rear of 3D printed firefly class transport ship from Firefly show and Serenity movie, repaired with 3D pen
This is a 3D printed “Firefly” ship from the show of the same name and the movie Serenity. It is very large (23cm), and the largest thing I had 3D printed at the time. It took very long even though I simplified certain parts and increased the speed so much that printing PETG barely worked. It is printed in PETG, but the part remade using the 3D pen is in PLA. I planned to reattach the part that broke, but I lost it, so I recreated it (the entire white part) with a 3D pen. When I was ironing it, I had to be careful to maintain the correct curvature, and I had to reheat it several times to correct that.

When I first saw 3D pen art and got one for myself, I mostly got it for repairing things I 3D print. I thought that mastery of 3D pens could take years or decades to refine, like how people individually and collectively refined oil painting or film-based photography over many decades. Up until buying my first, the 3D pen creations I saw were like 3D crayon drawings, having a “spaghetti” texture on every surface and even in the details. More recently, I saw some sculptures made with 3D pens that are beyond what I’d imagined was possible in such a short time (individually and collectively).

A while back, I saw an amazing chair sculpture called “Connect” by designer Jungsub Shim, but waited to see if it was a fluke or whether amateurs or anyone part-time could perfect the techniques so soon in the history of 3D pens. A miniature by “Hoo’s mini world” is what convinced me that mastery and quality comparable to other media are possible without many years of refinement to the art form:

[3D pen] Making a woman in white dress

I later looked over his channel more. He has made things with older techniques as well. His start with 3D pens seems to be recent, which is surprising considering the quality of his 3D pen work. I recommend browsing through his list of videos to see if there is anything else informative and to see how his 3D pen work rapidly progressed.

Other YouTube channels have some advanced work, but most of them do not do ironing. A good channel with advanced work that still has the “spaghetti” texture but works out ok is here: 3D Pen Lab on YouTube.

Here are some techniques “Hoo’s mini world” uses in the “Making a woman in white dress” video:

  • “Ironing”: using the tip of the 3D pen to smooth surfaces
  • Use of additional hot tools
  • Refinement with cold abrasion
  • chemical smoothing
  • using templates

Here are additional tools he used:

  • dremel
  • temperature-controlled soldering iron
  • sharpened hot-glue gun (with no glue in it): Make sure you get a high-temperature or standard hot glue gun depending on the plastic you use.
  • heat gun
  • flush cutters
  • razor knife

Below are my own experiences of using and creating various 3D pen techniques.

Basic 3D Pen Use

Try to get to know your 3D pen. You will usually have “in” (retract), “out” (extrude), temperature up and down, and possibly a speed up and down setting. The extrusion temperatures are generally in Celcius and are very hot. For children, I recommend 3D pens that operate below water’s boiling point (such as 90 C, using special plastics). I recommend PLA since its chemical content is safe. It behaves differently depending on temperature, but most standard PLA will extrude between 180 and 210 (C). For any plastic, use the temperature your plastic filament spool recommends. If you use it at or near the proper temperature range, your filament will not burn nor smoke (which would usually release different fumes). The temperature may affect adhesion (as you add more material) and durability. Keep in mind that you can build walls and bridges with single lines, making only the empty shell of an object, perhaps with some infill pillars or walls inside for strength.

Ironing

Even without the additional hot tools, I started using ironing, and improved repairs I make to things (I do use flush cutters and a razor knife). I have been using my 3D pen for welding plastic. For best adhesion for repairs, you should use the same plastic as the thing you are repairing. Unfortunately, most shells for small electronics are ABS, which has some fumes considered bad (see my article https://poikilos.org/3d-printing-health-recycling-and-reuse/). I try to avoid ABS just to be safe, and repairing things with other plastics works well enough.

Ironing without additional tools requires retraction. The 3D pen usually has a button pointing “in” (away from the tip) that you can press briefly to “retract” so additional plastic doesn’t ooze out while you are ironing (if you push the “in” button too long, it will eject the filament, but you can interrupt that by pressing a button on some 3D pens).

Coasting

For both repairs and sculpting, I learned a technique from learning about 3D printers–some software does “coasting”. I can do coasting manually by ceasing to press the “out” (extrude filament) button, but continue to work. Doing so allows using the very slow extrusion and less total extrusion to make very tiny features without leaving globs that you would otherwise have to remove with a razor knife.

Cooling

I also learned about cooling from 3D printing. I can do cooling manually two ways: blowing on it and waiting. Cold water may also help. I have found that I can make stable spikes, bridges, and other protrusions in a much more stable way by blowing on the object while I am extruding. I also have found that I still must make part of the protrusion, let it cool a few more seconds, shape it with my fingers or a cool object, then wait several more seconds for it to harden completely. Then I can iron the object or extend the protrusion further. Be careful to keep the curve of a long protrusion the way you want it

Templates

“Hoo’s mini world” uses aluminum foil and flat heat-resistant surfaces as flat “templates,” (merely to make something flat) which I have done. However, there are also heat-resistant forms, usually made of silicone, usually called “design mats” or 3D pen templates (for example, Design Mat by MIKA3D https://www.amazon.com/Printing-Silicone-Template-Drawing-MIKA3D/dp/B07GR55L1Y on Amazon) to help you create primitive parts that you can later combine. You can also bend or even reshape things after ironing them or after reheating them by other means. I have also seen regular 2D printable outlines you can use as templates you can trace (or fill) with the 3D pen in order to make larger objects that are comprised of detailed flat parts, such as an Eiffel Tower model. “Hoo’s mini world” uses a paper form to determine the angles of the dress before bending it from a flat to round object with a heat gun (the same way you would use a a fabric template).

Overextrusion

You can make thick blobs and blobby lines to create a different texture other than a homogenous “spaghetti” texture where appropriate, just by moving more slowly or stopping while still extruding. This solution may not be satisfactory for flat surfaces since the extrusion artifacts are still present but may work well for representing certain surfaces or certain details.

Pens (Brands)

The state of pen manufacturing is very difficult to follow at this time. Several retail brands make unique pens, which often cost double the price of rebranded 3D pens, or only work with low-temperature plastics (not even PLA). If you get a pen that works with ABS, you can still turn it down and use PLA, but if you get a PLA or PC pen, you may not be able to turn it up high enough or the pen tip housing may melt eventually (like on my first 3D pen, re-branded “iTechCase”: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B06WVKFG5W/ — two of them) if you do. A few different Chinese companies make generic 3D pens, and distributors rebrand them. A comparison of both some re-branded (such as V2 Style which is the same as my “iTechCase” pens that failed) and brand name 3D pens is here: https://www.makeanything.design/favorites/ (be sure to read the comments on the far-right column of the “Best 3D Pens for 2020” table, which may not fit into your browser window). What I am calling “re-branded” are pens where random distributors and Amazon sellers put a brand on 3D pens, though recognized “brand name” 3D pens may also be re-branded (if the distribution for the manufacturer is not exclusive, especially if the pen was already available before by another name). An example is the all-metal 3D pen by AIO Robotics (which they sold as a “AIO Robotics” 3D pen, even though initial runs didn’t even have the AIO brand anywhere on them, but rather MKOEM–see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFUsgHzwyRQ ), which the manufacturer apparently discontinued (other all-metal 3d pen or MKOEM results having the same look are broken links in the Amazon results). An earlier review (also by Make Anything) that is less comprehensive but has video demonstrations is here: What is the Best 3D Pen??? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEpQnHMpFsM on YouTube

My current pen seems to be a re-branded pen but is much better than my old one. It has worked consistently for heavy use, such as repairing large bins using PETG at 240 C: KT-PRASE https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B077BLX32S/ (I later found out you can get PP filament, which is the same as most storage bins and therefore can adhere well enough to make them as strong as new).

See also: “3D Printing Health, Recycling, and Reuse