I’ve found a new hobby—3D printing. It’s a fun way to make something from nothing. It starts with a 3D computer model that has been designed in a CAD program. Thousands of free models are available on the internet on sites such as Thingverse and Printables. Once the file you want to print is downloaded, you have to convert it in a program that tells the printer how to slice the model so that it can be printed. The 3D printer lays down one thin layer at a time on a heated platform until it builds up the entire model. I am printing with PLA filament. PLA (Polylactic Acid) is made from renewable, organic sources such as corn starch and sugar cane.


A few years ago, 3D printing was out of reach for me. The cost of entry was just too high. Now, with new 3D printers on sale for less than $200, the hobby is much more accessible for persons like me who just wanted to try it out for fun. 

So far I have made a number of really useful parts and gizmos for things around the house. I make a tamping stand to hold the portafilter of my expresso machine and a funnel that fits to it for dosing ground coffee into the portafilter, a bracket to hold a drafting lamp (I lost the original part who knows where.) I have made cases for the Arduino motherboards for my small-scale electronic projects, a model of the Radcliffe Camera, the domed library at the center of the campus of Oxford University where I have done some academic research, a small model of the Library of Congress, a Lord of the Rings bookmark, a small Tardis from the Dr. Who television series, and any number of other gizmos and chotskies.

Along the way I have also had to become somewhat of an expert in modifying, repairing, and upgrading my machine, including connecting and disconnecting various wires to the motherboard. Instructions on how to do these things are difficult to find. One a recent repair, I reordered a new “hotend” with cables attached. I had damaged the original hotend when I made a mistake replacing the brass printer nozzle. The new part arrived with no instructions whatsoever on how to install it—just the part attached to numerous wires. While installing it, I foolishly disconnected more wires than I had intended. Fortunately I had the foresight to take a picture of the motherboard so that I could correct my mistake. On repairs and upgrades like this, YouTube videos and other Internet chat groups can help, but often you just have to figure out how to correct the mistakes you have made on your own. 

How to manually level the printer bed and how to get the print to stick to the printer bed are also things you have to learn on an entry level printer. While there are numerous upgrades one can get to make these things easier, it is good first to learn how to do these things manually, as that helps troubleshoot printing issues you might have later on even with upgraded printers. In spite of all the issues I have named above, I find that I get a great deal of satisfaction from using my printer and seeing what it can produce. 

Learning the ins and outs of 3D printing has expanded my horizons. It has allowed me to look at the world in a different way. When I look at objects in the world I realize that the whole I see in these objects is layered of many parts. I can imagine how a flower petal or a the leaf of a plant is layer upon layer of cells of different shapes and sizes. When I get ready to 3D print an object, whatever it is, after carefully setting everything up, I feel that I am able to make something that did not exist before. It is like making something out of thin air. It’s magic. 

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