Leveling the Build Plate Properly is Important
The Build Plate is the surface on which the 3D printer builds the physical representation of the virtual 3D model, making this one of the most important components of the device. It is really important that you keep your build plate in good shape and even more important is to keep it properly leveled as otherwise you may have a ton of headaches, especially when you are starting up with 3D printers.

Different 3D printers come with build plates made from different materials – plastic, Plexiglas, metal or glass and so on. Furthermore the build plate can be covered with additional material that is used to ensure that what comes from the 3D printer’s extruder sticks well on the build plate and remains there until the print is finished. The most common one seems to be either blue 3D painters tape or yellowish scotch-like Kapton tape, though there are other alternatives also available and used.

No matter what the build plate is from and what extra cover it may have, it needs to be with clean and with even surface and properly leveled or with other words at just the right distance from the extruder of the printer in order for you to get optimal results and no problems while printing. More than half of the failed prints with 3D printers are caused by problems with the leveling of the build plate relative to the printer’s head, so if you are having trouble 3D printing something this is a good place to start from. Having a good and clean build plate at just the right distance essentially means you get good adhesion of the object being printed to the surface of the build plate.

There are some 3D printers that save their users a lot of potential trouble by offering some sort of a mechanism for automatically leveling the build plate, so that the user can forget about this as a possible issue. However most consumer 3D printers come without this automatic function, so you need to do the leveling by hand usually using a mechanical solution of some kind that moves the build plate up or down with very small steps. With the leveling of the build plate you are tuning by hand something pretty precise as the adjustment may need just a part of millimeter to be moved for optimum results.

If you don’t level up the build plate properly and instead of it being the right distance from the nozzle of the printing head, they end up too close to each other (essentially rubbing) the results might not be very pleasant. If there is not enough distance between the two the printing head may actually damage the build plate by scratching it or even breaking it in some rare cases. So you might want to avoid that at any cost, the less problematic outcome will be it just tearing the painter’s tape that is placed on top of the build plate.

In this case the filament that is supposed to be coming out of the print head will not be able to stick to the build plate as there is just not enough distance and it can either jam up the extruder (it is more likely to jam it, but more about filament jams in a bit) or it will just stick around the nozzle of the extruder and collect there as a ball of plastics. In both cases you will need to clean the nozzle, but if it is outside it is easier, just make sure that you do it carefully as the printing nozzle is hot and it needs to be hot in order for you to clean it good, otherwise with the plastic solidifying it will be hard to properly remove it.

In case the leveling process is not done properly and the printing head is too far from the build plate what will happen is the extruded thermoplastics will have a hard time sticking to the build plate. It may stick briefly, so that the printing process will seem to start normally and there will be a base of the model start forming, but soon after that you will see that the base had detached from the build plate. As a result you get a failed print and if the distance is a bit more it will most likely not even start to create the base of the model at all and will just place some lines of material moving them all around over the build plate.

This is why it is very important that you carefully monitor the start of the printing process and if you notice that something is wrong to cancel it before it gets too late and some damage is caused. The good thing is that as the printing process moves the print head gets further away from the build plate, so the chances of a further serious damage to either of the too is less likely after the initial chance for this to happen.

There are some people that often resort to extra tools to precisely measure the distance between the nozzle of the 3D printing head and build plate. This might be helpful if you manage to perform everything precisely and correctly, but it is not needed as there is a much easier way to do it pretty good. A good tip to help you properly adjust the distance between the build plate and the printing head’s nozzle is to use a piece of thin paper like a plain sheet of paper for your regular printer.

If you put the sheet of paper between the head and the build plate it should be able to move just about freely without much effort in between. Then you can try to print something small and if need just do additional fine tuning up or down at a very small steps. Don’t worry in a bit of time and experience you will be able to do the build plate level adjustment without any external help all by feeling. So it is usually frustrating only at first, though the tip with the sheet of regular printer paper (just make sure it is not too thick!) should help save you some of that frustration when your 3D print just does not start properly.

Filament Jams Can be Really Annoying
The filament material (the thermoplastic roll of wire) that the 3D printer uses to melt and build new things with getting jammed in the printing head is probably the second most annoying issue that new users face when they start 3D printing. There are many things that can cause a filament jam, so you need to figure out the exact cause and resolve it, so that you can avoid any further problems. Doing that may require a bit of getting to know the hardware of your 3D printer up close and personal as you might have to disassemble some parts of the extruder in order to remove the jammed filament, though that is not always necessary.

Do note that disassembling the printing head to resolve a jam may result in the voiding of the warranty of your device, unless of course it was a DIY model that you already build yourself. So do check your warranty terms before doing it and resort to disassembling hardware only if there is no other way. Alternatively you might send the whole device to the service center where a certified technician will fix the problem for you, but that usually takes some time and if you have to do it often just for something like a filament jam that you can fix yourself it gets annoying.

Filament jams can be caused by a problem with the proper leveling of the build plate for example as I already explained in the previous section, but there are more causes for that as well. Another common cause for the filament to jam inside the printing head is if the printing settings are just not the right ones for the material you are using. This usually happens if the temperature is not high enough for the filament material to properly melt and extrude, but could also be a combination between wrong temperature and speed of extrusion as well. The most common ABS and PLA filaments usually need about 230 degrees Celsius operating temperature for the extruded of the device, but if you try to print them at too fast or too slow speed you may still get a jam even with the right temperature.

If you are using a more exotic filament like a flexible one or one that consists of thermoplastic material mixed with fine particles of something else (there are many more exotic filaments available already) you need to refer to the specific printing settings for that material. Usually these may need a different, lower or higher operating temperature, as well as they often require to be printed at slower than the usual printing speed to get a successful print. Sometimes even this may not work, even though you seem to have done everything that is needed, this could be as a result of having some sort of incompatibility between the hardware of the printer and the specific more exotic material… can happen as there are way too many strange filaments out there and way to many different 3D printers available. Usually softer flexible filaments and ones that are easier to break due to the specifics of their structure are causing most headaches to users.

So what to do if you experience a filament jam? Don’t go disassembling your extruder yet, there are other things that you need to try first, opening it up is the last resort if nothing else helps. First you need to completely pull away the line of filament that gets into your printing head, make sure you do it with the printing head hot, so that it will actually come out. If the head is cold or even more than 20-30 degrees lower than the recommended operating temperature you may not be able to easily plug back the filament or not able at all. When you pull out the filament line from the extruder if you see a larger amount of material collected at the very front you might have already resolved the problem with the jam. Just break away a part of the filament and try to insert it again and see if the printer will start up printing normally, make sure the printing head is already at the needed temperature when inserting the filament back to the printer.

If the above tip does not help, then you might have to leave the printer with a hot printing head for a few minutes without any filament in order for any remaining filament inside to be melted, so that it can go through when you insert back the filament line and get pushed through. If that does not help of the filament line just does not want to get back inside the printing head all the way down to the extruder, than it might have broken somewhere and a part of it could still be inside the feeding mechanism. This usually requires the disassembly of the printing head in order to clean things up and then you need to reassemble things back carefully (or let a technician do this for you).

Sometimes there is no need to disassemble the whole printing head to fix a filament jam, if the situation is a bad one you may have to just unscrew the printing nozzle, clean it up manually and then screw it back. This is much easier to be done, however note that since you need to do it with the printer operating with the nozzle hot you need to be extra careful not to burn yourself. When you remove the nozzle you may need to heat it externally in order to be able to clean any filament from inside it. You will also get access to the heating chamber of the printing head and you need to check if there is some remaining filament that may also need cleaning before you reassemble things back.

Here is another useful tip, always have a spare printing nozzle handy (make sure you get one that is made for your 3D printer as there are different models). Printing nozzles are not expensive and they do wear off with usage, so even if you don’t happen to damage it while trying to clean a filament jam, you may still have to replace it after a while of usage. There are some companies making higher-end nozzles that do come with a special coating, these are also a good idea although they do come more expensive than a normal nozzle as they have less friction and last much longer. As a result of using a specially coated printing nozzle you may also reduce the chances of getting a filament jam and even if you still do, it should be easier to resolve it by just plugging out and reinserting the filament again.

Print Yourself Some Upgrades for the 3D Printer
Ok, so you’ve already got a 3D printer and one of the coolest things you can actually do with it is to print yourself some additional parts and even upgrades for your device. These can improve your experience using the 3D printer, make the device less problematic or even improve the printing quality or the capabilities of the device, this can be especially true for some of the DIY models out there.

The best thing is that you don’t have to play engineer or design something yourself since you are probably not yet ready for that anyway. You can just browse the parts that were designed by other users of the same 3D printer based on their longer experience with the device that you just got. Most of these are usually posted and freely available for download, a good place to start looking for is the official support forum of the printer manufacturer (if there is such) or websites where people share their 3D designs for free like on Thingiverse for example. You will be pleasantly surprised finding how many tweaks and upgrades are already available out there and many of them can be available to you in minutes now that you have a 3D printer to print them on.

Of course there are also companies that sell more serious upgrades for various devices that you cannot just 3D print and install on your device. Upgrades for the electronics, stepper motors, printing heads, nozzles, bearings, build plates and so on and so on. So looking around for such upgrades if they are recommended for your specific 3D printer model is also a good idea as you may also get extra features or better performance and reliability with some of these.

One of the most common and actually useful aftermarket upgrades for 3D printers is the addition of heated build plate, if you got a device that does not come with such preinstalled. The heated build plate allows you to extend the range of materials you can use on your device such as being able to print with ABS filament for example and some other more exotic materials that will simply not stick well to a cold build plate. Using a heated build plate can also help your PLA prints to stick better to the base while they are printed if you might be experiencing issues with that. So the adventure in 3D printing does not end with you just buying a new 3D printer, it is just starting and there are a lot of things that you need to learn and explorer.

3D Modeling – A Need to Learn Skill
3D printers were originally meant to be used as rapid prototyping solution that would allow product designers to relatively quickly get a physical model from the virtual 3D model of something they are designing. These are people with the right set of skills needed to create a product including 3D modeling that use the 3D printer as a helpful tool.

With the boom of interest in 3D Printers in the recent years and these devices getting widely available and at attractive prices for home users one of the most overlooked things is that you will need some skills to properly use these devices. 3D printer manufacturers conveniently forget to mention that it will be good to have at least some basic 3D modeling skills in order for you to be able to create things that you can them print on the 3D printer they sell you.

Surely there are already a lot of 3D models available for you to 3D print and use, but that is not the whole idea of the 3D printer and is most certainly not the best way to take advantage of one. The best thing about having a 3D printer at home is that you can quickly design new things that you may need at home and then start using them, it could be something basic, it could be something more complex… it does not matter. You design it, you print it and there it is doing something useful already and it all happens in a couple of minutes or hours, depending on what you do.

In order to do that however you will need to know how to make virtual 3D models of the things that you need to use the 3D printer for building. That is a new skillset that you need to acquire and the nice thing is that the basics are actually not that complex and you can quickly get into it. Of course you will not be making complex and very realistic 3D characters for use in movies in a couple of days, I talking about much more basic things as a beginning. Then if interested you can continue building on top of that and go to the more complex stuff, it is up to you, but you need to start from somewhere. All that is needed only if you don’t already have the required skillset for 3D modeling, if you do, then you can probably just skip this post.

Why Use SketchUp for 3D Printing
SketchUp is a great tool to get started with basic 3D modeling for use with your 3D printer. I have mentioned it already in one of the earlier posts of the 3D printing series, but now I’ll be going into a bit more details about the software and how to get it ready for use specifically for 3D printing.

Why SketchUp:
There’s a reason SketchUp is synonymous with friendly and forgiving 3D modeling software: we don’t sacrifice usability for the sake of functionality. Start by drawing lines and shapes. Push and pull surfaces to turn them into 3D forms. Stretch, copy, rotate and paint to make anything you like.

Professional tools that can be used for 3D modeling such as AutoCAD or 3D Studio are usually way too complex and confusing for people that are new and are just starting with 3D modeling. Of course these are much more powerful and allow you to do more complex things, if you know how, but getting started with them is much harder than with a simpler and more user friendly tool like SketchUp for example.

There are two different version of SketchUp – Make and Pro. The first one is completely free and can be used by anyone for personal projects and educational purposes, though you should know that SketchUp Make is not licensed for commercial work. For professional work you would need to go for the commercial version SketchUp Pro. The good news is that the free SketchUp Make is more than enough for your needs to get started into modeling 3D objects that you will later on 3D print.

Apart from being licensed for commercial use the Pro version has some extra more advanced features, once you install the Free Make version you will also get a 30 day trial of the Pro functionality, so you will be able to explore these as well. More details about the extra features available in the Pro version are outlined in the table above, again the basic functionality is available in the free Make version, so no need to buy anything.

Configuring and Setting Up SketchUp for 3D Printing
When you start SketchUp you get a choice of multiple startup templates available to use that may help you based on what you are planning to be modeling inside the software. There are two Templates available for 3D printing as well that might be somewhat handy initially for some users.

The templates are called 3D Printing – Inches and 3D Printing – Millimeters and apart from setting your working units inside the software for the object sizes (Inches or Millimeters) they also give you another helpful tool – a box that represents the available build size of a MakerBot Replicator 2X 3D printer.

You can use the box as a guiding point for the size of the 3D object that you are designing if you have a 3D printer with a similar maximum build size or if you got the Replicator 2X. If you don’t need that extra guide (it is essentially a 3D model) you can just click on it to select it and hit the Del key to remove it from the workspace. Alternatively you can easily design a similar 3D model that reflects the actual build size of the 3D Printer you have available, so that it will be more useful as a reference.

Initially when you start SketchUp you get it configured with a simpler line of tools at the top of the software, however I don’t find that one very useful, so I prefer to switch to a different and more functional one. To do that you can either use Right Click on the toolbar or go to the View menu and then select Toolbars

The standard one is called Getting Started and the one I’m using is called Large Tool Set, you just need to right click on the line with the tools and select the Large Tool Set (it will show on the left side) and then do the same, but unselect the Getting Started one to remove it from the top. There are more Toolbars for you to choose from and you can experiment by turning on and off some of them until you customize the workplace you find that is most convenient for you. What I prefer is not to over complicate things and the Large Tool Set is enough for me most of the time.

The Large Tool Set gives you an easy access to the selection tools, the basic shape drawing tools, the object manipulation ones, the measurement and tools for changing the viewing position. These tools are also accessible via the menu of the software as well as via a special shortcut keys that you can learn while using the software to make switching even faster without having to use the mouse to click on different tools.

Extension Warehouse and 3D Warehouse
The Extension Warehouse is a place you need to get familiar with as you need to start with the installation of a very important Plugin from there that is required for you in order to be able to import and export STL files (the file format used by most 3D printers). By default SketchUp does not come with that Plugin and there is no support for STL, so one of the first things you need to do is to add that support.

You need to call up the Extension Warehouse from the Window menu of SketchUp, it will open in a new window and you need to search for the SketchUp STL Plugin and install it. It is a free plugin, and even though the Extension Warehouse does also offer some plugins you need to pay for, there as a lot that are free to use like the SketchUp STL.

Once the SketchUp STL extension is installed you will get the ability to import STL files from the File / Import menu as well as to save STL files via the File / Export STL… option that will become available. Prior to installing this plugin STL files are not supported by SketchUp!

The 3D Warehouse works in a very similar way to the Extension Warehouse, however instead of giving you access to additional plugins you can install, you get access to many free to use 3D models. This might not be that useful when designing a 3D model for 3D printing yourself, but you might still want to check if there isn’t a 3D model of the thing you are trying to do that can save you some time. Also if you are designing some scene that included multiple items in it can be handy just to import some readily made 3D models in it.

Note: The 3D models available in the 3D Warehouse are not designed primarily for 3D printing, so some of them might not print without problems or at all due to various reasons, so do have that in mind if using them!

Now is the Time to Finally Make Something
It is time to start playing around and experimenting with the basic drawing shapes such as the Line, the Freehand tool, the Rectangle, the Circle, the Polygon, the Arcs and the Pie. After you draw some 2D shapes you can try the Push/Pull tool to turn them in 3D objects, you can further move them around, rotate them, scale and offset and so on. Do try adding some 2D text first, and then try using the option to Extrude it and have it in 3D. You can also import 2D vector shapes made in another software and have them become a part of your own 3D objects. As I’ve said these are the basic building block of 3D modeling, but after a while you might be surprised to see how powerful they can be and what kind of things you might be able to make using only the simple forms and shapes.

I’m not going to go into too much details about using the SketchUp software now that you are ready to play with it, instead I’ll leave it to you do play around and discover things.

Check the official video tutorials for learning SketchUp…

YouTube is also a great source for finding many other video tutorials on how to design various things in 3D using the software, so go learn something else new…

Once you have designed a 3D model that you want to try 3D printing what you need to do is to just select the geometry of the object you want to export (no need to select anything if you are exporting everything) and go to File / Export STL.

Here you can select if you want only the selected geometry to be exported or the whole scene from SketchUp. You can change the type of units used for the exported STL, essentially scaling up or down the model, though normally you don’t want to play with this settings if you used the right type of units designing the 3D model. The third option is to have the exported STL file in Binary or Text format, choosing either should work, unless of course your 3d printing software supports only one of the two types of STL files.

Note: Make sure you have selected something if you are not exporting the whole scene, as if there is nothing selected the resulting STL file will be zero in size (there will be nothing inside it).

Before I go on with explanation of Raft and Support and why and how you can or need to use them I’ll have to go for a sample 3D model meant for 3D printing that has the right design for my specific needs. As going only with some short text explanation might be hard if you are novice to 3D printing, so instead I’m going to show you how and when you can take advantage of these feature as well as why they can be helpful if you are having trouble 3D printing some things.

The good example I’ll be using is a new 3D model of a 3D printable espresso coffee cup you see on the image above. A Word of Caution: It is not a wise idea to 3D print models such as cups for hot drinks from thermoplastic materials and then use them to hold something with a high temperature such as tea, coffee, or even water!

What is Raft and How to Use it
The use or not of Raft is one of the basic 3D printing options that you have available as I already explained in the previous Blog post from the 3D printing series of articles I’m working on.

Raft is a special additional base that is being 3D printed below your actual 3D model. It is being generated automatically for you if you activate the feature. You may need to use it if your 3D model has a very small base and is having issues sticking to the build plate for example. It could also help with larger 3D prints where one of the edges of a larger base of the model starts peeling off the build plate, you would of course need to restart the print.

I bet that as a novice user you don’t see any potential problem in 3D printing this espresso coffee cup on your new 3D printer, but as you gain some actual experience printing things you will start to notice these just by taking a quick look at the 3D model. It is not necessary that you might have issues printing the 3D cup, but there is the potential for issues on some 3D printers. I’m saying on some 3D printers and talking mostly about FDM/FFM-based devices, because these ate the most commonly used devices by home users. On a high-end business class 3D printer that may use other materials such as ceramics or metal you are much less likely to have a problem because of the different way of doing things there.

So back to the potential problem that the use of Raft may resolve with this 3D printable coffee cup used as an example. The base of the cup has very little contact surface with the build plate of the printer. If the first layer of the print does not stick very well to the printing base you might experience unsuccessful print soon after the model starts to get printed. This can happen as the print head moving around and building layer by layer can apply some pressure on some of the sides of the model and cause it to detach from the build plate if it is not sticking well. This may never happen of course and the 3D model may still finish printing without an issue even with the small contact area it has with the build plate.

By activating the Raft option in the 3D printing settings what you will be getting is the 3D model you want printed to rise by a few millimeters and some automatically generated structure will be added below it. That structure is the so called Raft that will expand the contact surface with the build plate (base) between the 3D printer and the 3D model you are printing. Don’t worry, the extra material added at the bottom of the cup is not that much and it is easier to remove from the base and from the 3D printed cup or whatever model you are using.

The side effect when using an additional Raft is that the base of the cup may not be as even and flat as it would be if it is directly attached to the build plate without the additional Raft. This you can still easily fix with some sanding of the base of the 3D model, but it does require additional attention. Of course this may vary from printer to printer and from model to model that you print, so it is not an always needed additional step to perform.

Another issue that using a Raft may help you with is when you are printing a larger 3D object and one of the edges starts detaching from the build plate as the model is being printed. You can still get the model to finish printing if it has a larger contact surface to the base of the 3D printer, but it will be slightly deformed at the problematic edge. Activating a Raft is such a case can be helpful, though may not always resolve the issue as it may be caused by a serious problem with the leveling of the build plate. That however is another different issue that I’ll be discussing about at a later time and not in this post.

What is Support and How to Use it
So let us get to the other thing that I need to explain with example, the use of Support and why you need it when talking about consumer grade 3D printers. But first let us remember the explanation from the previous Blog post:

Support is additional structure that also gets automatically generated and added to your 3d model in areas that need some additional material to assist in properly printing them. There is no way a 3D printer can print a part of a 3D model that just hangs in the air and has nothing to hold it to the base of the printing surface, this is where the additional support material comes to help and resolve the issue by allowing you to print the model. After the print is ready you can just remove the extra support material that was used.

So time for another look at the 3D model of the cup in the 3D printing software, in this case the software is MakerBot Desktop used by the 3D printers from MakerBot like the Replicator 2 that I’m using. Reading the description above and looking at the model you should quickly realize that the cup handle is mostly there in thin air with no connection to the build plate. This means that when the 3D printer reaches the lowest part of the handle it will just start to extrude material in thin air and the 3D print will essentially fail with an incomplete cup. That is if you don’t add Support material to assist in connecting the parts that hang in thin air to the base of the 3D printing surface or other parts of the 3D model.

If you activate the use of Support then the slicer (printer software) should calculate automatically where it needs to add them and will apply them where needed – you will see them added in the preview window before starting to print. The software for 3D printers is usually pretty smart and does a good job at adding Support material when needed, but sometimes it may fail to do its job properly and unfortunately not all slicers also come with the option for the user to add manually additional support structures or to remove existing ones.

As you can see on the above image the slicer for the Replicator 2 3D printer did a pretty good job on adding Support for the handle, only as much as really required. It also has added some support material to other areas of the 3D coffee cup – some at the base and some even on the steemit logo on the side. Some of these areas could do just fine even without support material, but the handle of the cup cannot simply be properly printed on an FDM/FFF 3D printer without the use of Support material. Unfortunately the MakerBot Desktop software is one of these slicers that does not yet have an option to allow the manual addition or removal of support structures, so you are stuck with what the automated algorithm does.

When is Support material usually a must have for proper printing? The answer of that question is a bit harder as you will learn yourself as you gain experience printing different things. As already mentioned in the case of the cup handle it is a must have, but some of the other parts where Support structures were added may just do fine even without the extra material. They could either print just fine or with some tiny defects that should not affect much the general appearance and usability, there are some simple rules that can be helpful however.

The use of Support structures is a must when you have elements of an object that are horizontal and/or point at a downward angle like in the case of the cup handle without them having contact with the base (they need to be printed in thin air and there is no way that will happen). If something is horizontal and in thin air, but is just a few millimeters short like the steemit logo on the cup you might up getting lucky even without support structures and getting either a good print or slightly not so good at the bottom.

If you have a part of the 3D model that is at steeper angle, not pointing down, but up instead like the upper half of the cup handle next to the main body of the cup you should be able to do fine without support material in most cases. If the angle is upward, but just a few degrees from the horizontal level you might be lucky without Support structures if it is just a few millimeters long, but if it is longer it will still require Support material.

Why You Need Both Raft and Support for the Example Cup
If you want to have a successful 3D print of the coffee cup that I have used as an example for this Blog post about 3D printing you will have to use both Raft and Support. I hope that by this moment you have understood what exactly each of these two functions does and when and why you need to use it. If you still have some doubts, don’t worry, you will quickly get the hang of it when you print some 3D models successfully with and without Raft and Support structures and when you get some failed prints and you analyze what went wrong.

Now for the coffee cup and why you need to use both for a successful print. Normally the cup might have been just fine for 3D printing without Raft if it did not require the use of Support material for the handle. When you activate the generation of Support material the base of the cup gets some extra contact surface to the build plate thanks to the extra support structures added. However the support for the handle is very thin and as a result there might be issues with it sticking to the build plate and remaining stuck to it as the printer goes up layer by layer building up the cup. The potential issues that can be caused by the small contact surface of the support material can be avoided with the addition of a Raft. So in the end you will need both Raft and Support activated to get a good and successful print of the 3D model of the coffee cup, don’t worry, you should be able to easily remove the extra material added by the two additional options.

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