If you ever wondered what is so special about 3D printing your own miniature and are still on the fence if it is something for you, then this Beginner’s guide to 3D printing is for you.
I am going to go through the exact step by step full process of printing miniatures using a resin printer and explain some of the jargon. I am also going to cover some of the things that you need to know before deciding that 3D printing is something for you.
If you already have a clear understanding of 3D printing then many of the concepts here will already be known to you.
The quick overview of 3D printing miniatures
So just a quick rundown of 3D printing miniatures:
There are roughly 2 types of printers: plastic and resin. Plastic is good for big terrain and huge miniatures, but the quality of the miniature will not be amazing and the plastic printers can be difficult to setup, work with and troubleshoot. Resin printers are much easier to work with and the print quality is good (even for cheap printers).
On the other hand, the resin is super toxic and can be a bit of a mess to work with. You need good ventilation, the right temperature in the room and you will get multiple print failures (not as much as with plastic, but you need to troubleshoot the printer from time to time).
Printing miniatures can seem really simple, and once you get the hang of it that can be the case. But getting started on knowing what can go wrong is essential to have a good start printing miniatures.
Plastic versus resin (and why I think Resin is the best for printing miniatures)
Let’s start with diving deeper into an overview of 3D printing. There are different types of materials and printers that can be used but the main concept is the same as your traditional office printer: you need an object to print (your document), a material to use to print (your paper) and an instrument to print (ink or laser). But this case we are not printing a documents, we are printing a miniature model.
How FDM printers work
The most affordable and popular plastic printers are called FDM or fused deposition modelling, also known as fused filament fabrication (FFF). FDM 3D printers work by extruding thermoplastic filaments through a heated nozzle, melting the material and applying the plastic layer by layer to a build platform. Each layer is laid down one at a time until the part is complete. The type of filament you use can greatly vary and which one you can use will depend from the printer itself.
Here is a video where an FDM printer is shown in action:
You can read our Best 3D printer for terrain to learn more about FDM printers.
How Resin printers work
Resin is a highly viscous substance of plant or synthetic origin that becomes harder when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. There are two main types of 3D printers in resin: SLA (Stereolithography, the oldest 3D printing technique) and DLP (Digital Light Processing). The main difference is the source of light they use: while SLA uses a UV laser beam, DLP uses UV light from a projector. The last generation of SLA printers uses a monochrome LCD screen and are called MSLA (masked SLA) – more on this later.
You can see an SLA resin printer in action here:
Every material and technique has its own advantages and disadvantages. This guide is for printing miniatures, mostly on a small scale (28/32mm), if you need to print other objects then the considerations may be extremely different.
Check out this article if you want to know more about the differences between plastic and resin.
Cost of the materials
FDM printers use filament spools that are relatively cheap and can last for a long time. The overall throughput of a FDM printer is higher than a resin printer meaning more quantity hence less costs.
Resin bottles are usually more expensive than plastic filaments and last much less depending on what you are printing. A single bottle for example can print two warbands of Bloodfields, including bases. A warband will usually have at least one centrepiece of considerable size, 1-2 medium sized characters and 5-8 smaller fighters.
The quality of the print achieved with resin is greater than plastic but requires more time. After calibrating your resin printer you may need up to 8 hours per print and you may be able to print only 4 models at a time, sometimes even less. Some resin printers can do this in less time, say 2-4 hours. But a rule of thumb is that the greater the quality of the print, the longer it will take on a resin printer. The FDM printers usually have bigger build plates allowing for more miniatures to be printed in the same print session.
The amount of time required to print a model in MSLA resin printers depends on its height: the taller the object, the longer it takes. The horizontal space does not count much as every layer is printed at the same time. So filling the plate with 5 miniatures will take just as long to print as printing 1 miniature (assuming they are the same height). FDM printers however work better on smaller spaces and every directional change slows down the process, so square objects are faster than multi-cornered objects on plastic printers.
FDM plastic printers require a good amount of maintenance and some mechanical knowledge as there are many parts where things can go wrong. Getting started will take a lot of time, so be prepared to spend hours adjusting and retrying prints.
Resin printers are usually pre-built, ready to use and require little maintenance. However, when something does not work, like the LCD screen or the tank/FEP film, then that piece needs to be replaced and they usually have higher costs than FDM printer parts. LCD screens in particular need to be changed approximately every 1000 hours of printing.
With a resin printer, you need to be prepared to replace the FEP film (the transparent thing at the bottom of the tank where you pour the resin) and the LCD screen. Those parts are considered to be something that will just break over time, so you need to take into account this cost when getting into 3D resin printing.
Why use resin printers instead of plastic printers for 3D printing miniatures
To summarize: FDM printers use inexpensive materials, are faster and can produce greater throughput within a single run. On the other hand, the resolution and quality of the final product are greatly inferior to resin printers. The plastic printer will require much more troubleshooting and can be difficult to work with. Personally, I have decided to skip plastic printing until I feel like I got the time to do it right.
In my opinion, FDM printers are better to print low-scale models where quality is not an issue and with lots of models that would make the quality-price per model definitely in favour of plastic materials. FDM printers have usually bigger build plates meaning they are perfect for scenery or terrain pieces where the quality is not much of an issue.
But if you want high quality 32mm miniatures, resin printers are definitely the way to go. No debate here.
Your standard MSLA printer is however the best option for centrepiece models, low count models armies or warbands and other smaller items where the quality of the print is important. Since most machines come pre-assembled and are easy to use, they are also a perfect choice for beginners.
If you can afford it and you want to produce several 3D printed items, FDM and Resin printers work really well together, each with its own scope. But for starting out printing miniatures, just go with a resin printer.
And here is an article if you are looking specifically at getting the best Anycubic machine 3D printer.
How resin printers work
Let’s distinguish between SLA/MSLA and DLP printers.
There are some common items, here are some high level concepts:
- You pour liquid resin into the small tank (the vat). The bottom of the tank is clear plastic film (called a FEP).
- Underneath the tank you have a small screen (or a projector) that can project light up into the resin above. The light contains UV rays and resin will harden when UV light hits it.
- Above the tank you have a metal plate (build plate) that can move up and down (very carefully and very precise). The resin will stick to the build plate and a (very small) layer at a time it builds the model upside down.
- You have some hardware and software inside the machine. You can input a figure (on a file on a USB stick) into the machine telling it the dimensions and shapes of the figure – as well as many variables like speed, timings and so on that the machine should use.
Now the difference between SLA and MSLA is that MSLA printers use an LCD screen that can generate an image that will mask which points to print, while the laser beam in an SLA will trace the parts to be hardened much like an FDM printer will drop heated plastic in the right place.
MSLA resolution depends on the LCD screen, normally you have 2K LCD screens but are also available in 4K resolution, while SLA can achieve higher quality and no pixel effects, although they are really hard to spot.
MSLA are much quicker when the item is spread across the entire build platform and are much cheaper in price making them the ideal starting point for resin printing. Most of the popular 3D beginner printers are MSLA and this is what you should go for.
DLP on the other hand uses a projector to project a UV light beam to the relevant parts. Being more precise than an LCD screen can achieve greater results at greater speed. The results obtained by DLP printers really depend on the printer itself, in general are more expensive but require less maintenance and less replaceable parts. You can see more details on the latest technology in Anycubic Photon Ultra kickstarter page.
But starting out you should go with a cheap and reliable MSLA 3D printer with a monochrome screen. Right now I think the best option is the Elegoo Mars 2 Pro. You can read why I would recommend this printer in my guide to selecting the best 3D printer for miniatures.
Types of resin for printing miniatures
Now to use a resin printer, of course you need resin. Resin is a solid or liquid polymer used as the basis of plastics and other products. There are different types of resin in the market, some are called epoxy and are used to create objects like jewellery.
For printing you need the photopolymer resin, usually working at 405nm wavelength, specific for your type of printer. LCD resins can be different from DLP resins. Most brand of 3D printers have also their brand of resin that they advertise and for which they provide the right specs for their machine. This does not mean you can only use their resins, but you may need to work a little bit more to adjust the different numbers for your machine.
Resins can differ by many parameters, including curing time (the time it takes for the machine to harden it), colour (mostly aesthetics but consider black would usually take longer than other colours) and consistency once cured (some are more brittle, some are more rubbery). There’s also some that are plant-based instead of being synthetic and some that can be washed in water instead of requiring alcohol.
Do note that all resin for 3D printing is super toxic. Even that plant based stuff!
There are many guides online on which one to use for your miniatures, but from my personal experiments I prefer the Elegoo Standard Grey. The grey works very well for when it comes time to prime your miniature, wereas the coloured stuff can be hard to cover when spraying them. If I need a quicker job, the Elegoo plant-based resin gave me good results, but I use an Elegoo Mars 2 Pro. Anycubic resins are a bit tougher, high level of detail, but takes longer to cure.
All in all, I have had a hard time distinguish the quality of the print based on the resin used. I doubt you will be able to see any quality difference with the naked eye before you have printed a lot.
The 3 parameters that you need to consider are:
- Recommended temperature. This is usually 20-24 degree Celsius and is the temperature of the room (this also means that it can be hard to have your 3D printed stationed in your garage or another place that is cold).
- Bottom layer exposure. This is how long the bottom layers are exposed to the UV light. As we mentioned above, the object is printed upside down, so the bottom layers are the first to stick to the build plate and is important they are fully cured and strong to avoid the print to detach from the build and fail. You will also need to determine how many bottom layers you want (usually 5).
- Normal layer exposure. This is how long all other layers are exposed to the UV light and determines how long the process is going to take based on the layer height (usually 0.05mm).
All other parameters depend on your 3D printer, more on that below.
Slicing and supporting your miniatures
To perform a print you need an object, your “document”. Those are usually in STL format that is a 3D representation of the object itself. We will discuss later on how to find them. But having an STL file is not enough to print it using a resin printer.
The next step is to provide the instructions to the printer. To do that you need to “slice the object”. There are different software that can help you perform this operation, the most common used are Prusa and Chitubox. Elegoo resin printers use CTB files produced by Chitubox for example.
All software perform the same operations: given the settings that you configure, they split (or “slice”) the object in multiple layers (you determine the height) so that the printer knows in which point to harden the resin and for how long.
As mentioned in the resin section, the resin itself comes with its own parameters. Depending on which printer you have, they will have their own pre-configured settings, like the lift speed, retract speed, etc. The size of the build plate needs also to be configured, but most software like Prusa and Chitubox have the most common 3D printers template pre-configured. If you want more details about the meaning of the different settings you can see specific guides like this one from 3dprinterly.
So now that you understand what slicing is, you can practice with some STL files to place them on the build plate being careful to not let them spill over the plate or occupy the same space. The easiest way is to find files that are already pre-supported.
What is a support? A support is a structure added to the model to facilitate the printing of the object. As the printer forms one layer after the other, the successive layers are supported by the previous ones. If an item is in a vacuum then the resin after being cured will have nothing to hold on and will remain at the bottom of the tank ruining the rest of the printing process. Therefore all hanging parts need to be supported so that the resin has something to stick to it.
Buying pre-supported miniatures removes this step so that you can start printing straight ahead. So start out by getting some good supported miniature printing files (more on that below).
But eventually you will need to add supports to some objects, re-orientating them or simply have less supports to save some resin. Experimentation is part of the learning process, but you can read this guide for more information about it.
Hollowing out a miniature before printing
Ok what is hollowing and do you need it? Hollowing is a process where the part inside your object is emptied and does not use resin. If you have a big object, it will use a lot of resin to print as a solid block. Hollowing allows you to save that resin. Most software will do the hollowing for you given parameters like wall thickness.
Another reason to hollow an item is to avoid the sucking friction that happens when a big surface is suddenly lifted from the bottom of the tank. Imagine taking a plastic cup and inserting it upside down into a tank full of water. Once you lift it, it will create a suction and you can hear a sound and bubbles are formed. However if you create a hole at the top of the cup, then the suction will be lesser as air can flow out of the glass from the top. If the suction is stronger than the link of the resin to the build platform, then the object may detach and the print fail.
When you hollow an item, is therefore always important to dig some escape holes for the resin to flow out, but also for air. Where and how to place them is part of a separate guide but suffice to say, when you are starting you don’t need it. Most big companies pre-supported big centrepieces will hollow and dig holes for you. Most smaller miniatures do not require hollowing.
So hollowing miniatures before printing is more of a pro move, no need to worry about this until you have some experience printing.
Washing and curing your miniature after printing
So now you are ready to print your first objects. Compared to FDM printers (or even your office ink printer), printing is only part of the process. Before being able to use the objects you printed you will need to wash and cure it.
First of all a big recommendation. Resins can be toxic and create irritation or allergies, so always use gloves and a mask when handling it and consult a medic if you are encountering side effects. Always work in a well ventilated room to allow the fumes to disperse.
Once the object has been printed, there will still be some uncured resin lingering around. Most resins need to be washed with denatured alcohol at least 95 degrees or higher. You can do this at home easily with a small bowl and washing the item yourself (remember long gloves!) or you can use a wash and cure machine like Elegoo Mercury Plus Wash and Cure.
It can be way cheaper to do everything by yourself at home, but if you have the extra budget, a wash and cure machine will save you lots of time.
Some resins can be washed directly in water. When this is the case it will be specified in the resin bottle itself, in that case you obviously do not need a wash machine but you may still need the curing part.
Once the object is washed and drained from the excess alcohol, is ready to be cured or better post-cured. You can detach it from the platform, remove the supports carefully, put it into a curing machine or expose it to sunlight for some time.
Why do you need to post-cure an already cured print? Well post-curing enables all parts to reach its highest strength and become more stable. Before that process the miniature may be too brittle or bend easily, some more exposure to the UV light will complete the process and is an essential part of 3D printing. If you don’t have a curing machine (that can complete the process in 2/3 minutes) you may need to leave the models under direct sunlight for few hours or until they reach the stability that you want. If you leave them in the sun for too long, the resin might become more brittle than you like.
Guide to 3D printing: a summary of getting started
Ok now you should know everything that you need to print in resin. Online there are more guides that go in specific on certain aspects if you really want to dig deep in it (and we recommend you eventually get to it), but to summarize:
- If you need to print 28/32mm scale miniatures with high quality, an MSLA resin 3D printer is perfect and can be acquired cheaply. See our guide here on the subject of selecting a printer for miniatures.
- Resin printing is slower than a plastic printer, you also need a ventilated room to avoid the fumes and a stable room temperature, but is usually quieter than an FDM machine and can be kept on during the night
- Choose your favourite slicer (or the one supported by your printer) and set the default settings for your resin and printer. With time you may want to practice and try to find a balance with the settings (speed, quality and proneness of print failure is what this balancing act is about).
- Best to buy pre-supported files so that all you need is to put the models on the build plate, press slice, save the file on a USB stick, insert into the printer and wait for the magic to happen
- Don’t forget to protect your skin and lungs with specific gloves and a mask
- After printing, you still need to wash and post-cure the objects before using them
Where to find the 3D print files for miniatures
All you need now is to find the files to print. This section will give you an overview, but we have also created a guide on the best 3D printing files for miniatures here.
My favourite database for miniatures and other similar objects is My Mini Factory.
Many companies sell their product there and you can even obtain monthly subscriptions (called Tribes) where you subscribe for a fixed price every month and in exchange you get all miniatures released by that company that month and a discount on that company store on the same site (usually around 50%).
This concept is similar to Patreon, where many companies have different reward tiers and provide different types of miniatures (and the discount on MMF).
One of the biggest perks of My Mini Factory is that all your 3D printing files are stored there so you do not have to worry about having those precious files on your own drive.
If you are into fantasy some famous creators are Cast N Play, Archvillain Games, Titan Forge Miniatures (they do also Sci-Fi) and One Page Rules (also split in Fantasy and Sci-Fi). Mz4250 creates also good content available for free.
Another popular site with plenty of free content is Thingiverse. There are other sites out there, so you can do a search for anything in particular, if for example you have Gloomhaven and you want to go the next step and 3D print all miniatures available, Thingiverse can definitely help you out!
If you are searching for Dungeons and Dragons miniatures or a new wargame like Bloodfields from Titan Forge Miniatures, then we definitely recommend searching a creator and see if they match your taste. For example one of my favourite content creators for random miniatures is Mini Monster Mayhem.
Just remember: it will be much easier for you if you find files that are pre-supported.
10 Things I wish I knew before buying a 3D printer for miniatures
So 3D printing with resin can be easy and super fun. But it can also be a frustrating experience if you did not know what you are getting yourself into. Here are 10 things I wish I knew before I started printing miniatures:
- Resin printing is super toxic: At first I thought I could just have the printer in my house and close the door while it prints. That was not enough for me. The smell would settle in the room and was not pleasant to be in. I had to make solution where I could print in shed instead (and I was not prepared for that to be the case).
- Resin printing needs about 20 Celsius in temperature: Now printing in the shed was fine for a while, but when winter came the printer would suddenly not work. It turned out that the temperature where I was printing was waaaay too low. Do you have a place with a good temperature and noise airflow? Well, you need that before buying a printer.
- You need a lot of equipment to print: While the printer was cheap, I was surprised at how much extra money I spend on equipment to go along with the printer. Think about the cost of everything before you start (you can see a list of 3D printing things I recommend to get in this article).
- The slow printers are slow: I bought a 3D printer before the monochrome screens where a thing. My prints takes about 8-12 hours and doing that same print on a newer faster machine with better screen would be about 4 hours. If speed is something you like, do not go cheap.
- You will soon be drown in printing files: Do you think you got too many miniatures? Well, soon you will have a big collection of files to go along with those unpainted miniatures. Figure out a system for storing and managing those files before you get too many.
- You will soon be drown in unpainted 3D printed miniatures: Printing miniatures can be super fun and exciting. But damn, that printer can definitely print them faster than you can paint them. Get some more storage for miniatures asap!
- You will have failed prints: While the settings in the various programs are pretty good, sometimes the print will just fail. The print will snap from the build plate, your minis will be printed in half, your FEP will break or you screen will be damaged. This is all part of the process, so be prepared to spend some time on it!
- Washing your miniatures is essential: If you do not take the time to wash your miniatures, they will end up looking bad. This takes time and can be a bit of a pain (mask, gloves, ventilation, get the kids away and so on).
- Resin is brittle, so you cannot print things to use around the house: When I first got a 3D printer, I thought I could use it for stuff other than miniatures. Turns out, resin is not a suitable material to print household items.
- Printing is a new hobby: My plan was to print a few miniatures for skirmish games, paint them up and play with them. Little did I know that 3D printing was an hobby in and of itself, so this is definitely taking up some time from other hobbies. Just think about that before you get started.
Need more tips? Here is an article on 3D printer beginner tips.
Main failures when 3D printing miniatures in resin
Something that we all want to avoid is a failure during printing, but it may be unavoidable. You will need to tune your printer and resin before hitting the right spots. Normally there are three main types of failures:
- The print does not stick to the build plate
- The print is deformed
- The print stops half way.
Here are some of the most common causes and resolutions to a failed 3D resin print:
- The print is deformed: most of the time you have not given enough time for the resin to cure. Always double check the exposure times reported on the bottle itself and increase the normal exposure accordingly. Some resins may cure quicker in certain printers, but before lowering the exposure time check the normal value and move down testing until you are happy with the quality.
- The print stops half-way through: there may be many causes for this, but sometimes the STL files is just not done properly, especially if it is pre-supported. In that case, you can take the original, support it yourself and try again. Otherwise it’s a matter of resin and printer parameters.
- The LCD is dirty and some pixels are covered by residue: clean the LCD or replace it. You will need to replace it anyway after 1000 to 2000 hours but if resin falls from the vat to the screen it will cure immediately obstructing the screen and becoming hard to clean. Don’t use metal scrapers to clean the LCD of the FEP film, use only plastic scrapers and alcohol.
- Likewise the FEP film may be dirty or scratched from the continuous scrapping especially after few failed prints: in general the FEP should be changed every 2 or 3 bottle of resin used.
- The resin is not viscous enough: check always that the resin tank is clean, the room temperature is the correct one (usually 20 to 24 degrees) and shake the resin bottle carefully before pouring it in the tank.
- Level the build plate: usually this operation is done the first time you set up the printer, but you need to perform it again every few times, roughly every time you empty the tank or every time you feel it is not aligned. It takes little time but ensures there is no extra movement during the lifting and retracting of the plate.
- Supports are printed without the miniature: this can happen if the supports are not strong enough. Normally most professionally pre-supported models that you buy don’t have this problem, but if you are supporting yourself, especially using the default Support options from the slicer software, consider carefully if there’s enough supports and if the miniature has been placed at 45 degrees. That is the best angle to print a miniature, you may be tempted to make it as vertical as possible to increase how many miniatures you can fit or as horizontal as possible to print faster, but often a failed print ends in wasted money and time.
- Suction drops the print in the vat: we already discussed if something has a stronger horizontal platform it may create suction and that’s where you may want to hollow the miniature to avoid it. Most professional supported objects already cover it, but if you are printing big flat items, you may need to consider this.
- It may seem stupid, but some resin printers have a thin film on the build plate itself: It may not be immediately noticeable, but if you leave that film, the plastic will not stick as well as the metal and the chances of failure are higher. Read carefully the printer instructions but often you will need to remove a plastic film if present.
- When choosing a printer double check the backup options available in case of power failure, in some cases the printers can pause and resume when reconnected to the electric grid, but definitely you want to avoid a printer just losing memory of the progress when at 95% of an 8-hour job…
One last important note: every failed print makes you an expert on what not to do. Learning what not to do makes you more experienced on what to do and why you do it. Every failure challenges you in doing your research and overall improves your chances of future successful and better prints. Or to better phrase: failure is an essential part of the learning process. So do not be discouraged.
Also, there are loads of good communites that want to help you out with 3D printing. Most of the big Patreon discords are super helpful.
Now that you are ready to print some miniatures, a great printable skirmish game would be Bloodfields (check our primer on the Bloodfields game here)