Introduction: Custom Hydrographic Design for 3D Printing

About: We are passionate about technology and craft. We are at the heart of the european Maker movement. Our company distributes the 3D printer brand Makerbot in France and also organize events such as Maker Faire.
Last month, Bertier Luyt, (president of le FabShop) discovered the existence of the hydrographic technology, with this viral video on Youtube.

This video showing a man dip coating his hand with a carbon pattern can be quite impressive for someone who never heard of this technique before. Also known as immersion printing, water transfer printing, water transfer imaging, cubic printing, hydro dipping or hydrocoating, is a technology wich has been used by the industrials for decades. 

If you ever saw a hunter gun covered with leaves or a moto helmet with a flame pattern, you've seen the result before. 

Anyways, Bertier was extremely excited by his discovery because he realised that it could be applied to almost any plastic object... wich meant it was perfect for... 3D Printing!

We managed to find a simple DIY hydrographic kit on internet. Our first tests left us speechless. This technique really does feel like magic. Here is a guide to your first image transfer on a 3D printed object.

We invite you to follow the process in our video tutorial.

Step 1: Kit and Accessories

This is what you need :

  • Hydrographic film (a few samples should be included in the kit)
  • Activator (usually sold with the kit)
  • Primer (usually sold with the kit)
  • 1 container (deep and wide enough to immerse your object in the water)
  • Protections : gloves, mask (the activator is toxic and corrosive)
  • Scissors and masking tape if you want to mask some parts of your object.
  • Clear coat, in spary. (to protect the graphic and fix it)

Step 2: Print Your Design

For this tutorial, we selected this very simple, yet beautiful, ballerina shoe from Continuum Fashion

You will want to print with the highest resolution. Here, we used the best resolution on our MakerBot : 0,1 mm of layer tickness. 

If you need support material, try to remove as much as possible. 

Step 3: Preparing Your Object

Prepare the object :

If necessary, use sandpaper to smooth the part's surface.

Protect the areas of the object you don't want covered by the graphic with painter tape (masking tape)

*We protected the sole and the interior of the shoe.

Step 4: Primer

Apply the primer on the object (keep a distance of approximately 30 cm to avoid drops).

Then let it dry for a minimum of 2 hours.

Step 5: Prepare the Film

Fill about 3/4 of your container with water (between 25 et 30°C). Be carefull to put enough water to immerse your piece. 
Gently put down the film on the water. Do that progressively to avoid bubbles, then wait between 40 and 60 seconds. The aspect of the  film will change, it should wrinkle and come back to the first state (see the video). At this moment, you can vaporize the activator on the film. (Keep a distance of 20-30 cm.) Just put a thin layer, you don't need much.
Don't forget your mask if you want to live longer !

Step 6: Immersion

Now, it's time to immerse your object ! 
You can create a small handles with tape to help you hold the object. Put on your gloves and dip your piece slowly. The film will adjust  to the shapes. Incline your object at 45 degrees to avoid cracks and folds. Flat faces should enter with a angle.  
Immerse completely your object and move your hand the water to push the excess pigments away from the object. Get help from an other person if necessary. You should be able to bring the object back to the surface without any unwanted pigment on your piece. 

Before to dip your best design, try with some disposable cups to get used to the technique.
Watch our video for more details !

Let the piece dry few minutes and then rinse it with hot water, if necessary.
Let it dry completely

Step 7: Finition

When your piece is dried, remove the painter tape and apply one or two layers of clear varnish.

Your object is ready to be used, manipulated and shown to the world!