How Cosplay Taught Me 3D Printing: A Primer

Ash

On my first few (unsuccessful) attempts at joining the Mandalorian Mercs, one of my biggest obstacles was trying to figure out how I was going to source a pair of gauntlets. My initial foray into the cosplay world was in 2010, and the only real options were vac-formed–which I couldn’t afford–or scratchbuilding–which I didn’t feel that I had the skills to do. It was one of a few frustrations that led me to temporarily giving up on the project.

Subsequently, I was delighted when I started once again looking at making a Mandalorian kit and found that there was now another option: 3D printing. At the beginning of 2020, I knew what 3D printing was. I’d seen a few demonstrations at school, but I’d never gotten to try anything hands-on with it. After researching and finding out that I could buy a printer for a lot less than I would’ve thought, I pulled the trigger and bought my first FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling, or a fancy way of saying a printer that melts plastic filament and uses it to create a model layer-by-layer) printer: a Creality Ender 3. 

That was in February. Ten long months of quarantine later, I have printed multiple armor pieces, created my own models, printed and sold them on Etsy. I’ve also done countless non-cosplay related projects at the request of my family–ear savers for masks, alphabets for my sister who teaches preschool, and a Groot model for my dad. The list stretches on and on as I constantly find that instead of buying something, I can just find a model somewhere on the internet and print it.

Now that I’ve covered how and why I started 3D printing, let’s talk about what you need to get started doing it yourself.

The Printer

If you’re looking to enter the 3D printing world, the Ender 3 is a great model to begin with. As I’m writing this, the DIY kit is on sale for $160 USD (it was $180 when I bought mine). Don’t let the DIY tag scare you. Putting the Ender 3 together required three or four more steps than my bigger printer, a Creality CR-10 did, and it came “mostly assembled.” (The CR-10 is the Ender 3’s larger, more expensive big brother. It’s also a good choice if you have a little more cash to drop when starting out and functions much the same as the Ender 3.) The Ender 3 a good printer, capable of producing high quality prints, and while bigger things like helmets will have to be printed in parts, it can manage to print a lot of full-size pieces on the 200x200mm bed. My only real complaint with it is how loud the fans and motors are (the CR-10 is whisper quiet), but that’s probably my own fault for putting it in my bedroom anyway. There are numerous other brands of printers available on the market, too, and they may work just as well, if not better; I’m just speaking from my experience and what I know.

Parts of the Ender 3

The Filament

After you have a printer, the next thing you’ll be looking at is which filament you’re going to put in it. There are varying types of filament, and they’re all thermoplastics–again, this is just fancy speak for plastic that can be heated to pliability for shaping purposes and cooled down repeatedly without changing their molecular structure. (This also means you shouldn’t leave anything printed in a hot car. They will melt and deform. I found this out the hard way.)

The most common types of filament are PLA/PLA+, ABS, PETG, and TPU. All these fun little acronyms stand for long chemical names that I honestly can never remember even after looking them up, and they don’t really matter much unless you’re a chemist anyway. What you do need to know is that PLA/PLA+ is the easiest to work with, the most tolerant of mistakes, and the most beginner friendly, which is why I recommend starting with it. ABS can be chemically smoothed with acetone but requires an enclosure to block drafts and keep a steady temperature while printing. Without it, chances are that your print is going to warp, crack, or both. You also don’t want to be breathing in ABS fumes for days on end because they can cause headaches, fatigue, and drowsiness, so having it somewhere with ventilation is important too. Supposedly PETG is more durable than PLA, and TPU is more flexible than the other filaments, but I don’t have any experience with either yet. So, since PLA is the easiest, it’s a good practice filament. 

Regardless of the filament you choose, you’ll be looking somewhere around $25 USD for a 1KG roll, and you can print a lot of stuff from 1KG.  My preferred brands are Hatchbox and Overture. I’ve also heard great things about eSun, but unless Amazon runs out of the other two, I’m probably not going to find out firsthand. 

Please also note that not all filaments are equal just because they’re from the same brand. You may have to tweak temperature settings from color to color. I found this out with Hatchbox’s orange PLA last week when my normal settings for their black filament ended in a giant clog in my hot end (where the filament comes out of the printer) that I had to punch out with a metal coat hanger. My best recommendation is to find a filament you like and tweak the settings until you have it dialed in, then stick with it. Most applications for cosplay are going to require finishing work and paint anyway.

Additional Tools

So now you have a printer, and you have some filament. Awesome! Here’s a few other things you’re probably going to want; we’ll go into more detail on them later on:

Both of my printers came with the putty knife and wire nippers as part of the included tool kit. They’re both Creality models, so I can’t speak for other brands. I’d also recommend upgrading to a glass bed if your model doesn’t come with one; it just seems to conduct heat more consistently than the cheaper plastic one that my Ender 3 came with, and that heat will help the quality of your prints.

The Software    

Next step! Download Ultimaker Cura. This is slicing software, and it’s going to take whatever 3D models you throw at it and eat them and spit out the code that your printer will use to create your models. Yes, your printer probably came with OEM slicing software. Yes, we’re going to ignore it (especially if it’s from Creality). There are others out there, but Cura is what I use, so Cura is what I recommend. It gives you many more options for tweaking your prints (especially over Creality’s OEM slicer.)

So, now we have an assembled printer, some slicing software, and some filament. The first time you open Cura, it’s going to ask you to select which printer you have. It’s a very comprehensive list, so unless you bought some ridiculously obscure model, yours should be in there. Once you have that set, you should be looking at a blank printing field and Cura’s configuration options over on the right-hand side. The first print you do should be a benchmark print–basically, it’s a print that will test all the important parts of the printer to make sure that everything is put together and tightened correctly. It’ll also test what kind of overhang and accuracy your printer is capable of. I use this one here: https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:2656594. There’s a folder icon at the top left of the Cura interface; this is what you’ll use to load files into the print field. After you’ve done so and selected the object, the vertical ribbon the left side of the screen will allow you to move, scale, rotate, and mirror the object. 

Cura Basics

I’d recommend not tweaking too many settings for your benchmark print since you’ll use it as a baseline to see what you’ll need to produce quality prints. Something you definitely don’t want to do is turn on supports for this print, since part of it will indicate how much overhang your printer can tolerate without them. The one thing you will want to do is find the recommended temperature range for your filament (it’s generally printed on the box, the roll itself, or both) and set your printing temperature to somewhere in the middle of that range. (I print Hatchbox and Overture both at 200°C.) To do this in Cura, click on the middle option of the horizontal ribbon running above the print field, click on the Materials dropdown, and then Manage Materials. Under “Generic PLA” you can select the “Print Settings” tab and change your temperature settings to whatever the manufacturer recommends. (50°C is generally a good bed temperature for PLA.)

Graphical user interface, text

Description automatically generated

Printing Tips and Tricks

At this point you’ll need to familiarize yourself with your printer’s instruction manual to find out how to load your filament and start your print, as well as stop and/or pause the print. You’ll also need to follow their directions to make sure your bed is properly leveled–this generally involves sliding a piece of printer paper between the nozzle and the bed to see if it scratches lightly. If the paper doesn’t move at all, the nozzle is too close to the bed and will squish the melted filament. If paper moves too much, the filament won’t stick to the bed properly and chances are your print will fail.

If you’ve done any reading about 3D printing before now, you’ve seen that one of the most discussed facets of the process is bed adhesion and the best way to accomplish it. Some swear by glue stick, others use painter’s tape, and there are a variety of other methods as well. If you see mention of a slurry, that’s usually for ABS filament, so we won’t touch on it too much, but it’s basically using leftover filament bits and dissolving them in acetone and spreading it in a thin layer on your bed to encourage the filament to stick.

For my part, on my Ender 3 the only thing I’ve ever used is a very thin layer of glue stick (and sometimes I don’t even use that) and I’ve never had any problems with prints sticking correctly. My CR-10, however, likes painter’s tape, and laughs at me if I try to use anything else. I still don’t know why; I just chalk it up to my CR-10 being my problem child and make sure to feed it on a regular basis. If you go the painter’s tape route, PLEASE don’t try to skimp and buy cheap tape. You don’t need to buy anything super fancy, just the baseline 3M blue stuff, but you’ll be picking it off your bed forever if you buy cheap tape. (Trust me… I know.) I usually get at least 5-6 prints, maybe more, from a round of taping depending on what I’m printing, so a roll lasts for a decent amount of time. Either way, you’ll want to clean your bed with isopropyl alcohol every so often to prevent any build up that may affect your prints.

Regardless of all that, I’d recommend trying your benchmark print without anything on the bed  at first, just to see what you’re going to be dealing with in the future.  It will be evident rather quickly if you need an adhesion aid–keep an eye on it for the first few layers and if you notice that the filament is lifting up or sliding around at all, stop the print, clear the bed, and double check to make sure your bed is leveled correctly before trying again. If it still isn’t sticking, you’ll need to try some glue stick or tape.

After your benchmark print finishes, you’ll want to inspect it closely to see where your problem spots are. The overhang tests on the side will indicate at what degree you’ll want to start incorporating supports (removable structures that keep your prints from drooping or breaking) into your prints. Check the circles–if they are noticeably skewed to the side, one or both of your X/Y axis belts need to be tightened (you want them to “twang” when you pluck them). You’ll likely have to check your instruction manual on the best way to do that.

If you notice a lot of stringing (it’ll look like little cobwebs made of filament between raised parts of your print) fixing it is generally a combination of tweaking temperature, travel speed, and retraction. Retraction is how far the print head lifts in between movements. Finding the perfect combination may take a few tries, but it will save you a lot of clean up in the long run.

If you can visibly see each separate filament line on your print and it feels like it would be easy to pull it apart, you probably need to turn up your temperature just a bit. I generally work in 5°C increments when I’m doing this until I find the temperature at which it will print smoothly. 

Once you get these things dialed in, it’ll be a good start to printing other things. If you’re having a particular problem with one of them, there are other benchmark prints that deal with singular issues that you can download (Thingiverse.com is a wonderful site to find resources) to help you.

The putty knife and razor blade that I mentioned in Additional Tools are to help you remove your prints from the bed. Sometimes they stick so well that they won’t want to come off, and that’s where these come in handy. I always try with just the putty knife first, but if I can’t get it underneath a corner anywhere, then I will very carefully work the razor blade underneath and then slide the putty knife under it. This is usually enough to be able to work it off of the bed. I’ve only had one instance where I had to take my bed off the printer and run it under water to rinse off the glue and pry the print from the bed.

My biggest piece of advice is don’t be afraid to experiment when you’re getting a model ready to print. As you print more things, you’ll find that sometimes printing something at what might seem like an odd angle may save you a lot of time and filament if it eliminates supports that you would need otherwise. Sometimes it’s better to print things upside down; sometimes you’ll need to print them sideways. There is no one singular way that works the best for every model, and often finding the one that you need takes a lot of trial and error. (Like the time I printed a pistol grip on end only to find out that the trigger was fully encased in supports and I couldn’t get them out.)

Final Recommendations

I leave you with a few final recommendations for the finishing process. Traditional finishing with 3D prints takes hours of sanding at various grits. A product called XTC 3D is a two-part self-leveling resin designed specifically to aid in the smoothing process. It works with nearly any filament brand or type; I haven’t heard about any negative reactions. When you start to use it, remember that LESS IS MORE. I never mix up more than 2 TBSPs of it at a time, and the amount of space it will cover is astounding. You’ll still need to do some sanding, especially if it runs or drips somewhere, but I’ve found that it removes a lot of the work in most cases. Sometimes with small detail you won’t be able to use it. Filler primer is also your friend (you’ll find it either with the spray paint or in the automotive section). Spray/sand/spray/sand/spray/sand repeat… I generally start at 200 grit and work my way up to wet sanding at 800 until I have a nice smooth surface and can’t see the print lines anymore.

There is so much to the world of 3D printing that I couldn’t possibly hope to sum it all up in this one article, but I hope I’ve shed some light on what it takes to get started! Once you have a handle on the process, your options are nearly unlimited!

3D Prints that I modeled myself: Medic Cauterizer (Left) and Stimpack (Right). Both will eventually be used in my Mandalorian build