Start 3D printing today! Here is exactly what you need.

3D printing is a very exciting hobby to have. Not only can you impress your friends, but it has very practical uses, like fabricating repair parts for nearly anything. 3D printers have been used to repair nearly everything, from automobile parts to prosthetic limbs. The possibilities are endless.

There really isn’t very much you need to start 3D printing. Here is what you need to get started:

  • 3D printer (Or borrow one, read on to find out what I mean)
  • The material
  • 3D modeling software or a saved 3D model
  • Slicing software

That’s it! We are going to go through each one of these items, to be sure you know what you are doing before you go out and spend tons of money on a 3D printer. I’m also going to recommend a printer, and only one. I do this because 3D printers have distinct advantages and disadvantages. This makes it difficult to compare multiple options, so I’m saving you some sanity.

Buy or borrow a 3D printer

I’ll start by noting that you can use printers in several locations. If you live near a college, vocational school, large high school, or library, you can access 3D printers in some of these locations. UPS and Staples also offer 3D printing in some locations. Often times the cost is only the cost of materials. There are also places called FabLabs. FabLabs are places all over the world where you can go use a huge variety of machines, like 3D printers, CNC machines, etc. has a wonderful map of most FabLab locations around the world!

The printer I recommend for the absolute beginner is the Monoprice Select Mini. It only costs $220 from Amazon with free shipping. You can’t beat that deal for a 3D printer, and it’s better than some more expensive printers in my opinion.


Other than some minor hiccups with calibration, when using anything other than PLA or ABS, and at faster print speeds, this printer has been nothing short of outstanding. The quality is fantastic and it’s very easy to use. For $220, I think everybody needs to own this printer.

Get the material

Poly Lactic Acid (PLA) and Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) are the two primary plastic materials used in 3D printing, and the only two I recommend with this 3D printer. PLA is of lower quality but should be used at first until you get some practice. ABS, on the other hand, is a high-quality and strong plastic. Below is an image of the PLA filament. ABS and PLA look identical, so there’s no need to waste the space on a second picture. Amazon has tons of PLA and ABS filament to choose from.

PLA filiment

Download a 3D modeling software

I’m going to give two drastically different options here. If you’re looking to do more symmetrical objects with edges, I recommend Google Sketchup. It’s free to use and is very easy to get the hang of. You will have to install a plugin to be able to export to .stl though. If you’re more into creating characters or little plastic dolls, 123D from Autodesk is the software for you. This software is incredible for creating beautiful models. Give it a try.

Slicing software

Slicing software is used to “slice” you’re model into hundreds or thousands of layers. This is how it tells the printer how to print the object. Typically,  you’ll need a .stl or .obj file for this software. There are hundreds of slicing software. Most are reliable and fairly easy to use. My favorite is Craftunique for its simplicity and ability to switch to expert mode. This will not be required if you’re using a public 3D printer.

Get creative!

Go crazy with your designs and get creative. 3D printers are extremely versatile and can print nearly anything. If it can be modeled, it can be printed. Obviously, scale is a limitation, but that is the only limitation. If you’re 100% new to 3D printing, be sure to check out “How does 3D printing work?” where we go over the basics of how 3D printers work.

How does 3D printing work?

3D printing can seem like an intimidating process when you think about it. It certainly isn’t as simple as hitting print in Microsoft Word, but it’s not rocket science either. Here you will see how the entire process works, from idea to physical 3D object.

If you think of everyday printing, the process is typically as follows: You create a document on the computer, like a Word document. You click print on the computer, and the printer prints the document out on paper. The process is simple and straightforward.

Believe it or not, 3D printing is very similar, not much more complex than everyday printing. The steps are identical. You create a document on the computer, click print, and the printer prints the document out. How each step is performed is much different, however. Let’s take a deeper look at each step.

Create a document

The document you create when using an everyday printer is typically a word document or a 2D photograph. The document you create for 3D printing is a 3D virtual model created using more sophisticated software. Examples of software commonly used for creating 3D models are AutoDesk Inventor and Google Sketchup as well as various other computer programs and even some phone Apps.

Each software has it’s advantages and limitations and ranges from free to outrageously expensive. It depends on your skill level and requirements. We will dive deeper into several common programs and Apps in a later post where we will compare each program and App using Pros and Cons to find the best fit for you. Be sure to watch out for that one.

Click Print

Now that we have created our “Document” it’s time to print. There is only one small difference in this step. Before you can print, it is important to make sure your printer is on and has the required material inserted. You’ll also have to export the model from most software to a file format accepted by your specific printer. This is typically a .STL file, but can vary depending on the quality and material requirements of your printer. Be sure to follow the printer’s instruction manual for step by step instructions on how to do this.

A detailed explanation of how a 3D printer works not only varies depending on the printer but would take entirely too long to explain in one blog post. 3D printers typically work with a process called extrusion. Extrusion is a process used to create objects of a fixed cross-sectional profile, or in other words, any long object the does not vary in shape throughout its entire length.

Print the Document

Consider a hot glue gun. You plug it in, insert a glue stick, and when you press the lever, it dispenses glue. 3D printers work on nearly this exact same principle. You insert a long wire into the 3D printer, similar to a glue stick. When the printing process begins, it will dispense the long plastic wire while simultaneously heating it to 200-250 degrees Celsius. While this is occurring, it makes quick passes, back and forth, over and over again. It lays down thin layers of plastic, one by one until the final top layer is complete.

As you can see, 3D printing is actually very simple. The steps are identical to conventional printing. It does have a hefty price tag at first, but the material is rather inexpensive when bought in bulk and it is mesmerizing to watch the 3D printer do its thing. If you’re as excited as me to start 3D printing, stay tuned for my upcoming post, where I’ll show you exactly what you need to get started right now! You don’t want to miss it.