You just got a 3D printer – now what?

With the holiday season upon us, and the availability of 3D printers increasing, we have reached the year that many people will be getting or building a 3D printer and then wondering what they can do.

There are two main ways to get things for your printer to print – you can download them or you can design them.


There are quite a few sites now that host 3D printable models. The first major one is Thingiverse, which is owned by Makerbot (who is owned by Stratasys). Thingiverse had files for 3D priting and for laser cutting. Some models are extremely well made, and print with ease. Other things may not be well designed or could even be impossible to print. A good rule is that if there isn’t a picture of a printed part on the thing’s page, then it’s probably not printable. Also make sure that the printed part fits in your machine. If you have an older printer like mine, some things are just too large.

This page has a listing of more sites with models available.


There are quite a few free tools available that can make STL files for 3D printing. Some are better than others. My current favorite is DesignSpark Mechanical. This a basically a free version of Spaceclaim, with a reduced feature set, but is still very functional. It has the same basic tools as Sketchup, but Sketchup models often have issues with being turned into printable 3D models (Sketchup can’t do small details, and often make parts with some of the faces turned inside out). I specifically recommend against using Sketchup.

Autodesk 123D is pretty good, but the interface can be a little slow on anything but a newer computer.

The other way of designing a part is actually more of a programming language called SCAD. One of the best tools in this category is OpenSCAD. There are many tutorials out on the net, and some things from thingiverse will be in scad format. OpenSCAD compiles a solid model based on parameters you set. This makes customizing a part easy if it was designed well.

There are a few online options, like Tinkercad and 3D Tin, but I usually prefer a local piece of software for 3D design.

Students licences are often available for professional level cad tools as well.


What do you want to know about having a 3D printer? Comment below, and I’ll try to answer the questions in a new post.

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