Is 3D Printing For You? – A Beginner’s Quest
3D printing was always a bit of a mystery to me. We had a machine at school when they first became commercialised, and even then, the idea seemed odd.
A kid in my year was an engineering whizz and he set it up all by himself. There were no instructions and he spent a good two (stressful) days assembling it.
The thing was massive, had loads of wires and I’m sure it cost upwards of £700 plus it printed very, very slowly. Fast forward ten years and printers are much smaller and more compact. Instructions are more straightforward. Some parts come pre-assembled, and the whole thing can be ready in a few hours–all for under £300.
Model of the 3D printer we use to have at school
That has removed many barriers to entry, and the 3D printing scene has boomed, especially in the tabletop community. In fact, that’s the reason I got one and why I’m writing this article!
This isn’t a classic “beginner’s guide to 3D printing”, kind of the opposite. Those guides come from experts who know everything there is to know about 3D printing. I’m a novice sharing my experience and hopefully providing the information I feel these other guides left out (especially on safety).
Basically, by the end of this article, you should be able to work out whether 3D printing is right for you!
FDM vs SLA – The difference, convenience and safety
Which is Which?
FDM and SLA are acronyms you may see when browsing 3D printing videos or articles. For example, fused deposition modelling (FDM) and stereolithography (SLA) are the two most popular in commercialised 3D printing.
FDM works by extruding thermoplastics like ABS or PLA through a heated nozzle onto a heated bed. The plastic melts as it comes out of the nozzle and is placed on the bed one layer at a time until the model is complete.
SLA is what I call an upside-down FDM printer. It does the same thing by building layer by layer but achieves it differently. A laser is used to cure liquid resin into hardened plastic, going layer by layer until completed
FDM Printer Diagram
SLA Printer Diagram
Safety – Fumes
I own an FDM printer, so that’s where my experience lies. I chose that by default because it was ‘safer’ than SLA (I will go into further detail soon). However, if you are adamant about wanting an SLA printer, other parts of the article further down are still useful!
Again, I am a beginner hobbyist and not a scientist, so I’d advise doing your own research for each printer instead of listening to a Daily Dice writer who wanted a printer for plastic minis. Here’s the basic rundown:
- When melting plastic with FDM printers or setting liquid resin with a laser with SLA printers, there will be fumes.
- Breathing in these tiny particles of plastics can be very hazardous, even more so depending on the plastic or resin being used.
- On an FDM printer, ABS and Nylon (not commonly used for printed minis but still worth noting), when heated, emit high levels of styrene, which is suspected to be carcinogenic.
- SLA printers, when using resin, release even more volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which leave an awful (never personally smelt it) smell and can irritate your skin. Resin is known to be more toxic to the point they have to legally put it on labels and even advise handling with a respirator.
This knowledge led me to go with FDM; as for printing minis, the most commonly used plastic is PLA/PLA+ instead of resin. PLA/PLA+ is a plastic made from natural materials like sugarcane and corn, so when burned produces lactide, which isn’t toxic.
Safety – Ventilation
Ventilation is where I think most beginner guides slip up on safety. Although choosing an FDM printer and printing with PLA is the safer option it doesn’t entirely end there.
Although the PLA fumes are not toxic in nature, there are still fumes. Fumes with ultra-fine plastic particles can’t be seen with the naked eye and can even get into your lungs if exposed for a long time.
This information is sort of integral to if “3D printing is for you”, as the workaround is to have a 3D printer in a well-ventilated room. If you don’t have a room or dedicated area, you shouldn’t really have a 3D printer–especially if you have pets, children, or there’s anyone pregnant living with you.
I have mine in the corner of my bedroom which still isn’t ideal as it’s such an active living space. I make sure to have the door and windows open and do not have long prints going on overnight when sleeping.
Safety – TL;DR
3D Printers produce fumes. FDM printers using PLA plastic is less toxic but still requires a well-ventilated room due to nanoparticles, whether they’re toxic or not.
What To Expect
The level of quality you can get from a 3D printer has come a long way, especially when printing minis and terrain.
SLA printers will always beat FDM in terms of the level of detail you can achieve due to the printing style and the way resin cures instead of FDM, which lays down hot plastic.
If having a high level of detail that could rival store bought minis is important to you, SLA is a must (if taking the proper safety precautions listed above).
However, this doesn’t mean that FDM can’t achieve a respectable level of quality. FDM can create great terrain and large minis; it just struggles to make small, highly detailed 28mm figures.
Even then, it can still outline chain mail, muscle mass, noses, eye ridges, cape decal and much more. It struggles with fine, minute details like face scars, weapon kinks–the more advanced small stuff.
Type of quality to expect
Another thing to note for quality (and another SLA vs FDM factor) is how some minis and terrain are assembled.
Some models are quite large or complex and are split into multiple parts, which are glued/assembled later. This can affect the overall quality as the final model, if not worked on, will have assembly lines.
3D printers have a build volume, which determines the area a 3D printer has to work with. SLA printers tend to have a smaller build volume, making it harder to print large terrain but also means you may also have to split a model into even more components, making assembly quality even more apparent.
FDM printers have a large build volume, making them versatile for minis and terrain. It also means you split the model into fewer parts which mean fewer assembly lines.
A final note on quality is that it is very dependent on your printer settings (this is covered later) and the quality of your material. Unfortunately, the printer doesn’t print great high-quality models right out of the box. You have to tweak it quite a bit or copy settings online.
I’m going to try and not bog this section down with too much 3D printing lingo. Maybe the time it takes to 3D print a model is the main factor in whether you will get one, so you don’t care about all these random non-beginner friendly settings.
The time it takes to print a model is dependent on what you are printing and how you print it. For your average 28mm mini model with a high level of detail, you are looking at around 1.5-3 hours. For terrain pieces like rocks or trees, you are looking 2-5 hours plus.
One of my minis with supports
The time can vary as it depends on whether the model needs supports or not. The FDM printer can not print on thin air as it prints layer by layer, e.g. if the model has overhanging parts. Think tree branches, extended arms.
Supports are added to help the print but they too need to be printed and add extra time to the print.
The time it takes to print large terrain can be reduced by increasing the layer height. High-quality 28mm minis are usually 0.08mm per layer to get that fine detail. Terrain models are generally larger and can get away with being printed at 0.2mm per layer.
With that being said, I don’t think 3D printers have the quickest turnaround as it all depends on how much free time you have.
For example, if you play Warhammer, it could take you a whole week’s worth of non-stop printing to print an entire army.
If you have weekly D&D sessions, printing the upcoming encounter, enemies and terrain, and painting probably isn’t doable.
My Dead By Daylight one-shot
All of this isn’t a scare tactic to put you off of 3D printing, but rather, they’re points that need to be considered. I haven’t even covered printer failures yet, which sadly do happen. Maybe the printing bed wasn’t level; the heat wasn’t right; incorrect support settings and many factors can fail a print, which can affect overall printing time.
It’s A Hobby
The general consensus in the 3D printing community is that the whole process is considered a ‘hobby’. That all sounds great, but hobbies, like most, tend to take up time and need a certain amount of knowledge.
Even though the printers are more plug and play than they used to be several years ago, the whole printing process isn’t.
Taking the time to understand the process, parts of the printer, printing settings, materials, supports, models, etc, can be quite a considerable undertaking.
I think that’s important to note so that you know what you are getting into. If you’re someone who already has too many hobbies or can’t sacrifice your time, then 3D printing is going to be hard work.
On the other hand, 3D printing can be an additional tool to your existing hobbies. D&D is a hobby in itself, so is painting minis and perhaps even modelling your own. It can open up and lead to more pastimes which can also be seen as a bonus.
Software & Hardware
Another potential limiting factor to consider is the software and hardware. For example, software like Cura is used to help you choose printer settings and how your model should be printed.
Although free, it does require 4GB of ram to run. It may sound condescending, but this could be a limiting factor if your hardware does not have that.
What Cura looks like
So Is It For You?
Have you accepted the 3D printing beginner’s quest? Are you ready to embark on your journey? Then go forth, traveller! Or have you declined the quest? Fret not, as you can see, there are cons aplenty!
I haven’t covered all the aspects of 3D printing, but I have tried highlighting the important ones. Of course, everyone would love to 3D print dragons and dwarves for their D&D campaigns, but sadly it isn’t as ‘plug and play’ like that.
If you want me to go over anything, let me know in the comments on our Instagram or Twitter and even though I’m a beginner at the time of writing, I’ll give you the best knowledge I have. Failing that, ask online, notably in the r/3Dprinting subreddit, as they have been nothing but welcoming and helpful.
Need some D&D 3D Printing Resources? Read our article here: 3D Printing D&D – Websites & Resources.