Tools + Materials

Introduction: Tools + Materials

About: I'm an inventor / maker / designer based in the Bay Area. My background is in residential architecture, film set design, animatronics, media arts, exhibit design, and electronics. I use digital design and fabr…

In this class, you will learn everything you need to know to design and 3D print your own creations. 3D printing is a kind of additive manufacturing in which an object is created by building up successive layers of material. Unlike subtractive manufacturing (which covers everything from drilling to milling), 3D printing allows us to quickly and cheaply make complex objects without expensive molding and casting tools.

In this class, you'll learn how to design, 3D model, and 3D print using a consumer grade desktop machine. With this class and enough practice, you'll be designing and printing like a pro in no time. If you want a more lightweight introduction to 3D printing, check out our free Easy 3D Printing Class before tackling this class!

Throughout this class, you'll learn the basics by designing and printing a Sealing Wax Stamp for your fancy custom stationary.


I'm Jonathan Odom (a.k.a. JON-A-TRON). I've been designing and 3D modeling for over 13 years. I grew up in rural Louisiana and got my Bachelor of Architecture at SCIArc in Los Angeles in 2009. I've worked in film animatronics, special effects, product design, tech art, urban design, and architecture. I got into digital fabrication while in school in 2006 and have been 3D printing ever since.

Step 1: A (Very) Brief History of 3D Printing

In 1981, Hideo Kodama (Japan) invented the first Additive Manufacturing method using photosensitive polymer exposed to masked UV light in successive layers. Then in 1984, Alain Le Méhauté, Olivier de Witte and Jean Claude André from the French General Electric Company patented the stereolithography process three weeks before Chuck Hull (USA) filed for his patent on the same process. GE abandoned the patent because they didn’t see the value in the technology, so Chuck Hull won the race by default.

Hull also brought a couple of important innovations that hadn’t existed before: the STL file format, digital slicing, and infill strategies, all of which we still use today.

In the late 80’s, S. Scott Crump developed Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), which is basically a hot glue gun on a robotic arm that draws shapes in thin layers, one on top of the other. It was Stratasys that took it to market in 1990.

The RepRap Project started in Britain in 2005 as a non-commercial open source research project which got a lot of makers into the technology. When Stratasys’ patent released in 2012, dozens of companies started popping up with their own versions of the machine for the consumer market. This is why you can now buy a high quality 3D printer for less than $1000.

What's it Good For?

3D Print Ball Bearing in One Shot by Ally Zhao

What makes 3D printing unique is its ability to make complete, complex solid objects. Most 3D printed objects could only be produced by a master sculptor or machinist, and some 3D printed objects would be impossible to produce any other way. The 3D Print Ball Bearing in One Shot by Ally Zhao (shown above), for example, has all of its internal and external parts printed in place- the result is a sealed ball bearing assembly with no seams or fasteners.

3D printing, for most makers, is a powerful shortcut to making precise, complex objects for endless different purposes.

Step 2: General Workflow


The process of design may seem hard to pin down. Although the nuances of the design process can differ from designer to designer, the basic principles remain the same.

Observe: Obviously, design must start with an idea, but how do you come up with an idea? You observe the world around you. Look around, take nothing for granted, and ask yourself if there's a better way to do any of the hundreds of things you do and see others do. I find it helps to focus on your own life and try to identify the things that you need and want.

Sketch & Ideate: Once you've identified the problem, it's time to come up with a solution. Sketching is not just a way to present an idea to another person, it's an extension of your own thought process. As you put pen to paper, you start to notice problems and opportunities that you can't see in your own head. Sketching is fast by nature, so it's easy to quickly test ideas without committing to all the time necessary to create a 3D model. I can't stress this part enough- sketch a lot!


3D Design: When you've got a good collection of sketches down on paper, you'll have a better idea of what you want to create. Sketching helps you make decisions about geometry, scale, and material that will be essential in creating a successful 3D model. The 3D modeling stage is where you fine-tune the design- think of it as sketching on steroids. Working in 3D allows you to intimately understand all the details of an object and to control all its aspects in relation to each other. In this stage, you completely work out a 3D object that is (hopefully) printable.

Export Models: Every 3D design program has its own proprietary file format. In Fusion 360 (the software we'll cover in this course), solid geometry is used to create the model. In order to 3D print, this solid model must be exported as a polygon mesh model. STL is the most common format for exporting geometry for 3D printing.


Layout / Repair / Prep: Once the STL files are exported for printing, they must be prepared for printing. Meshes must be "airtight" meaning that their surfaces can't have any holes. Other geometrical errors can occur that will result in failed prints, so a second program (such as Meshmixer or Print Studio) must be used to check for and correct errors. In the preparation software, you can also add additional models, orient, scale, and place models for 3D printing multiple parts in one job. The preparation software may also be used to create support structures for 3D printing.

Slicing: Once the model is laid out and ready for printing, it must be sliced for the particular 3D printer to be used. Some slicing software is robust enough that you can avoid the preparation software altogether. MakerBot's slicing software, for example, has supports that are generally superior to the ones that can be generated in Meshmixer or Print Studio. The slicing software will create a proprietary G-Code file (see the next entry on this class) for the 3D printer to run the job.


With the G-Code file ready to go, it's time to run the 3D print job. This is by no means a one-step process. The machine must be prepped, the build platform must be prepped, and getting a first print going often takes multiple corrections and adjustments both to the machine and to the G-Code. Temperature, feed rate, and extruder speed must all be carefully calibrated to achieve the desired result. Fortunately, once the machine and settings are dialed in, each successive print becomes easier until you don't even need to think about it anymore.


After the first successful 3D print, it's time to test it, evaluate it, and otherwise examine it. Does fulfill its purpose? Is it attractive? Is it practical? Is it the best possible design? No design is ever perfect with the first attempt. Carefully scrutinize the design, and go back to the concept. Remember, 3D printing is about prototyping. The value of the machine is that there is almost no additional investment in generating multiple iterations of a design as opposed to the cost of creating an injection mold for each iteration. Exploit this benefit, and you're on your way to being a good designer.

Step 3: 3D Printers

There are so many desktop 3D printers to choose from, there's no way I could give you a definite answer on which one to choose. The main factors you have to balance are price, reliability, and familiarity with machines. Make Magazine has an outstanding 3D Printer Buyer's Guide that will help you choose the printer that's right for you.

I'm recommending the Dremel Idea Builder because it works for me. Here's why:

Dremel 3D Idea Builder ($800)

  • Build Volume: 9” (230mm) (X) x 5.9” (150mm) (Y) x 5.5” (140mm) (Z)
  • Materials: PLA
  • Pros: Affordable, reliable, easy maintenance, quiet, great customer support, files pulled from internal memory, excellent machine interface.
  • Cons: Inferior support structures for substantial overhanging geometry (3rd party software can solve this problem).

The Dremel 3D Idea Builder is a sign of things to come: a long established, profitable hardware company has learned from the startups and entered the market with an affordable, widely available 3D printer.

Here is my experience with the machine: With heavy, regular use for over 9 months, the machine is still working well. Filament jams are rare and easy to fix. Printing failures happen maybe 15% of the time (which in my experience is comparable to the Rep-2).

I recommend this machine because it's ready to use right out of the box using very simple software. It's the right mix of affordability, build volume, and user-friendliness.

Go to my 3d Printer Guide for more info on the Dremel and other 3D printer options.

Printrbot Play ($400)

  • Build Volume: 4" (100mm) (X) x 4.1" (105mm) (Y) x 5" (130mm) (Z)
  • Materials: PLA
  • Pros: Very affordable, reliable, easy maintenance, great customer support, files pulled from internal memory, seriously well built.
  • Cons: Small build volume.

The Printrbot Play is an amazing little machine. $400 for a 3D printer that's this well made, has internal memory, and has really good tech support is pretty amazing. The only issue with this one is that it's got a small build volume. If you're looking to get started with 3D Printing on a budget, this is the printer for you.

Creality CR-10 ($400)

  • Build Volume: 11.8" (300mm) (X) x 11.8" (300mm) (Y) x 15.75" (400mm) (Z)
  • Materials: PLA, ABS, HIPS, Nylon, PETG
  • Pros: Very affordable, high quality prints, huge build volume, easy to unclog / repair, customizable, heated bed (allows for much wider range of filaments and prevents prints peeling up), on-board computer control, fast nozzle heating.
  • Cons: Some assembly required, takes up a lot of space, not a simple, self-contained box (power supply and printer are separate objects connected by cables).

In terms of bang for the buck, this is the best printer I'm aware of. The build volume is huge but it's still less than $400. It's a bit messy on a desktop because the power supply and printer are separate, but that's a small price to pay. The print quality is excellent in my experience, the heated bed opens you up to a whole range of high-performance filaments, and even though it's sold as a "kit", it basically just comes in two parts that screw together and a bunch of cables you have to plug in. If you're a little more savvy with machines and not intimidated by some assembly, this machine can't be beat.

Step 4: Service Bureaus

You don't have to have your own 3D printer to take this class. If you want to get 3D prints made and mailed to you, you can go with a Service Bureau.

A Service Bureau is a 3D printing service available to consumers. They charge on a per-model basis to print 3D models you upload to their site, and offer a wide variety of materials using almost every 3D printing technology that currently exists.

Although there are lots of options available for owning your own 3D printer, service bureaus can be a great way to get a high-quality print of your model in materials that would otherwise be inaccessible.

3D Hubs

This service connects local 3D printing services worldwide. You upload a model and local services bid on producing the model for you. This can result in bargain pricing, but be careful to pay attention to customer reviews. Sometimes entry level 3D print users offer their services and can't promise the quality that a professional operation can, albeit at a higher cost.


This is a service bureau that offers high quality prints in dozens of materials. Metals, plastics, ceramics, and sandstone are among the options with this site. In my experience, they offer unparalleled quality, are very responsive, and are reasonably priced for their excellent results.

I firmly believe the best way to learn about design for 3D printing is to have your own printer, but if owning your own 3D printer isn't in the budget right now, you can learn one-piece-at-a-time with a Service Bureau.

Step 5: Software

Autodesk Fusion 360 (free, renew annualy )

This is a powerful 3D modeling platform that's easy to learn but has endless potential. With it, you can design complex 3D objects for practically any kind of fabrication, digital or otherwise.

Click here to sign up for free as a Hobbyist / Enthusiast / Startup or as a Student or Educator.

  1. Follow one of the links above to download the app (don't use the App Store on Mac).
  2. Enter your email and download the free trial.
  3. Install and setup a free Autodesk ID account.
  4. When you open Fusion, select the Trial Counter in the upper toolbar (it tells you how many days are left on your trial).
  5. In the next dialog box, select "Register for Free Use".
  6. Sign up as a Start-Up or Enthusiast (Free). You can also Sign up as a Student or Educator (Free) if you're a student or educator at a registered institution.
  7. Select the "I accept Terms and Conditions" checkbox and click Submit.

A browser-only version is in the works, but hasn't been released yet. It's in beta right now, but check this link after November 15 for an anouncement about a release date: Project Leopard

Print Studio: Simple Slicing Software (Free)

Once your model is finished, you'll need to send it to a slicer to create a file that a 3D printer can understand (G-Code). Print Studio is free and easy to use. It's all you'll need for simple models that don't have overhangs, which we'll talk about in the Bottle Lock Project lesson.

Simplify 3D: Advanced Slicing + Control Software ($150)

This slicing software has an amazing amount of control and superior support structures, which are very important for objects with overhangs. I've had outstanding results with this program. You can also run a 3D printer with this program if the printer doesn't have an on-board computer.

Cura: Advanced Slicing + Control Software (Free)

I've never used it, but a lot of students have said it's a good, free alternative to Simplify 3D. It has superior support structures, which are very important for objects with overhangs and some more advanced settings than Simplify 3D. You can also run a 3D printer with this program if the printer doesn't have an on-board computer.

Step 6: Tools + Supplies

Calipers ($17): Calipers are the tape measure of small-scale design. This handy tool will make it easy to measure tight spaces, curved objects, and all kinds of unusual shapes.

Plastic Putty Knife ($7): Getting printed parts off of the build platform can be tricky. This handy tool works like a spatula that will help you remove the part without damaging it or the bed.

Isopropyl Alcohol ($7): Filament has to stick to the build platform. Oil from your fingers keeps it from sticking. Solution: rubbing alcohol! Add cleaning a 3D printer build platform to its endless list of other uses.

6" Painter's Tape ($30): Save your build platform, your money, and your sanity by buying some 6" painter's tape to cover your build platform. It's a great surface for the filament to stick to and it's cheap, so you can replace it when it gets too rough.

Multi-Tool with a Can Opener ($77): No self-respecting maker leaves home without a Leatherman multi-tool. I mostly use the can opener to clean out support structures (more on that later), but I find myself using it quite a lot throughout the process.

3D Printer Filament (varies): Filament is the spooled plastic material that gets extruded into a 3D object. There is a wide array of options for the material, but for this class we'll stick to 1.75mm PLA, which is the best option for the Dremel Idea Builder.

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