Why you can trust ZDNET : ZDNET independently tests and researches products to bring you our best recommendations and advice. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission. Our process

'ZDNET Recommends': What exactly does it mean?

ZDNET's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.

When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNET nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.

ZDNET's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.


How to get into 3D printing without breaking (too many) things

Don't make all the mistakes I made!
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor
Reviewed by Alyson Windsor
3d-printed geometric shape
Getty Images/Westend61

There's a huge gulf between borrowing a 3D printer and owning your own 3D printer. It's like the difference between spending a couple of days cat-sitting ("aww, it's so cute, it's purring!") and owning a cat ("just how many times can you fill that litter tray in a day??").

Yes, I have my very own 3D printer, a Flashforge Adventurer 4.

3D printers are a fantastic invention, allowing you to conjure up all sorts of plastic bits and bobs from code you downloaded from the internet and some plastic filament.

I feel as though I'm living the Star Trek life.

But it's important to keep in mind that a 3D printer is a printer, one of the most awkward, uncooperative, frustrating, exasperating, and possibly evil bits of consumer technology ever made.

3D printers can drive you to the point of hating everything and wanting to take a hammer to it and smash it into its constituent atoms.

Also: How to solder: Tools, tips, and tricks to get you started the easy way

I've felt both the highs and lows, and I'm here to help you not make the many, many mistakes that I've made.

And believe me when I say that I've made a lot of mistakes, and tried to cut corners and rush the process.

1. Read your 3D printer's manual

The manual will contain important setup information. Take your time and work your way through this methodically, especially when it comes to calibrating the printer's nozzle to bed height.

How well -- or badly -- you do this will greatly impact the quality of your initial prints and how much fun or frustration you experience.

2. Understand that 3D printing is a mix of art and science

"A mix of art and science" is a phrase that I rarely use, but I feel that it is apt when it comes to 3D printing.

Over the past few months, I've absorbed a lot of information on 3D printing, voraciously devouring forum posts, websites, and YouTube videos.

Also: The best cheap 3D printers under $300

But I still felt totally out of my depth the first time I pressed print and saw code being transformed into a solid object in front of my eyes.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't read as much as you can about 3D printing, but nothing beats finding something to print, downloading the code, putting it through the slicer (a program that turns the code that makes up the 3D model into code your 3D printer can understand), and sending that to your printer.

This is where the learning happens.

3. Start by printing things you download

Head over to websites such as Thingiverse, Cults 3D, Printables, or the many others that you'll find with a simple web search, and you'll find plenty of things to print.

I printed a cover for my Flipper Zero's Wi-Fi dev board, and it turned out great

I printed a cover for my Flipper Zero's Wi-Fi dev board, and it turned out great

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

Sure, there may come a time when you want something custom or bespoke, or you might already be familiar with 3D modeling, but it's better to start your 3D printing journey by printing things you can download.

This keeps things simpler in the beginning.

4. Keep it simple

Speaking of keeping things simple, it's easy to want to become an expert overnight, and many will make things overcomplicated for themselves.

Don't do this.

Your 3D printer will come with software that the manufacturer recommends you use.

Use it.

Your 3D printer will come with a roll of filament (likely PLA, or polylactic acid).

Review: 3018 Pro CNC: This tiny, under-$150 CNC is surprisingly fun and useful

Use it.

Your printer will come with a print nozzle.

Use it.

Your printer will suggest the settings to use during printing.

Use them.

The time will come when you'll be ready to start experimenting with different filaments -- PLA+, PET-G, ABS (watch out for that one, the fumes that come out of it during printing are awful), TPU, and much more -- different software, and even start making customizations to your printer, but if you're new to 3D printing, that time is not now.

5. Prepare for things to go very wrong

I was quite surprised that the first few prints I made turned out great. I thought I'd nailed it, not being sure exactly what "it" was.

This holder for SD and microSD cards printed great and holds the memory cards perfectly

This holder for SD and microSD cards printed great and holds the memory cards perfectly

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

But then things started going wrong.

Stringy prints. Prints that fell apart. Prints that broke when I tried to get them off the print bed. Prints that were supposed to come together to make a single item that, well, wouldn't come together. Prints that took many hours and I only noticed the failure when it was done.

Things will go wrong.

Things can go wrong

Things can go wrong

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

And rather than become disheartened, see this as the real learning. Get your printer's manual out and read it. Get online and read the forums and websites and watch those YouTube videos.

I find 3D printing to be quite meditative, and much like I enjoy watching my robovac go about its business cleaning up after me (and how I'll use gentle toe-taps to encourage it to pick up something it's missed, as opposed to me just picking up after myself), I enjoy the printing process.

Also: Flipper Zero: Geeky toy or serious security tool?

The preparation, the printing, tidying up the print, the clean-up.

It's quite relaxing.

6. Accept that your prints won't be perfect

Get used to the fact that you might have to tidy up your prints. They will need a bit of trimming, sanding, or even gluing bits.

Ignore the purists who think that prints must come out of the printer perfect.

Not perfect by far, but still good enough for what I need

Not perfect by far, but still good enough for what I need

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

It's OK to tidy up prints by hand, rather than keep repeating prints in the hope of getting them perfect.

Have fun, because this will encourage you to print more and learn more!

This 3D print isn't perfect, but it's a lot of fun

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes/ZDNET

7. Get some handy 3D printing accessories

You don't need much. Here's what I recommend to get you started:

Editorial standards