Crash Course 3D printing, for the Total Beginner:

Or: Help! I bought a 3D printer. What now?

So you finally pulled the trigger, huh? Picked up a 3D printer for your home or office? Welcome to the community, however it doesn't stop here. 3D printing is not quite like an inkjet printer, as 3D printing carries with it a technical skillset in and of itself that you will need to learn as you familiarize yourself with your machine. Most hobbyist and consumer 3D printers simply are not as plug-and-play as you may hope, but the joy is in the journey.

It can be very overwhelming to construct you machine and make it to your first print and beyond. It's ok though, the goal of this article is to provide a dense, concise, and valuable guide to the first steps of owning your printer. While this guide can prove helpful for all new printer owners, it is specifically written towards the Ender-3 series of printers, since it is the most common 3D printer in the world.

First things first, establishing terms.

Words have meanings. I say that alot, because I believe it. If we can't agree on what the topics or parts we are discussing are, there is no way forward. So, in order to prevent communication breakdown, we will define terms here.

"Hotend" and "Extruder" are often used interchangably. This is wrong. The "hotend" is the location part which molten filament comes out of. It is generally comprised of a red silver or black heatsink (which must be kept cool during the printing process), the heatbreak (which is a very small and fragile tube between the red heatsink and the aluminum heatblock below), an aluminum heatblock which houses the heater cartridge (red wires) and the thermistor (white wires), and a brass nozzle which is almost universally a .4mm nozzle OEM. All V6-I Hotends ship with a 0.6mm nozzle, which allows for faster and stronger prints.

The "extruder" is a lever mechanism which is affixed directly on top of a (generally grey) stepper motor. It is compromised of a lever which is kept in place by a spring. The spring keeps pressure between the gear and the secondary roller or second gear in the case of a dual gear extruder. This part is responsible for physically moving (or extruding) filament into the hotend.

It is also important to differentiate the "Build Plate" from the "Hotbed", 2 more terms used almost interchangably. The "build plate" is the material that molten filament is extruded directly onto. Normally this is a removable mat or a sheet of glass. The "hotbed" is comprised of an aluminum plate which is actively heated to just below the glass transition temperature of a given material to prevent the first layer from cooling too quicky, which would cause it to warp off of the build plate.

Last 3 terms. At least for now.

GCODE and STL (files). STL files are a mesh of triangles which computers use to represent a physical object. These are the files which you would download off of a website like thingiverse or thangs that you intend to print. The issue is, you machine is unable to interpret STL files, as it does not know what to do with it. You need to download a slicer such as Ultimaker's Cura Slicer to convert the STL file you've found into a series of instructions for the printer to follow, called GCODE. These GCODE files are what you place onto the SD Card for your printer to actually print and turn into a physical object.

Leveling the Bed

Leveling the printbed is a, literally, foundational skill in 3D printing. Automatic bed leveling (ABL) options do exist, such as the BLTouch, or manual mesh bed leveling, however most economical machines do not ship with automatic bed leveling and often ABL is more trouble than it is worth to install aftermarket, so it is a worthwhile skill to cover.

Bed leveling is, by far and away, the largest reason prints do not stick or lose adhesion to the bed during the printing process. Even if you believe your printbed is level, if symptoms occur, relevel the bed. Alot of people struggle with leveling the bed when they first begin 3D printing, however it is a skill that is well honed through repitition.

Begin by depressing all the bed leveling springs (one on each 4 sides of the hotbed) approximately half way and then homing the printer, which should be an option on the printer's LCD (generally located under "motion"). This should send the printhead to it's home location and lock the motors. Now you must select "turn off steppers" on the LCD, in the same location. This disengages the stepper motors, which allows you to move the printhead with ease. Physically move the hotend by the fan shroud to each corner of the build plate, releasing the tension on the bed leveling springs as you go until the nozzle is approximately .2mm away. This can be quantified as being -just- far enough away to feel the nozzle on a peice of printer paper when it is passed between the nozzle and the build surface. commonly described as a light scratching sensation. Ensure to do this on all 4 sides, and in the center of the build plate. Do this at least twice, as changing one side of the bed can cause changes on the other sides of the bed.

It is important to note than some economical 3D printers can ship with a "warped" hotbed. This makes achieving a perfect level impossible, but this issue can be mitigated. To resolve a warped build plate, try placing small squares of aluminum foil under the build plate to compensate for the warp, or try using a new non-warped glass plate to compensate (Since glass is rigid and flat). Custom firmware can compensate or the skew with manual mesh leveling, however replacing firmware is something best left to experienced tinkerers. The Ender-3 firmware that comes with all FCA V6-I hotends include manual mesh leveling for this very reason. The definitive solution to this though, is to replace the bed with one that is not warped.

A note about adhesives: Gluestick, painter's tape, or hairspray is not required to achieve adhesion. A leveled bed is good enough. That said, it will not hurt to add a layer of adhesive onto the bed. Don't be ashamed to do so.

Loading Filament

Once the build surface is leveling in relation to the nozzle, load the filament into your machine. Begin by heating the hotend to a reasonable temperature for the filament your going to be using. If you are using the filament that came with your printer, heat the hotend to 205 degrees celsius. This option is probably under the "Temperature" or "Control" menu on the LCD. Do not touch the heated hotend. Place the filament onto the spool holder on your 3D printer to prevent the filament from getting tangled, and ruining it.

Depress the lever on the extruder, and insert the end of the filament into the hole located in the lever and pass it between the gears of the extruder into the bowden tube/hotend. Insert the filament further until you see the hotend ooze material. Cool the hotend (just turn the temp back off, the fan will "cool" it), and remove excess material from the hotend with a wire brush or Q-Tip. Be mindful using a wire brush while the printer is powered on, since it can cause a short in the thermistor or heater!

First Print

After having done the above, its time to start your first print.

The machine should have came with an SD card, which contains example .GCODE files sliced by the people who made your machine. Select it and the printer should begin to lay down the filament…….

Assuming the bed is leveled correctly, eerything should go off without a hitch. The first print always looks great, since the manufacturer sliced it specifically to show off the capabilities of the machine. We call it the "feel good dog".

Looks great right? It's a great first step, but you didn't buy a 3D printer to make little cats. You want to make your own 3D printer files to print, and probably have loads of models downloaded already. For your very first slice, maybe avoid parts that need supports. Now, you have to slice the parts yourself. Pick your favorite model and pick your favorite slicer. Due to overwhelming community support and continued development from Ultimaker the recommeded slicing software is Cura. Download Cura from the link and open it on your PC.

First Print of your Own

After you'e accomplished that, pick your favorite file from one of the file repositories mentioned above. Then, click the folder in the upper left hand corner of the screen and open the file (normally ending in .STL or .3MF). The model should then appear on the virtual build plate. The tricky part is to enter in the settings to the "best values". There is no such thing as the "perfect" values, and close enough is close enough. It is your first time anyways.

Cura has prebuilt profiles for "generic" materials and material types which will give you pretty-much-reasonable settings to work from. If your using the material that came with the machine, it is PLA. Definitely use PLA, just until you get the hang of this, since it is such a forgiving material. Its normal to have a bit of analysis paralysis when you open up Cura for the first time. It has more settings than any other slicer avaliable and they just keep adding more. That's OK though. We're just going to start with a couple.

Nozzle Temperature

The temperature the hotend will maintain when it extrudes filament, the right temperature here is critical to good layer bonding without the part still looking melty.

Try 210c

Bed Temperature

Almost every modern printer has a heated bed. Set this temperature to be hot enough to enable the print to stay firmly attatched to the build surface without developing the dreaded "elephant's foot".

Try 60c


Further divided into length and speed. Retraction settings are your first line of defence against stringing on parts. Retraction distance controls how far the filament goes backwards, and the speed controls how fast.

Try 3mm distance and 30mm/s speed


Infill is directly responsible for how dense your part is. Phrased another way, infill controls how hallow or not hallow your part is. Generally parts part be printed with infills as low a 5%

Layer Height

Layer height controls how thick each "slice" of the model is. Thicker slices are faster, but tends to lose some of the very fine details.

0.2 is a good middle ground


Print Speed controls how fast the hotend moves while extruding, while travel moves control how fat it moves when not extruding. Some materials need to be printed slower.

Try 50mm/s for print speed and 100mm/s for travel

The Finishing Touches

Thats it. You should be ready to go. No need to change any other settings, but feel free to experiment with them as you get comfortable. A word to the wise, make sure you slow down your first layer to help everything stick (under initial layer print speed) and enable a brim (under build plate adhesion) just to make sure everything goes off without a hitch.

If it didn't, don't stress. It is an aquired skill. Post in a help forum, or reread the guide if you get lost. A fair rule of thumb is that if your having issues, you can slow the print down if nothing else.

Happy Printing……