTED to do, but it wasn’t working. So I tossed aside the project I was working on and decided to o something small, but make it work until I was either successful, or bleeding from my ears. Instead of doing a complex build with dissolving support materials, I would just build a simple model and assemble it. At this time I also bought Simplify 3D and upgraded my head. I worked through the bed-prep and then things changed. My print was a 18th century cannon from a larger build I was working on. All my new setting and processes finally worked. The build wasn’t complex, but it was a starting place.

Next I build a REALLY complex model, the CSS Hunley. I love this machine and covered it for years for National Geographic. This would be my first serious build. I applied all my new techniques and suddenly I had this build with 20 parts that printed perfectly every time. This printer worked great. I just needed to understand what it wanted from ME.

Build plate of the Hunley

The Hunley assembled

At this point, things absolutely changed. I had this first BIG build under my belt, so I took note of what I did. I had changed so many things, so many times, I reviewed all my notes and came up with the process I still use today (a whole whopping 3 months later).

Thus is born my tips page (granted, they may only apply to me, my machine and my software) section of my website. This is a new era in physical computing. I love it. If my experience can help you with your new printer, I’m glad to be of assistance. I will add to it when I hit new road-bumps. My printer is still the stock Duplicator 4. There are a lot of things you can do to ‘tweak’ this machine, but I felt that if I did that, then I couldn’t stand by my models. If I can print on a stock machine, you should be able to print on YOUR stock machine. My Duplicator 4 just passed 1,000 hours of print time. If it blew up tonight (it’s running right now) I’d buy another one tomorrow. They have upgraded the machine (for free) and it simply prints ALL DAY AND NIGHT LONG. Yes, it is a clone of Replicator from when it was an open source machine. But they have improved on the original open source design and made it their own.


I stopped using ReplicatorG and Makerware as my primary slicing software. I had also tried pretty much everything else that was open source as well. If I was a Makerbot owner and I had to use their software, I would demand a refund. They have a HUGE resource of funds, and their software sucks.

1) Then I bought Simplify3D. Wow. I could actually control all the aspects of my machine…even many I had no idea I could control (and still don’t).

2) And I put a layer of Scotch brand painter tape down on my glass  bed, wiped with alcohol.

3) I stopped trying to print with ABS and switched to PLA

That’s when I started printing without a problem.

My next build was actually my first commercial build for a client, Popular Science. I had pitched all my clients about this concept, and PopSci loved it. So in March 2014 I built them their plane, based off an illustration I had done for them at the same time. The 3D model for the illustration is EXACTLY the same one I used to create the 3D print.

The Double Bubble build for Popular Science

The print turned out great. I printed it five times to make sure this thing was as good as I had hoped. I assembled one and shipped it to my editor. He loved it and it was passed around the department. My second serious build worked great. In the magazine biz you work on projects far in advance. This illustration and 3D print was published in the June 2014 issue.


That leads us to the next TIP…decals. There was no way I could print the details for the plane. But when I was putting my first print together, it reminded me of building model planes when I was a kid. I had decal sheets for the details. Could I print my own? A little research showed me that the model train world and the R/C crowd does this all the time. So I ordered some transparent decal sheets (note to self, put link there) that I could run through my inkjet printer. They showed up a few days later (love Amazon Prime) and it worked perfectly.

When working with the decal sheets, remember that inks are water based. You touch them, they smear, so be careful. And you are about to dunk them in water to make them work. So you MUST coat them with spray lacquer to ‘set’ them in. I put about 3 or 4 coats of spray on top. You can buy clear, or white decals. Clear is great if you’re putting them on a white object, like I did. But if your model is dark, and your image has white in it, you will need to print on the white decal material and cut it VERY close with an exacto blade.

To this end, I have the next tip…

cy worktable and it is one of my best tools. This is my primary work surface and I use it throughout the day. We retired it from the kitchen and I told me wife “don’t throw it away, I think I could use it.” Best call ever. I built my workstation from scratch, but I don’t like knives digging into my work top surface. The cutting board lets me sand, hack and dig away at things without a second thought. In the photo below is the entire build of the Hunley. I keep a ‘build basket’ empty to put new work into. All the bags behind it are previous builds that haven’t been shipped out (I don’t sell my builds, just my digital models…these builds are all promotional materials).

This is a ‘retired’ board from our kitchen. I love it.

This section is new (I started it tonight). I will add to it over time. I have dozens of tips, but I didn’t have a place to put them (some are on the Hunley project file), so this will give them a home now that I actually started the page.


When I first started messing around with complex builds, I tried to go ‘high end.’  I’m a home-owner and I regularly deal with irrigation systems. PVC pipes are the tinker-toys of my life. So when it came to ‘gluing’ things together that are made of plastic, I wanted that ‘chemical’ bond like PVC cement. I tried many things, some costly, some very volatile.  None were great. But most on the interwebtubes like super-glue. So I found Loctite’s  Gel Control glue. I loved it, and it works great. It is the only glue I use now to assemble objects.


This may seem obvious, but if you don’t do it, your print will fail. I’ve had plenty of failed prints because I missed some parts that didn’t follow this rule. Everything must be on the ground axis. In Lightwave, this is called the Y axis. In 3D printing this is commonly called the X axis. But whatever you call it, it’s the ‘up and down’ one. If your print doesn’t lay flat, your first layer will fail, along with your print.

A close view of the Y axis in Lightwave, a solid foundation to print

To avoid this, make sure ALL the points on the bottom of your model all exist on the same plane. For me, it’s the zero Y. I  inspect every print to make sure every point is laying on this axis. The slicer software will drop your model down on the zero, but if other points lay above it, only the lowest points will be on the zero. Evey one MUST be on the zero for the print to work. Otherwise they will try to print on air, even if it just one layer. If your head is clogged up with material on the outside…it’s most likely because your material had no where else to go.


All printers are different. I use a Duplicator 4. I print at 205° with PLA with no temp on the bed. My bed is glass, with a layer of Scotch brand tape (no other brand worked for me) and wiped down with rubbing alcohol. This works for me on EVERY print, so I don’t mess with it. I respect the folks who can print directly on glass, carbon or Kaplon tape, I just can’t. I have tried hairspray and ABS juice. I’m glad it works for them, but it doesn’t for me. Key is having a perfectly level bed.


I will admit, I still will use the ‘sheet of paper’ technique to level my bed. BUT, one I have done that, I consider that an ‘average. A bit ago I found  a thread on leveling Replicators that also applied to Duplicators.

The part to print is: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:222379

The magnets to buy are: http://www.ebay.com/itm/261099666812?_trksid=p2059210.m2749.l2649&ssPageName=STRK%3AMEBIDX%3AIT

The dial that works is: http://www.ebay.com/itm/261352617146?_trksid=p2059210.m2749.l2649&ssPageName=STRK%3AMEBIDX%3AIT

The device

The assembly is simple. I just took my control gel and glued the magnets and the dial into position. Once I have done the ‘paper’ routine, I run this dial over the whole bed and tweak it even more. If you don’t have a flat bed, you have a failed print. I don’t have failed prints anymore. You might be OK with the paper routine, but this REALLY tightens things up.


Large prints can be hard to get off a plate, even with tape down. At first I would design the bottom of a print to have ridges, thus not being completely flat. But that didn’t work all the time and I ended up breaking one  glass plate and then stabbing myself with my knife while trying to remove a print. It was becoming the most difficult part of 3D printing, since I do some large models. Then I had an idea…What if I ran warm water on my plate?

Running warm water on the plate after a build

I wondered if it would soften the adhesive on the tape. Sure enough, it worked great. My prints now peel easily off the glass plate. Problem solved. Now even large prints that fill up most of the bed surface come off  with little hassle. I can’t believe it took me five months to figure this out!


I live on the coast in Florida, and that means almost daily thunderstorms in the afternoon. These are sometimes accompanied by brief power outages. Since some of my 3D renders can take a long time (I just finished one render that took 42 hours) I’ve always had my computer station on a backup power supply. It’s bailed me out countless times. But when I got my 3D printer, I didn’t hook it up to my backup because it’s in another room. The machines can be loud and mine runs constantly, so  instead of letting it throw the vibe off in my normally tranquil studio, it has been banished to a back room. It’s not unusual for one of my prints to take 20 hours or so. Summer quietly rolled around and I hadn’t thought about a backup supply until one Saturday. I had a 3 day print running on an industrial 3D printer, and I was on day two. The huge build was looking great…but looking out the window I could see a massive, dark squall line heading right towards me from the ocean, lightening flashed every few seconds. The storm rolled over and fortunately I didn’t loose power.

The next day I went to Office Depot and picked up an APC Backup Battery. The unit I got would power 420 watts for 60 minutes. My biggest printer was rated at 120 watts, so I plugged in both printers and figured that if power went out, I could definitely go over an hour with both of them printing with no problem. Their smaller, cheaper units actually would be fine. Most of our power outages last a few seconds to a minute. On occasion we’ll go out for five or ten minutes. I got the bigger unit for Hurricane season. We have a generator, but if power went out I could lend this unit to friends and neighbors to charge their cell phones or run their internet routers in case we lose power for days…which has happened in the past.

Since setting it up the unit has saved at least two prints in the past week. It also offers surge protection. Which brings me to a second tip, if you can, get whole house surge protection. With all the electronic gadgets we have these days, I sleep better with it.

Adobe Illustrator, using a great 2D program to make great 3D objects

I love Adobe Illustrator. In 1987 Apple released its first laser writer printer, and it was driven by Adobe Postscript. At the same time Adobe was working on a vector based program called Adobe Illustrator. The only machine that could do anything with it, of course, was the Apple Laserwriter. At this point I was a staff artist at a newspaper who LOVED the Mac Plus, but the only output was a dot matrix printer. I pushed my editor to buy the new MacII and the Laserwriter, but the cost was too much. One megabyte of RAM cost $1,000 at the time. Fortunately, we were part of the New York Times group and they had a great leader, Gary Cosimini, Art Director of the New York Times. To shorten the story, within a year I was part of the NYT Graphics Network, we got new computers and printers and I spent a fair amount of time traveling the south teaching other group papers how to use the new computers and printers for daily infographic use. I was born at the right time.  I was a beta user of Illustrator and for many years was an industry leader in using the program for informational graphics.

Fast forward to today.

Adobe illustrator’s tool set is still light-years of anything else. I use it every day for a variety of reasons, even though I’m largely a 3D artist. The most obvious use is in the creation of 2D images that will be mapped to my 3D objects. But there’s another use. Fortunately for me, Lightwave 3D supports the import of EPS documents. I can create a document in Illustrator (outlines) and import them into Lighwave. To do this you MUST save a downgraded version to 8.0, that’s no problem. After that, you can extrude or lathe the shape you brought in.

Why bother? Well the toolset in Illustrator (in my opinion) is far better than any 3D program I’ve experienced. There actually isn’t any comparison. So Illustrator is ALWAYS running in the background when I model.

My favorite example is the following illustration that I used to show when I taught college 3D modeling courses. Everything, EVERYTHING below is either a flat object or a lathe object. All of which was done in Illustrator, and imported as an EPS file into Infini-D 3D, textured then rendered. This isn’t cutting edge. I drew this in 1996.

Underground New York for National Geographic

The same thing applies to 3D printing. I can build this entire scene, piece by piece, in Adobe Illustrator if I want to.  It would print out just fine. It would take several hundred pieces and a LOT of glue, but it could be done.

That brings me to my Steampunk picture frame.

Don’s Steampunk Photo Frame

This frame was born on the concept of creating an object based largely from Adobe Illustrator.  The frame, the gears and other small parts were all generated from Adobe Illustrator outlines imported into Lightwave 3D.

Illustrator Gear

The secret is using the Pathfinder tool in Illustrator. You can throw all type of shapes at it, and ask it to create an outline…and it will. In this case a simple circle was made and a loose cog was created and replicated to for the gear. After doing this, they were selected and the Pathfinder tool created a solid shape from the objects. The same goes for the negative shape in the gear, they were created and the Pathfinder tool was used to exclude them. The result was a shape that imported perfectly into Lightwave (using the Auto Drill EPS import) to create a perfect shape.

Real world gear


I live in a world surround by ‘stuff’ these days.  In my earlier, simply digital world, I created my art on the screen. Now I have a studio filled with the things I print. And I also have the material I need to print them with.  Above is a photo of two (0f my four) printers and two carts. These are Home Depot or BJ purchases, and they are wonderfull. I have one cart for printing material, and one cart for printed items and paint. If you are building a studio for 3D printing, I would keep this in mind.

Using metal paint to bring a print to life

Up to this point the only ‘effect’ I’ve done on my 3D prints is to apply paint or stain. For the most part this has served its purpose. I’ve been working on a large-scale CSS Hunley, printing it on my industrial printer, the Duplicator 5.

Wanhao Duplicator  5 on the first print

I really wanted a rusty metal look  and feel for this print, so I decided to try the Modern Masters series of Metal Effects paints.

Test Sections, left to right, Bronze, Rust and Copper

When I first printed the submarine on the D5, I ran out of material before the print could finish. My mistake was trying to print the entire sub hull at one time. Since it is designed in 3 sections, when the print failed, all three sections failed. Fortunately the coupling sleeves were complete. I then printed each section separately without a problem. To take advantage of this mistake, I decided to use the sections as tests for the 3 different types of Metal Effects paint that Modern Master offers. I ordered the paints online directly from the store (http://www.modernmasters.com/). I bought their Bronze, Rust and Copper paints as well as their blue and green patinas and the rust activator. In addition I bought their Permacoat, which retards the effect activation and seals the paint, and also a bottle of their primer. While I knew I wanted the rusty look for this print, I was curious on how the other paints would work for future projects.

The paint cart in my studio, Primer and Metal Effects paint in the front row, Effect Activtors in the second row.

The tests showed me that the bronze and blue patina had great potential. The rust was perfect for this project. The copper was interesting, but the specularity of the paint REALLY  showed off the print layers. I also tested the green patina on the copper and it gave it a nice aged tint. For future reference, if I want to paint a print with copper, I’ll print at high resolution (0.10 mm) and prep the surface a bit.

Stern section on the Duplicator 5

I used Super Control Gel Super Glue to assemble the print. With the assembly done, I decided it was ‘too perfect. I wanted a slightly irregular feel to the surface, so I dug out some vinyl spackling from the garage and coated the entire build. The results were exactly what I had hoped for.

Primer coat

Next step was applying the primer coat, which they say is required. This thick paint helps fill in the layer ridges as well as providing a base for the paint. I dried it with a hair blower in about 5 minutes. As per instructions, I put on two coats of their Iron paint. I dried the first coat with the hair blower and then made sure I was ready to put on the Rust Activator when I put on the second coat. The Activator must be applied  before  the second layer dries.  While the second layer was still ‘tacky’ I used  a sea sponge  to apply the Activator. Then it was a matter of just waiting until I had the level of rust I wanted. It took  about 10 to 15 minutes to see any change at all. In about 30 minutes the rust began to be pronounced. Around 45 minutes after putting on the Activator, I applied the Permacoat to the craft and let it dry for the night.

Final project

The result was a 5 foot long realist replica of the CSS Hunley. This project was special to me because I was present at the site when the Hunley was raised in 2000, 136 years after it sank  and I spent days in the laboratory covering the excavation for National Geographic Magazine.

Printing on Lexan

I broke all of my glass plates, plus the two I bought to replace them. Five plates total. I new print on Lexan plates. I still apply Scotch brand painter’s tape,  just like I did  with glass. Here’s where I get mine: http://wanhaousa.com/collections/hardware/products/lexan-build-plate