Are you interested in designing your own warships and tanks, troops and characters, and dungeon architecture? There is a good variety of 3D modeling and 3D printing software available that can help you make that happen. Some are free, some are paid; some are web-based, some are not; some are easy to learn but are more limited in capabilities, and some are more difficult to learn but offer a more comprehensive set of tools. Which ones you choose will depend on what you feel comfortable with at your skill level, your understanding of modeling concepts, your funds, and your ambition.
Here’s a general overview of the creative process for model building and printing.
Prepare and draw what you have in mind.
Sketches on paper or a mock-up in a vector art program will help you work out big questions like how multiple pieces might slot together in assembly or what body proportions look right. In some cases, the vector file can even be imported into your 3D program, depending on what file formats are supported by each. A little consideration and refinement at the start could save a lot of time and frustration later.
Build your model in a 3D modeling software.
Next, once you’ve worked out your concept a bit, import your vector file or start building your model in your chosen software. To help you decide which one may be best for you, here’s a chart that illustrates some differences between some popular programs. You can always start with an easier one for now, get a little comfortable, and then move on to a more complex software later when the tools you’ve learned become too restrictive for your new skill and your grander 3D visions. Level up achieved!
After you’ve designed your model, check to make sure your geometry is manifold. A manifold design means that your model has form and encloses volume. There are no accidental holes, no stray 2D shapes, and that all the edges connect to other edges. Once you’re sure it’s watertight, you can export it in a 3D file format.
You may want to consider using a “cleaning” or model repair and editing program after you’ve built your model, if your design program doesn’t have analysis ability. A cleaning program will check your model for errors like non-manifold geometry and should allow you to edit and fix it. Once it’s fixed, you can export your form as a 3D file format. The typical file format you would use for one-color printing is an STL, short for Stereolithography or Standard Tessellation Language.
Now you can open your 3D file with a slicing program. A slicing program analyzes the model and calculates the machine instructions for your printer based on different settings you enter. Settings can and will include different attributes like: the make and model of printer, the printing material, the temperature of the printer’s heated elements like the bed and nozzle, what kind of external support structures are necessary, layer heights, wall widths, internal support like infill amount, print speed, the general print quality, and any print pauses for filament changes. When these details are entered, then the slicer can export a g-code file for your specific 3D printer and filament material.
And last but not least, get printing!
Deeper Dive: Common Materials
This article was written with home printing for PLA in mind. It's common, affordable, non-toxic, biodegradable, and what we would recommend for home use. Not all 3D printers can handle all filaments. However, if you're ordering your prints from a service bureau, the variety of materials can be a little overwhelming, and you may have questions. The table below may help clarify them for you.
Deeper Dive: File Types
STL files are the most common file type for one-color prints. During your 3D printing adventure, you may stumble on other 3D file formats. Each one has different, more advanced abilities than STLs, due to their uses in the manufacturing, film, animation industries. The most common you'll currently find in printing are STLs, 3MFs, AMFs, and OBJs.