Tips and Tricks

What follows is a list of the various tools, tweaks, and other generally useful information I've picked up over the course of building my figures. If you're looking to squeeze every last ounce of detail into your printed model (as I constantly am) these are just some of the ways to go about it...

The Essentials (Don't print without them):

  1. Spare print nozzles - You will always want to make sure you have a couple of spare nozzles of the same size and style as your extruder and heat block. Most printers use 4mm nozzles (don't change the nozzle size unless you know exactly what you're doing, and know where to change all the appropriate settings in CURA), but there are multiple styles, including M6 (short stubby nozzles) and MK10 (larger, more pyramid shaped nozzles), with different thread types.
    Nozzles eventually wear out or get hopelessly encrusted/jammed. Don't wait until your last nozzle is unrecognizably encrusted in a ball of molten plastic goo to buy new ones.

  2. Spare teflon tubing - Nearly all filament printers use standard 4mm outer/2mm inner teflon tubing to guide the filament into position, and most have short sections of pre-cut tubing inside the extruder itself, which slot into the nozzle. This is where most printer jams occur, and after you've been printing for a while, you're going to get really good at unscrewing the nozzle and swapping out this bit of tubing. You can save a bit of money by buying a long length of this tubing and cutting it down to size yourself, though make sure you write down exactly how long the pieces should be, otherwise it may not fit in the available space or leave a gap where a filament jam can form.

  3. 0.4mm nozzle cleaning bit - I prefer the long stainless steel ones that look like acupuncture needles. The short stubby ones tend to break off inside the nozzle and cause problems of their own. To clean a stuck nozzle, heat the nozzle to normal printing temperature (or slightly higher) and then carefully insert the cleaning bit up inside the nozzle to tease out stuck filament.

  4. 1.75mm steel cleaning rod - Your printer should have come with one of these. Don't lose it, since they're unusually hard to replace. Use this to free up filament jams from the other end of the extruder when the nozzle cleaning bit isn't working.

  5. Uninterruped power supply/battery backup (not pictured) - If your electrics are the slightest bit dodgy or you live in an area that sometimes gets brown-outs or power surges, you'll want to spring for a cheap uninterrupted power supply/battery backup. It doesn't have to be a fancy one, as even the best battery backup usually won't last more than an hour, but while it won't help if a winter storm takes out power to your entire neighborhood for several hours, it may just save your 3-day print job if you get a brief power flicker or somebody trips the breakers by plugging in the vacuum cleaner and the hair dryer at the same time, and you need a couple of minutes to run to the fuse box.


Useful tools to keep around the place:

  1. Soldering iron with a narrow tip (and a LED light, if possible) - Very useful for "cleaning" prints of stray blobs of filaments, smoothing rough areas (especially stringy overhangs) and if you're brave enough... can also be used to manually add lines and other details to a print prior to painting. You'll want the narrowest most needle-like tip you can get, and one with a LED light is nice so you can see what you're doing.

  2. Dremel tool - Also useful for fixing mistakes especially when you want to slightly grind a part down or widen a hole. Be cautious when using the dremel, as it will quickly heat up the plastic and pull off larger chunks than you may have wanted. This is especially the case if you used a fill percentage below about 80%.

  3. Very sharp needle nose tweezers - The finest narrowest pair you can find. Essential for when you have to reach down into crevasses either to position a small part or retrieve some little bit of plastic that's rattling around.

  4. Hakko CHP PNB-2005 Long-Nose 45° Angled Pliers - These pliers are a livesaver when trying to get a grip on small components at an angle, and removing support structures up inside the body of figures.

  5. Hakko CHP PN-20-M Pointed Nose Micro Pliers with Smooth Jaws - Small but allows you to get a good grip of very small pieces. I prefer the smooth jaw ones since they're less likely to leave lines on whatever part you're gripping.

  6. Hakko CHP 170 Clean Cut Micro Cutters - These wire cutters cut in nice clean straight lines, and are excellent for snipping off unwanted support structures (like the ones on the Quark's tips)

  7. Hakko CHP PN-2008 Long-Nose Flat-edged Pliers with Smooth Jaws - Less essential than the others, but it's nice having a larger flat smooth pair of pliers that won't leave marks. Sometimes, if a component got bent or squished, you can use these to squish it back into shape without leaving grip marks.

  8. Paint Scraper - One of these should have come with your 3D printer, but if not, pick one up for prying off stuck print jobs and/or scraping off residue.

  9. Xacto Blades - Essential for scraping off unwanted blobs or whitling down components that are slightly too big.

  10. Regular Pliers - Standard pliers. I Mainly use these for ripping out support structures where finesse isn't required.

  11. Small metal ruler with mm and inches- I use these all the time when designing my figures, but they come in handy as a straight edge when trying to make a precise straight cut.

  12. Cheap non-aerosol hairspray - I use Suave Max Hold, since it's literally the cheapest. Non-aerosol hairspray is your secret weapon for getting the bottom layer of your print to stick to the build area and prevent curling, especially on heated beds. For extra large prints (like the TARDIS Console, War Machine, etc.) I recommend squirting down a layer seconds before it starts printing (don't put it down too early or it'll evaporate before it does any good) and then at various points while it's printing the first layer, especially around the corners. Try to only spray in areas when the print head is in the opposite corner so you don't gunk up the fan or print head itself. If you're not using a glass plate, you will occasionally have to use the paint scraper to scrape off the disgusting residue once it's built up.

  13. Detail brushes - You'll want the finest sharpest points you can find for painting your figures. I tend to rotate through my brushes, using new extra pointy ones for fine detail work, and then once they've been washed a few times, those become the general "filling in" brushes. Once they start getting a bit natty on the ends, you can sometimes use the micro cutters to snip the end off and extend their lifespan a bit.

  14. E6000 - Better than crazy glue for gluing down large pieces that need to be able to flex like springs, or when you need to cover a lot of surface area at once (like gluing the two TARDIS console halves together.)

  15. Gel Super Glue - Never use the liquid stuff or model glue if you can help it. It just gets everywhere and leaves those white "fume fingerprints" on everything. Gel superglue should be used for gluing small pieces together where you don't have enough surface area (or it's too visible) to use E6000.

  16. Rubber Tipped Spring Clamps - Vital when gluing large flat pieces together (like the TARDIS console) where they need to be absolutely flush.

  17. Testor's Enamel Paint - I'm no expert when it comes to model painting, but this stuff is pretty easy to blend, and doesn't peel off like acrylic.

  18. Testor's Enamel Thinner - Good not only for cleaning your brushes but for doing light color washes on figures you want to add a slight highlight or gradient to (like the Yeti's fur, Alpha Centauri's cape that blends yellow to green, etc.) Most enamel paint sets come with a small bottle, but I like to have a lot around.

  19. Dullcote Lacquer - Adds a protective layer to bare filament and enamel paint alike, with the added benefit of toning down the gloss sheen of enamel paint when finishing off your figures. Very useful stuff indeed, but make sure you shake the bottle thoroughly before using and try to keep even coverage over the whole figure.

Chemical add-ons:

  1. UV Resin - UV quick-set resin in a godsend for fixing small mistakes, patching holes, and tightening loose joints. It's also pretty cheap and you rarely need more than a single drop at a time, so one bottle should last you a long time.

    Many of my figures' arm and leg joints are designed to pop in place, but depending on your printer, temperature, slicer program, and filament used, you may end up with an arm that's too loose and pops out of the socket. (Or it was too tight, so you tried to sand it down and went a little too far.) UV resin can fix a lot of these small problems. Once it sets, it's nearly indestructible, and if you need to shave a part down further, It'll require a dremel tool or a lot of patience with sand paper. That said, there's nothing better if you need to shore up a part or fine tune a piece down to the sub-millimeter level.

  2. UV Cure Light - While it is possible to cure UV resin with regular sunlight, why wait days when you can cure in a couple of minutes? Note that you want to make sure you get an actual UV cure light and not just some generic purple-tinted black light you picked up for a couple of bucks at the hardware store.

  3. XTC-3D High Performance 3D Printing Coating - This stuff can be very useful for smoothing out the layer lines inherent on all filament printing and giving your print a smooth glossy sheen, but requires some preparation and a well ventilated area. It's a 2:1 mixture, which means you'll need some disposable resin mixing cups, a popsicle sticks or something similar for stirring the chemicals together, and a disposable foam brush for application. I also recommend powder-free exam gloves and cardboard or foamcore wrapped in a heavy duty trash bag instead of newspaper for drying. The emphasis here is on disposable, since this is an epoxy resin and any mess you make with it is permanent. The set comes with one cup, brush and stick, but that'd only good for one use, after that, you'll have to replace all of the above.

    Be warned, you only have about 10 minutes in which to apply this coating, and after that, it takes 4-6 hours to cure. Even hours after it's cured, the smooth gloss surface will show off fingerprints, so it's a good idea to wear gloves when applying the coating and painting it afterwards.

    A little bit of XTC-3D goes a long way (a single ounce can cover over 100 square inches) so I never mix more than the smallest amount possible in the disposable cup. You don't want to put too much on any model, especially not anything with a lot of fine surface detail (like the TARDIS console, or hairy figures like the Yeti and Taran Wood Beast) since it smooths out corners and crevasses as well as layer lines. Also, this can and will glue your model to anything it touches, so be cautious of drips. You will likely need to do multiple coats for to get full coverage, and you'll need to mix it up from scratch every time because of the 10 minute application window, so be prepared to take your time and err on the side of caution when painting feet or other pieces that may come in contact with your work surface.

    It's a lot of extra work, but can be worth the effort on any figures with lots of flat surface areas like the Dalek Time Machine, SIDRAT, War Machine, Servo Robot, Quark, and Kroton where layer lines and other minor imperfections are quite noticeable.


Useful printer add-ons:

I use the following add-ons for my two Wanhao clone printers. Obviously, your mileage may vary, depending on what machines you're using.

Ultrabase Tempered Glass platform by Anycubic:

Out of all the bells and whistles I've added to my printers, this one really has made the most significant difference. The manufacturer makes several variations for different sized build plates, so there's a pretty good chance you can find one that fits your machine. I've tried a couple of different borosilicate plates, and this is the only one that sticks in place and really improves the quality of the print.

What it does: If you have a heated print bed, it helps distribute heat evenly across the entire build area (which prevents warping), and will give you an absolutely gorgeous smooth finish to the underside to your prints, both of which are essential when printing large scale designs like the TARDIS console, War Machine, Dalek Time Machine, etc. I still tend to spray a bit of hairspray on the plate for large builds, just to make sure everything stays put, but when printing smaller pieces you can largely do away with hairspray and other fixitives to keep your designs in place. You also don't have to use the paint-scraper to remove your prints. If you allow the plate to cool back down to room temperature, they'll pop right off.

What to watch out for: If your printer has a bunch of filament and hairspray stuck to the existing mat, you may need to peel it off and stick the Ultrabase directly to the metal build plate. If it pops off, you can even crazy glue it in place. When you first install it, because it raised the height of your build plate by about 1/4 of an inch, you will need to relevel your bed and probably adjust your Z axis endstop. Depending on what model of machine you're using, this may be an electronic setting, or you may have to physically unscrew and remount the Z axis endstop sensor.


Plexiglass Enclosure kit:

Maybe your printer comes with an enclosure, and maybe it doesn't. If it doesn't, look into getting one if you can afford it. (They tend to cost around $100-200). Alternatively, you can try building your own out of sheets of Lexan (ideally at least 1/8th of an inch thick), or if push comes to shove, even foamcore purchased from the local dollar store can help in a big way.

What it does: If you have kids or pets in the house, it's always nice to have a barrier between them and your print job. The same goes for a dust, moisture, cat and dog hair, or other particulate matter that can damage your print. But the main thing an enclosure does is regulate temperature and cut down on warping, which again, is essential when printing larger scale figures.

What to watch out for: Sometimes an enclosure can be too effective at trapping in heat, especially with a heated build platform, as I learned to my detriment when my filament started pre-melting and jamming inside the extruder after about 2 hours of continuous operation. If you start getting filament jams or melted print jobs, that may be a sign that your enclosure is working too well, and you need to lower the heat of your build plate and/or experiment with leaving part of the enclosure open so some of the heat can escape.



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