Printing Minis

About a week ago I was bemoaning the fragility of the fire escape on my dollhouse. It had once again detached from the wall and been damaged. “I should 3d print it!” I thought, reading that 3d printers have become inexpensive. “Then it could be one sturdy piece.”

Except I didn’t have a 3d printer, nor did I know how to create a model of my staircase (or much else).

Never one to let reality stop me, I researched inexpensive 3d printers and selected one. Then I watched several “how to assemble your printer” videos.

“It’s okay, I’ve built a lot of Ikea furniture.”

And it was okay–mostly because the videos told me it was going to take a couple hours so my expectations were properly set. The included instructions were no worse than any other Chinese product–in fact the translation was better than many. However, when it came to the wiring it lost me. One photo showing a bunch of sockets, but no clear direction for which of the four four-pin plugs went into which of the four four-pin sockets. I figured out the plugs on short wires could only go to the same size sockets near them. The rest had little tags with X, E, and Z on them. But sockets had no such labels. I realized these referred to the axis, and each axis has a motor. But I didn’t know which was which. Finally I found a manual on-line that helped.

And that’s the sum total of the documentation. No user manual. No guide to the menus and commands. No help with connecting it to my computer (answer: you can’t). It has a micro USB port, so I thought I could plug it into the computer. Nope. It also came with an SD card, a USB card adapter, and an SD slot next to the USB port. I set aside the puzzle of talking to the printer for the moment because I still had to solve…

Where to put it? My little office/craft room/music room is cluttered with a capital C. Oh, but on top of those plastic storage bins would work, except then I would have to move it to get into them and I suspect moving it is not good for it.

Back to Amazon to order an adjustable height laptop desk to go over the storage bins.

And while I waited for that, I researched modeling software. Yikes. I’ve done my share of poor Adobe Illustrating, but never in three dimensions. What’s more, 3d printing is still a pretty hacker-ish activity, with loads of people out there sharing videos and posts about fine tuning their cobbled together systems, blending skills in Rasberry Pi, design, materials knowledge, and who knows what else?

I resolved to take it a step at a time. First, let’s find software to draw my staircase. I tried out Sketch Up–the free web-based version–first and after hours had managed to draw some cubes. So I went to Blender, a native application, and within an equal amount of time had created a six-inch section (because the printer can’t do the whole thing at once, so no matter what it’ll be in two pieces) of my staircase. Unadorned, plain surfaces, no banister. But it looked like a staircase. Yay Blender.

The desk arrived and on Saturday I shuffled things around in the office and got the printer set up on a stable (I even checked the level of the table top!) surface.

In my research I learned about leveling the bed–the surface you print onto. I found videos, and one creator who linked files to help. I learned to transfer the files from my computer to the SD card and found the “Print from Media” command on the printer. Amazing–the print head moved around over the print surface and stopped so I could check its distance from the surface (slide a slip of paper in between) and adjust the bed up or down in each location. Next I learned from another video how to load the plastic filament into the printer (Ah, there’s a spring loaded arm I have to move!–like I said, absolutely no user manual). And finally I printed the test file–a set of squares.

A few minutes later there they were on the print bed: seven 2mm high by .5mm wide white plastic squares.

I’d read about Benchy, a cute little tug boat model that’s used to test printers. I found the files for it on, a library of free model files. Enter the next piece of software: the slicer. Slicing software prepares the 3d model for printing. I took the coward’s way out and downloaded the Mac slicer from my printer’s manufacturer. I loaded the Benchy model file into the slicer and there it was on screen: the little boat. I hit the “slice” button and when it finished I exported to a format for the printer. Then I had to transfer that file to the SD card, the whole while fearing I’d drop the little card or damage the contacts.

Soon my printer was working on Benchy. About ninety minutes later I had a little blue boat covered in plastic cobwebs. I reviewed a video on what Benchy tells you about your printer and how to fix some of the problems it reveals. My platform was a little too low, and those cobwebs are called “stringing,” left when the nozzle moves across open air between parts of the print.

One step at a time, I said. I re-leveled the bed and reprinted Benchy. That helped the first issue. Then I researched “stringing” and spent a while in the slicer looking for the right setting to change. Found it. Changed it. Re-sliced. Sneaker netted the card to the printer and printed again. Oh well. Clearly I’ll need to mess with that setting some more.

Back to the modeling software–I wanted to print something I made myself. That’s the point of this endeavor, right? So I set aside my staircase and modified a basic cube, exported it from Blender, opened it in the slicer, and there it was, sliceable. This was especially exciting because I’d tried this with the staircase and the slicer didn’t display anything. Or so I thought.

So I sneaker netted the cube and printed it. My first original design!

But by then I was sick of the sneaker net and researched how to get my printer to talk to my computer. I had downloaded a phone app that connects me to my printer manufacturer’s cloud, but the app has to be able to talk to the printer, and the printer, as purchased, has no connectivity other than the SD port and that mysterious micro USB (still no sign of the printer when I look at my computer’s printer config manager). I looked into drivers, and the only info I found was a snarky comment on Reddit to someone else trying to do what I’m doing saying “make your Mac work like a PC.”

Okay, I did find that I could get a wifi “box” (yes, literally called a “box”) from the manufacturer. Whether this box would make my printer a network printer, or whether it has a WiFi network built in that I’d have to join (a la GoPro) was unclear because, you know, no user manual nor even a clear description on Amazon. I ordered one.

The “box” plugs into that Micro USB port. And it talks to the phone app. And the app talks to the cloud. So does the slicer on the computer.

I thought, “okay, it’s time to try to print my stairs.” I knew this would not be my final print, this is just a working model, just an attempt to understand how it all works. Plus I still have the “stringing” problem. But I just had to do it.

I figured out that the model was so small the slicer was show it, it was just tiny–I had to zoom way in. I found the scaling controls and made the model the desired six inches long. At least I knew that unlike with photographs, resolution of the image isn’t relevant in a vector model. I sliced it and uploaded it to the cloud. On my phone, I located it in the cloud and commanded the printer to print it.

And that’s how, in just a week, I’ve 3d printed half of a (granted unusable) fire escape for my dollhouse.

Sure, the steps don’t align with the original, but that’s okay, the printed ones are spaced more to scale. And the newel posts at the top and bottom are a complete mess. They were too fine to print. And I didn’t even do the railing. And then there’s the stringing.

None of that detracts from my sense of accomplishment for going from “3d printing? How does that even work?” to “I just printed a first pass at a miniature fire escape” in a week.

1 thought on “Printing Minis”

  1. Great job! I wonder if I could fabricate parts for Puffin?

    Oh well, when I have time. I’m currently in South America, visited friends in Brazil, 4 days in Buenos Aires, the rest if the time at Mary’s condo in Punta del Este, Uruguay. We return to North America tomorrow night, leaving 90 degree summer for NJ winter. Pete


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