Time to read: 5 min
Building a 3D printer from scratch is hard enough, let alone trying to build it without the right tools. Below we highlight some of the most common tools for fixing and building a 3D printer.
Calipers are used to measure the distance between opposite sides of an object. Although they appear in many industries including the medical and woodworking fields, mechanical engineering calipers of the modern type are often Vernier Calipers, which offer a high degree of precision over purely mechanical options. Their included digital dials and scales can present measurements often with accuracy into the thousandths of a millimeter/inch.
Screwdrivers / Hex Drivers
3D Printing involves complex machines composed of individual components fastened together by a wide variety of materials and fasteners. Screwdrivers and hex drivers are critical if one wishes to interface with fasteners in a quick and efficient manner. Common types include the philips and flat head screwdriver, while machine screws often require a hex driver to fit their hexagonal slots. Due to the sheer number and variety of fasteners on most 3D printers, metric hardware is preferred over standard hardware. Working in confined spaces is likewise challenging without a proper screwdriver – one designed for machinery.
A hex drive uses six-sided fastener heads. The fastener is known as a hex head cap screw. It can be turned with an adjustable wrench, combination wrench, and 6- or 12-point sockets. The hex drive is better than other drive types for locations where surrounding obstacles limit access, because smaller and more precise turns can still rotate the screw.
Hex keys are simple and small hex-head drivers that can be used from a variety of angles with a high degree of precision. They can also be manufactured cheaply, allowing a user to deploy a small set for a wide variety of screw sizes. Both metric and standard varieties are available.
Although there are dozens of varieties of wrenches each with specific mechanical purposes, those working on a 3D printer will find hex wrenches (hex keys), socket wrenches, and open-end wrenches most useful.
With the large number of fasteners used in 3D printers, maneuvering in tight spaces and applying a large amount of force without moving the whole arm of a wrench become increasingly useful. To accomplish this, hex wrenches have a comparatively small footprint (see hex keys) and socket wrenches enable the user to tighten down fasteners securely without swinging the entire arm of the socket wrench (and likely running into the frame of the printer). Adjustable wrenches see an equal amount of play as adjustable pliers, enabling the user to maintain fine control over fasteners in limited space – often working in and around the extruder and hotend assemblies of the 3D printer.
Wire Cutters/Strippers & Wire Crimpers
Often included in the same tool, wire strippers and wire crimpers are used to remove the insulating sheath from wires and attach crimp connector pins respectively. While any pliers with a sharp inner jaw can strip wire, the process is messier than using a good wire stripper tool. Likewise, needle-nose pliers can be used to seal crimp connectors on the ends of wires, although this requires more skill and patience than using a crimper.
3D printers often include dozens of wires, and having clean connections running between the various electronics ensures that they will last for a long time. In this same vein, it is uncommon to need a soldering iron when building and maintaining a printer. However, soldered connections can serve as substitutes for crimp connector housings, although a soldered connection is not as flexible/modular if changes need to be made.
Please Note: most solder cannot withstand the temperature of a 3D printer’s hotend. Crimp connectors should be used exclusively in any area of the printer that will experience extreme heat. This applies most directly to the hotend’s heating element and thermistor connections.
From scraping excess filament from the hotend and bed to securing parts of the printer and fastening wires, a good pair of regular-sized pliers or needle-nose pliers should not be overlooked when building a basic 3D printing toolbox. Due to the extreme temperatures present around the hotend, one should never manually adjust components beneath the X-carriage while the printer is heating up or cooling down. Pliers (and to some extent, wrenches and screwdrivers) enable a user to manipulate hot components without getting burned.
With multiple moving axes, bearings, and carriages, a 3D printer is nothing if not a finely-tuned motion machine. Keeping parts properly lubricated with a few drops of machine lubricant is vital. Silicone-based compounds or those containing PTFE are best, and will help protect the rods, bearings, and bushings which enable a printer to print. While not required, the small cost of lubricant can protect against the much larger cost of component failure.
A simple bubble level can help maintain a level print-bed, X-carriage, and frame components. Chiefly used during assembly, the level can be used to check the alignment of parts after long periods of operation or during troubleshooting.
Cable Ties & Zip Ties
Fully assembled printers will rarely require additional cable management, but kit printers and those assembled from raw materials will demand extensive organization of cables in order to maintain a workable environment. Furthermore, many printer parts rely on cable ties as structural elements – once again excepting most pre-built units.
Flush Cutter / Strong Scissors
Cutting pieces of filament is made easier with flush cutters, which slice filaments to a clean flat end. This can then be easily inserted into an extruder. A sharp pair of scissors can usually do the trick, but a flush cutter is the ideal tool. When removing or changing filaments, the melted end of the original spool should be removed before reusing the filament.
If your printer does not come equipped with a built-in spool holder, consider constructing one from 3D printed components or basic hardware such as PVC pipe or threaded rods. Feeding filament cleanly into a 3D printer is important because it helps maintain the integrity of the extruder and the mobility of the extruder’s carriage (often the X carriage). It also prevents snags and jams during long print operations where the user may not be present during the entire duration of the print.
Dremel / Multi-Tool
Finishing parts and maintaining a 3D printer is made much simpler with a good Multi-Tool. While Dremel is the familiar brand, the final choice of brand remains with the user. Equipped with a virtually infinite array of tools from engravers to drills to sanding/polishing wheels, a Dremel offers quick, flexible power at the user’s fingertips. Clearing excess filament from holes and nut-traps, sanding smooth areas of contact, and modifying or cutting parts are just a few of the functions enabled by a Dremel. Even the best printers do not produce perfect parts, and having the right tools to correct errors and beautify printed objects makes the entire experience of 3D printing more rewarding.