3D printing is a great hobby to get into. But, to the inexperienced user, how to actually use a 3D printer might seem like a daunting process.
While back in the early days, 3D printing was only a hobby for the tech nerds in Silicon Valley, the FDM 3D printers of today are very consumer-friendly, and even a five-year-old could use one.
In this article, I’ll go over the exact steps for using an FDM 3D printer, starting from finding a model to painting it! I’ll also cover the different options for filament materials, slicer settings, and more!
Table of Contents
- What is FDM 3D Printing?
- How to 3D Print? Step-by-Step Process
- 3D Printer Filament Materials
- Where to Find 3D Models?
- What Slicing Software to Use?
- What Should You 3D Print First?
- Potential Issues on FDM 3D Printers
What is FDM 3D Printing?
Fused Deposition Modeling (also called Fused Filament Fabrication) is an additive manufacturing method, where a stringed material, known as filament, is melted and pushed out of a nozzle. The nozzle moves in a controlled manner over a print surface and lays down the melted material to create the desired 3D print.
FDM 3D printing is perhaps the most popular form of 3D printing for consumers, and it offers many benefits over other 3D printing technologies, like SLA and DLP. Moreover, at the consumer level, FDM 3D printers are better for making custom-designed functional parts because the filament materials for FDM printers are much stronger and more durable than those available for consumer-grade resin 3D printers.
Within FDM 3D printing, there are a handful of different motion styles, like i3, Cartesian, CoreXY, and Delta. But, for now, just know this: FDM 3D printing involves melting plastic and laying it down, layer by layer, to form a 3D model.
There are many different components and sub-assemblies on an FDM 3D printer, and, so I won’t bore you, I won’t go over all of them. However, you should know the following ones as they are very important and are referenced in many instructional guides (including this one):
- Hot End: The hot end is the assembly on an FDM 3D printer responsible for melting the inserted filament. The nozzle screws into the bottom of the hot end.
- Nozzle: The nozzle is the part that last touches the melted plastic material before it goes onto the print surface.
- Print Bed: The print bed, also called the print surface and build plate, is the space where melted plastic is laid out across the X/Y plane.
- Extruder: The extruder is an assembly on FDM 3D printers made up of an extruder assembly and a stepper motor. This assembly is responsible for pushing the inserted, not-yet-melted, stringed filament into the hot end.
How to 3D Print? Step-by-Step Process
3D printing a part might seem like a daunting process, but it’s actually pretty simple on an FDM 3D printer. In the sections below, I’ve outlined the main steps for using an FDM 3D printer. Enjoy!
1. Decide What You Want to Print
First, you have to decide what you want to 3D print. Think of basically anything as FDM 3D printers can make almost anything, as long as it’s plastic and fits in your FDM machine’s print space.
You can find some fun 3D print ideas on Reddit, YouTube, and other social media platforms. Personally, I like to scroll through Thingiverse and Printables, the two largest repositories of 3D printable models, to find designs. I’ll talk more about this in the next section, though.
2. Find or Create a Design
Once you have an idea of what you want to 3D print, it’s time to either find or design a 3D printable version of the part.
If you want to find a pre-designed model, then I suggest checking out Thingiverse, Printables, Yeggi, and other 3D printable model repositories.
And, as a tip, try to keep the text search simple. For example, if you’re looking for a mouse bungee model, try searching for “mouse bungee” rather than something specific like “mouse bungee for Razer wireless mouse”.
If you can’t find a 3D model online, then you might want to design it yourself. To do this, you’ll need to use computer-aided design (CAD) software, like Fusion 360, Solidworks, or Onshape. Using a CAD program can be a bit difficult for new users, but, after some tutorials, you should get the hang of it.
When designing the model, make sure that its dimensions will fit in your FDM 3D printer and that the design isn’t too complex, otherwise the print job might fail. Check out our related article on to how make STL files and 3D print them here.
3. Download STL File
Whether you found a 3D printable model on a repository or designed it yourself, you’ll need to download the model in the STL file format. The STL file format is available on most 3D model repositories and CAD programs and is the preferred file format for 3D slicer programs, which I’ll talk more about later.
4. Import 3D Model to the Slicer
With your STL file (or files) downloaded to your computer, it’s time to import the model into a 3D slicer software.
If you’re new to 3D printing, 3D slicers are a special type of software that converts a design in a 3D model format, like STL or STEP, to a 3D printable file (G-code file). The most popular 3D slicer for FDM 3D printers includes UltiMaker Cura, PrusaSlicer, Simplify3D, and IdeaMaker. It’s also worth noting that most FDM 3D slicers are free and open-source.
To import a downloaded 3D model into a slicer, simply click the “Import” or “Open” button on the software’s interface. You should see a 3D render of your selected model in the slicer program once it’s loaded in.
Adjust Slicer Settings
3D slicer programs feature many settings, known as slicer settings (or print settings), which control how your 3D printers actually make the imported model. These settings include print speed, nozzle temperature, retraction distance, infill density, and hundreds more.
Each slicer setting has an effect (sometimes big, sometimes small) on the quality, strength, and speed of your 3D print. As such, it’s vital that you adjust the print settings in your 3D slicer to ensure a successful, high-quality 3D print.
You can check out our article on the most popular Cura slicer settings to learn more about how you can use each one!
Slice and Save G-Code File
After you tune your slicer settings based on your printer’s hardware and the imported 3D model, it’s time to slice that baby. Slicing a 3D model turns your 3D model into a G-code file, which can be read by your 3D printer’s motherboard so you can actually print the model.
To slice your imported model, simply click the “Slice” button in your 3D slicer program’s interface. Once the model is sliced, save the G-code file to your printer’s MicroSD card (or on your computer).
5. Choose Your Filament
Now that the digital side of the 3D printing process is basically done, it’s time to get physical (not like that). And one of the most important physical factors is what filament (specifically, the filament material) you’re using.
Today, there are tens of different filament materials that can be used on consumer-grade FDM machines. The most popular, by far, is PLA, but other common filament materials include ABS, PETG, and TPU.
Each filament material offers a unique set of mechanical properties (e.g. strength, impact resistance, flexibility) and prints differently. If you’re wondering what filament material is best for your specific print, check out the section labeled “3D Printer Filaments” down below.
6. Prepare the 3D Printer
As you probably know, consumer-grade FDM printers (e.g. Creality Ender 3) aren’t known for their reliability, and printing issues are frequent. As such, if you want a successful print, then it’s essential that you prepare your FDM 3D printer.
You can follow the different preparation processes below to ensure a high-quality print with no failures (hopefully).
Level the Bed
First, and perhaps most importantly, you need to level the bed on your 3D printer. If the bed isn’t level, the first layer of your print job will likely not stick and fail. And, when the first layer fails, so will all the rest, leaving you with a bunch of wasted filament.
You can level the bed on your FDM 3D printer either manually or using an automated system if your 3D printer has an automatic bed leveling (ABL) sensor.
The latter process entails adjusting the leveling screws beneath the build plate on your machine to keep the bed flat relative to the nozzle. And, for printers with ABL, all you have to do is click a button on your machine’s LCD screen, and the printer will use the equipped sensor to ensure a successful first layer, assuming the Z offset value is properly set.
Another important preparation step is to check the nozzle. The nozzle is where the melted filament comes out of, and, if it’s clogged, your print will likely fail or have significant quality defects (e.g. under-extrusion).
To check the nozzle, simply tell your printer (via the LCD interface) to extrude 50-100 mm of filament. If it flows out nicely, then your nozzle is fine!
If the extrusion seems clogged, then your printer’s nozzle might be partially clogged. In this case, use a small metal needle, insert it through the nozzle’s exit hole, and push out any contaminants that might be clogging the nozzle.
The last thing I like to do before a print is calibrate the extruder. This ensures your printer is pushing out just the right amount of filament, preventing under and over-extrusion from hurting the quality of your prints.
To be honest, I only calibrate my printer’s extruder about once every few months, but I recommend doing it once a month unless you’re comfortable with your printer’s reliability. Calibrating the extruder is a rather lengthy process, so I won’t be going over it in this article. But feel free to check out my article about setting the E-steps on your 3D printer, where I’ve gone over the process in detail.
7. Print Your 3D Model
Now that your 3D printer is ready to go, it’s time to print your part! To do this, simply go on your printer’s LCD interface, select what model from your inserted SD card you want to print and click “Start Print”.
I suggest sticking around for the first 2-5 layers of the print job to make sure the base layers come out fine. That way, if something fails early on, you can reduce the amount of filament that’s wasted.
8. Post Processing
Once your print is done, you might want to post-process the model. Post-processing entails fixing up your model and improving its overall visual appearance.
There are a handful of post-processing techniques for FDM 3D prints, and I’ve briefly gone over the most popular ones below:
First, immediately after your print is finished, you should remove any support material from your print. I try to avoid using support material in the first place as support structures typically leave a rough patch on your 3D printed part. But sometimes they are necessary.
To remove support material from a model, try using some pliers and gently (but firmly) pulling the structures off of your model. Check out our in-depth article on how to remove support here for more info.
If you’ve ever felt an FDM 3D print, then you probably know how rough they are. Sanding is a great way to smooth out the layer lines on an FDM 3D print.
I suggest wet sanding 3D prints. Wet sanding involves soaking the sandpaper in water before and after rubbing it on the surface of your 3D printed parts. This technique helps remove the small bits of plastic from the sandpaper so it lasts longer.
Priming & Painting
Priming and painting are also super popular post-processing techniques used for FDM 3D prints as most printers can make multi-color models.
You should always use a primer (filler) spray on your 3D print before laying down a coat of paint as FDM 3D prints are naturally very porous. Additionally, paint sticks better to primer than it does to 3D printable plastic. On this note, if you’re not using spray paint, I strongly suggest using acrylic paint as other types of paints (e.g. water paint) won’t last on 3D prints.
Finally, layer smoothing is a post-processing technique that entails using a solvent chemical (compatible with your filament material) to smooth out the layers of a 3D print. Layer smoothing is most popular for ABS prints, as you can use acetone (nail polish remover) to make the outer surface of the print look and feel silky and smooth.
Check out our article on how to smooth 3D prints for more info here.
9. Clean 3D Printer After Using
Once you’re done with your 3D print, it’s important to clean your FDM machine. But, don’t worry because cleaning it is very easy. All you really have to do is remove any dust or leftover plastic from the printer (especially the print bed) and clean off any adhesive that might be on the build plate.
10. Store Filament Properly
Finally, I strongly suggest storing your filament in an airtight container or a place that’s very dry. That’s because 3D printing filaments are usually hygroscopic, meaning the plastic absorbs moisture from the air. And, when this happens, the filament will start to cause printing issues like clogs, stringing, and under-extrusion.
You can check out my article about drying filament and the best dry boxes for 3D printing filament to learn more about good practices for storing filament.
3D Printer Filament Materials
As I mentioned, there are a handful of different 3D printer filament materials to choose from, and each offers different mechanical properties and is printed differently. Choosing the right filament for a print is very important, and I’ve gone over the most popular options below:
PLA (Most Popular)
Polylactic acid, known as PLA, is the most popular filament for FDM 3D printing. The main reason for this is that PLA is super easy to print. You can basically get away without tuning your 3D slicer settings at all and still achieve decent-quality 3D prints.
However, where PLA is lacking is in mechanical properties. The thermoplastic is very brittle and weak, and it’s also very sensitive to UV light. As such, I wouldn’t recommend using this material for any outdoor applications or parts that require a lot of strength.
ABS is another popular filament material, and it’s actually the same type of plastic used in LEGOs and many other parts (e.g. the inside of a car). ABS is a lot more difficult to print than PLA, as you’ll need to enclose your 3D printer and use relatively high temperatures for the nozzle and print bed.
But, there are some benefits to ABS. First off, parts printed in ABS are much stronger and more durable than those made in PLA. Plus, ABS is even slightly flexible so it’s great for making parts that need to be impact-resistant.
PETG is like if you took the printability of PLA and combined it with the strength and durability of ABS. This plastic is relatively new to the 3D printing world, and it’s only slightly more difficult to print than PLA; you’ll have to watch out for over-adhesion (on the bed) and excessive stringing on prints, though. But, if you can get over these potential issues, then you’ll love PETG for its UV resistance, durability, and rigidity.
TPU, TPE, TPC (Flexible)
Next, TPU, TPE, and TPC are all 3D printable filament materials that are flexible. While all three can be 3D printed, the only one you really see on Amazon is TPU as this material is favored by the 3D printing community for its (relative) ease of printing. So, if you want to print a flexible camera mount or a very impact-resistant model, try going with one of these materials.
Next, nylon is a great filament material for printing parts that need to be a tad bit flexible for impact-resistance purposes, super strong, and also decently easily printable. You’ll have to spend some time tuning your 3D slicer to ensure successful prints, and the filament also must be placed in a dry environment. But it’s a surefire option when strength and durability are necessary.
Lastly, polycarbonate (PC) is the strongest filament material for consumer-grade 3D printers. Printing PC filament is very difficult, as the material is super sensitive to slicer settings, requires high nozzle and bed temps, and you have to enclose your printer. But parts printed in this material are hella strong; way more so than other filament materials.
Where to Find 3D Models?
You can find 3D models online across many different 3D model repositories. I suggest using a 3D model repository or 3D model search aggregator that’s specific to 3D printing. I’ve listed the best options, with the most models and best search interfaces, below:
What Slicing Software to Use?
There are a handful of different 3D slicers you can use, and many are free. I’ve listed the best options below:
- UltiMaker Cura (Best Overall)
- Simplify3D (not free)
What Should You 3D Print First?
There’s no one model that you should 3D print first. However, I strongly suggest printing a test model as they reveal the strengths and weaknesses of your 3D printer and make the slicer setting tuning process a bit easier. There are many different test models out there, and, below, I’ve listed some of the best options:
Potential Issues on FDM 3D Printers
There are many different things that can go wrong on basically any FDM 3D printer. I’ve gone over some of the most common issues below, as well as some simple ways to fix them.
Failed First Layer
A failed first layer, if you couldn’t tell, is when the first layer of your 3D print fails. It usually looks like a spaghetti mess of filament on the print bed, but this issue can take many forms.
Warping is another issue related to the first layer of prints, where the base of the model peels up, deforming the bottom of the part. To fix this issue, try using a brim or raft on your 3D print as well as increase the bed temperature and apply an adhesive to the print surface.
Under-extrusion is when not enough filament gets melted or pushed out the nozzle, leaving gaps in the layers of prints and even stopping filament extrusion completely. To fix it, first, clean out the nozzle, and then calibrate the extruder and try increasing the nozzle temperature.
Check out our related article on how to fix under-extrusion for more info.
Next, over-extrusion is the opposite of under-extrusion and typically appears on 3D prints in the form of “zits” or blobs on the outermost layer of the model. To solve over-extrusion, I suggest lowering the printing temperature and increasing the retraction distance in your 3D slicer.
Layer shifting occurs when the belts on your 3D printer aren’t tight, causing each layer of your model to be printed at an offset from the previous one. As you probably guessed, to fix this issue, try tightening the belts of your printer’s X and Y axes.
Lastly, stringing is when strings of excess filament appear on the endpoints of a 3D model. To fix this issue, you should lower the nozzle temperature and increase the retraction distance and retraction speed settings in your 3D slicer.
Other Issues & Troubleshooting
For a list of common troubleshooting issues and how to fix them, make sure to check out our in-depth guide!
Overall, while FDM 3D printing might seem like a hobby for the nerds, it’s become a technology that just about anyone can use. And it’s super versatile too! You can print literally whatever you need, whether it’s a doorstop, computer case, or a sword to hang up on a wall.
The steps to using an FDM 3D printer are super simple. First, you have to find a 3D model (or design it), then slice it in a special software, and upload it to your printer. As for printing, you just have to decide what filament material you want to use (most people go with PLA), calibrate your 3D printer, and start the print job. After that, you can choose to post-process your model, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to.
See, that wasn’t so hard!
And, if you do run into issues with your FDM 3D printer or really any 3D printer, don’t worry, it happens to everyone. You can always come back here to PrintingAtoms.com where I’ve provided literally hundreds of guides for solving all sorts of different printing issues, from a failed first layer to the SD card on your 3D printer not working.
Hope this helps!