Methods for Cleaning 3D Parts
Written by
Dave Evans

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On
February 27, 2015
In
Engineering

You’ve envisioned it, you’ve modeled it, and you’ve printed it. As it turns out, however, your newly printed prototype may need a bit more TLC before it appears or functions as intended.

In this article, we’ll investigate practical methods for cleaning up 3D printed parts, as well as the tools you should have at your workbench to make these processes as simple as possible.

Luckily, with the exception of specialty appliances that can be used for dual-extruder printers with soluble support material, everything you need to get a great finish to your printed components can be found at your local hardware store.

Part Removal

One of the most basic tools you should have in your 3D printing area is a putty knife. Choose a knife with a thin, flexible metal blade to allow you to easily get between the plastic and the printer bed. This allows you to gently pry completed prints off of the print bed while minimizing the risk of damage to the part.

Pro Tip: If you’re using a glass build bed with glue for adhesion, try placing your bed in the freezer for 15-20 min and your PLA part will pop right off!

Rough Cleaning and Part Preparation

Depending on the type of part and printing method you’ve used, the first thing you’ll want to do is remove any support material clinging to the part material. There are several methods for removing this material.

Soluble Support Materials

If the printer you’re using creates part supports using a soluble material, soaking the part in hot water with a strong detergent (specified by the manufacturer) for several hours, depending on the part size, may be sufficient for support removal.

A sodium hydroxide bath can also help dissolve support material such as HIPS.

3D part sitting in a sodium hydroxide bath - image source 

Agitating the water with a pump to ensure constant fluid movement over the surface of the part will also be important in processing these types of components.

Ultrasonic tanks are a useful appliance for cleaning soluble support material from complex components with a large surface area. These may clean components more quickly and with greater success than a simpler agitated bath.

Consult your 3D printer manufacturer for additional information regarding the necessary equipment or procedures to remove soluble support material from your printed parts.

Single-Extruder Systems

For single-extruder type 3D printers, where support material is printed using the same material that comprises the part itself, start by removing as much material as possible using your hands or a pair of needle-nose pliers.

support material removal with pliers - via http://lib.cuhk.edu.hk

A small pair of flush-cutters, used for cutting wire, also come in handy during this process.

Additionally, a small set of files and dental tools can help reach those nooks and crannies that are hard to reach.

Depending on your settings, the material, and the algorithms implemented in your printing software, the bulk removal of support material can be quite easy or possibly quite frustrating. So patience is key here.

Pro Tip: A simple handheld scratch awl can also be very useful for cleaning out small holes, channels, and crevices in printed parts.

Tackling the Crude Imperfections

Following any major operations using pliers and cutting tools, many 3D printed parts will still have undesirable imperfections, including “strings” of material extending from the outer surfaces and rough edges where the support material has broken away from the part.

In these cases, consider carefully sanding the rough surfaces of the part using sandpaper. Start with a rough grit such as 150 to take care of major imperfections and work your way to 600 grit.

veroblack part before and after sanding

It’s worth it to use this sanding method as the finer paper generally isn’t suitable for treating coarse surface imperfections, yet coarse paper alone may leave deep scratches.

Wet-sanding plastic using 600 or 800 grit paper can produce a fairly smooth finish on flat surfaces.

Pro Tip: Check out our Ultimate Guide to Finishing 3D Parts for more detail on how to create a perfect finish.

For more accuracy on smaller external features, use a set of micro files, often used for jewelry applications.

A rotary tool with sanding and polishing bits can also be very useful for hard-to-reach surfaces that require sanding.

Take care not to sand away areas of the part itself, particularly with electric tools! At high RPMs, you may risk slightly melting areas of the part, so practice on spare parts first if possible.

Working out the Small Details

After you’ve taken care of the major imperfections, you may be left with areas of the part which have sand marks or other discoloration. Depending on the material, there are several ways of cleaning up these areas.

Heat Gun

A heat gun is a useful tool for very slightly melting the part you’re cleaning. This can be used to clean up the discolored patches of material you might find, for example, in PLA or ABS after a sanding operation.

Be very careful here as you can deform or melt away features in your part when using any form of heat treatment. Apply hot air from the heat gun in a sweeping motion several inches from the surface of the component, checking to be sure you aren’t causing damage.

Polishing Bits

You might also consider experimenting with polishing bits, used for buffing ceramics or metals, to smooth out surfaces on 3D printed parts.

Acetone

Finally, for ABS parts, acetone can be used to create a smooth, glossy finish. When placed in a jar containing acetone vapor, the exposed surfaces of the printed part will dissolve over time, reducing the appearance of layer lines.

Note that the surface of an acetone vapor treated part will continue to dissolve for some time after it’s been removed, so it’s a good idea to practice on a few spare parts before trying this method on production components.

Also be sure to follow standard safety protocol when using acetone. Only handle it outside or in a well-ventilated space as the vapors are harmful and keep it away from flame or excessive heat since it’s also very flammable. Refer to an acetone MSDS for more details.

3D Part Cleaning Tool List

Lastly, here’s a list of all the tools mentioned in this article to help you get started cleaning 3D parts:

As always, feel free to reach out to the Fictiv Team at help@fictiv.com with any additional questions!

Written by
Dave Evans
Fictiv Co-founder. I'm a hacker at heart and an engineer who likes to build things (and sometimes take things apart).
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