My first 3D printer was the gateway machine into the world of design and fabrication. Many years ago, thought 3D printing was way out of my reach. Now, printers are pretty common and the technology is stable yet still growing rapidly.
I found an online deal on an ANET A8 DIY printer for $150 and cut my teeth on that machine. It was modded like crazy using parts printed from the machine itself, and in due time, everything on it broke and was replaced one way or another. The bed, nozzle, controller, power supply, it was a rough but wonderful learning experience.
This Creality CR-10 was my second FDM (fused deposition modeling) printer. Almost 3x the price, but 10x more reliable, simple, and sturdy. If you want to learn things the hard way (like me) then get a DIY kit and build it yourself. If you don’t find joy in things breaking and waiting for replacement parts, then get this.
No machine is perfect (or maybe that’s my excuse to mod things). Here are some tips that will make this machine amazing.
The bed is the flat heated area that the material is layed out onto. This printer comes with a thick square glass sheet usually made of borosilcate glass which is particularly able to handle fluctuating temperatures.
The piece of original glass that came with my printer was warped. I’m not sure if was always warped, or became warped with the tens of thousands of hours of use. The first layer of print was getting really difficult because some areas were too squished, other areas the plastic would not stick. Always check your glass with a metal straight edge to ensure flatness. There are some people that “fix” warped glass by padding areas with tape. I tried that, didn’t work, decided to spend $22 and now my printing area is perfect.
Now that your printing bed is perfectly flat, it’s time to get the material to properly stick to it. I’ve tried everything, Aquanet hairspray, blue painters tape, masking tape, even slurry. The solution people seem to like the most is Kapton tape or PEI. Currently, I am using a special adhesion surface that seems to be working very well.
These square plastic sheets seem to work very well. The caveat is that they definitely need to be cleaned with isopropyl between prints. Even though your parts may seem to come off perfectly, there is definitely a chemical residue that it leaves behind which makes prints eventually not stick to the surface.
Blue painters tape works very well. However, the blue color will stain and stick to your material and it is quite difficult to remove the piece from the glass bed. If you are having a hard time getting a piece to adhere, I would fall back on blue painters tape.
Remember that the object you’re printing also affects adhesion. If you’re printing a large object, plastic shrinks when it cools down, so the piece is likely to curl and pull away from the bed. In those instances, you need to think about printing with a “raft”.
The extra wasted material on the edge of the object helps give it more surface area to stick to the bed.
To put it in simple terms, this is a machine that uses mirrors to direct a laser (from a long glass laser tube) down into material. Adjusting the power will scar the surface (engrave) or cut right through the material. The material can be pretty much anything except PVC (dangerous fumes) or metal (60 watts not powerful enough). You can engrave Macbooks, cut hotdogs, or engrave logos on top of your cappuccino.
Before deciding on this machine, I did my research. There are quite a few other alternatives out there. GlowForge, Muse, Dremel… All of them are either smaller (12×20 working area) or much more expensive ($5k+). Being a tinkerer, I decided to take a gamble with this no name “Chinese” laser machine and use the extra money saved to mod/upgrade.
This machine is 500 x 700mm and has passthrough for bigger pieces. You can find it on eBay but be wary of the “free shipping” because I ended up paying $150 for a lift gate service which is a required fee for residential delivery. You’ll need another person to help unbox and move this thing around.
Out of the box, the laser works fine. I was able to do test cuts and some small projects. Being a tinkerer though, I had to mod it to get the best out of it. Here is some information on the mods that can improve your machine if you choose to get it or one similar.
You’re using a laser to burn material so you need good air flow to move the smoke outside. These are the original air ducts that were thick, heavy, and smelled weird. The shape also deformed when exposed to the sun. I decided to replace it with the one below.
This hose is way lighter, can expand and compress well, retain shape better, and was much more pliable but still cheap.
The long laser tube has water running through it constantly to cool it down, that means there are 3/8 inch tubes carrying the water. The original tubes that came with the machine were weak, cracked, and smelled pretty bad. After running my machine a few times, I noticed water was leaking from somewhere, no matter how tight the connectors were. I replaced the tubes AND the connectors with brass fittings.
I replaced the tubing with food-grade vinyl tubing. It was a little more sturdy and no more water leaks. The brass fittings were also a huge help, so much so that it didn’t even need the hose clamps anymore.
The machine comes with an aquarium-type water pump that pushes water through the laser tube to keep it cool. This will improve the life of the tube and also provide optimal firing. Since laser tubes are expensive, I decided to upgrade to an actual water chiller.
I made the mistake of getting the CW-3000 which does NOT have a compressor and refrigerant. This CW-5200 was expensive, almost $400, but since it’s protecting and extending the life of the most important part of the laser machine (the laser) I decided to add it. The compressor keeps the water at a specific temperature you set, and more importantly keeps the laser firing under consistent temperatures for even cuts and engraving.
At the end of the day, the laser tube is pulling just under 20 milliamps of power. When you cut things, you specify the % power like 20% or 80%. Initially 80% might mean 18mA, but as the tube is getting weak and dying, 80% might mean 13mA. Adding this analog meter will let you keep tabs on the strength of the laser tube.
Installing this was a bit of a feat. The metal that the machine is made of is not the thickest, but heavy duty enough to make cutting and drilling through it impossible if you don’t have the right tools. There are plenty of videos online on how to wire this thing. Basically there are 2 terminals, and the current passes through the laser tube circuit.
This is pretty optional, but wasn’t that much to upgrade. I really like it, it’s quiet and looks reliable and worked fine with the upgraded air ducts I got.
The RDworks software looked horrendous. After a bit of research, everybody seemed to have good things to say about Lightburn which is a 1 time 2 or 3 computer license for $80. If you want updates after the first year, you need to pay a renewal license, but it seems like as it is, the software is great. Most of the time I design things in Fusion 360, export the drawings as DXF, then import DXF into lightburn. They are basically vector files like Illustrator.
The software works perfectly with my machine’s Ruida controller. It recognized the controller, bed size, zero issues, highly recommended.
The camera really isn’t necessary, but if you’re using Lightburn, there are some cool features you can do. Glowforge laser machines have cameras. Muse and Dremel also have similar features. This basically allows your Lightburn software see what’s there. You can also take pictures of something and let Lightburn convert it into shapes to cut out. Or simply use it to spot check that you have enough material to cover your cut. Or, if you’re engraving something like a laptop, you can ensure it’s going to be in the right place.
The correct camera to get for this machine is the 140 degree fisheye lens. It lets the camera capture the whole area. Calibration was a little frustrating, but after about 20-30 minutes and multiple tries, I finally got it to “flatten” the image and accurately map out the working area.
This is my own custom upgrade that is currently in progress. With all these things plugged in and running, it was cumbersome to walk around turning things on and off. So I designed this control panel with AC switches to easily control the peripherals and also have a place to plug in the Lightburn camera.
There’s also a switch for “light” because I’m adding additional LED strips inside the machine. There is only 1 small strip of LEDs and I want lights on the other 3 sides of the working area. I don’t need that on all the time so I added a button for it on this little control panel.
This machine has been a dream. It feels so fast to create and prototype things compared to my 3D printer. As you can see from my builds section, it’s keeping me busy. It also allows me to start building larger things (until my CNC machine comes in). It’s like my Cricut machine on steroids.
If you have any questions about it, let me know. More than happy to help and share experience or knowledge.