Get started 3D printing for tabletop terrain

3D printed terrain

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.

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: