I’ve recently been reflecting a lot about intricacies revolving around 3D printing. As a member of many different forums, discords, and groups around the subject for tabletop gaming I see repeatedly several of the same questions.
“What printer should I buy”
“What settings do you use?”
“What materials do I need?”
“Why did this print fail?”
You get the idea. These questions have been amplified over the course of the last year because 3D printing for tabletop has absolutely exploded due to Covid-19. In short, companies have had issues manufacturing and distributing models to their consumers. While consumers themselves couldn’t go to their local game store and buy models. This resulted in a mega boom of digital model availability and users wanting to 3D print. However many consumers jumping into the hobby were not expecting that 3D printing is not always a plug-n-play experience, resulting in the magnitude of questions.
While asking questions is not a bad thing and I vastly encourage it and one of the purpose of this site is to grow to become a place to find answers. The vast multitude of repeated questions indicates one main trend…
Many do not realize that 3D printing is a hobby much like miniature painting. It requires time, study, determination and most importantly practice. Not all hobbyists are at the same skill set. Not all printers or materials have the same capabilities. With a large variety of programs and settings how does one approach the hobby? Should it be approached with the scientific method of trial and error of slow changes? Or is there no real “right answer” and final product resulting from your individual personal taste or rather a production of art?
This now leads to the question on my mind: Is 3D Printing a Science an Artform or just Plain Luck?
While it might not seem to actually matter, I find this1 subject wildly interesting. Much like miniature painting there is a significantly noticeable difference between my very first print and one of my most recent ones. Personal growth and improvement are obviously evident.
So what has changed between the two images above? The largest difference is probably in the printer used, a publicly available $180 printer Anet a8 and my personal $700 Prusa mk3s. However I could also argue the growth in knowledge with improvements to slicing software (software used to generate printing code) as well as my rapid growth of knowledge of the settings within these programs. There is also a very very important role and understatement of the importance of practice.
When is Science & Testing Important?
3D Printing is very is well known for its vast settings and available materials you should use when producing your product. Slowly changing variables and acknowledging the slight variations helps me as a hobbyist narrow down what is my preferred best result. As someone who went to university as a Chemist the scientific method and note keeping are my strengths. The power of observation plays a significant role in being able to grow and adapt to improved printing.
One primary way to slowly build and modify is the use of varying calibration tests such as that seen below. This series of tests was used to specifically test different geometric supporting structures to hold up your prints.
FDM is not the only type of printing where I constantly test and explore. Iteration can be key in attempting to get the perfect print such as that using various exposure times on my resin printer.
Sometimes setting modifications are not enough. There are times that using a different material or brand can drastically impact both print quality and success as seen by the owlbear below. I noticed significantly more issues printing using Elegoo ABS-Like Resin with improved experiences using Epax Hard Grey resin.
Overall you could easily argue that testing and experimentation are crucial to improving the quality of your printing as apart of the hobby of 3D printing.
What about the Art?
In many ways the quality of your 3D print and its final appearance is dependent on the incredible collection of artists & sculptors the community has to offer. It is significantly noticeable and evident both in the final quality but also the success rate of your print job if that modeler is familiar with the technology you are using.
Let me explain. Not all 3D artists are used to creating art for 3D printing. Some come from different backgrounds such as game design and are working towards adapting that knowledge into the 3D printable space. These artists may not know all the intricacies, restrictions, and considerations when designing a model for a 3D printer. Likewise not all artists design with FDM printing in mind or resin for that matter. There are wide splits in the community in the as to what is best but there are also modelers out there specifically designing with specific technologies in mind.
Lets take two examples.
On the left for the image below you will see three skeletons. These skeletons are from the Dragonlock Miniature collection and made by Fat Dragon Games. These models are designed to print completely supportless on an FDM printer and be easy for someone using filament to produce miniatures for their tabletop game. You can see that all the objects like shields build from the capes or legs as ways to cheat the need of using supports. These models are also thicker in their arms and weapons to accommodate larger nozzle sizes and the mechanical restrictions of FDM printing. (Want to see more supportless Dragonlock miniatures? Check out the Dragonlock Miniature Kickstarter project I 100% printed).
For the example on the right you will see my wizard for my upcoming Frostgrave game. This miniature produced by Miniatures of Madness is obviously designed for resin miniatures. There are details on this figure that are so fine that I cannot express the difficulty of trying to get them to come out on my FDM printer. Printed using my Sonic Mini 4K you can see incredible detail in the shoulder pads, chains on the robes, and even a book floating in the air and held together with thin magical essence coming from his hands.
These two comparisons show you the vast difference in goals and vision for their art in 3D printing that is capable. Because of the difference in goals the final version, model style, and print appearance are different because they knew the capabilities and restrictions of the method they wish to produce their models.
Now before I get people commenting down below that resin is the only way to produce miniatures or better choice. I want to stress the importance of Art. Each and every hobbyist has a different vision for their projects, its uses, as well as constraints when printing figures, terrain, buildings, etc. Also while some are designed for one method of production it does not mean it can’t be made both ways.
I recently have been test printing for the Lost Adventures Volume 3 Kickstarter: Uncharted Lands. As a test printer I am asked to sometimes print in filament or resin or in rare instances both. In this example below I have printed two kobolds from the Kobold Coalition. One is in filament and one is in resin. While an experienced hobbyist can tell which one is which most will not be able to especially with paint and on your tabletop. If the purpose of your hobby is to play on a table does it matter which way it was created?
Much like creating art with crayons vs oil paints there are considerations as to cost, durability, ease of use etc. For example I absolutely love my filament based miniatures because they are more durable and safer for my one and a half year old son to handle. While in the same breath I love my resin miniatures as a way to produce more models in the same amount of time with incredible detail.
The image and desire of final product will drastically influence the method and direction I approach a print.
Why Can’t It Be a Bit of Both?
Here lies the crux of my reflection. 3D printing isn’t just scientific and you can’t just create the most perfect artistic piece. I do not believe that you can just brute force yourself into the hobby in only one method. To truly become an expert and master I believe that a good balance between the two aspects of art and science must be achieved.
As someone who is constantly trying to learn and grow I admit to needing to approach my hobby with more artistic flair rather than pure mechanical perfection. Reading the numerous questions about the hobby space continues to provide insight as to the perspectives of others and can still teach me things.
It is not always easy to reflect on the elements and things to work on and improve in my hobby but has been an interesting thing to think about.
While I don’t think there is a perfect conclusion to this post and the answer to the question “Is 3D printing an artform or science” is different for everyone. I’m curious as to your thoughts about the hobby space. If you don’t 3D print what is your opinion from the outside looking into the hobby? What would you consider it to be? If you do print how to do you approach the hobby?
I am currently approaching the hobby in a super fascinating way which is pushing the limits of my understanding. While I’m not quite ready to mention it here yet, I can’t wait to share with you my experiences. I have about a week or so to go before the Frostgrave campaign officially starts, and I am racing towards the finish line to paint up the warbands in time.
What is on your hobby table? Working toward something fun?
As always, Happy Hobby,
Carrie aka Crazmadsci the Crazy Mad Scientist
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