Getting Started with 3D Printing

Learning the tools and terms to start 3D printing at home

Anatomy of the FDM printer

The first step to getting started in 3D printing is learning the parts and pieces of the printer. Much like the engine, brakes, doors and wheels on a car, all of these pieces can vary in size, look and capability, but every printer will feature these basic pieces.

Print Bed

This is the main platform that your prints are actually built on. It is always a flat plate that sits at the bottom of an FDM printer. For the best quality prints, look for a print bed that is heated.


Print Head

This is the main “nozzle” on the printer. It is the part that moves and actually lays down your plastic filament to create your model. Another term for the print head is the Extruder.

Motors and Rails­

The print head and usually the bed are moved around on a series of rails using a set of very precise motors. The exact way these parts are moved will vary from screws and bearings to belts and gears, but the main purpose is the same.

Ultimaker 3 Detail #3


The backbone of the printer. This is the shell or series of rails that all the parts are mounted to. The shapes and sizes of the frames will vary wildly based on model. Some frames include an enclosure of the print bed and head.


This is the actual plastic that your printer uses to create your models. Filament comes in dozens types of materials and colors, but in general it all looks the same. Look for a big spool of plastic wire that resembles the wire used for a weed-eater.

What specs matter and why?

Now that we know what all the main parts of standard FDM printer are, let’s talk about what they do and what you should look for when buying your printer. Some parts or additions to a printer will make the printer inherently better at certain tasks.

Print Volume

Print volume, or the actual maximum size of the prints you can make, seems to be one of the things people care about most. We are here to say that build volume needs to be pretty low on your priority list. Unless you know that you need the ability to make large prints, most newcomers will be better served with a quality, smaller printer instead of a budget large printer.

Print Temperature

The temperature your extruder can reach is one of the main factors that limit the kinds of filaments you can use. Sturdier and more exotic plastics and plastic blends require much hotter temperatures to print properly.

Heated Print Bed

Just as certain plastics require very hot temperatures on the printer head to use, some of those same materials also require the use of a heated print bed. This allows the models to adhere to the platform for the duration of the print.


Print Enclosure

This is a handy spec to see, and a nice feature to have, but it’s not truly a necessity. With some of the harder to print plastics like ABS, having an enclosure to keep a proper level of heat inside of the printer can give you more consistent results, Beyond that consistency, buying a printer sans enclosure is a great way to save money. Just make sure you keep your printer in an area that doesn’t see major fluctuations in temperature. So keep it away fro fans and windows, etc.

Nozzle Diameter

One of the most overlooked specifications when choosing a printer is nozzle diameter. This is the size of the opening in the end of your extrusion head. A larger hole will allow you to print at a much faster rate, but you sacrifice quality. It also affects the size of filament you need to buy. Most printers use either 1.75mm diameter filament of 3mm filament. Thicker means speed, thinner means precision.

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