Several years ago, when my daughter was younger and was just starting out with cosplay, we had a conversation about how to make parts that she might need. She was becoming quite handy with a sewing machine and could spend hours in craft stores contemplating everyday materials and how they could be used for her purposes. There were always lingering questions about specialty items that she couldn’t cut, combine, or shape from craft store inventory, so one Christmas we got a 3D printer. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out too well as it was still relatively early in the 3D printing industry, and neither of us had the patience to struggle with the everyday tasks necessary for achieving a Good Print with that nascent edition. Eventually, I had to deconstruct the printer to “fix it”, and it never re-assembled correctly. It now sits at the back of the basement where I won’t trip over it.
This was not the end of my interest in 3D printing, though. Last year, a friend loaned me his Anycubic Photon S printer and the matching “Wash-N-Cure” set. Unlike the original printer I owned, this one used liquid resin. Like many, I was wary of resin printing; I had heard that it was dangerous, almost a biohazard that required a Ph.D. in chemistry, a HazMat suit, and an open field to avoid a swift and painful death. Don’t get resin on your skin! Don’t inhale any fumes at any time! Don’t look directly into the resin vat!
My statements are purposefully hyperbolic because while working with resin and the high-concentration isopropyl alcohol (IPA) used in cleaning 3D prints can be hazardous, basic, common-sense precautions are more than enough to mitigate any ill effects imposed by resin printing. One would really have to work hard to ignore, or to be willfully ignorant of, steps needed to make 3D printing with resin a safe and enjoyable hobby. That’s my brochure boilerplate statement for you.
Of course, one could go completely overboard, as is the case with any hobby. After several successes with the Photon S, I decided that 3D printing was for me with one exception: the Photon S was too damned small. Thankfully, Christmas was on the horizon, so I wish listed the brand new Elegoo Saturn 2, an 8K-monochrome powerhouse of resin printing.
I had a hell of a time getting this to work for me, which was a kick in the shins after a string of low-effort successes with the Photon S. First, though, for those who aren’t aware, here’s a handy infographic showing how a resin-based 3D printer works:
In the case of the Saturn 2 (and most, if not all, resin printers), the “projector” is an LCD blacklight that shines UV light patterns onto the bottom window of a tank of resin. This causes the liquid resin to harden in that pattern. Because the build platform starts only millimeters (sometimes measured in micrometers) from the bottom of the resin tank, this hardened pattern sticks to the build platform. Over time, the platform lifts up, and with each cycle, another layer of the model is flashed on the LCD screen. This causes the model to build up, layer upon layer, until the print is complete. Because the build plate rises up out of the resin vat, resin printers work opposite to “filament printers” which use super-heated nozzles to stream semi-melted plastic layers on top of one another; resin printers build from the “top town” while filament printers build from the “bottom up”…sort of.
In my case, I ran into every mechanical issue a resin printer could throw at me: the build didn’t adhere to the build plate, meaning the printing happened inside of the resin tank and never got lifted up. This is problematic because it ruins the taut plastic sheet at the bottom of the resin tank to the point where it has to be replaced (not difficult, but hella time-consuming). When it did adhere to the build plate, I had a hell of a time getting the prints to come off of the plate. I also had issues with prints becoming detached from the supports, which was my failure in translating the 3D design to what the printer recognizes. I even misread the manual prior to the first print and when calibrating the build plate, accidentally set the lifting servos too far down, and ended up cracking the LCD screen. Thankfully I was still within the exchange period.
As I stated earlier, though, 3D printing isn’t plug and play, and does require thoughtful methods not just for safety, but for success. I eventually calibrated the (second) printer mechanism correctly, studied the 3D Printing Masters (via YouTube) and learned how to properly support my models so they would be secure during printing, and have so far been able to achieve enough successful prints that I felt that it was time to take my setup to the next-next level.
I purchased a grow tent from one of those online deal sites and when it arrived, I was surprised at how large it was. An online printing peer suggested that I situate it sideways to get more room, and that allowed me to house all of my printing paraphernalia inside the tent. The printer is on the right (sans fume hood), a vat of IPA sits in the middle, and Ye Olden Photon S wash and cure machine is on the right (with the yellow hood). The assembly line process is such that once the print is complete, the entire build plate is set into the vat of IPA to wash away excess resin. This also helps prints separate from the build plate (which I hadn’t been doing earlier, and which contributed to my scarring of the build plate). Once the prints have been washed, I snip away the supports, and then the prints are re-washed. Assuming everything looks good (there could be several steps of touching and re-touching here), the prints are exposed to UV light (the “cure” in the “wash and cure” machine) to harden the resin for a final product.
Not content to simply be content with this setup and benefitting from the fact that my birthday is one month almost to the day after Christmas, I used some sweet, sweet gift cards to buy the Elegoo wash and cure machine that is significantly larger than the Photon version, which can accommodate the larger build plate of the Saturn 2.
What I didn’t realize until after ordering was that this device — marketed as a “bundle” which should have tipped me off in retrospect — was two pieces unlike the Photon version which had one platform that could perform both the wash and the cure functions. Because the IPA smell is far more pungent than that smell of the resin, I’ve moved this setup closer to a window, although it is currently February in New England, so the window is only opened on demand.
The good news is that my 3D printing setup is pretty much complete as far as I can tell. I have the printer and still have some resin on hand (I am printing some rather large model train parts for a friend, which you can see curing in the image above, and which uses a lot of resin). I have a wash and cure duo which will ensure that my prints are well finished. The grow tent will keep the printing fumes from reaching my wife’s rather sensitive nose, which will in turn allow me to keep printing well into the future.
Of course, now that I have all of the hardware, the one thing that’s missing is a purpose.
As a nerd, I think one of the nerd things that any nerd with access or potential access to a 3D printer might dream about is tabletop RPG accessories. HeroForge is a popular online service that allows users to design and receive custom TTRPG minis of their characters, but they also sell 3D files of your design so you can print your own. This is a spectacular add-on service for people with access to a printer, or access to people with a printer. But why stop there? Why not print an entire dungeon?
I’ll tell you why not. That’s too many hours of printing, too many dollars of resin, too many dollars and hours of paints and painting, and too many hours of setup (as stated by the video author), and in the end, what the hell does one do with these specially designed, printed, and painted parts after the adventure has concluded? How often can they be re-used? It does look impressive, but I can tell you that after I had printed a single TTRPG dungeon tile setup, I quickly abandoned the notion after seeing this video.
I mentioned that I am printing some model train parts for a friend, so that’s useful. I found some free models online that some masterful bastard made of pretty much all of the mechs from Mechwarrior Online, and I plan on replacing the flimsy garbage mechs from my Battletech box set with these bad-ass versions (although yes, they aren’t 1:1 faithful replacements, but I do because I can).
I don’t TTRGP in person, which is sad because I’d totally churn out all kinds of monsters and stuff, even though I’d have to rely on poster maps or maybe a short-throw projector displaying Fantasy Grounds maps on a white tabletop.
This would require participants, though, and I cannot 3D print those.
There are also a bunch of other things I’d like to try; I have a whole set of bookmarks for Star Trek replica props like comm badges, phasers, tricorders, and hypo sprays. I have printed a few Star Citizen ships and would like to print more. I’m always on the lookout for things I never think of, like containers, hooks, and other organizing items, or tools, brackets, and similar do-dads that I never knew existed until I find that someone had created a model for it. Sometimes it really is a solution in search of a problem.
At the far end of this rather involved, rather expensive tunnel comes the finishing touches. I need to get back to my “learn to paint” series so I can paint my mechs, and I watched a series of videos by this dude who does fantastic prints of game and movie props, and in these videos he leans heavily on airbrushing. I have never tried airbrushing, and I can barely manage “brush painting” right now, but I’m reserving the right to someday maybe consider the possibility that my next empire is going to involve airbrushing.