3D printing: the high-tech hobby that is firmly within reach!
If you are looking for a hobby that will challenge and engage both your technical and creative abilities, you'll be surprised at just how accessible and affordable 3D printing can be.
In just under a decade, 3D printing has gone from an obscure semi-industrial branch of design and technology to a mainstream recreation, with hobbyists often at the cutting edge of its innovation and creativity.
3D printing is a heady mix of Computer-Aided Design (CAD), problem-solving, art, and engineering that is on the rise in popularity across the globe.
It is also highly scalable with compact printers being set-up on the dining table to expansive, powerful, studio-sized 3D printing machines that can produce large-scale objects. For once, the limit really is your imagination!
In this comprehensive guide to 3D printing as a hobby, we will run through everything you need to know to get a 3D printing setup underway, and the types of interesting projects you can undertake once the basics are mastered.
We think that 3D printing is here to stay and is the perfect match for those who would enjoy turning their hand to a totally futuristic pastime, where you can make all sorts of things from the comfort of your home.
If you are wondering when printing leaped off the page, you will find that things have accelerated way beyond the Guttenberg printing press of 1440. Printing is now firmly operative in the third dimension, thanks to CAD and digitally controlled printing processes.
Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing involves the construction of 3-dimensional objects under digital or computer control. The design and structure for the created object come from computer-aided designs that are used to program a 3D-printer.
Alternatively, an object can be scanned by a 3D scanner and the resultant data used to program the printer to create a reproduction of the object.
3D printers are digitally controlled printers that deposit material according to a pre-programmed design to create a 3-dimensional object. 3D printers don’t just move left to right, they move up and down too!
So, what you have is a printer that works on the X, Y, and Z axes. They lay down their material layer by layer, much like a regular paper printer deposits ink on paper.
Enterprising individuals have already been able to co-opt an old inkjet printer to print with materials other than ink!
The difference with a 3D printer is that the layers of material are built up, an additive process, to produce the finished object. If you think about it, it’s a totally new way of making 3D or solid objects.
Usually, we carve, mold, screw, or glue things together, but with a 3D printer digital file, the layers of the object are laid down, bit by bit by the printer.
There are many ways in which 3D printers make objects and we're sure that as you progress in your hobby, you will find the type of printing that works for you.
In the case of 3D printing, the limit is your imagination, with hobbyist projects ranging from the wacky and zany to surprisingly functioning items that can solve practical problems.
A great example is this Isle of Wight, UK resident who used a 3D printer to create face shields for members of his community. As with most hobbies, from starting simply you can quickly build expertise to make some very interesting items including:
If you aren't sold after seeing the fantastic projects you could be making with your new 3D printer, here are some great reasons to make 3D printing a lasting hobby:
It's great that with 3D printing you do not have to be gifted in sculpture or the other creative disciplines to create something amazing! Once you get to grips with the basics of using a 3D printer, experimentation is the rule of the day.
Hopefully, once you master making 3D printed projects from template files, you can start to get to grips with the basics of designing your custom items and creating the necessary CAD files.
3D printing is perfect for children and young people who enjoy science and technology. Even if these are not initially strong subjects, using 3D printers will stretch their non-verbal reasoning, logic, and spatial skills and exercise mathematics and engineering when they start to code their designs. It’s also great for a rainy day as it will keep them safely occupied for hours.
If you don't want all your technical experimentation happening on a computer screen, a 3D printer is a fantastic way of making the techie world more practical.
A 3D printer can be a springboard for all sorts of electronics projects, for example, this glam 3D printed sequin clock. Printing components that can be put together to make mechanical and electronic devices will certainly get the most value out of your 3D printer.
Once you start exploring the world of 3D printing you will be surprised at just how many items you can print for your home. 3D printing has a community of innovators who are adept at producing high-quality print files for just about anything.
Broken appliance components or parts can be scanned, and 3D printed, saving on the expense of a replacement or for repair. When you can just make your bottle opener, ice scraper, desktop organizer, or vase in minutes with your 3D printer, you can give the shops a break and save some money too.
When you see just how productive you can be with a 3D printer you will soon be asking yourself this too. After all, 3D printing is a form of manufacturing. Hit on the right useful design and you could find yourself with a hobby that at least earns its keep. Most 3D printing hobbyists earn their income in one of three ways:
Professional 3D printing plays a big part in product development and creating prototypes for the manufacturing industry. If you are a hobby electronic or mechanical engineer, a 3D printer is a great piece of kit for your workshop.
For budding designers, 3D printing is soon going to be the critical first step to getting a product off the ground and attracting the attention of potential manufacturers and investors.
Launching a career in 3D printing will certainly be helped by you actively doing it as a hobby. You may have started hobby 3D printing at your desk or tabletop but as a 3D printing technician, you could find yourself building the next space shuttle, medical innovation, or sports car.
If you have a hobby that uses a lot of consumable parts, like wheels or propellers, investing in a good 3D printer can equip you to make them yourself.
3D printing is a great indoor hobby, especially as most of the equipment and components can be readily purchased online. A rainy afternoon can easily be passed in priming and programming your printer to complete several small projects, or fabrication of individual components for a bigger or more complex structure.
For most people, 3D printing sounds pretty exciting but as with many technical hobbies, the cost is a major consideration.
The good news is that all the 'big spending' is upfront, with consumables such as the reels of filament, tape, and sandpaper being relatively cheap.
The price of a home 3D printer can vary massively, from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars.
The cost of a 3D printer is not directly related to its size; the specifications and performance profile of your printer should be taken into consideration.
As hobby 3D printing is relatively new, there is less opportunity to scour the classifieds and thrift stores for second-hand equipment, which also may be faulty.
This Reddit thread run by hobby 3D printers should provide some real-world insights into just how much you will be spending to maintain a 3D printing hobby.
One of the best things about a new hobby is all the cool gear you need to make a success of your interest. With 3D printing, the tools of the trade will determine the quality of the results you have, and if you want to put printed components together you will soon find yourself amassing a mini workshop of equipment for the job. Here are the absolute essentials for starting 3D printing:
Your 3D printer: Once you have settled on the type of printing you want to do and the size of the models you will be making, you will need to look for the right printer.
Evaluating the best 3D printer for hobby printing is beyond the scope of this article, but key features to look out for in a home 3D printer include:
A laptop or desktop computer: Before rushing out to buy a new MacBook, it's important to stress that the STL files that are commonly used for 3D printing are usually below 20 MB, so operating your printer should not be too much of a challenge.
However, if you want to design objects, you may need a computer with adequate memory, processing power, and decent screen resolution. Doing all the number-crunching needed for decent CAD can devour CPU, so a dedicated PC may be the way to go.
3D printing software: 3D printing software allows you to modify and design your printed models. Thankfully, there are lots of good quality open-source software for 3D printing, which means that you can get to grips with producing your designs without eye-watering subscriptions.
Look out for Ultimaker Cura, OpenSCAD, FreeCAD, or TinkerCAD which are accessible and suitable for modelers of all levels of expertise.
Filament reels: These will be your number one consumable and determine the color and finish of your model. Filament comes in a range of colors and can even be infused with wood dust or cork for a finish that is easy to sand. Quality can vary greatly so it is well worth experimenting with a variety of brands until you settle on a material that works well with your printer.
Sandpaper: A completed model will need post-processing with sandpaper to get the best finish. You will need several fine-grit grades to get your objects fully smoothed.
Masking tape: Those 'in the know', use masking tape to cover the print bed of their 3D printers as it helps the 3D model adhere properly. It is likely to need regular replacement, so a wide tape provides quicker coverage. A more expensive alternative covering for your print bed is heat resistant Kapton tape.
Tweezers and pliers: These do a great job of removing oozing and crusting material from your printer's nozzle. Keep them on hand to remove strings and blobs from your completed model. They can also come in handy for spot repairs to the printer.
Craft knives: A sharp knife is ideal for finishing your model and neatly removing excess material.
An airtight container and desiccant for storing filament: If you leave your filament in the open air, you may find that the quality deteriorates with time. Proper sealed storage prolongs the life of your filament and prevents damage to your printer from a degraded material.
This hobby can be extended even further by taking on the challenge of building your own functional 3D printer. If you have a passion for building something with your hands from scratch, building a printer is a satisfying challenge.
One of the benefits of making your own 3D printer is that it can be built to any size. It will also help you in making repairs to your printer as you will have a good understanding of how it operates.
3D printers were originally custom-built, with wooden frames and plenty of exposed wires, as designers worked on developing this new form of manufacturing.
You can either amass the components and follow one of the hundreds of detailed tutorials available online or purchase a 3D printer kit that comes complete with everything needed to produce a printer that actually prints!
The Tabletop 3D Printing Guild: A members-only Facebook group for 3D printing hobbyists.
3D Printboard: An online forum with message boards for tips and tricks for 3D printers.
Make Anything: One of the leading YouTube channels for hobby 3D printing.
We hope you have enjoyed this guide to 3D printing as a hobby. Think of it as a springboard to the further research you will need to do to make a real success of your new hobby.
If you are already a seasoned hand at 3D printing, do you have any advice to share with newbies? If so, we would love to hear from you. Share your thoughts in the comments section below!