We recently acquired a Silhouette Cameo (which was also recently reviewed by Make Magazine in Issue 48, the Ultimate Guide to Desktop Fabrication). It’s a pretty cool crafting tool with which it’s fast and easy to cut paper, vinyl, fabric, and a few other materials. One of the kits that came along with the unit was an etching kit. We tried it out and etched some glass-ware to see what we could do.
The first thing to know about using a vinyl cutter to etch glass is that you don’t want to be too-smart-by-half. It’s easy to think that you’ll be creating curlicues and filigree but that’s just silly. Block letters and bold patterns are much easier to transfer and work with. Fancy-schmancy designs are a bit too tricky. Not that it’s not possible to do fine work, just that it’s hard to hook and transfer if you have too-fine a line or too-delicate an island. Any time you have a section that is not connected to any other section you’re going to end up finagling dots and wee tiny bits. And that can be very frustrating, especially if you have the misfortune to have removed some of the glue when hooking out the negative spaces of the vinyl.
Hooking is when you remove the pieces of the vinyl that you don’t want. There’s a little hook that you use to pick the pieces out. The trouble is two-fold. One, the knife doesn’t always cut completely through the vinyl, which means that there’s a bit of an effort needed to separate the two sides of the cut. Second, the finer the cut-out, the more difficult it will be to hook out and the higher the chance of removing the glue on the underside of the vinyl. If there isn’t enough glue on the vinyl when it’s transferred to the glass it will not stick properly and the final as-etched lines won’t be very clean. That can be disappointing, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time getting the hooking right.
So, don’t get too-smart-by-half.
Another thing to keep in mind is the curvature of the surface you’re trying to etch. If your stencil is too big, the vinyl too stiff, and the glass is too curved, the stencil won’t stick properly and the lines won’t be clean. Thinner vinyl, bigger fonts, and simple patterns result in better etching.
But once the hooking is done and the vinyl is transferred to the glass, it‘s pretty easy to apply the etching cream and get the design onto the glass, The etching cream can be re-used as long as it doesn’t dry out, so there’s a working window of about one or two minutes maximum. Apply, wait, scrape off, wipe remaining cream off with a paper towel, and wash from the glass. That’s it. Pretty easy.
And, it looks nice when you’ve created something that didn’t exist before you made that little bit of effort.
How quickly a year passes. Last Christmas an Ultimaker2 finally arrived and since it’s shown up it’s printed about 350 hours of fun. Here are the top 9 lessons that have resulted from the first year of using this particular printer.
Don’t Print a Piece of Wood
This seems like it should be self-evident, but it’s not. When a printer first shows up, the tendency is to print everything. But there is just no point in printing something that you can easily get from elsewhere. If you have a piece of wood—or a cup, or an old yoghurt container, or whatnot—there is no sense wasting time or effort on 3D printing it. Instead, try printing something you might not otherwise be able to make, such as a jointed toy or something fun.
Slow Down, Heat Up
It takes time to figure out tolerances and what works well, but the biggest thing I found for printing PLA is to slow the printer speed down and make the nozzle hot. I have found that 220 degrees is hot enough to prevent clogging but not so hot that it melts too much, although that has happened once or twice with some specialty filament. Slowing the Ultimaker2 down is different than using a finer print setting, so don’t get confused between print resolution and print speed. It’s still possible to print with a higher resolution and do it fast. I’ve noticed two main problems with this particular printer that may or may not be the same as others: travel speed and retraction.
The Ultimaker2 (at least the one I have) has a tendency to travel fast from point to point. This occasionally results in the nozzle hitting the filament that has already been laid down, lifting it off the bed. This often means I have to abort the print, which can be very frustrating. It is possible to adjust the travel speed in the advanced settings, but it takes a bit of getting used to in order to look for and adjust the travel speed.
Settings: Bed, Glue, Filament, Tension
Unfortunately, you’ll need to spend time with your printer finding the best settings—and sometimes even then you’ll have to adjust as you go.
The paper test for bed leveling seems to be popular and easy. You adjust your bed/nozzle settings to close the distance between the two, and then stick a piece of paper between them to check when it gets snagged by the tension; back it off a bit and that’s the distance one should be from the other for good printing. This method is pretty reliable because you can get a clear feeling for just how close to the bed the nozzle is. You will be able to feel the tension between nozzle and bed better than you will be able to measure the distance by sight.
Sticky beds are necessary if you want your print to be successful. There are a few options, including blue masking tape, hair-spray, or glue sticks. I use the blue tape for 3D pens, but since this printer has a heated bed it’s not necessary. I’ve never used hair-spray because I’m concerned that as an aerosol some errant particles might find their way into stepper motors or worm gears; not a risk I fancy taking. Using a stick of glue and spreading it with a foam brush works. I wet the brush with a water spray bottle (never pointing it at the printer) to spread the glue around on the bed. I still occasionally have prints pull off the bed, but that’s usually when I haven’t put down enough glue. A little will do, but it does need to be enough. Brims, rafts and supports are also really useful for anytime you need that extra bit of support.
I’ve used PLA filament for all my prints so far and am generally happy with it. Although there are a few spools of ABS around, I haven’t printed with it yet because I don’t have the best ventilation going on right now. The first project will definitely be an eNABLE gauntlet, for which I also have two hardware kits.
I have also found that it’s a good idea to have a bunch of different filament options around. It’s much nicer to be able to print in white, black, or red—or any of the other dozens of colours that are available.
I confess that tension is something I continue to have trouble with. My printer uses a Bowden tube set-up, which means that the motor driving the extrusion is 60 cm or so away from the hot end of the nozzle. If the nozzle gets the least bit clogged, the driver motor quite easily starts to chew the filament up, and then everything gets right borked from there. Apparently achieving the correct tension is quite dependent on the consistency of the filament diameter, but it still feels like a hit-and-miss for me. This is definitely one of the most frustrating fails, though, mostly because it happens when it’s unexpected. Which leads to…
Try, Try, and Try Again
No surprise – it’s unlikely you’ll be as successful as you want. It’s also important to get a sense of what’s possible, and where you either need to make adjustments or give up and move on. And sometimes you’ll come to see the answer to a problem several projects later. Voronoi hearts, for instance. Next time I try a Voronoi heart I will use a brim (a _really good idea for prints where you have a small surface touching the bed), slow down, and print at around 220 degrees.
But it’s important to keep trying because a) you’ll end up with a bunch of fun stuff you’ve printed successfully, and b) you’ll learn and get better. Double-plus good.
Experiment With Abandon
Experimentation is also really important. It’s worth it to take a chance and try something new because, hey, you have a frick’n 3D printer. Thingiverse is a constantly good source for free files and there are many other sites out there, like YouMagine, or Autodesk123D.
It’s also important to experiment in your tools. I got some super-thin spatulas to help lift well-stuck prints from the bed. Couldn’t think of doing it without them, now that I have them. They really make it heaps easier when you have to gently lift an obstinate print from the bed and it just isn’t cooperating. I also have a bunch of small files. These make it easy to touch up the prints quickly, and they don’t break like my blasted thumb-nail does when I try to pry unwanted bits off.
Not Everyone Is As Excited As Me
I totally confess: I thought everyone would be as jazzed about this as I am. But, what I’ve found is that most people aren’t as interested as me at all. The few people who are interested, however, tend to be enthusiasts, who punch above their weight interest-wise.
This is not really that unexpected. The current state of 3D printing is still pretty nascent and it’s hard to print anything big or realistic without an awful lot of money, time, patience, or happy mix of all three. It’s quite likely that in the coming years the state of 3D printing will improve and printing multi-colour, finely detailed, fast prints that are bigger than your forearm will be commonplace. Until then, this is definitely still the domain of the nerds. Which is fine with me.
I have benefited greatly—if not almost exclusively—from the many dedicated, clever, creative, talented, and generous people at the vanguard of this movement. I am deeply grateful for the magnanimity of the community. There are so many models and designs that are already available freely that it is kind-of mind-boggling. And the free tools like Blender, MeshMixer, SketchUp, TinkerCAD, or so many others make it extremely easy to model objects in 3D. Not that I’m all that good at that part yet.
The other side of having access to so many quality resources for free, though, is that there is an incumbent responsibility to give back. So far I haven’t been able to post to communities with my dazzling fresh, new designs—mostly because I have none. But what I have been able to do is to print and give away the prints that I’ve made. I find people mostly like them, and there are dozens if not hundreds of different simple things that can be easily printed and given away. And as a makerspace we’re supporting other local companies, like Matter and Form, Structur3d, Tiko, Mosaic, and ReDeTec by buying their gear. Some has arrived, some not yet; but the anticipation is palpable around here.
Learn From The Community
Speaking of the community, it’s also a great place to learn. Second confession: I don’t really do this enough.
One of the best things about getting into 3D printing now is the relative maturity of the technology available to communities of users or tinkers. Blogging and search engines make finding self-help near-indescribably easier than in the days of fanzines, message boards, and loud modems. Searching for community hubs and help forums has, I think, given me back years of my life stolen while trying to figure out why a print is not working. Thanks, community. You rock.
3D Pens Are Frustrating, and Fun
We also acquired some 3D pens, which are instant attention magnets. They do work a bit differently than conventional printers, but really only because the extruding nozzle is controlled by meCode and not gCode.
Some people use 3D pens like 2D pens and draw blobs of goo. Others, however, are brilliant and create unique, beautiful sketches in the air. It’s rare, but nice when you are surprised by someone else’s inspiration.
Unfortunately, though, 3D pens are finicky and a bit frustrating. They are fairly straightforward, but fixing clogs, etc., really requires taking the whole blasted contraption apart. Ok if you’re into tinkering, but a right pain if you’re not.
And that’s it. That’s all we’ve learned from a year of 3D printing. Well, not really. But that’s the top 9.
We’ve had some action lately building little free libraries.
The basic model is based on a typical 1/4″ or 1/2″ 4′ x 8′ piece of one-side-good plywood cut into 1′ x 4′ lengths. From there it’s easy to cut out the backs and sides to make a simple box, roof, and a shelf. Cedar shingles to finish off the roof are a nice touch, and pretty easy to apply. A simple piece of angled trim makes a nice cap rail for the roof line. As per usual, we’re grateful for our good friends Frank and Dave at Lakeshore Lumber for supplying the wood and hardware, and even going so far as to help cut the 4′ lengths.
The recent addition of two tools (a square corner-set found at ReStore and an air compressor with nailing head) make all the difference in putting this together. Seriously, the nailing head and the air compressor make this so much easier. Trying to tap the nails in while holding everything even would be a total pain. Gluing the joints before setting them also helps with stability.
The larger one measures 12″ x 19 1/2″ x 24″ and needed some extra support for the bottom; hence the width-spanning brace underneath that both adds extra rigidity to the base and creates a housing for a set-post. Some simple halved-joints made it easy to create the post housing.
Next-time additions could include dormers, skylights, lights for night-time browsing, or maybe even a Little Free Library LibraryBox…?…