3D printing has completely changed my view on life. Instead of buying stuff, I'm now designing and printing them myself, usually in a matter of hours.
It wasn't always easy though - I'm surprised my first printer is still in one piece after all the trouble I had with it.
I want to help you avoid that by showing you everything I wish I knew back then. We'll take a look at how to check your printer, how to calibrate everything and what are some of the first things you should print.
I'm assuming you've already assembled your printer, but don't turn it on just yet. You should also have one of the slicers installed. Any one will do for now.
I can't possibly cover every printer out there, but the majority of things are common to all of them. Take this guide as a general overview of what to do. If you get stuck, search that topic online for your specific printer.
First, check that there's nothing physically wrong with the printer, especially if it's Chinese. Their quality control is a joke and you never know what you'll get. Check that the frame isn't bent and that everything feels solid. Nothing on the frame should be loose.
Check that the couplers are tightened against the Z rod.
Continue by checking if the belts are tightened enough. Most printers have a way to tighten the belts, but it's important that the belts aren't too tight.
The ideal tension is when you can pluck it like a guitar string.
Next, the bed shouldn't rattle or move sideways. If it wobbles, turn the printer on its side and find the eccentric nut.
It's a special nut that moves sideways left and right as you tighten it. Simply tightening it isn't enough, because it will eventually end up in the same position.
Instead, tighten it a little and check the bed. Repeat until the bed feels sturdy, but it should still be easy to move by hand.
The same principle is used to tighten the hotend carriage. Slowly tighten the eccentric nut until it's firmly in place, but not so much that it's hard to move by hand.
And you'll find the third eccentric nut on the other side of the frame. You know what to do.
Ensure that the bowden tube is completely inserted on both ends. It shouldn't move if you try to pull it out.
The X gantry should be parallel to the bed.
You can turn the couplers by hand to get it levelled. It's ok if it's a little off, we'll compensate for that later with bed levelling, but do it as good as you can.
Finally, check and tighten all the screws, but don't use too much force.
The screw that holds the heater cartridge in place is especially critical. If it's loose, the heater might shake loose and fall out, which is a major fire risk.
Before you turn it on, quickly check all the cables again and that they are plugged in correctly.
If your printer has a voltage selector, make sure it's set to the correct position.
If everything looks good, turn the printer on. After a few seconds, you should see your ambient temperature on the screen. On some printers, the fan turns on immediately as well.
Let's see if all the motors and endstops are working. Go to the menu and find the "Auto home" option. It's called "Home all" on some printers. Both the bed and the hotend should start moving until they end up in the home position. If not, check the cables and all the endstops again.
I highly recommend that you upgrade the firmware first before doing anything else. Every Chinese printer that I know of comes with important safety features disabled! It's unbelievable and very dangerous! Without them, you're risking a fire and it's really important that you prevent that.
You might need an Arduino for the firmware upgrade, as is the case with Ender 3 or CR-10. The CR-10S has a different board and can be connected directly to your computer.
TH3D has an excellent firmware and installation guide. You can also install the official Marlin firmware if you prefer.
Not only will it enable safety features, you'll also get better print quality and additional options such as filament changing, PID auto tuning and more.
You can continue without doing it for a day or two if you have to buy an Arduino first, but don't delay it for longer than that. And under no circumstances should you leave the printer running alone before you do.
The second upgrade to prevent fires is to make sure that your printer has a MOSFET. MOSFET is a type of transistor that handles the high current for heating the bed. Without it, the board or the wires can overheat and catch fire.
Some Chinese printers might already have one, but even then it might be under-rated and you still have to replace it.
Check online to see if your printer needs this upgrade or not. On older printers like the Monoprice Maker Select or the Wanhao i3, you must do it. Here's a guide for the Anet A8.
The first calibration that we'll do is with the extruder. This will ensure that the extruder motor is feeding in just the right amount of filament.
We just make a mark on the filament, extrude a certain amount and then measure how much it actually came through. Using that number, we can adjust the steps value.
MatterHackers made a great video on this topic.
The next step is the most important by far - bed levelling. Without a properly levelled bed, nothing else will work, so take your time to do it right.
Too many guides are suggesting using paper to level the bed. While that might be better than nothing, it's not nearly enough.
A much better way is to print calibration squares and then adjust each corner accordingly.
I've already made a separate video that goes into more details, so check it out before you continue.
If your printer only has glass surface, it might be difficult to get good adhesion. I highly suggest that you buy a mirror instead, they work much better.
Now that the correct amount of filament is coming in, we have to calibrate how much is coming out as well.
Download and slice this small cube, but make sure that you print it with only a single perimeter and a flowrate of 100%. You might get better results with two perimeters on some printers.
When it's done, grab a caliper and measure the wall thickness. It should be the same as the extrusion width set in your slicer.
If it's not, adjust the flowrate accordingly and print another cube.
It's very likely that you'll have to re-level your bed once you change the flowrate, so I suggest you repeat bed levelling now.
If you don't have a caliper, then this step isn't too important and you can adjust the flowrate visually later on when you'll print a test model.
Our next step will be very easy. It's called PID calibration. The printer basically "learns" how to heat the nozzle so that the temperature stays stable.
The process is almost automatic, even more so if you've updated your firmware. You can then simply select the auto tuning option from the menu and then save the new settings.
Otherwise you'll have to connect the printer either to your PC or OctoPrint. You can then run the command manually.
You can also buy a silicone cover for the hotend, which helps a little with temperature stability. If nothing else, it will at least keep the heatblock clean.
Every filament is different and there's no ideal printing temperature. For PLA, a good starting point is 205'C for the nozzle and 60'C for the bed. However, PLA from another manufacturer might print better at 200'C or even 215'C. The best way to find out what works best is to print a temperature tower.
When set up correctly, the printer will print it with different temperatures as it gets higher.
At the end, you simply look at which temperature produced the best result and use that for future prints.
All right, now that we went through all that trouble, it's time for the ultimate test.
This model will test virtually everything. With the calibrations we did, you should already get good results on your first try. As is the case with 3D printing though, it can always get better
So where do you go if you have any issues? My favourite resource is the Visual troubleshooting guide by Simplify3D. They have covered every issue that you can think of and how to fix it. This should be your first stop every time you don't know how to fix something.
First prints and upgrades
Now that you can print with good results, you might be wondering what to print next. There are a few upgrades that you should do first.
If your printer didn't come with a strain relief for the bed cables, you should print one right away.
For some printers, the second important upgrade is the filament guide. Without it, the filament will touch the greasy Z rod, which will eventually jam your nozzle with dirt.
Replacing the stock fan with a radial fan will have the biggest impact on print quality that you can do.
Because fans tend to fail often, I suggest you buy two or three. You're looking for a 5015 fan, but make sure that you buy one with the correct voltage for your printer.
You will also need to print a special fang that will cool down your model better. I recommend the Petsfang/Bullseye model. It comes with different options for different fans and bed levelling sensors. Just don't forget to print it with PETG or ABS filaments.
With those upgrades done, let's look at a few more that will simply make your life easier. You should always use a dust filter. My favourite is this one that you can simply clip on.
These levelling knobs will make levelling the bed much easier. Some printers already come with them.
Speaking of bed levelling, I could never remember which way I'm supposed to turn it, so having this reminder really helps.
I prefer this style of button over the round one, it's much easier to turn.
Placing a concrete slab under your printer will make it almost silent.
If you plan on changing the nozzle often, then I highly recommend printing a torque wrench. It will prevent you from over tightening the nozzle and breaking something.
Speaking of which, never try to remove or install the nozzle on a cold hotend; always heat it up first.
Print yourself a good spool holder. I've tried out a lot of them, but I ended up using the Universal holder by Creative Tools. It works for every spool, even the large ones that don't fit on most other holders.
You should also check out the Master spool initiative. The idea is that you order filament without the spool, but instead you print a reusable master spool yourself.
You'll save a little on filament costs and you won't have to throw away a bunch of plastic every time you use up a roll. More and more companies are offering filaments for the master spool.
Speaking of filament, you'll likely use up your first roll very soon. When buying new ones, avoid the cheap stuff, but you shouldn't spend too much money either. From my experience, everything around the 20 euros, dollars or pounds per kilogram seems to be the sweet spot.
Isopropyl alcohol is best for cleaning the bed after every few prints.
Finally, Octoprint. It connects directly to your printer and you can then control everything in your browser. You can upload files, monitor or cancel your prints, attach a webcam and there are tons of useful plugins already available.
What I like the most is that I can check on my printer even when I'm not at home. If I see something is wrong, I can cancel the print remotely.
With that said, you should now have a fully functional printer and everything you need to get started.
Good luck... and happy printing.