The technology of 3D printing has proliferated over the past few years, and there are a number of options for want to get into 3D printing to make their own terrain for tabletop games such as Warhammer 40K, Dungeons and Dragons, and Marvel: Crisis Protocol. Getting started is something of a challenge for a lot of gamers looking to turn themselves into 3D printing hobbyists to start making the terrain that they want for their tabletop. This is a guide with some suggestions for those who don't know where to start their 3D printing journey.
Step 1: Get a printer
So, of course, you need a 3D printer. If you're looking to take the leap into this hobby, and you're not sure what to get, you're going to want to start with a filament printer. Resin printers are a bit more work and rather messy--and they also tend to have much smaller build plates than filament printers do--and you want a bigger build plate for terrain pieces. Your best bet is probably an Ender 3 or 5. I recommend the Ender 3 Pro, which are available for only $200 at Micro Center--and often available with a coupon for $100 off! This is your lowest-risk option if you're looking to get your feet wet with 3D printing without spending a lot of money.
Step 2: Get some filament
You'll also need some filament, and you can pick that up at MicroCenter as well, while you're at it for about $17-20 per spool. You can find similar prices on Amazon. I recommend starting with PLA or PLA+ filament, since it's the easiest to work with--just be aware that it warps in extreme heat.
For the color of filament, keep in mind that if you're making terrain for tabletop gaming, you're going to paint it eventually. Choose a color that is different from the color of primer that you plan to use. For D&D terrain, for example, I often prime dungeon tiles black and dry-brush gray paint on top. I'll choose a color like green or pink for many of those tiles so that I can prime them black and easily still see all of the spots that I missed while priming. Be sure to store your rolls in a cool, dry place since PLA absorbs moisture. Consider buying a few rolls in case you want to experiment.
Step 3: Learn to use your printer
There are a lot of great videos out there to help you learn to use your printer. You should start looking around while setting it up so that you can have something for reference. For 3D terrain printers, I recommend the Tomb of 3D Printed Horrors channel on Youtube. This channel includes a lot of videos to help with setup, modification, and calibration of your printer, and it covers several models. CHEP is another one of my favorite Youtube channels for general 3D printing information. Look through these channels, learn how to use your printer, and get a general idea of what you're dealing with. Definitely make sure that you know how to level your bed and get some practice doing it.
Step 4: Get some files
Now you're about ready to move beyond the sample files that your printer came with--so how do you do that? Well, there are a lot of websites where you can find 3D printer files (STL files) for gaming terrain. To try out a few things, you might want to search Thingiverse, which is full of free files, though don't give up right away if you can't find what you're looking for. It's a bit finicky to search.
If you're looking for terrain files for futuristic games like Warhammer 40K or modern games like Marvel: Crisis Protocol, Corvus Terrain is one of my favorites.
If you're printing terrain for D&D or other dungeon crawler fantasy games, definitely check out Fat Dragon Games--they're the people who run the Tomb of 3D Printed Horrors channel that I listed above, and they make some incredible interlocking terrain pieces for D&D and other games.
Step 5: Prepare your print files
So, you've got files now, how do you get your 3D printer to print them? Well, you'll need a piece of software called a slicer. Among the most popular slicers is Cura--which is easy to learn, well-supported, and available
for free. Download that for your operating system, give it a try, and you'll soon see all the options for 3D printing, such as layer height, adhesion, supports, and retraction speeds. Learning about how to tweak these will take time, but definitely look around online for help. Some rules of thumbs to remember is that you'll need supports for any model that has overhanging parts, and if part of your print touching the bed is raising up, or not adhering, try printing with a brim or a raft.
Luckily, since you're trying to print 3D gaming terrain, there is a shortcut available. Some sites that sell 3D printer files also come with Cura profiles for printers like the Ender 3. Fat Dragon Games, actually has a profile that you can download, import into Cura, and then you can simply select that profile when printing their files! I've even found these settings to be useful when printing terrain from other companies. Look around when you buy terrain files--many companies will have recommended settings for their files.
Step 6: Print, Fix, Repeat
Once you're done playing around in Cura (or another slicer), save those files as a .gcode file, and put them on a micro SD card to load them into your printer. You should be able to navigate to the card in the menu, select your files, and print. Make sure you've leveled your bed first. Watch your print for the first few layers to make sure that everything is sticking to the bed and printing as expected. Keep in mind that you might see brims, rafts, and supports if you specified that you wanted to print them when you sliced the file, so it may look a bit different than expected in early layers.
Once it's all done printing, look at your print for imperfections and look around online to see how you might go about fixing them. You can always adjust your print settings, slice the file, and print again. You'll have to keep trying to get it right--keep in mind that 3D printing is an iterative process.
Step 7: Prep & Paint
When your prints are to your liking, remove any supports, prime, and paint as you would store-bought terrain or minis. If you need to stick parts together, you can use super glue. You can safely use Krylon or Rustoleum primers that bond with plastic to prime. I often use cheap acrylic paints that you find in a craft or art supplies store for terrain since using miniature paints gets expensive quickly when painting large pieces like these.
And that's about it. You'll be doing a lot of printing to get a large dungeon, castle, battle zone, or whatever large-scale terrain project you want to build out. The costs eventually add up for filament and paint, but the savings that you get for not buying all of your terrain pieces is enormous. Good luck with your new hobby!