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RepRap 101: The Toolbox

So you’re thinking about getting into 3D printing in general, and maybe you’re especially interested in one of the RepRap designs, or one of the many RepRap derivatives that have entered the market recently.  Great!

You may be wondering what you’ll need to know, and what you’ll need to have in order to get started right, or at least productively.

I fear that 3D printing is being slightly oversold as far as how effortlessly a new user can create all kinds of cool plastic things to make life easier and more worth living.  The truth is, there is still a lot of tuning and tweaking involved, as well as the occasional cleaning and maintaining.  And this is just for the printers that come completely assembled and “Ready to print”.  For those made from more adventurous stock, there are kits that are comprised of laser cut parts that require assembly and setup.  In the early and great tradition of the original RepRappers, there are also printers that are little more than a set of .stl files and a shopping list.

Each of these levels requires a different involvement as far as toolbox complexity and commitment go.

Here I will make some recommendations as to what should be included in a minimal tool kit for each category of user.  These recommendations will nest, so each level will include all the tools specified in all previous levels.

1) Minimal Involvement:

This level is what I consider necessary for basic operation of most 3D printers.  This includes such basic tasks as preparing a printer to print, making regular adjustments, changing filament and removing prints from the print bed.

  • Vernier Calipers
    (digital recommended but not necessary).  You’ll use these for all kinds of things, most basically, and in this case, for verifying the printer’s calibration.  If prints come out the wrong size, this is how you’ll figure that out.
  • Hobby Knife.  This is a basic craft/modelling knife.  You’ll use this for trimming and cleaning printed parts. This tool can also be used to pry things apart, but that will dramatically lessen the life expectancy of the blade.  A utility knife can be substituted  if so desired.
  • Diagonal Cutters (Wire cutters).  These are handy for a lot of things, but mainly for clipping off the ragged ends of a length of filament, so you can feed a nice, clean end into your extruder and hotend.
  • A good set of Allen (Hex) Wrenches.  Best not to skimp on these.  Go for a quality set of ball-end wrenches, you will use these for just about any adjustments that need to be made (and they will, regardless of what the manufacturer says!).
  • A Small Screwdriver Set.  I use a cheap Ebay set that comes with a small handle and 15 different tips, which include a number of flathead, Phillips and Torx bits.
  • Needle-Nose Pliers.  I’d recommend a larger and a smaller pair.  These are very handy for all kinds of grabbing and pulling tasks, and are my preferred method for removing support material.
  • Cosmetic Tweezers.  These are just regular old tweezers from the beauty aisle.  I would suggest finding a pair that joins on a flat surface rather than a sharp point.  I use these to remove excess filament that invariably oozes from the hotend before a print.
  • (optional)Metal Feeler Guages.  Most setup guides will tell you to check your hotend clearance using a sheet of paper.  The idea is that an ideal clearance allows the paper to move between the bed and the nozzle, but you can feel it drag.  That works just fine, but I find the gauges give me a more accurate idea of exactly what the gap is.
  • Headlamp.  No matter how well-lit your space is, there will be a time when you need to find or adjust something small that is in the dark.  I use a cheap LED lamp with an elastic headband for hands-free illumination.

2) Greater Involvement:

At this level, you are doing a lot more with your printer than just operating it, but not going so far as to self-source your build.  That is to say, you are probably building printer from a kit.

In addition to the basic tool kit above, I suggest:

  • Adjustable Wrench(es).  You’ll need at least one of these.  Two might be better. The story here is the same as it is for adjustable wrenches anywhere: If you don’t have the exact wrench you need, this can fill in just about anywhere, although it’s rarely the best choice if you do in fact have the right wrench.
  • Box and Open-Ended (Combination) Wrenches.  A good set of wrenches are going to be pretty much necessary for assembling most kits, especially those that use threaded rod for any part of their structure.  Since most 3D printers use metric hardware, you’ll want metric sizes. A good range is from 19mm (M10 nut) to 5mm (M2.5 nut).
  • Pliers.  Not anything special here, and the larger needle-nose pair that you already have might be enough to do the job, but it’s handy to have a few more around, just in case.
  • Wire Strippers/Cutters.  You’ll be cutting and stripping a lot of wire in the course of your build, and this tool makes the task almost effortless.
  • Rulers.  Again, most likely these should have metric measurements on them.  Since a small error in alignment can lead to noticeable problems in print quality, this is another area where I feel it is worth it to look for high quality and accuracy.  I suggest a small (150mm) size, a medium (300mm) size, and a large (1m) size.
  • Combination Square.  This is the best way I know of to ensure that the corners of your printer are all 90 degrees.
  • Soldering Iron.  It is so much easier and more reliable to simply solder connections than it is to try to figure out how to avoid soldering anything.
  • Multimeter.  When you start troubleshooting, this tool is worth it’s weight in gold.

3) High Involvement:

At this level, you should have everything you need to essentially build a printer from scratch, with self-sourced and printed parts.

In addition to the basic and intermediate tool kit:

  • Metric Drill Bits.  These should go at least as large as the largest smooth or threaded rod that you will be using.  Their primary purpose is not to drill holes, but rather to clean holes in printed parts.  Even better, if you have them, would be reamers, but good ones, I have found, are quite expensive.
  • Rotary Tool.  Commonly known as a Dremel tool.  This tool provides a much easier and more accurate method of cutting rods to size than a hacksaw does.  It gets even better if you invest in some larger diameter, heavy duty cutting wheels.

This list is by no means all-inclusive, and there are certainly other tools that will come in very handy.  With what I have listed here though, you should be able to get through your build and operate your printer without going through that all-too familiar experience of discovering at midnight what tool you need but don’t have.

6 comments to RepRap 101: The Toolbox

  • Hi, got some feeler gauges based off of your recommendation. What size do you use to determine the correct height of the hotend – 0.5mm?

    • The ideal that I strive for is to be able to slide the .003″ (.076mm) gauge under the hotend, feeling a little bit of “drag”, but the next size up (.004″ or .102mm) doesn’t fit under at all (without enough effort that I can see the hotend move).

  • Natasha

    Do you ever oil/lube your rods? What do you recommend for this? Thanks!

    • Yes. I use a PTFE-based liquid lubricant (Tri-Flow) on the threaded rods, and a PTFE-based grease (from a bicycle shop) on the smooth rods. Just a little smear of the grease is plenty.

  • Natasha

    Do you have any recommendations for stabilizing the screw/stopper on the X-Idler that hits the x-end stop, so as to not have to constantly re-adjust it? Thanks!

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