Getting started with 3D printing

After keeping an eye on 3D printing for years, I’ve finally bought a 3D printer. And like any other hobby, I had to do some research before buying anything. This is not a comprehensive guide but I’ll give you an overview of what I’ve learned.

To get started, I needed the printer, materials, tools & accessories, and software to design and print 3D models. I wanted to keep my initial investment around $1000 USD. So I limited myself to the two most common consumer printer types: FDM and MSLA printers.

FDM printers

FDM (fused deposition modeling) printers works like a hot glue gun. The plastic — called filament — is fed into the printer, gets heated up, then comes out of a nozzle. This melted plastic is deposited on top of a build plate layer by layer while following a predetermined path.

FDM printers are less expensive overall. They need less investment in tools & accessories to get started, and have lower running costs. They usually have a big build volume and can use a wide variety of materials. But they are slower, less accurate, less precise, and there are more things that can go wrong when printing. Finding out exactly why your print is failing can be very frustrating.

FDM printers are good for rapid prototyping smaller objects with simpler designs. Larger prints take a long time to complete and have higher failure rates. Complex designs might not be functional or print succesfully. Printing parts for final use need extra care when designing and need extra labor for post-processing.

Some filaments need a heated bed, an enclosure, a different nozzle, or a printer capable of working with higher temperatures for extended periods of time. It might be worth spending more on an FDM printer if you know in advance what type of material you want to work with, or if you want to have some flexibility.

MSLA printers

MSLA (masked stereolithography apparatus) printers also prints layer by layer. But it uses a liquid resin that’s cured by exposure to UV light instead of a solid filament. An LCD screen projects UV light into the build plate, printing an entire layer at once instead of following a predetermined path.

MSLA printer are more expensive in general. They need more investment in tools & accessories to get started, and have higher running costs. They have a smaller build volume when compared to FDM printers, and materials are more limited. But they are faster, more accurate, and more precise. While post-processing is always necessary, it’s not that laborious and can be mostly automated. There are less things that can go wrong when printing, and it’s easier to fix your failed prints.

MSLA printers are good for printing functional parts with a high quality finish. They can use any resin without extra investment on parts.


Both FDM and MSLA printers have the same workflow: design, printing and post-processing. Some details differ, but you have to do these steps regardless of the printer you choose. You also need to clean the printer and your working space after use.

For design, you can use any CAD or 3D modeling software to make a model. Then convert it to a printable file format (such as STL or OBJ). This step can be partially or completely skipped when using models created by others.

Open this file with a slicer software — which converts this 3D model into layers that 3D printers can work with — and export it for printing. This is also where you can specify printing settings if you want to change the defaults.

You might want to change your design based on which printer you’re using, but both printers can use the same software for modeling. Slicer software for FDM and MSLA printers are not interchangeable.

For printing, you need to level the bed, load the material, then load the sliced model into the printer and start printing. After it’s done, you need to remove the print from the build plate and move to post-processing. This is where parts can be cleaned, sanded, machined, primed, painted, and assembled.


FDM printers usually have a simpler workflow. Most of the time, all you need to do is remove supports and assemble the parts. However, if you want to have a smooth surface — to paint the parts, for example — then you have to spend a lot of time sanding the print.

MSLA printers have a more involved workflow due to the material it’s using. Resin is toxic and needs to handled safely until it’s cleaned with a solvent and gets fully cured. After that, it’s ready for post-processing. You can remove the supports before or after curing, but sanding should always be done after curing. Due to the quality of the prints, usually very little sanding is necessary.

You need to clean up the tools used to handle the resin, the build plate, and the resin tank afterwards. If there’s any resin in the tank, you can pour it back inside the resin bottle. Always wear protective equipment and work in a well-ventilated room. And never throw out the resin down the drain. This goes for the solvent used to clean the print too.


I won’t get into details about materials, since I’d never do it justice, but this is where FDM printers shine. Filaments are cheaper and have a massive variety. Even specialty filaments are not that expensive when compared to specialty resins. You can buy a decent PLA — the most common type of filament — for around $20 USD per Kg. Decent resin costs around $30 USD per Kg.

For filaments, there’s a series of videos on YouTube going over every type of filament which I highly recommend watching:

I Tested (Almost) EVERY FILAMENT on Amazon: Every Single Filament Part I by Zack Freedman

Unfortunately, there’s nothing like this series of videos for resin. But I like this video that goes over the several types of resins:

Choosing the right resin for MSLA 3D printing by 3DExtra

Tools & Accessories

Some tools & accessories can be used for both printers, some are only useful for one of them, and some are only useful for some projects. Some of them are a must have, while others are just nice to have.

Tools that I consider a must have for any printer:

Apart from those must have tools, buy the rest according to your wants and needs. Here are some examples of tool you might want/need to buy depending on your print:

Some printers come with some tools and you might already have some of them, but you might want an upgrade. For example, you might want to buy a hex wrench kit to avoid using the bad quality ones that comes with your 3D printer. And you might want to use separate tools for anything that touches uncured resin.

Now, let’s take a look at tools & accessories that are more specific to one type of printer.


There are not many must have tools for FDM printers. Most of them are only useful in specific situations. Filaments need proper storage, so you might need to buy some accessories.

For storing filament, you’ll need a container to keep them dry. Optionally, you can buy silica gel packs and a higrometer to help you control the moisture.

For setting up your printer, you might want to buy a feeler gauge to level the printer. If your printer uses a PTFE lined hotend, you’ll need a PTFE tube cutter to cut the tube at a 90-degree angle.

For printing in general, you’ll need a glue stick to increase adhesion of the filament to the build plate. This can be replaced with other adhesives like hair spray, or something especially designed for 3D printing. You’ll need tweezers to remove filament oozing out of the nozzle before starting a print.

For printing with some filaments, you’ll need an enclosure, a different build plate, or a nozzle of different material/size. For example, a hardened steel nozzle for printing with abrasive materials, or a bigger nozzle for printing with wood filaments.

To clean the build plate, you’ll need isopropyl alcohol and a microfiber rag. Avoid materials that leaves residues after cleaning, or rags/towels that leaves the bed full of tiny fibers. To clean the extruder nozzle, you’ll need an accupuncture needle or a steel rod that can fit inside your nozzle.


For safety equipment, you’ll need gloves, glasses, and a mask. You might also need an air purifier to put inside or outside the printer. You don’t want to get resin/solvent on your skin or into your eyes and lungs.

Buy nitrile gloves or heavy-duty latex gloves. Avoid regular latex gloves or other materials since resin can penetrate them in a few minutes. Ideally you’d have safety goggles and a respirator, but safety glasses and regular masks can do a half-decent job as well.

For cleaning in general, you’ll need paper towels to wipe off resin/dry the prints after cleaning, and a towel to wipe off the gloves while you’re handling the uncured print. It’s better to avoid touching anything with dirty gloves.

To clean the prints, you’ll need a solvent, a container for the solvent, and toothbrushes to clean all the nooks and cranies. The solvent is usually ethanol or isopropyl alcohol, but other products works and it’s water for some resins.

You’ll also need plastic bottles for storage and disposal of the solvent, and a funnel to help with pouring. If you want to reuse the solvent, I’d recommend a container with a lid instead of pouring it back into a bottle every time.

Optionally, you could buy a ultrasonic cleaner, a washing station, or a wash & cure machine to help with cleaning. If you don’t want to buy a dedicated cleaning machine you could also buy a garden pump sprayer bottle. It reduces the amount of solvent used and speeds up the cleaning process.

To clean the resin tank, you’ll need a scraper/spatula to scrape off excess resin at the bottom of the tank, a funnel to pour resin back into its bottle, a paint strainer to filter out small bits of cured resin that fell into the tank during the printing process, and non abrasive wipes to dry off the FEP sheet.

Try using a plastic scraper or a silicone spatula to avoid damaging the FEP sheet on the resin tank. Paper towels will scratch this sheet so I’d avoid them if possible. Any strainer works but they tend to be slow, so I’d go with paint strainers.

To cure the resin outdoors you’ll need a tray to put the prints while they’re basking in the sun. For indoors curing you’ll need a source of UV light. You might want to do water curing inside a glass container too. Optionally, you could buy a curing station.

For overall quality of life improvements, here are some tools & accessories you could buy:

Make sure that whatever you’re using is solvent-proof. If you’re using ethanol or IPA as a solvent, you don’t want it to melt away your tools. If you’re curing indoors and spending a lot of time near UV light, you might want to invest in some eye-protection or sunscreen.


You can spend as much as you want on the printer itself. Under $200 USD is where I’d be careful with FDM printers, since their quality can be dubious and a lot can go wrong. Resin printers suffers less from quality issues even under a tight budget, but it’s worth doing some research first.

As mentioned before, FDM printers need less investment and have lower running costs. And MSLA printers need more investment and have higher running costs. After reading the previous sections, you start to have an idea about the investment and running costs of each type of 3D printing.

Another cost associated with MSLA printers is dealing with all the waste. There are gloves, paper towels, paint strainers, solvent, plastic bottles... Make sure to separate anything with resin in it and call a professional if needed. You can also try to filter the solvent for reuse, and that’s going to have its own costs.


You’ll only need two types of software to 3D print: 3D modeling software and a slicer software. You might need to use other software for some specific cases, but they’re not essential.

For 3D modeling, there are two types of software: CAD and traditional 3D modeling software. Both can create anything, but they appeal to different markets and use different techniques for creating a model. Any software can export STL or OBJ files used for 3D printing, so choose one according to your needs.

CAD software are good at designing models with well-defined shapes and accurate measurements. And while possible, it’s hard to model organic designs. Some might have a different design approach or appeal to a specific niche, but you can use any of them for 3D printing.

I’ve tested FreeCAD, SketchUp, and Fusion360, which is what I’m using. If you want to learn more about CAD software in general and other options available, watch the video below:

Getting Started with CAD Modeling for 3d Printing by Make With Tech

Traditional 3D modeling software are typically general purpose, using several techniques for creating a 3D model. But they’re better suited for modeling organic designs, such as characters. It’s hard to create models with accurate measurements if you don’t choose the right software.

I’ve only used Blender which can do a bit of everything. But there’s also ZBrush, which is also popular for modeling characters. As I’ve mentioned before, this can be skipped partially or completely if you’re just going to use designs made by others. If you want to learn more about 3D modeling in general, watch the video below:

All Methods & Types of 3D Modeling by InspirationTuts

Closing thoughts

Each type of printer has its strengths and weaknesses, and owning both types of printers would be ideal. But I needed a printer that’s accurate, precise, and doesn’t require a lot of post-processing. I have very tight tolerances and FDM printers are less accurate than MSLA printers.

To be clear, accuracy is how close a measurement is to its true value. Precision is how repeatable the measurement is (or how reliable it is). Tolerance is what’s the acceptable variance in accuracy. While MSLA printers aren’t perfect, with some tweaking they can print within my tolerances.

I was also interested in printing with a variety of materials such as wood filament or SimuBone besides the more common plastics. But the downsides of FDM printers and my particular needs made me consider resin instead. I’m now a proud owned of an Elegoo Saturn 2.