How To Finish / Polish Your 3D Print

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3D printing is an amazing and artistic process. Like all artistic endeavors, it will require some tools and processing to Polish 3D prints with a good smooth for final items.

Tools – Polish 3D prints

Apart from your 3D printer, you will need a set of the following tools to process your 3D print. Before you go further into debt with these, look around the garage or with your friends / family to see if they have any to spare.

Some of the tools used in 3D printing along with the printer. A Taz 5 tool tray goes under the y arm of my 3D printer to hold them all. - Polish 3D prints
Some of the tools used in 3D printing along with the printer. A Taz 5 tool tray goes under the y arm of my 3D printer to hold them all.

Here is a list of the tools that I use, including their uses. If you get a Lulzbot, they include a tool set to get you started.

  • Hobby Knife: Keep it sharp to cut through support material and trim rough edges. If you use disposable blades, you can strop them with a piece of leather on scrap wood to keep them sharp.
  • Wire Cutters: Cutting filament and support materials.
  • Needle Nose pliers: Pulling jams from the printer head. They can also be used for cutting filament and removing rafts and support materials.
  • 1 inch Putty knife / Oyster knife: These are essential for scraping the print off the build plate, and separating rafts and support material. You can also smooth out wrinkles in the blue painters tape you put on the build plate.
  • Small / large scissors: The small scissors are great for cutting away blobs and bad spots as the first layer of a print goes down. Large ones are good for cutting open boxes of filament.
  • Metric tape measure / metric calipers: You need a way to estimate location and size of your parts, as well as quality control of your prints.
  • Dental / soldering pick set: This is a tool I use all the time. I use the hook to scrape blobs off the hot end, and the straight pick to help start the first layer of a 3D print. There great for getting support out of holes and corners of your 3D print.
  • Soldering iron / pen: This is great for smoothing down rough edges and melting holes. Practice using them on spare prints before working on one for a client.
  • Hobby Drill: This is for cutting off large chunks of support, or drilling holes. Consider getting a 2 mm and 3 mm drill bit so you can drill holes that fit your filament. I also use a cutoff wheel to hack through a lot of support material quickly. Be really careful and run the drill at the lowest RPM possible. You can melt through your print with these drills.

    IMG_8438 - Polish 3D prints
    Some of the electrical tools I’ve used on 3D prints. supper glue is good for quick repairs, just not for your fingers.

  • Triangle File and Sandpaper: Both are good for smoothing any rough spots. Use a wet/dry paper rated for plastic.
  • Clothing Iron: Yes, a clothing iron can be used to smooth a 3D print. I’ll cover my ironing process in a future blog.
  • Thermometer: A meat thermometer or a IR thermometer will work to check the build plate temp.
  • Metric Allen Wrench Set: You will need them to maintain your printer. Most 3D printers use cap or socket head screws.
  • Flashlight: It helps to see the 3D print from different lighting angles. You can use it to see if there are extrusion problems, or to see inside the hot end of the extruder head.

Support Material – Polish 3D prints

Support material is used to support parts of the print that are overhangs or bridges that would droop otherwise. Most 3D printers use the same material for printing and support.

Part before finishing to remove supporting material. - Polish 3D prints
Part for an upcoming 3D printed gun before finishing to remove supporting material.

The first thing to consider with supports is how much you really need. Play around with the percentage setting in your slicing program to find the smallest percentage that will still support your print. The less you use, the less you’ll have to remove at the end of the print.
Second consider how you lay the part on the build plate. If you play with the orientation, you may find a way to lay the part down so it uses minimal support material.

IMG_8446 - Polish 3D prints
Support material removed from gun part.

I found the best time to remove the support material is while the print is still warm.

IMG_8443 - Polish 3D prints
Using a soldering pick to clean support material out of a hole.

Depending on the print, you will have to use all your cutting tools.

My favorite is to use the needle nose pliers. Grab the support material at one end, and roll the pliers around to peel the support material off.

Brim – Polish 3D prints

Brims hold 3D prints to the build plate, and are good for prints with tight curves and sharp edges. However they do stick to the print, and will leave a sharp edge if you’re not careful.

Use your needle nose pliers to grab and peel off what you can. After that you will have to get close and personal with your hobby knife, files and soldering pen. You can melt the edge smooth with a soldering pen or iron.

Polish 3D prints

      3D prints can be mechanically polished like any other plastic. I encourage you to use elbow grease before you do any chemical processing.
ABS can be smoothed with Acetone vapor. This is popular, but the process can be dangerous. I have not tried this process, and if you do, please do your research before you blow up your work space.

There are other chemical solvents to polish PLA, but they also are petroleum based solvents. Always use these chemicals in a well-ventilated area, and read all safety instructions.

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  1. Daniel F says

    I started using your technique today! 😉 Great post!

  2. 3D-PT says

    Great!! I use this and hot iron finishing to smooth out rough prints.

  3. Tom Baxter says

    This is a really good list. I also use a set of dental picks almost everyday. Another good tool is a heat gun. If a print has some stringing or wispy hairs, a couple quick passes with a heat gun will make them disappear.

  4. Richard Bynum says

    I would have never thought about buying dental picks…Great idea! Thanks for sharing the list. I have a garage full of tools scattered around! I’m sure I have most everything except the hobby iron and a putty knife. But who knows, all my tools could be lost to the garage ghost! EEK! That’s ok, it’s always fun to go to the hardware store and get new tools!

    1. Stan Baldwin says

      Yeah, raid your garage or your grandparents workshop first and you’ll get 99% of the tools you need. After that you can scrape some money together for specialty tools.

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