How to Make Your 3D Prints Look Awesome

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About: My name is Jack(John) Defay and I am a student and a maker! Check out my work on Youtube @jackandbendefayrobotics | Thingiverse @jackdefay | Github @jackdefay

Intro: How to Make Your 3D Prints Look Awesome

3D printers are amazing, but how do you turn your beautiful plastic creation into something more? Turns out, it's not that hard! All you need is some stuff you can find at your local hardware store, and some patience.

I've been doing a lot of experimentation and research to find simple methods that work, I hope you find this guide helpful! Each step will talk about a different method, so feel free to jump to whichever method interests you!

Step 1: Clean Up the Print

Before doing anything else, I first make sure to clean up the print. For me, this usually means removing any supports or brims with a pair of snips, using an exacto knife to further smooth out the edges and remove any strings or blobs left by the printer, and using a small file to round out any pointy edges or corners.

Step 2: Spray Paint

This is often the first thing that comes to mind when people think of finishing a 3D print. In my experience, you don't have to sand the print before painting, especially if you use a 2 in 1 paint and primer. If you do sand the print, this can help make the final product smoother, and make the layer lines less visible, just make sure that you end with a fine grit (around 220) before painting or the finish might be kinda bumpy.

My best advice when spray painting is to experiment, too much or too little paint per layer will mess up the finish, but when you get it just right the effect is amazing. Personally I've had really good experiences with rustoleum and krylon brand spray paints. The metallic ones are especially fun because you can make fake metal pendants and statues.

Finally, a note on cost. Although there are a ton of great colored filaments, I've found it to be far more cost effective to just buy plain white filament ($20) and various colored spray paints (~ $5), rather than buying a new roll of filament for each color. This is a trade off of course, but I've found it to be well worth it and more cost effective.

(creds to @YuvalA6 for painting the pokemon)

Step 3: LEDs

This is one of my favorite ways to finish a 3D print. Sometimes, you just need a few LEDs to take a project from cool to amazing. Of course, you can always set up a complicated arduino circuit with custom patterns and sensors (which I've also done and it is well worth it if you can). But, if you want the best bang for your buck, just set up a variant of an "LED Throwie" (https://www.instructables.com/id/LED-Throwies/).

One more subtle thing to keep in mind when adding LEDs is to make sure the light diffuses well. Especially when a project is going to be worn, its important to make sure the light doesn't glare in other peoples faces, while maintaining enough light to be seen in daylight. Here's a few ideas about diffusing light:

  • Clear (often "natural") filament is awesome
  • Paper, plastic bottles, or many other common things can be cut to shape to be used
  • Sanding a clear surface makes the light passing through it more diffuse
  • Wide angle LEDs cost just as much as normal LEDs, but have a wider angle of direct lighting
  • If there isn't enough light getting through, add more LEDs!

I'll also usually add a small switch somewhere, so I can turn it on or off without removing the battery.

(Creds to @manavkoolz for working on the arc reactor with me)

Step 4: Different Print Materials

I've really wanted to print with flexible filament, but unfortunately I have a Bowden style extruder, as opposed to a direct feed, so I branched off to other types of filaments that I could print. So far I've tried Hatchbox wood grain, 3D Solutech Glow in the Dark, and Ziro Carbon Fiber. I bought each of these on Amazon so it was super easy and they worked great! The glow in the dark worked right out of the package, but for the wood grain and carbon fiber I just did a simple upgrade to a 0.5mm hardened steel nozzle. I bought this on amazon too, and found a great youtube video on changing the nozzle on the kind of printer I have. Make sure to read about each new type of filament online before printing, I had to change the heating, retraction, and nozzle size to get it to work right.

I've had a lot of fun trying new filaments, and plan to keep trying new ones! The next few I plan to try:

  • PETG
  • ABS (but will need an enclosure)
  • Flexible TPU (but will need a direct style extruder)
  • Marble (just colored filament, but when printed gives the effect of marble)
  • Metal filament (PLA plastic infused with metal powder)

Step 5: Magnets

I prefer to use a calculator app over a physical one, but with my popsocket my phone isn't stable enough. I thought 3D printing a phone stand would be a simple solution, but then it kept sliding around. So I bought some magnets, drilled 3 shallow holes into the bottom of the print and used epoxy to glue the magnets in place. Finally, I spray painted the whole thing silver to match the magnets, and it perfectly solved the problem!

In the future, I plan to incorporate magnets into more of my 3D printing projects. Small, strong rare earth magnets work the best, and drilling a hole and glueing is a great way to secure them.

Step 6: Wood Stain

Wood stain is a classic way to finish wood projects, but what would happen if we tried using wood stain on wood filament? So I bought a can of walnut wood stain and sanded down a spare wood grain 3D print I had, and tested it! The results were pretty much what I expected. It works! But not as well as I hoped. As I suspected, sanding first really improved how much the stain soaked in, and too much stain in one coat left sticky residue. I plan to further experiment with wood stain on wood prints, but so far it seems like a really cool way to make your wood prints look more authentic. However, you should probably overshoot on the color of the stain as it doesn't work as well as with wood.

Step 7: Sanding As a Standalone Effect

So I was sanding this model to prep for staining, when I saw how cool it looked just from the sanding. As you may have noticed when sanding different filaments, there is often a color change. With this model specifically, the color change highlighted the details of the skull, making it a surprisingly effective finish.

I found this to be a particularly cool finishing technique for woodgrain filament due to the dramatic color change. This should also work for other colored filaments but I haven't checked yet.

As far as types of models that this works with, anything with raised patterns or details could benefit from the highlight to the details.

Step 8: Sharpie

This might seem obvious, but I've found sharpies to work quite well for some details. It is permanent, colorful, and in an easy to use marker form factor! If you accidentally mark something you didn't mean to, I've had some success using an exacto knife to scratch it off.

Step 9: Spraypaint and Polyeurathane Technique

This is one of the best and simplest methods I've found to finish 3D prints. All credit goes to 3DSage, you can find his great write up here: https://www.instructables.com/id/Easy-Way-to-Smoot...

The pictures above show my first attempt at replicating the technique. I wasn't able to find the spray polyurethane that was used in the video, so I used spray lacquer, which didn't work at all. I still think this is a viable method, but will have to continue experimenting to get it right.

Step 10: Plants

Plants! Plants are awesome. Putting plants in custom 3D prints? Combining the natural and artificial? Even better.

There are tons of models online for "planters". Often these are just 3D printed pots, but some have drainage holes, custom dishes, or can even be self watering. These can be great projects in their own right, but when printing any sort of pot, urn, or anything with a space in it, consider making it more interesting with a low maintenance succulent!

(Creds to @thebeninator for the working on the Groot head with me)

Step 11: Heat Form

3D printing filament is designed to change properties at increasing temperatures. This is what allows us to 3D print! However, this can also be used to reform the print after it has been printed. I first saw this applied in a thing on thingiverse: https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:523260

So I decided to test this with a simple bic lighter. This can be tough because you have to heat it up enough to be malleable without melting it. I like this method in theory, but in practice I haven't had much success with it so far.

Step 12: Cheetah Ninjatech Filament

Although I haven't experimented with it much yet, I thought this filament deserved its own step. Cheetah filament is similar to the classic ninjaflex, but is designed to be printable on any printer. I honestly didn't believe this at first because I have a Bowden style extruder, but thought I would give it a try, and it works.

The main drawbacks however is that this stuff is more expensive than standard PLA (I got a small roll from Adafruit for $30), and that it is dramatically less flexible than NinjaFlex. This last part may be a positive in some situations however, if you want greater impact resistance and flex than PLA, but still want to retain some structure.

Here's a great YouTube video I found which compares the squishiness of these filaments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgDpRQ5YDcY

Step 13: Other Ideas

I've personally tried all of the methods up till now, but I've read about several other interesting methods I hope to try in the future. Here are some more ideas:

  • Detail paint, like Woody from toy story.
  • Epoxy. Kind of like those amazing life edge wooden tables, you can use clear epoxy resin to layer over the print.
  • Sand blast. I've read for certain types of prints, sand blasting is a great way to smooth them out if you have the equipment.
  • Sandable putty. If you want a super smooth, customizable surface before painting, you can use a sandable primer kind of putty to fill in the layer gaps, before of course, sanding and painting.
  • Chemicals. This method works great for ABS, but not as well for PLA. There are chemical ways of smoothing prints, but this method always seemed a bit involved for me.
  • Motors! I plan to try this soon; incorporating automated movement into a 3d printed project can be a great way to make it more interesting.
  • Wood bleach - similar to wood stain, but used to remove the color from the wood rather than add it.

Step 14: 3D Models Used

Most of the projects I used as demonstration in this guide were borrowed from thingiverse or instructables projects. I want to give them due credit, so here are links to all the models used:

Golden Snitch - https://www.instructables.com/id/3D-Printed-Golden...

Sylveon Pokemon - https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1741594

Charizard Pokemon - https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:342381

Eevee Pokemon - https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:2625090

Tentacle phone stand - https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:607518

Zombie Hand Jewelry Stand - https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:2679536

Arc Reactor MK3 - https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:805521

Han Solo Star Wars Dice - https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:2868252

Octopus Planter - https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1957770

Mayan Urn (used as planter) - https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:25204

Mayan Skull - https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:302149

Groot Head Planter - https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:2054688

Ouroboros Necklace inspired by Altered Carbon - https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:2813264

Harry Potter Elder Wand - https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1069671

Hope this guide inspired you to try new things and made your 3D prints look awesome. Happy Making!

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    6 Discussions

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    Whitney Fabre

    2 months ago

    I just got a 3D printer, and these are helpful tips! Also, I love your prints. I guess one of my first prints probably should not be the Elder Wand... haha.

    1 reply
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    JackDefayWhitney Fabre

    Reply 2 months ago

    Glad it helped! I would make sure to figure out how to get your prints to stick to the bed and practice using supports first, but after that the elder wand should be quite attainable. The model I used prints in 2 pieces and was a lot easier to make than I expected!