3d Printing Tabletop Models at Home: Advantages and Disadvantages

There are a lot of things going for 3d printing at home. It’s just a cool technology, and it has a lot of promise. For us tabletop gamers, 3d printing is very much an asset to us. If your hobby is cooking, there are a few things that you could 3d print that would be useful. If you sew for a hobby, it’s the same. But for tabletop gamers (those of us who use miniature figurines, model vehicles and model buildings), being able to create at home is  a fantastic ability.

The advantages of 3d printing at home is that you can choose from thousands of free STL files to print from, or pay for even more, or design your own. You print only what you need, and you can modify the designs if you have the need. But 3d printing is still a new technology. As such, it is slow, not always reliable, and requires some technical intervention once in a while. It’s not a mature technology, meaning that the 3d printer is not an appliance, but more of an early prototype machine.

Still, review the disadvantages and advantages below and see if it’s right for you. The upsides are quite good, and the downsides all can be worked around. But understanding the limitations of the technology is essential to avoiding the frustration of issues that crop up. It’s better to go in with your eyes open!

The Disadvantages of 3d Printing Models at Home

Quality of 3d Prints For Models at Home

3d printing isn’t there yet on quality. It’s close – very close, depending on the style of printing that you’re doing. If you’re printing using a FDM filament printer (like the Ender 3, CR-10 or Prusa i3 Mk 3) then you’re going to get very noticeable layer lines. You can mitigate this somewhat by changing out the nozzle from the stock 0.4mm to a custom 0.2mm nozzle. Remember to adjust your settings in your slicer to accommodate the different nozzle. You’ll get (in my opinion) somewhere around 75% of the quality of a plastic model kit for the same model.

For most, that 70% is good enough. Especially considering the cost (quite cheap, like under $5.00USD cheap for larger vehicles, for example, where a plastic kit is a minimum of $20.00USD and likely more like $35.0USD retail.

You’d likely only use an FDM filament printer to print models at home because they’re large. FDM filament printers tend to have quite a bit larger print beds when compared to DLP resin printers. If they’re smaller, you’d likely go with the DLP resin printers, as the quality is much higher.

You’re still not getting model kit quality yet with DLP resin printers. But you’re easily 90% there. And if the designer of the figures or vehicles is designing the STL file with DLP resin printing in mind, the models can be even better! But not all models are, so you have to keep that in mind.

3d Printing is Slow

You can go to your local game or hobby shop, pick up a model kit or game model, and be back home in short order. That’s quite quick and convenient, and you’ve got the superior product.

3d printing is slow. Any model will likely take in the order of 10 hours or more. Some can take days to print. DLP resin printers are generally smaller, and print an entire layer at the same time, so it tends to be quicker. The number of models (or more correctly, the usage of surface area of the build plate) doesn’t matter if you’re printing an entire layer at a time. One model or six on the same plate prints at the same speed.

FDM filament printing can take quite a lot of time. I print 1:100 scale European buildings for my games. Each layer (first floor, second floor, roof) can take 10 hours, meaning that in total, you’ve got 30 hours of printing ahead of you, for a single building. It can take a lot of time.

But here’s the thing. You have a lot of time. Think of it this way – let’s say you want to make a new model army of spacemen. You find the models you’d like to print on Thingiverse.Com and you’ve downloaded them. You have 15 different models to make, but with duplicates, you’ll want 60 models for your army collection. Of course, you’ve got a day job, so you can’t attend the printer day-and-night to ensure maximum efficiency.

Say you can fit three models comfortably on your build area of your DLP resin printer (like an AnyCubic Photon, Epax X1 or Elegoo Mars). You set up and start the print for the first three on the first evening. The next evening, you come back from work to find three models hanging from your build plate. You remove them, clean them up, then start the next three. So you’re getting a throughput of three models a day. Let’s say you only do that Monday through Friday. That’s 15 models a week. You’re done in four weeks, or a month.

So in a month, you went from no models in your army to having all of it. It took some effort, but not a lot, and the printer was busy all month. But you didn’t have to sit there and watch it or do anything but start the print jobs, and finish the models (clean, remove supports, file and sand as required). If you had printed on the weekends, or increased the model count on the build plate to higher than three models, you could have been done even sooner. And you were printing while you were sleeping and at work.

Not Every Print Finishes Successfully

This is a problem, but one that you can mitigate over time. There are a lot of factors that go into whether you have a successful print. Is the environment right for printing (temperature, humidity)? Have you got the settings on your printer and your slicer right? Is your printing material in good shape?

If you get any one of these things wrong, then you may have a failed print. It’s not as foolproof as a paper printer, that tends to print exactly as you’d expect, every single time. We’re not at the level of technological maturity to call a home 3d printer an appliance. We’re likely not far off from machines that you buy, plug in, and they just work, every time.

But don’t despair! We may not be at the appliance level of repeatability, but we’re close! Your slicer software (the software that adds the supports where needed and calculates the necessary print “slices” for the printer to follow) are getting better all the time. For first timers, you’ll find it interesting that the printer’s settings are embedded in the output from the slicer. So not only does that file contain the model information, it contains the instructions on how thick the slices are, how fast will the build plate or extruder move, and a host of other settings. So each model that you slice can have different settings, if you want them to.

Once you have a model printing successfully with a set of settings from the slicer, you can reuse these settings and be reasonably assured that you’ll get a successful print for a similar model. So, for a DLP resin printer, once you have a successful print of a set of spacemen, save that settings set and reuse it for all your other spacemen sets. It drops your uncertainty, and increases the likelihood that you’ll get a successful print again. Like anything, as you get comfortable with the process by doing several times, your confidence goes up and you understand what went wrong when something doesn’t print correctly.

You’ll learn what to fix, by searching online or watching YouTube.Com videos. Both can increase your knowledge, increasing your chances of avoiding a bad print. But those bad prints do happen once in a while. Sometimes, it’s just that you didn’t have supports in the right place. Sometimes, you’ll find that the model just wasn’t a good one to print, and had a flaw that made it difficult or impossible to print successfully. Or you figure out that you need more time to cure your first few layers with your DLP resin printer, or …! It sounds daunting until you do it. Then it gets simpler as you get more experience, so don’t let a failed print discourage you. Figure out why it failed and print again!

Removing Supports May Damage or Destroy a Model

Supports are the thinner material that is printed to allow a model to print when it’s bridging a gap. Think of a model of a person standing, one arm bent and extending out from the body. That elbow and arm are unsupported. Essentially, you’re asking the printer to print material in thin air, as there’s nothing below these points of the model.

Supports fix this by providing risers that the model can print onto. Think of them as the uprights that a bridge will sit on, allowing it to span a gap. It’s the same with supports. The slicer software figures out where supports are needed, and you can add more if you feel they’re necessary.

In my experience, sometimes those supports don’t break off the finished model cleanly. They attach too well to the model, and instead of breaking off cleanly, they take a chunk of material out of the main model. That’s not good. Worse, I’ve broken a thin part off the model when trying to remove a support from the model. That ruins the model. I’ve even had a set of supports inside the roof of a building that I couldn’t get out. The geometry of the model was such that the support material was too well stuck to the model at odd angles, and I broke the roof trying to get the supports off.

For DLP resin printers, I’ve learned that you should remove supports after cleaning the model, but before you UV cure the model. It means that the supports (and the model for that matter) are more flexible. When you clip the support free, it has a bit of flex and you don’t tend to get gouges in the model, nor pieces breaking off the model (or shattering). I found that this happened all the time when I cured the model first before removing supports. Now I’ve had much greater success.

For FDM filament printers, I’ve learned that many models don’t require supports. A sloped roof with a chimney for a scale model building may not need any supports, so you can simply print without. Then, there’s no support to remove. The same is true of many main stories of buildings. They are essentially flat bottoms, with vertical sides and no roof (as the roof is printed separately, or the next floor just sits on the lower floors). In this case, I don’t need supports there, either.

Where I do need supports is areas with large gaps. If I printed a building with a large open set of doors (like a barn or aircraft hangar), then the crossbeam would need support over the opening. Knowing when to use supports and when not to can aid your success rate.

But again, practice with adding supports or adjusting supports will come with time, and you’ll improve. You’ll have less damage to the main model (or none at all) and you’ll make your life easier with simpler support removal. It can be very discouraging to destroy a model in the near-final stages of the print process, wasting all that time and material getting this far, but you’ll get better at it and improve.

Dangerous Materials, Fire Hazzard

3d printing deals with chemicals. Some are dangerous chemicals, and you have to be prepared for this. In certain circumstances, it may preclude you from 3d printing at all!

For FDM filament printers, the filament is usually mundane, and won’t harm you (except that the extruder gets hot, so you have a potential to burn yourself if you handle the extruder or freshly extruded filament). The only other chemical I use is isopropyl alcohol. I have a PEI coated print surface, and I need to clean it with the alcohol before every new print. It’s not an inherently dangerous process, but the alcohol itself is flammable, so you need to be careful.

Older, cheaper FDM filament printers have a built-in problem. There’s a setting in the operating system software for the printer’s control board that turns off thermal runaway protection. This is a situation that can occur if a heat sensor on the headed print bed fails, and the software signals to continually heat the bed. The heat may build to a point where it becomes a fire hazard.

It’s inconceivable to me that a manufacturer would turn this protection off for a consumer product, but some actually did. Thankfully, new printers all seem to have this protection enabled, but it’s worth checking. Some prints can take days to print, and you aren’t likely to watch the print for the entire time. You don’t want a fire to start when you aren’t in attendance (not that you want one when you’re there, either!) Ensure you have thermal runaway protection enabled by checking the manufacturer’s website or online forums to find out how to test for this.

For DLP resin printers, you have more chemicals. In most cases, your printing resin is caustic and poisonous. In cases of extended exposure to unprotected skin, it can cause serious chemical burns. It’s easy to protect yourself. You should always use nitrile rubber gloves any time there’s a chance that you’ll handle uncured resin. Once washed and cured, though, the model is mundane and can be handled without gloves. It’s only the uncured resin (in the bottle, in the printing resin tank or on an uncleaned model) that is of concern.

I wouldn’t use a DLP resin printer if there was any chance that a pet or child could get anywhere near uncured resin. I print in a room that I can close the door, and it stays closed all the time (although the window is open to ensure good ventilation.) If you can’t ensure that, you can still use a DLP resin printer, but I strongly suggest that you use a plant-based eco-friendly print resin. This resin is made from soy and sunflower oil, and is safe to handle and is biodegradable. Interestingly though, the manufacturer recommends that you still use nitrile rubber gloves, so it isn’t as mundane as water or syrup. Still remain cautious when you use this resin.

The Need To Modify Your Printer

DLP resin printers are complete right out of the box. There are very few add-ons or upgrades to do. So in the case of DLP resin printers, you’re set.

But low-end FDM filament printers scream out to be modified. In many cases, you’ll need to modify them to get decent results in your printing. It’s also a safety issue – some of the modifications actually make the machine safer and cleaner. Some 3d printed mods are to redirect vents, so that errant filament doesn’t fall into the fan and get sucked in, and some ensure a good path for your filament to your feeder mechanism.

Check here for a list of recommended modifications or upgrades for the Ender 3 printer: https://home3dprints.com/the-best-ender-3-mods-upgrades/.

I’ve found great improvements by moving to a new controller board for the printer (making it quieter and enabling thermal runaway protection, making the printer a little bit safer). I had a terrible time trying to get my PLA prints to stick to the print bed, and decided to try a PEI coated metal bed that sticks to a magnet on the print surface. Not only does it improve my prints sticking to the bed, it makes it a breeze to remove the prints after a successful print. Most times, the bed will cool and the print only needs a slight nudge to remove it. Other times, I’ve removed the steel plate with PEI coating, flexed it slightly, and the print popped off. I just replaced the steel plate on the bed and I was ready to go again.

The point here, though, is that the lower end FDM filament printers require you to modify them to make them completely useful. As always YMMV (your mileage may vary!)

The Advantages of 3d Printing At Home

You Get To Create!

So if it’s a pain to get your printer working and keeping it working, why go to all the trouble? The first reason is that it’s simply cool to create. I have a deep seated need to be able to create in my life, and this is a great technology to let me do that. It’s not very expensive and it gives me very acceptable end products that I can use in my tabletop games.

In the small scale hobby world (those that like to wargame with miniatures, model train enthusiasts, model and diorama makers, and architecture model makers, to name a few), there are quite a few uses for 3d printing. It’s not a “buy it and use it” hobby world any more. Now you can combine that with “I have an idea. I bet I can make that to fit my needs!”

Vast Selection of STL Files

When it comes to model kits on the market, there are quite a few. More than ever before in our past. But the number of STL files in the same genre as the model kits (airplanes, cars, tanks, soldiers, etc.) dwarfs the number of kits by a vast margin.

Let’s look at my favorite subject: World War II tanks. In the model kit world, everyone makes a PzKw V Panther tank of one sort or another. But what about STL files? Could I make this tank? Indeed you can, and every production model of that tank. And you can find a vast number of variants of the tank that were used, like recovery vehicle versions, anti-aircraft versions, engineering versions. The list is staggering. And the best part, is that I can scale the STL file up or down to get the exact size I’m looking for.

There are so many vehicles available in STL format that it’s hard to find one that isn’t modeled as an STL. And designers are taking STLs from other designers, improving detail on them, and re-issuing them for use. So not only are they available, but over time, they’re getting better! And again, in the vast majority of the time, those STLs are free, including the improvements!

Many STL files are free, but many are available for purchase. I have backed more than a few Kickstarters that sell collections of STL files. For example, one of the Kickstarters from a year ago was STL files for the bridges and associated buildings for Operation Market Garden. If you’ve seen the movie ‘A Bridge Too Far’, you’ll know it was all about taking and holding a series of bridges. This Kickstarter gave me all the STLs for the bridges involved, the buildings near the bridges, and other buildings that were key in the battle. And I paid around $1.00USD per STL provided (I think there were 45 STLs for $45.00USD by the time it was done). There’s never been a model kit for these structures, so this gives me the ability to make them, modify them, and size them.

Personal Control Over Quality

Your first control over quality is which STL you choose to print. If you know that there are multiple STLs for the same subject, you can inspect each at a very high magnification to see if it suits your needs. Choose the best one and start slicing!

But you’re not just stuck being a passive consumer. You can, if you like, import the STL file into something like TinkerCad.Com and modify elements. This certainly isn’t for everyone. It takes some getting used to designing in 3d, but the more you do it (like any skill) the more comfortable you’ll become and the better the results. I was able to take a tank I found on Thingiverse.Com, import it into TinkerCad.Com, modify several elements, download the resulting STL file, and print that. It all worked really well!

Of course, if you really want to, you can design your own models for printing. They can be as simple or as complex as you design them, and you can adjust them as you see fit moving forward. You can make STL models of building blocks for further models, and then build those together for greater control. For example, you could model the rims and tires on a truck. Then, make the truck and add the wheels. If you update the tread design on the tires, you can add them to the truck, improving it, too! You control the quality if you can design yourself.

The Ability to Modify Your Model

You can not only improve your quality, but you can modify your STL models to make whole new ones, too. So if you’ve designed a truck model, you can modify it to make a king cab version of it. Or add off-road brush guards to the model, or turn it into a militarized version, with a canvas top and soldiers sitting in the back. You can make it a tanker truck, flatbed, specialty carrier truck or tow truck.

You’re taking your basic design and modifying to make a whole range of models. It works for people models, too. If you create model people for your model railroad station, you can make variations on these people. You can have each one slightly different, with different hats, different luggage, different coats and scarves, and even different heights, weights, sexes and muscle bulk. You can have skinny kids running around, and more rotund adults waiting with all the luggage. And they all started from one 3d model that you’ve modified over and over again.

I think this may be the greatest advantage of the 3d printer. You can have every model different if you so choose. That’s pretty powerful.

The Ability to Modify Your Printer

I listed this as a disadvantage earlier, but it can also work as an advantage, too. You can take a basic printer, and you can improve as you go. This can be quite a good way to ‘grow’ your printer’s capabilities as you progress in your learning and use of the printer.

Some take this to an extreme, and build whole new printers out of parts of existing printers. They extend the control rails and make extra-large build surfaces. They make the z-axis height larger so that they can print taller models. Extensibility is a feature that not a lot of our consumer technology has. You are unlikely to modify your toaster to increase its capabilities!

But this seems to be only for FDM filament printers. The DLP resin printers seem to be only upgradable by software. There are some minor tweaks that you can do (like adding a seal around the LCD UV print screen to protect it from spilled resin) but not much else. I’ve seen where some people have swapped out the z-axis bars and motors to make the z-axis more stable, but this was no easy upgrade. It was a lot of engineering, and it wasn’t a simple kit that can be purchased – the person designed, engineered and created the upgrade himself.

Get Exactly the Number You Want

I can download one STL, and make one model from it. Or I can make two, or 10, or 85. You get the idea. The STL file doesn’t wear out like molds do. Your 85th print of the same model will look just as good as your first print of the model. You decide how many times you want to print the same model.

As I mentioned earlier, you can also add minor modifications to models, too, to add variety and print those, too. For trucks, for example, I can have one as a flatbed, one carrying a large crate, one with a bundle under a tarp, one with sides and a load of gravel, and so on.  You have the ability to merge a crate STL with a truck STL and have it print as one model if you like.

You certainly don’t have to do this, and it’s not that easy to do, but it is possible. Most of us just find the model we like on Thingiverse.Com and print it. In my wargame armies, I have printed the same model, without variation, eight times for the military unit I’m modeling. The only cost was the time and the incremental resin used, electricity used and the cleaning solutions used up during the process.

I like living in the future. It’s pretty cool to be able to make models at home, from plastic spaghetti or gray goo. When I’m done, I have a model I can sand, file, paint and use for years to come. And in the worst case, if they all get thrown out, they’re biodegradable, unlike every plastic model kit I’ve ever purchased!

Related Questions

Is 3d printing cost effective?

3d printing for tabletop gaming is indeed cost effective. A model building that costs $50.00USD commercially (plus shipping and handling) can be printed for under $2.00USD in material and $5.00USD to purchase the STL file (which you can reuse as many times as you like). The more expensive part is that printing time can be as high as a full day to print the part. If you factor in the variety of STL models available for printing, then 3d printing is very cost effective.

How much does it cost to 3d print a figure?

The best printers for home printing a 32mm gaming figure is a DLP resin printer (like the AnyCubic Photon or Elegoo Mars, both currently under $250.00USD on Amazon.Com – see the recommended gear section in the menu for a link – https://home3dprints.com/recommended-3d-printing-gear/recommended-printers/). In material cost, a 32mm figure can cost anywhere from 25¢ to $1.00USD. Larger figures will of course cost more. Smaller figures, like 15mm figures, are even cheaper, but the quality is not to the level most gamers are comfortable with.

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