Get started 3D printing for tabletop terrain

3D printed terrain warhamemr 40k

Looking to get started with 3D printing? This guide will discuss the most cost effective way of getting started with 3D printing for tabletop terrain and scenery for 15mm, 28mm, 32 scale wargames and tabletop rpgs.

Why start 3D printing for tabletop?

The future of tabletop gaming is changing! Widespread use and affordability of 3D printers has allowed hobbyists to create, modify and print their own scenery and terrain.  It is a great alternative to MDF terrain.

3D printers come in two types, those good for large terrain (FDM printers such as the Ender 3 or Prusa i3 mk3) and those good for small, highly detailed miniatures (UV resin printers such as Anycubic Photon, Elegoo Mars or Creality LD-002R).

We’ll focus mainly on FDM printers, specifically the Ender 3 due to it’s incredible results and attractive price point. We highly recommend this as an entry level and workhorse printer.

Get Some FREE 3D printable Terrain Files!

We’ve got a few free pieces of terrain to help you get started 3D printing your own wargaming terrain. Get your free SLTs here.

What are FDM printers? 

Ender 3 tabletop gaming 3D printing
Ender 3: Budget 3D Printer

FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) technology uses spools of plastic filament that are heated up and pushed through an extruder. This is then layered onto a heated bed and slowly built up over the course of hours (sometimes days) into a physical 3d model. The printer is controlled by g-code that is created by software called a slicer such as Cura.

FDM Printers

There are numerous options for your first printer but we recommend you look into the following:

  • Ender 3 – This is by far the most popular and widely used 3D printer for affordable 3d printing. It is cheap, open source, widely available, well supported and produces surprisingly good results. This printer does require assembly and can require manual intervention / tweaking but if you are willing to endure some tinkering, it’s a great choice. 
  • Ender 3 pro and Ender 3 mk2 – very similar to the original Ender 3 but with improved construction and features. 
  • Prusa i3 mk3 – This is a higher priced printer that can offer assembly, less tinkering, some automation and more consistent, better quality results than it’s cheaper alternatives.

Choosing your printer should match your needs, so it’s worth considering the following:

  • Bed size & max print height
  • Price
  • Speed
  • community support (facebook groups, subreddits, forums, etc)
  • Automation (eg, bed levelling)
  • Print quality / resolution
  • Required building / delivery of a printer kit
  • Availability of spare parts

The 3D printing Process

There are several steps involved in producing a successful 3D print.  They can be broken down as follows:

  1. Obtain a 3D model (.stl) – Download or export a 3D model that has been optimised for FDM printing.  This will be in STL format.  It’s important to consider licensing and copyright at this point.
  2. Open your model in a slicer  – Using slicing software such as Cura, you need to import your .stl file and choose your print settings.  Quality preferences and machine profiles are set here.
  3. Prep your printer – Ensure your printer is ready to print.  It should be calibrated, have a clean level bed and pre-heated for your material.
  4. Send sliced model to printer – The slicer will generate gcode based on your settings, you then need to send this to your printer, either on SD card or over your network.
  5. Wait for the print – You should pay close attention to the first layer of your print to correct any issues before continuing.

What results can you get? 

FDM printing offers surprisingly good results for very little investment.  Below are some examples we printed in our studios on an Ender 3 which costs less than $300AUD

You can achieve much better results if you are willing to invest time.  By making each layer thinner (higher resolution), you can get better detail, however it can take much longer to print.  In addition to this you can look at changing some of the printer’s hardware – For example, replacing the stock nozzle to one with a smaller hole can allow for even thinner to be extruded.

Upgrades

Most printers will deliver excellent prints out of the box once calibrated.  We recommend that you establish an understanding of the basic machine before you start tinkering however it is inevitable that you will want to start adding upgrades eventually to optimise your set-up.

Budget 3D printers are built cheap to get you printing cheaply, so this means there are some areas for improvement. We recommend looking into the following 3D printer upgrades:

    Bed springs – Improved quality springs maintain stability and mean less frequent bed leveling.  For an Ender 3, look at the yellow replacement springs available.  Ebay is a great source for these.

Glass bed – A glass bed will improve adhesion for the model during printing.

3D printed upgrades – There are numerous 3D printable upgrades available such as spacers, fan covers, brackets, etc.  Depending on your printer, it’s worth heading over to www.thingiverse.com and searching for your printer to see what upgrades are available.

Equipment 

You will need a few items other than the printer and the tools it comes with to make life easier.  Below are some extras that you should take into account:

Filament – Most tabletop scenery will be printed using PLA filament.  The most common size is 1.75mm and comes in spools of 1kg. A single spool can produc ea lot of scenery but it’s definitely worth grabbing a few different colours of a quality filament.

Isopropyl alcohol & microfibre cloth – This is used for occasionally cleaning the build plate / bed so that you can get better adhesion while printing.  We use a spray bottle and wipe the surface before every print.

Tools – Printers usually come with very basic tools (spanner, scraper,  allen keys, etc) but recommend having some extra tools on hand such as tweezers (to remove unwanted filament), 6mm socket head (to remove hot nozzles), torch / LED lights.

Safety precautions – Don’t forget that 3D printers heat up and melt plastic over a long period.  We don’t recommend leaving a 3D printer unattended at any time in case of fire.  While 3D printer fires do seem rare, they can happen so it’s worth investing in a smoke alarm, fire extinguisher and first aid kit.

Software (Slicers) – .  Slicing software allows you to convert a 3D model (.stl) into something printable. Cura is one of the most popular, free slicing software tools used and allows a huge variety of options and customisation.

Printer management

Your 3D printing and monitoring process can be greatly streamlined by using a Raspberry pi and free software called Octoprint.  This allows you to add a webcam for streaming and timelapses,  access your printer with a web interface (octoprint) but we also recommend the free app Octoremote.

If you eventually add more printers to your collection, Octoprint can be adapted for multi-printer use (follow this guide).

Support & troubleshooting

There are incredible support tools and communities available online for those getting started with 3D printing, we recommend the following:

Using & Airbrush Stencils

flex stencil 7 of 7

What Are Airbrush Stencils?

Airbrush stencils make painting scenery, miniatures, props, robots, vehicles and other painting projects much easier. They are used by hobbyists and studio painters across the world and allow you to achieve limitless customisation by offering complex shapes and thematic patterns, all of which can be quickly and easily applied will very little skill.

How to use Airbrush Stencils

  1. Ensure your hands are clean before use
  2. If using adhesive stencil, delicately remove your stencil from the backing sheet
  3. Position your stencil onto the clean & dry painting surface
  4. Firmly hold or stick the stencil onto the surface to avoid paint leakage
  5. Apply your paint onto the project
  6. Carefully remove the stencil from the painting surface
  7. For re-use, carefully place the stencil onto the backing sheet

Materials: Adhesive Vinyl vs. Durable Flex

Adhesive Vinyl

flex stencil 2 of 3

Summary:

Low tack adhesive vinyl material that allows super-sharp lines but limited re-usability.

Use When:

  • Your painting surface is uneven or varied in shape
  • You need an adhesive material to stick to your surface
  • You need super sharp paint lines
  • Re-usability isn’t too important

Durable Flex

flex stencil scifi camo 2

Summary:

Strong, re-usable and flexible film material that is quick and easy to use.

Use When:

  • You have a flat painting surface
  • You need a durable stencil
  • You want your stencil to last for a long time

Designs

Airbrush stencils come in a variety of designs, with each stencil offering a range if icons, decals and shapes that share a common theme.

Re-usability

Flexibility

Flex stencil rolled up 1

Airbrush stencils are great to use on a variety of surfaces and can flex, wrap and bend around most shapes. Vinyl stencils provide the best versatility as they can be manipulated to fit into the tightest of places and even heated with a hair dryer for extra moldability. Flex stencils are still able to wrap around larger organic shapes.

How Are Stencils Made?

Good quality airbrush stencils are machine cut with precision hardware.

Do I Need An Airbrush?

Air brushes will give the best results for stencils but you can also use rattle-cans, brushes ands even sponges to dab on worn or ‘chipped’ paintwork and distressed surfaces.

Custom Airbrush Stencils

These are the general guidelines we suggest for custom stencils:
– Your design must be provided as a single colour vector (.ai / .eps / .svg)
– Our machines cut around each shape in your artwork, so merging overlapped objects is required
– Consider how stencils work, you need gaps for certain shapes (otherwise they just fall out the stencil)
– Avoid thin connecting lines as these may to break
– You must own rights to use the design. We will not cut images that infringe copyright

Buying Airbrush Stencils

Adding LEDs to Gaslands Cars

gaslands lighting led

We love Gaslands! It’s a cinematic, post-apocalyptic tabletop game that uses modded Hotwheels for the minis. It’s definitely in the Saucermen Studios top 5 games of 2019 because of the low starting cost, maker appeal and insanely fun group playability.

We recently started to explore the superfast, powersliding faction of the Japanese Miyazaki and wanted to really capture the spirit of Tokyo drift cars so cracked open the electronics set and added some LED lighting to our cars.

gaslands led lighting car

Adding lighting to a Gaslands vehicle is very easy and affordable. All you need is:

  • One Hotwheels Car
  • Dremel or manual cutting tool
  • One watch battery – We used a 3v CR2032
  • LEDs
modelling tools for converting gaslands
Tools: Car, battery, LEDS, cutting tools

Connecting the Lights & Power – The LEDs have a short leg that must conenct to the bottom (- Negative) side of the battery. You can just slip the battery between the two legs of the LED. Don’t worry if you mix up the connections, just swap it until it works. You can also cut the legs of the LED to suit and add more lights if needed.

led battery powered miniatures
Power!: LEDs clip onto the battery

Getting the Lights Inside the Car – Cut a hole in the bottom of the car and place the battery and connected LEDs inside.

led in miniature vehicle
Make a hole and insert the battery & lights
Light up gaslands
Gaslands building with lights

That’s it! Now you’re ready to powerslide your way to stylish victory!

Check out Gaslands, by Osprey Games at gaslands.com. This article featured the ‘Dry Lands‘ and ‘Radiation Leak‘ 4×4 game mats by Saucermen Studios.

Looking for sci-fi terrain?

What Makes a Good Gaming Mat?

sci fi game mat

Battle mats have become essential accessories on the tables of tournaments, clubs, stores and home-gamers throughout the wargaming community.  Neoprene game mats are a clear favorite for gamers, but with mats coming in a range of materials and sizes, what makes a good gaming surface?

Types of gaming mat

Cloth Mats

These can feature great quality prints, be lightweight and easily folded away BUT they are prone to creases and can be awkward to play on.  They can be a cheaper option but the saving can lead to frustration later down the line when your minis are displaced by slippy material. Pinning them to the corner of a table can solve some of the lumps and bumps of playing on a cloth surface but it’s not perfect.  These material mats aren’t waterproof either and can stain easily.

Vinyl (banner material)

These are made from the same as outdoor banners.  They tend not to lie flat and can have a shiny surface.  Whilst they are waterproof and can be easily wiped clean, the surface is hard so dice ‘clunk’ around and any minis dropped on them could be damaged.  They are defiantly cheaper than the premium alternative but you’ll eventually wish you purchased a neoprene mat.  Vinyl battle mats should be rolled, not folded as this may permanently crease them.

Neoprene (mouse mat style)

These are the superior gaming surface recommended by many players around the world. Neoprene battle mats feature high quality printed surfaces and a sturdy rubber backing that grips to your table without making lumps or creases.  They are typically waterproof and are soft enough to protect any miniatures that may fall.  Cards feel great to play on the surface and dice roll eloquently.  They can be heavier and more expensive than lower quality alternatives but are far superior.

Table Set-Ups at Saucermen Studios

Check out some of the latest table set-ups we've been playing on!We have 17 game mat designs in multiple sizes, available from www.saucermenstudios.com.au

Posted by Saucermen Studios on Sunday, 1 September 2019

Cardboard

Think of classic board game tiles.  While the artwork can be printed at high quality, the lifespan isn’t very long and large surfaces tend to be cut for folding.

What to look for in the best gaming mat

Design

Depending on the games you play, you will want to purchase a game mat to complement the theme.  While fantasy players will most-likely want natural landscapes, sci-fi gamers may want cities or industrial flooring.  You should also consider what armies will play on the table and which terrain or scenery you have available to complement the mat’s design.

Storage

Neoprene gaming mats are usually rolled up and stored in bags where cloth mats are folded and can be packed away quite small.  A good carry case is useful which allows for portability and safe storage of your mats.

Size

Different games have different play areas.  Warhammer 40,000 can be played on areas up to 6x4feet, whilst infinity has a 4×4 foot play area.  Smaller skirmish games such as Games Workshop’s Kill Team plays on a table area of 22×30 inches.  Think about the biggest possible play area you will need for the systems you play.  Large mats can be scaled down by folding, masking or even hanging off the table and even allow for variation in choosing which part to play on but small mats may quickly become outgrown if you decide to play larger games.

Set-up

How quickly can your mat be set up?  A good neoprene gaming mat just needs to be unrolled or literally thrown onto the table whilst other need unfolding, flattening or even attaching to the table to remove creases.

Quality

Gaming mats have a range of quality.  Colour, print, materials and the artwork itself.  Ultimately you’ll want to get the mat in your hands but the next best thing is to look on forums and online community groups for close up images.  Buying from a reputable supplier is always a good option.

Cleaning

Consider the work case scenario when playing a game in terms of dirt and mess.  Sandy bits falling off scenery, food crumbs and even spilled drinks.  Neoprene and vinyl mats are incredibly easy to just wipe up and clean off with their hydrophobic (waterproof) coating, but other materials such as cloth or card will just absorb the nastiness.

Game mats in Australia?

See how people are using battle mats across Australia at www.facebook.com/saucermenstudios

Saucermen Studios offer a range of battle mats using the highest quality materials.  They are based in Australia, with their studio based in Brisbane.  Saucermen studios gaming mats are compatible with Warhammer 40,000, Age of Sigmar, Corvus Belli’s Infinity, Malifaux, Warmachine, Star Wars Legion and many more systems.