I probably don’t need yet another hobby, but I’ve become fascinated with 3D printing in the last year, and some of the things I can do. Some of them are an extension of not being very handy with power tools or woodworking options. I need something that is more “design and print” then “design and build”.
Over the last few months, I’ve waffled. Do I wait until life returns to normal after Andrea’s chemo? Except life is never “normal”. There’s always “something” that would suggest waiting. I am forcing myself to at least finish cleaning up the basement before bringing another project downstairs, and I’m slowly working on it.
But in my spare time, I’ve been trying to figure out what the 3D printer hobby will look like, even as simple as which printer to get.
On the plus side, there’s a good local place with well-reviewed support options. Some people just order kits online, which doesn’t really interest me, and there’s some irony in there. Starting on a DIY hobby where I don’t want to do the initial setup myself. Hmm.
Nevertheless, I visited them a few months ago, decided on the most likely printer to choose. They are cheaper than I expected, expecting to pay around $800, but I’ll likely get out for under $500. Not including supplies of course.
But the part that is messing with my squirrel-brain is NOT the actual 3D printing. It’s how to do multiple colours.
You know what they say about assumptions
When I started looking at this, I saw lots of multiple colour prints. Marvin the Martian, chess boards, Disney characters, etc. I am curious to do a Jiminy Cricket as a throw-back to my youth and to compare it to a statue I have in ceramic that a friend painted for me almost 30 years ago. And under the general info I had, and what I saw, I assumed that a 3D printer kind of worked like a colour inkjet printer. You put in multiple colours of filament, and out came a multiple colour print.
Nope. Almost all hobby printers are monochromatic. They print in one colour at a time. Technically, they say that it has a “single extruder” to paint the print with filament. But it means the equivalent of one ink cartridge at a time.
Now, here’s the fun part. If you WANT multiple colours, there are generally five ways to do it. Are you ready for them? I wasn’t.
A. Upgrade to a multi-extruder printer
That seemed obvious to me, a simple upgrade. If you have a monochrome paper printer, and you want colour, you get a different printer that can print colour. But hold on there. A multi-extruder printer is not as simple as choosing one with multiple heads nor simply changing heads to combine things. No, that would be too easy. Some have two, some have four, some have eight, but each time you go up, the printers get more complicated, more expensive, and often have more things to go wrong…all of which means your user experience gets complicated. Oh. Well, sheepdip. I do NOT want to over complicate my user experience. I was looking for simple.
B. Change filament during the print
This is the obvious approach. While it’s not QUITE the same, it’s kind of like printing a page in a normal printer, and when you want to switch from black ink to red ink, the printer pauses, you switch the cartridge, and it prints the next part, and then tells you when it’s ready to go back to black so you can switch the cartridge again.
Of course, 3D printers don’t really have cartridges, they have filament going into them. And you have to tell the printer when you want it to switch filaments — basically coding the print job so it pauses, beeps at you, has you change the filament being fed into it, waits until you tell it to to continue, does the next segment, and bob’s your uncle, it beeps to tell you to go back to the old one again.
That’s a bit annoying, but manageable, and it keeps everything linear, right? Except it’s not like paper, because you’re printing in three dimensions, a thin layer at a time. So, think of it like say a cube with 20 layers of black at the bottom, and then 20 layers with one half white and one half red, and then 20 more layers there are black again. In an ideal scenario, I would do layers 1-20 of black (which is true, it would do that). Then I would like to switch colours and do layers 21-40 of white (the back half of the cube), switch colours, and then layers 21-40 of red (the front half of the cube), switch back to black, and then do layers 41-60 of black again. It can’t do that.
It can do the first twenty layers (1-20) in black, just normal. But on layer 21, where the back half is white and the front half is red, it would need a colour change from black to white (still the same) AND then a colour change from white to red to do the front half of the layer. Then it would do layer 22. It can’t do 21-40 of one colour and then 21-40 of another, it has to do layer 21 x 2 colours, layer 22 x 2 colours, etc. With the colour change for every layer up to 40. So you CAN do it. But if you were doing something multi colour — perhaps a Simple Simon video game layout where you would have four different colours on the same layer, plus a form colour, that would be at least 5 filament changes for each micro-layer (where a microlayer might be only a couple of mm thick).
In other words, no, I can’t do really complicated prints directly in multiple colours. Don’t even get me started on the idea of a chessboard. 64 squares of two colours? Plus several layers of thickness? Yikes.
C. Use different materials
This is a lot more complicated, and in some ways is not much different than the multi-extruder option. But instead of using the same type of filament all the way through, you can use different materials of different colours within the print. If I thought colour changes were hard, printers that can do multi-material prints are way more complicated than I’m ready to handle.
D. Make it in pieces
If I go back to the chessboard idea, most people make the 64 squares of two colours in two separate sets of squares — one in one colour and one in another — and then “assemble” them together. So kind of like assembling 64x2x2 square lego bricks side by side on a pegboard. It’s a bit more complicated than that of course, with some people doing it with glue, others using overlapping tabs like models, others making a frame for it to sit snugly in, or others creating ways for the pieces to snap together. Of course, there are ways to attach parts together using external fasteners too, or some people actually put lego-like snaps on the bottom of prints so they can attach to other things. Literally snapping together.
I’m not quite sure how I feel about this one yet. When I was young, I had no interest in models that you put together with glue. I didn’t mind “snap together” options, but gluing? That was way too fiddly for my thick, uncoordinated fingers. These parts won’t be that small, but there is an aspect there that makes me pause. On the other hand, model glue was enough of a deterrent all on its own, and most people use bond or epoxy now from the dollar store.
E. Paint it
Okay, so this is the one that is driving me around the bend. I am not a painter. I have done a few ceramic things, not enough to develop any skill at it, and what I make tends to look like it was painted by a semi-talented four-year-old who was in a hurry. 3D printing can make some amazing models. But if I then have to paint them? Hell, I might as well just buy them.
Yet everyone says the same thing, “Just paint ’em, it’s easy”. And there are some tools available now that weren’t before. Very tiny hobby brushes are common place now, sure. But most people say to use paint pens. I didn’t even know there were such things, but apparently Michael’s has four different kinds! First, they have professional quality, that they keep in a locked cabinet, which come in a wide variety of palettes and nib sizes. Second, they have more hobbyist quality, with three sizes of nibs — basically fine/small, medium, broad/large. Both the professional ones and the hobbyist ones come in acrylic or oil paints. And there are some decent collections on Amazon too, of course.
I have watched a few videos, it looks easy enough, but it will obviously take practice to get any skill. And I say “will” instead of “would”, because it pretty much is the main option open to me. I’m going to have to learn to paint stuff. Some people buy a small air brush, others use spray paint for larger models. I saw some real cool stuff done with a small spraycan on a model to get a really good even coat to make a Disney like character. It’s DOABLE. I just hope that I like doing it enough to actually make it worthwhile.
Taking the plunge
I’m taking the plunge on May 6. Fingers crossed that it works. While I can’t really wrap my around the five options above completely, I’m going with the same printer I originally chose. I considered going with a smaller one — smaller investment in case it doesn’t work out. I considered an alternate one with multi-extruders, but the reviews are not kind for a bunch of complications. And I considered going up in level of machine, none of which anyone else recommends. So I’m going with the Gantry Pro.
My overall rallying thought, and why I have put time into trying to pre-load my brain with the right parameters, is that 3D printing has a lot in common with astronomy and photography. The best gear is the gear you will actually use.
But I’m having to let go of the options a little bit. On the plus side, the worst-case scenario is that I try it and it doesn’t really work for me. So, as a result, I might end up selling the printer within a year.
I’m okay with that. At least I’m trying something new. And I’m hoping Jacob is interested too. We’ll see.