Miniature figurines and small scale models require very fine detail to be printed. On an FDM filament 3d printer, this can be a challenge. Some filaments just aren’t good at this sort of detail. Let’s see what the best filament for us gamers is.
The best filament for printing figurines is PLA+ filament. It provides extra strength and good detail ability to allow you to print figurines in 28mm scale.
Why 3d Print Figurines?
I am a gamer. Not a PS4 or Nintendo or Xbox gamer, but a boardgames, role playing games and miniatures gamer. Just about everything I game has either figurines, markers, models or accessories created in either plastic or tin metal. Many games off the shelf come with the necessary figurines or other items, but some don’t. Role playing games, like the ubiquitous Dungeons & Dragons® come as books. You can certainly purchase third-party miniature figurines or use other markers lying around the house. But if you want more than just the one for your character that you’re playing, then you’ll need more and more. And what of miniatures games? The name suggests it all – these things are played with miniatures – many of them. For me, it’s Bolt Action, Flames of War and Saga – all three are historical, and all three use lots and lots of figurines.
Cost is a big factor in choosing to print my own figurines. I pay once for the STL file (the printer file necessary to tell the 3d printer what to print – call it the digital blueprint) and I pay for the incremental cost of each model’s material (in filament used). Flames of War tanks, for example, can cost up to $10-$15 per tank (World War 2 tanks in 1:00 scale). If you want to have 20 tanks in your army (a typical large army for the game), you could be in the $200 range for the models, and then you have to assemble them. If I purchase three STL files (for the three types of tanks that I want in my army) at $10 each (many WW2 models have free STL files, and many are much cheaper than $10) then my investment is only $30 plus filament. A spool of a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of PLA+ 1.75mm white filament is around $20 and should be capable of producing all 20 of my tanks. That’s an investment of $50, far cheaper than the $200 to buy the models.
So what’s the downside? Why wouldn’t I always do this? There are several reasons not to go this route:
- It may be cheap, but it’s very time-consuming. Each model tank may take between four and eight hours to produce. A fantasy figurine can be roughly the same.
- The resolution may not be as good as I would want for my models. The purchased models are very good – they look the part. The round bits are round, and the flat bits are smooth. There are usually mold lines but they are easily cleaned up with a hobby file. The same goes with figurines. A 28mm tall fantasy warrior will be smoother than an FDM printed figurine.
- Print failures do happen from time to time, setting you back even further in the time line. It’s certainly easy to recover from, but you may have to account for this if you have a deadline.
- The obvious elephant in the room is that you need to have a 3d printer, and you need to know how to use it! For you reading this, it’s possible that you are just such a person, so that’s already out of the way. But if you’re here just to learn, don’t fret! Getting a printer is getting less and less expensive, and learning how to use it really isn’t that hard. Making the STL file to begin with may be complex, but you don’t have to do that! You can purchase an STL file and just use the 3d printer to create it. It’s more complicated than printing with an inkjet printer, but not much more difficult!
And the upside? Why wouldn’t I just do this forever?
- Once you have an STL file, you can print the same model over and over again. Do you want 30 orcs for your game? Print 30 orcs! Want 30 more? Print 30 more! Want 20 Sherman tanks? Off you go! Again, it’s not the cost of the STL file or the filament that will hold you back. It’s the time investment. If you’ve got a place where you could print one model a night (due to the noise, don’t put the 3d printer next to your bed!) then you could have 30 models in a month! You get the idea.
- It’s not just figurines of human-sized forms that can be made. Your 3d printer’s build area will determine the maximum size of a model. So if you want to make a dragon (and you have the STL file) that’s 6” x 6” x 9”, then you can. It may take 14 hours to print, but that model from the store could cost you $100 or more. Now that’s savings!
- There’s definitely a cool factor in saying that I made my own models. Not just put them together from a kit, but actually made the parts. You may still want to paint the figures to make them look realistic, but that’s up to you. You still made them, and you could have as many as you want!
Is FDM The Best For Printing Figurines?
Actually, no. To print the absolute best figurines for gaming, you’d want a SLA (stereolithography) or DLP (digital light processing) printer. These types of printers use light to cure liquid resin. They can achieve much higher resolutions than FDM (fused deposition modeling) printers – those printers that use filament. So why wouldn’t I always use an SLA or DLP printer?
- Well, if I had one, I would, but I only have an FDM printer, and I’m not about to run out and buy an expensive printer for just figurines. If you own an Ender 3 FDM printer (at a low price point of under $250) then just use that. Try a figure or two and see if the quality is good enough for you. If it is, you just saved spending another $500 or more plus the cost of resin just to get started.
- FDM printers have much larger print areas when compared to SLA or DLP printers in the same price range. The Ender 3, for example, has a build area of 8.7” x 8.7” x 9.8”. The Anycubic Photon DLP printer has a build area of 4.5” x 2.6” x 6.1”. If you’re printing a 28mm fantasy warrior, either printer will work just fine (28mm figures tend to fit inside a box 2” x 2” x 2”, even with outstretched arms or weapons). If you’re printing a 6” x 6” x 9” dragon, then the Ender 3 will be fine, but there’s no way the Anycubic Photon would work.
- FDM printers have been around for a while. SLA or DLP printers are, in comparison to FDM printers, been in the consumer market for a much shorter time period. What that means for you is that there’s a more robust community using FDM printers, and having lots of people mean that there are fewer questions that the community can’t answer. I’d hazard a guess that anything you come up against with an FDM printer has been experienced by other users, and someone out there can help you. Having an active community is a big help in any hobby, and 3d printing figurines is no exception.
What is best? PLA or ABS (or Some Other Filament)?
Most FDM printers can use a variety of filaments in their print process. The two most common types are PLA (polylactic acid) and ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). Don’t worry – you’ll never need to know what they stand for. That’s just for pub trivia night. Simply refer to them as PLA or ABS.
PLA is the most common material used in FDM printers. It’s easy to use, and most printers are pre-set up to use PLA. It’s actually made from corn starch, and has very low odor when it’s melted (it actually smells a bit like candy when hot!) It is warp-resistant, and it doesn’t require a heated printer bed to use. All these make PLA very popular. The fact that it’s not made from fossil fuels is a bonus, too. It would be just fine for printing figurines.
PLA+ or PLA Premium is a better choice for printing figurines. I would recommend it as the best filament for an FDM 3d printer for figurine printing. It is stronger than straight PLA and still cheap and easy to work with. It’s quite affordable, and has all the good properties that PLA has. Go with this filament if you’re making figurines on an FDM 3d printer.
ABS is also a good choice for figurine printing. It’s less brittle than PLA or PLA+, but it’s harder to print. Although it can be printed on a printer with no heated bed, it can fail on a build due to having no heated bed. This is due to the fact that ABS shrinks a little when it cools, and may pull back from the bed, possibly allowing it to disconnect and causing the print to fail. For mechanical things, like model tanks, ABS may be superior, as it can generate sharper edges than PLA or PLA+. Your mileage, of course, can vary. If your current printer doesn’t have a heated bed, then steer clear of ABS and stick to PLA+. If you’re tempted to buy a new printer anyways, consider moving away from FDM and going with an SLA or DLP printer for figurines, as your quality will go way up!
Other Filament Considerations for Printing Figurines
Regardless of the filament that you choose, consider replacing your filament nozzle on your 3d printer (assuming it can be replaced) with a thinner nozzle. Most printers ship with a 0.4mm nozzle. Replacing this with a 0.2mm nozzle will increase the effective resolution of the print, making it look much better. The downside is that it’ll take much longer to print. It stands to reason – you’re putting down less plastic with every pass, so it’ll take longer!
Also consider using white, clear or red filament, rather than black, gray or blue filament. This seems like an odd recommendation, but it has merit! When printing figurines, the print nozzle hovers over the same small area for most of the print. That means that the ambient heat from the nozzle continues to heat the printed model all the time. Black, gray and blue absorb the heat far more, and thus may have issues. Clear, white and red tend to reflect the heat away from the figure, making it cooler, and thus possibly avoiding more issues that could arise from heat. The color shouldn’t bother you too much, as you’ll likely spray it with a primer paint anyways (to prepare for hand or airbrush painting). So if you want it gray, just hit it with a can of cheap gray paint with short, even passes of the can, to ensure that you don’t obscure any detail with thick coats of paint).
If you want some help with FDM filament 3d printing issues, have a look over at Simplify3d’s website. They have a great guide that I’ve used many times to find issues and correct them. You can find it here:
Have a look at my list of recommended filaments here on my Recommended Gear page:
The FDM filament 3d printer is not the absolute best for printing figurines, but it’s definitely good enough for the majority of us with printers. I recommend PLA+ as the best filament to use with your FDM filament 3d printer, and I recommend replacing the nozzle with a 0.2mm nozzle. You’ll get better results but at a cost in time per print. Happy printing, and feel free to leave a comment below! I’d love to hear how you’re doing!
3d Printer Filament Price
For both PLA and ABS filament, the price is usually around $20 for a spool for a home 3d printer (1.75mm) diameter. PLA+ can be slightly more expensive, and a typical price is around $25 for a spool for a home 3d printer.
Is PLA or ABS Filament Stronger?
PLA is stronger and more rigid than ABS. Stronger, though, is not the only factor to consider when choosing filament, though. Look carefully at your use before deciding.
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