Further adventures in 3D printing for tabletop

A while back I wrote an article about my first steps in the growing 3D printing part of the tabletop hobby.  Now a few months down the line, an update on what I have learned and where I am going next with this.

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I’ve said it before, but it is worth reiterating – patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to 3D printing.  Over the last few months I’ve made some great inroads into ‘dialling my settings in’ and getting some great results for scenery pieces and larger models.  I’ve done something I’ve never done before – stripping electrics and re-wiring when a key component broke and I’ve also discovered some fantastic digital sculptors pushing their wares on Patreon.

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Dock side scenery piece by Hayland Terrain

So a reminder, I am running a Creality CR-10S which is a larger bed (meaning larger print sizes) FDM printer.  FDM stands for Fused Deposition Modeling, this is the most traditional style of 3D printer on the market and basically works by layering down melted plastic filament to build up a model.  The material I am using is PLA – this is an odourless plastic based on corn starch (so biodegrable).  Having played around with different brands (which does make a difference) I have settled on eSun PLA+ (in a rather splendid yellow).  PLA+ seems to be a slightly more dense version of PLA (possible with extra additives) and I have found it produces stronger models that are easier to work with both in terms of modelling and painting post-printing.

One of the key challenges with printing miniatures in particular is getting the ‘supports’ right.  Supports are the removable parts of the print, which you’ve guessed it, support parts of the model which overhang and would otherwise have to print in mid-air (as a famous guide book once said – this is of course impossible).  There are plenty of miniature designs out there in the 3D printing universe which have been specially designed to print without supports (more on these in a bit).  The real issue when you are using them is to get them so they provide enough ‘support’ for the model while also being relatively easy to remove without snapping off those important bits that should remain in place.

When taking this into account there are all sorts of different variables and pieces of advice out there.  Most of these relate to how you process the STL file prior to printing in your ‘slicing software’, but many also relate to the physical setup of your machine, brand and even colour of filament used and so on.  Lots of trial and error, lots of visiting Facebook groups, checking YouTube and reading forums – so again patience is a virtue.  For information I am using a piece of software called Cura to process (slice) the files before printing.  Learning and tweaking the settings in here is all part of the fun!

In the end I have got this about right I think and some of the results I am getting for larger miniatures both with and without supports are really pleasing.

But where I am getting the files from to print?  Thingiverse is a great resource – a community of designers and printers and a place to find stuff that is free.  There are specific groups and collections of files on there which are aimed at tabletop gamers. However there is also a growing trend for digital sculptors and designers to use the Patreon funding platform to market and distribute work.

I currently support two Patreon campaigns, where for a monthly charge I get access to a number of STL files each month.  Duncan ‘shadow’ Louca is well worth checking out.  I first came across his work as part of a Kickstarter campaign which was creating tanks and armoured vehicle files for a ‘grimdark’ setting.  However he has since branched out into miniatures which are primarily aimed at the fantasy roleplaying game market.  Duncan is extremely prolific and the level of funding he is achieving each month is quite staggering.  It is worth saying that the quality of the prints I have been getting from his files have been excellent as well.  So both quantity and quality – winner!

Another Patreon I have also recently started supported is run by Rocket Pig Games.  They again focus on fantasy monsters and creatures primarily for role playing (but for me ideal for planning out a Saga Age of Magic army).  The big selling point of their models is the aforementioned lack of supports.  Well worth checking out.  They also run a seperate Patreon campaign which focuses more on Lovecraftian ‘cosmic horror’ style miniatures.

The thing that connects everything I have covered so far is that I am printing big models.  In addition thanks to some recent Kickstarer campaigns and the wealth of treasures on Thingiverse I have been printing lots of scenery.  Again, although often detailed, this is big chunky stuff.  For the most part the models produced are sturdy and where supports are necessary they are relatively easy to remove.

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Pre-support removal and clean up

What about normal sized 28mm scale miniatures though?  I recently volunteered to print our some models that a friend had designed and purchased on HeroForge.  This is a great site where you can design character miniatures for your games and then either get them printed and shipped out to you or receive the STL files for printing out yourself.  It is here that I’ve noticed that you are really stretching the capabilities of a FDM printer.  As you are effectively layering up a model by depositing thin layers of plastic you do get some lines on flat surfaces.  For larger models these can be easily filed or treated post-printing (with plastic putty for example).  Settings can again be tweaked in slicing software to increase the resolution of a print (by reducing the layer height, but thus increasing print times); combined with the ability to swap out nozzles of different diameters this can lead to some stunning results. Of course on smaller models even with a high resolution setting and a smaller nozzle size these lines do become more visible.  Combine this with the issue of removing supports and you do start to get some problems with bits snapping off that shouldn’t or obsfucation of detail.

This very much became apparent when I was trying to print off these models – many came out well, but there were a few where the detail was just too fine and the oft mentioned patience became somewhat stretched.

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Smaller minis are pushing the limits of what I can do on a FDM printer

There is some light on the horizon though.  SLA (Stereolithography) printers are becoming much more affordable.  These work in a slightly different way and although they tend to have a smaller print size and are somewhat messier (they use light to harden liquid resin that is contained in a reservoir to create the desired 3D shape), they are ideal for printing smaller more detailed minaitures.

Ooops….

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