5 lesser-known tools that make maintaining 3D printers easier
It takes years to master a hobby as complicated as 3D printing, but printer maintenance is a lesson beginners learn relatively quickly and painfully. Getting the right tools isn’t just about the convenience of 3D printing. Often times, this will save you wasting time and money printing breakdowns and broken parts.
At MUO, we’ve endured enough failed prints and broken 3D printers to make this definitive list of must-have 3D printing tools for home additive manufacturing enthusiasts. Read on to enjoy the fruits of our collective suffering and 3D printing mistakes.
A modern consumer grade 3D printer is a delicate contraption made up of complex motion systems that can wear out and heating elements hot enough to melt aluminum. Preventive maintenance not only protects you from printer failures, but can also prevent you from a potential fire.
The uses of the tools listed here range from helping you maintain proper bed alignment to preventing the dreaded death spot that kills expensive hot extremities.
1. 3D printed nozzle wrench
Since we’ve drawn your attention to the death blob, it’s the most common reason for printer crashes. The drop of death is manifested by a molten filament escaping from the space between the nozzle and the heat breaker. This deviation is the result of insufficient torque applied to the nozzle during the hot tightening procedure.
As the name suggests, hot-tightening is a scary proposition where you are expected to apply enough torque to a nozzle that has been heated to the highest temperature possible. Over-tightening the nozzle can easily snap it in half, so most 3D printer owners end up applying insufficient torque.
As a result, the molten filament oozes from the hot end and engulfs it completely in an impenetrable mess of solid plastic. Which is also known as the dreaded spot of death.
This can be avoided with a torque wrench that slides securely the moment you exceed the manufacturer’s recommended torque. While this is an easy fix, it can also be quite expensive, so not really feasible for the average 3D printing hobbyist.
Fortunately, you can 3D print one at home, and it works just as well as the real deal for our use case. We have done dozens of nozzle changes without any problems. Just be sure to follow the print settings and material notes mentioned on the Thingiverse download page, and you should be good.
2. Hexagonal ball screwdriver set
Common Phillips screwdrivers are designed to come out (or slip) to prevent over-tightening the screws. Unfortunately, this feature also causes these screws to be stripped with repeated use. That’s why any serious piece of machinery is equipped with top hex head screws.
And 3D printers are no different.
Your 3D printer will most likely include a basic hex head screwdriver set, but ideally you want to upgrade to a better set with cast handles and a hardened tool steel shape. More importantly, it pays to buy a set of hex screwdrivers with ball joint geometry.
Hexagonal ball coaches differ subtly from their regular vanilla counterparts by incorporating an almost spherical profile at the commercial end. This makes it possible to turn blind screws which cannot be reached directly by the driver. Hex ball head screwdrivers can turn screws even at 30 degree offset angles.
Most 3D printer designs take this angle into account when designing screw locations in tight spaces. Such fasteners can usually only be handled by ball screwdrivers.
3. Feeler gauge
You cannot have successful 3D printing without a perfectly wedged (level) printer bed. Unfortunately, the most widely used bed screening technique is fundamentally flawed. The process involves using a piece of copy paper to adjust the height of the nozzle, so that it is even in all corners of the bed.
This is achieved by lowering the nozzle until it roughly catches a piece of paper. This is a terrible idea because paper is a relatively soft, pliable material that compresses in proportion to the pressure applied. It is virtually impossible to set a uniformly accurate nozzle height this way, especially when a deviation of 0.05mm can negatively impact print quality.
The solution is to replace the paper with metal. A feeler gauge is the perfect tool for this job, as it is a collection of metal bands ranging from 0.04mm to 1mm in precise increments of 0.01mm.
A sheet is resistant to compression by the pressure of the nozzle, which facilitates precise adjustment of the height of the nozzle. It also allows you to advance the nozzle by, say, 0.1mm from the bed, then use a 0.1mm metal strip to even out the height of the nozzle on the bed.
This way you get a perfectly flat bed without leaving any otherwise thick paper air space during the actual printing. Once you’ve tried a feeler gauge to move your bed, you’ll never go back to the paper method.
4. Use the right lubricants
Your hot end makes tens of thousands of movements in every direction imaginable during an average impression. The motion system is naturally subject to a tremendous amount of wear and tear and vibration over time. Good lubrication is therefore essential to ensure the longevity of your 3D printer.
But which lubricant to use?
It mainly depends on the material composition of the sliding components. Any movement involving metal-to-metal contact is best served by petroleum-based lubricants, primarily due to their penetrating nature and resistance to oxidation (corrosion in ferrous parts). The use of any other type of lubricant presents a significant risk of oxidation.
This means that a brass lead screw nut mounted on a steel lead screw is better lubricated with lithium grease. However, some lead screw assemblies use a POM (polyoxymethylene) plastic nut instead. Petroleum greases tend to destroy plastic and rubber parts over time. In this case, your choice of lubricant is limited to non-petroleum options such as silicone greases and PTFE powder / grease mixtures.
However, the chemical composition of a lubricant is not the only deciding factor. The speed at which a part moves also dictates the viscosity of the lubricant. A lead screw driving the Z axis of the printer moves only a few millimeters per hour. Lubricating it with fine oils will cause most of the lubricant to flow by gravity.
Slow moving parts require thicker lubricants, while fast moving parts such as roller and linear bearings used in the printer motion system benefit from the thinner variety.
The viscosity of a lubricant is specified by the NLGI consistency number, which typically ranges from grade 0 to grade 3 (in ascending order of viscosity) for 3D printer applications. Essentially you want a grease that balances ease of movement and lubricant grip.
Lower grade greases are best used for lubricating fast components, while those with higher NLGI grade numbers are suitable for slower components.
5. Brass nozzle cleaning brush
It might sound obvious, but a dirty nozzle has a domino effect on several factors ranging from print reliability to bed screening accuracy. Molten plastic tends to collect on the nozzle and is eventually burnt to a crisp, only to attract another layer of fresh plastic.
Covering the heat block with a silicone sock helps alleviate the problem, but the nozzle is still free to collect charred plastic. Regular cleaning of the nozzle with a brush is the only viable and practical option.
However, no weird brush will do. Plastic can only be cleaned with a hot nozzle, which excludes brushes with polymer bristles. Steel bristles can survive a hot nozzle, but will scratch the softer brass material. Your safest bet is therefore to use a brush equipped with brass bristles rather.
But be sure to keep the conductive hairs away from the heat sink and thermistor cartridges attached to the heater block. Stray hairs can cause these components to short circuit, which can damage the printer motherboard.
Printer maintenance is easy with the right tools
As a beginner, it can be tempting to save a few bucks on cheap tools and skimp on maintenance, but 3D printing is too complex on its own to complicate it further with a careless attitude.
We hope that these hard-learned lessons from our experience maintaining and using 3D printers will save you the time, effort and expense in dealing with preventable breakdowns and the heartburn that follows.
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