Introduction: 3D Printing PLA on Tissue Paper

About: Electrical Engineer, EDA/CAD hacker, VE3SLG, bassist, violist, makerbot/reprap, open source bits & atoms, dabbler in everything.

At the World Maker Faire this year in NYC I was sharing my experiments in 3D printing plastic on different substrates.

Here is what I have found works with tissue paper.

When it comes to printing plastic on tissue paper, the most important thing to do is keep the paper flat and wrinkle-free during the first few layers and stationary all the way through the build process.  Spray-on adhesive can't be used directly on the build surface because the paper will tear when you try to remove it at the end.

The only method I have found that works consistently is to construct a frame that sits snuggly around the build platform, flush with the surface, and glue the tissue paper to it around the perimeter.

This Instructable details how to go about building your own frame.

Source file for the PaperFly I printed in this example are at

Step 1: Graph Your Build Platform Long Edge

Take a piece of graph paper and center one edge along the length of the build platform.

Only one pair of parallel edges need to be a tight fit around the build platform to keep the frame stationary.  In my case with a MakerBot Replicator it is easiest to make those the left-right pair of edges; the rear is complicated by the heated build platform cabling.

Mark off both side-edges of the build platform, making sure they are either precise or slightly smaller than the edge length of the build platform.  If the frame is too tight after construction it is relatively easy to shave away material until it is a snug fit.

Step 2: Graph Your Build Platform Short Edges and Escapes

For the remaining pair of edges (assuming your platform is rectilinear), recenter the graph paper on one edge and mark off the boundary positions.  Since these edges don't need to be a tight fit you can either be precise or space them slightly farther apart.

Draw the bounding box in the center of the graph paper and mark off any extra features you need to take note of.  In my case that meant making a cut-out centered at the rear for the heated build platform cabling.

Step 3: Complete a C-shaped Frame Outline

If your build platform doesn't already have a conveniently located break in the perimeter at the rear like mine does, add one at a mid-point in a long edge so you land up with a C-shaped frame outline.

Trace a thick border around the inner C-shaped line.  This is the frame width you'll be cutting out and gluing tissue paper to.

In my case I'm using 1/4" square graph paper so you can see that a frame width of 3 squares (3/4") fit nicely on my page.

Step 4: Glue Graph Paper on Box or Particle Board

Center and glue the graph paper on a large sheet of box or particle board.

My first prototype was constructed on scrap box board (aka cut up cardboard boxes), so I can confirm that it will work, however the box board won't last very long as it saturates with glue used to stick tissue paper on it.

In these picture I'm using particle board cut into 1' x 1' squares.

Caution: Be sure to follow any recommended safety instructions for the glue you choose to use.  In my case with spray-on adhesive this involved applying it in a well ventilated area.

Step 5: Cut Out Frame; Keep Outline Intact

Since I seem to have misplaced my (non-existant) laser scalpel, I had to cut out my frame with hand tools.  If you're in the same position as I was, it helps to pre-drill small holes at all the corner points so that all your long cuts are straight lines.

Use a keyhole saw or something similar and keep your saw kerf inside the inner C-shape so that the frame's fit will stay tight around the build platform.  You can shave off material at the end if the fit is too tight.

Note: You do not want to significantly damage the outline as you will be using this as a mask to apply glue to your tissue paper.  Large cuts into the material make it difficult to apply glue cleanly.

  • Take your time when using sharp and pointy tools.
  • Drill onto a sacrificial surface, such as another piece of hard-board.
  • Keep fingers out of the cutting zone when sawing.
  • If using power tools, follow any recommended safety precautions.

Step 6: Trace and Fill Outline on Second Board

Center your outline template on a second board, then trace and fill in the C-hole.

This is where you'll be taping down sheets of tissue paper for gluing to the frame.

Step 7: Center and Tape Tissue Paper on Glue Board

When you're taping down the tissue paper, make sure you gently brush it flat from all directions.  If wrinkles start to show in a direction you're brushing, lift the tape at that corner to allow the paper to relax and re-stick.

Place the outline template over top and spray adhesive all around.  You only care about the protected tissue paper so more glue is better, but not super-saturated to the point that the paper falls apart.

Caution: Be sure to follow any recommended safety instructions for the glue you choose to use.  In my case with spray-on adhesive this involved applying it in a well ventilated area.

Step 8: Press C-frame Firmly Onto Glue in Outline

You don't want the frame to shift as you're pressing down, but make sure it is firmly in contact with the tissue paper before you pry up the outline.

Step 9: Pry Up Outline and Gently Lift Taped Corners

When I was using cardboard, this was the trickiest step.  The spray adhesive stuck equally well between the tissue paper and the cardboard, making it rather difficult to pry up the tissue paper without tearing some in the process.

Now that I'm using particle board, it seems to work quite well as I'm able to wipe it down after so it doesn't stay sticky.

Step 10: Slide C-frame Over Level Build Platform

If your printer has a levelling routine, perform it once before adding the tissue paper.  The thickness of the paper doesn't add significantly to the height so levelling after adding the tissue paper is optional, however not levelling at least once before will often result in torn tissue paper.

The clamped tissue paper should be a nice snug fit with no movement in any direction.  Make sure the paper is still flat and there are no wrinkles.  If you see any wrinkles you may need to re-glue the paper to the frame before it will print without snags and tears.

The C-frame edges should be flush with the build platform surface.  If it isn't, you may need to shave off some material or de-burr some edges until it is.  Any protrusions from the surface can (and will) snag on the printer nozzle and tear the tissue paper so spend some time getting this right.

Caution:  Use common sense when working around a heated build platform.  If you have been printing immediately before trying this technique do not touch the platform directly with your fingers until you are confident that the temperature has dropped to safe levels.

Step 11: Print Something

Here are a couple of example models for you to try:
When it's done printing, remove it from the build platform and set it free!

  • The nozzle is hot; do not touch it.
  • When printing PLA on tissue paper, a heated build platform (HBP) is not necessary for it to stick.  I explicitly run mine at 40C so that it is at a known temperature above ambient room temperature. If you have not created a custom slicing profile for PLA-on-paper printing you will have to hand edit your GCode to set the HBP to a temperature lower than the default which may be as high as 110C.
  • When trying this process for the first time or a new/unknown paper product for the first time, keep a hand close to the power button.  If your paper starts to "melt", stop the build process.  Paper does not melt! Unknown plastic content which may release toxic byproducts does melt.
  • Err on the side of caution.  If something doesn't look or smell right, stop the build process and figure out what it is.
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