Can You Paint 3D Printed Items?

3D printing is the process of taking a digital 3D model, creating and saving it in a computer, and recreating it into a physical object in the real world, usually by replicating the object from the bottom-up, layer by layer, until the process is complete.

In the last couple of years, a huge range of different models has become widely available for everyday use. Gone are the days when it was an experimental technology that needs vast sums of money to use. These days, you can buy a 3D printer for less than a high-end bicycle!

Can You Paint 3D Printed Items

From manufacturing equipment locally, to the wave of new goods being created by them, or even the potential it has in revolutionizing medicine and care, mainstream 3D printers have been one of the most impressive technological markets to appear in the last 10 years, and as the tech behind it keeps improving year after year, it’s set to only get better in the next 10.

One of the areas where 3D printing has seen massive popularity is in crafting and other creative applications, as they can often create details that would be difficult for a person to replicate in a decent amount of time.

This new particular frontier, raises the question of how well it works with other artistic hobbies, like if it’s possible to paint onto a 3D printed model.

Materials

Up until recently, the only type of 3D printing that was available for most companies was resin-based plastics. But in recent years, however, the number of different types of materials that can now be used in 3D printing has exploded.

It is now possible to use various types of metal like stainless steel, aluminum, gold, and silver, as well as materials like paper and certain types of ceramics.

There is even research into the possibility of printing food substances and other biological materials, which will certainly have a dramatic impact on our lives once it becomes easily reproducible.

However, the most common type of material used in 3D printing, including most mainstream commercial models is plastic, as this has been the material most practiced with the technology over the last 30 years.

Even within this family of substances, however, there is a wide range used in the 3D printing process. Among the most common are:

  • Polyamide, or Nylon, is a popular type of plastic known for is relative flexibility and strength, also known for being incredibly shatter-resistant.
  • ABS (or Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene for those interested), a well-tested type of plastic in the £D printing industry, is best known for its low cost and its heat and wear-resistance.
  • PLA (Polylactic Acid), a low-heat and inexpensive plastic that is widely used in 3D printing. And because it is derived from plants like corn and sugarcane, is also an environmentally friendly and renewable type of plastic.

Most plastics for 3D printing are also widely available in terms of getting more printing material, which usually comes in powdered or a wired filament form. If you have a 3D printer at home, chances are it will use some kind of plastic mentioned here, though be sure to check your printer model to make sure.

Tips Before You Start Painting

Whilst it is possible to paint straight onto a 3D printed model once it has set, there’s a decent chance that the paint will not dry properly, depending on the type of plastic you are painting onto, plus, any imperfections that were in the model before you started painting will still be visible after you have painted it, especially if it is a thinner paint type that you are using.

More porous plastics that are prone to absorbing moisture, like polyamide, do not take well to having paint directly applied onto them.

Therefore, it is recommended that before getting any paints set up, you should first sand your 3D printed object down so that your surface is small. It will also have the benefit of removing the smaller impurities you can see on the surface of your item.

A rotary tool, a hand file, or even some good sandpaper will do the trick.

Once your surface is smooth, make sure it is dry so that you can start to coat it with a layer of primer paint, either brushed or sprayed on.

This will create an airtight layer that binds to any surface and is great as a base coat for painting onto. You should only need 1 or 2 layers of it, and you should let it dry in a cool environment before putting another layer on.

If you are spray-painting primer, make sure you are doing it in a well-ventilated area, and with some kind of face-covering to stop yourself from inhaling the aerosols.

Remember to spray from about a foot away from your object, so that you have a nice even layer of primer on your item, and to stop it from pooling in any corners the 3D model might still have.

Types Of Paint

Whilst there are many kinds of paint available for purchase, the 2 that are easiest to find and use will be acrylic and watercolor, both of which come with their own merits and drawbacks.

Acrylic

Probably the most beginner-friendly kind of paint you can use when painting onto 3D printed plastics, Acrylic is ideal for getting a strong color and detail onto your object in as few layers as possible, and it is easy to clean up when still wet if you make a mistake.

Plus, Acrylics tend to be fast-drying paints and are usually pretty durable once they have dried.

However, there are a few things that go together when purchasing this kind of paint. Different brands will have different ways of making a particular color, so mixing the paint, and getting the right pigment, may prove frustrating.

Acrylic is also quite difficult to remove once applied, so make sure you are happy with the finished layer.

Watercolor

One of the cheapest paints you’ll find, watercolor dries quickly, and is great for covering large areas. And because it is water-based, it is easy to make any small changes or to fix slight mistakes you want to make on your 3D printed object, even after it has dried. Simply add water to your paint, and make the changes.

There are drawbacks to this though. Watercolor tends to work on fewer materials than acrylic and is not nearly as durable.

Getting an even coat is also difficult, which means you’ll probably need to add a lot of layers for the desired effect. Watercolor is one of the trickier types of paint to get used to, so keep that in mind before purchasing.

Conclusion

3D printing has opened up an entirely new avenue for creative skills and crafting when it comes to model making. With such a versatile technology that has only just been made widely available, there’s going to be a lot of experimenting and trying new technique on your part when it comes to finding what paints are good for them, or what will give your models the best finish.

But if you keep these pieces of advice in mind when you start taking your brush to your printed objects, you’ll find a whole new world of possibilities waiting for you.

So what are you waiting for? Grab that brush, and get painting!

Michael Moore
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