Saturday, February 11, 2023


Gimbal test print. All pieces printed nested simultaneously.

I print, therefore I am...finding myself in an interesting mix of hobby and micro-business. Things started a few years ago and really had little to do with 3D printing and more to do with entrepreneurial curiosity and an easy point of entry. My dad, needing some somewhat consumable parts for a tool (pneumatic nailer) found that the only deal around was to buy a bulk pack of what he needed. 

As a casual nailer he didn't need the remaining half dozen or so tips and asked if I was interested in trying to resell them on eBay. I forget if I had sold stuff on there by then or not, but had at least expressed interest on what's involved on the selling end. Amazingly, after putting the listing up the parts sold quickly and easily. This spurred curiosity to explore further. I found certain parts wholesaled easy enough to resell. Some did not, or at least access to distributor pricing was restricted to licensed tool dealers. Then there were the discontinued parts. 

The lattermost spot is an interesting spot for a couple of reasons. First, the parts being discontinued were largely simple plastic pieces; easy for someone with a base knowledge of computer drafting software and the willingness to buy used tools to do the test fitting to make if the capability was there. Second, there would likely be some amount of existing demand due to limited part supply. Third, it just sounded like a fun avenue to pursue. 

Beyond the business-y aspects I also had some interest in being able to "make". My kids had expressed interest in 3D printing and my son would coordinate to have occasional things printed at his middle school. The whole process and concept had been fascinating to me. It's much cheaper, cleaner than standing up my own wood or metals shop space and works well for decorative and semi-consumable items.

So, as sort of an augmentation to Christmas a few years ago I bought an extremely inexpensive entry level 3D printer. The Monoprice Mini (links to Amazon). I had a couple conditions for the printer: 1. Cheap 2. decent-ish reviews and 3. Ready to print out of the box. My intent was to try printing and not having to assemble the darn thing myself.

My OG workhorse, the Monoprice Mini, sporting some flexible PLA filament.

For the most part the first printer serves its purpose. I've been able to print parts and have had a great amount of success selling them on my eBay store, (opens to the store), along with with a few other wholesale items I try out here and there. However, I've found that such an entry level printer has some drawbacks:

  • Data transfer to the printer is reliable only via a tiny micro-USB memory card. I had to buy an adapter to get the design from my computer to the printer
  • The amount of memory that could be read by the printer is small so in addition to the adapter I also have to clear off the card each time I want to do a new print.
  • The feeder is mounted away from the extruder (hot end) so filament, especially flexible filament, occasionally binds. This also limits the amount of control for softer materials, resulting in whispy material that requires extra cleaning/post-processing before something can be deemed product worthy.
  • Bed leveling options are limited and I've noticed some need for shimming to keep everything level
  • Large prints induce a bit of stress at the build surface and often pull away resulting in some distortion.
  • I've run into issues printing taller objects, likely from the previous stress bullet, where the tip starts whacking the piece and ruins the print
Given this list and some ideas/demand for higher resolution, higher quality parts it was time to look for a new printer. I had been doing a lot of looking around. A true professional printer was probably a little more than I wanted to take on from a cost, cost of materials and footprint standpoint just yet. Still, I felt I could use something more than just a next level hobby printer. 

In searching, the Snapmaker brand had previously caught my eye as they offered hybrid systems that could be retrofitted to do 3D printing, laser engraving and CNC milling of flat work pieces. Reviews were rather good, but I also don't yet want to bite off the latter two. Snapmaker was also introducing a new dedicated 3D printer. The J1 had dual extruders for two colors/types of material, a large build surface and designed to print fast with high quality. It's also brand new, it's still not on Amazon and needs to be pre-ordered.

I decided to pull the proverbial trigger and ordered the printer in early December. The nice part about this hobby is that it's self-sustaining :). As I mentioned, I had to preorder the printer so it took a while for the machine to ship. I even received an email telling me which cargo ship it was on from Asia. 
The new addition, the Snapmaker J1.

Just when I thought it was all a scam, there was a big black box on my front step. The printer showed up, packaged immaculately with tools and enough filament to get started. The main thing I can say is this printer is solid, built on an all-metal frame with a sturdy enclosure. The setup was easy with all alignment steps automated. My only challenge was finding a home for it, but with a little decluttering I was able to place the J1 right underneath my Monoprice workhorse. I plan to keep the mini, it's reliable for many of the tips I make and all set up and ready to go

The J1 prints fast. Fast enough that there can be a bit of rocking and jolting, this may require a more sturdy support. Interestingly, the designers accounted for this with a vibration calibration as part of the setup. The two separate extruders allow for copy and mirror image printing as well as complicated interwoven designs. The gimbal test print in the first picture was printed all in one shot and rotates super smoothly. I'm excited to try water dissolvable support resins (PVA) to make more intricate overhang structures as well as explore more rugged materials such as ABS and some of the new nylon filaments that are on the market. 

The only question is, what to make next!?

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