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3D Printing 101: How to Get Started

So you’re interested in 3D printing — but you don’t know where to start? Pull up a chair my friend, and let me welcome you to the wonderful world of crafting with high-tech hot plastic!

There’s a lot of reasons to take up 3d printing. Maybe you want to get your kid’s excited about STEM? Or you want to make costumes and props? Or you’re a gamer looking to create your own miniatures? Heck, maybe you want to make your own practical prints!

Good news! There might be a lot to learn about 3D printing, but printers have been getting easier to use every day! Plus tons of free (and paid) models are out there to download so you can get started without knowing the first thing about CAD.

Disclosure: Some of the links on this page are affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

3d printed objects

What do I need to get started 3D printing?

  • Access to a 3D printer. Buy one or borrow one!
  • Filament — the plastic which is melted into your model.
  • A slicer program — you can download the best for free.
  • A model to print — a digital file, usually a .STL — many are free

That’s it! You only need FOUR things to get started 3D printing, and half of them are totally free.

Personally, I printed my very first 3d model (a Baby Yoda cookie cutter) before I ever owned a 3D printer! I was checking out a kid’s maker space run by the Magic House, a children’s museum that specializes in art, science and creative learning. The kid and I were there to cover the maker space for my other blog, stlMotherhood. If you’re ever in St. Louis with young kids, I suggest you visit!

If you can’t find a 3D printer to borrow, that’s ok, because some of my very favorite 3D printers for beginners are amazingly inexpensive.

The Best 3D printer for Beginners

anycubic kobra new with stack of PLA filament

I’ve tested dozens of 3D printers freelancing for Tom’s Hardware and I’ve seen a lot that are recommended for beginners. My current favorite is the Anycubic Kobra Neo.

Why? Right now it’s on sale for $200, making it pretty affordable.
It’s “average sized” — about 8.5 inches cubed — giving you plenty of room to print really cool models.
It’s also extremely easy to assemble — four bolts for the machine, plus a couple screws for the spool holder and screen.
It has auto bed leveling and a flexible build plate for easy print removal.

The Best 3D Printing Material for Beginners

spools of PLA filament for 3d printing in green, black, white, orange, blue and red.

There are tons of 3D printing plastics you can buy for your new printer. Believe me, my house is full of filament. But, the very best filament for beginners is plain PLA.

Plain PLA prints smooth, at a relatively low temperature and sticks to a cool build plate. It doesn’t smell weird, it doesn’t need a special enclosure and it’s pretty cheap. It comes in a rainbow of colors, so it’s not boring either.

If you’re close to a MicroCenter (my St. Louis location is at the Brentwood Promenade) you can pick up their house brand — Inland — for about $20 a spool. It’s also available online at Amazon.

The Best 3D Printing Files for Beginners

Once you have a printer and filament you need something to print. This comes in the form of a digital file, most commonly an .stl file. This is a file format for a 3D model — just like a .jpg is a file format for a 2D photograph.

Thankfully there are many websites that host 3D files that can be used for 3D printing, many offering free files.

My number one choice for finding files would be It’s a newer site with a rapidly growing library of models. Best of all, Thang’s search engine also sifts through files from many other file sharing sites, which makes it easier to find the ‘thang’ you want to print (even if they don’t host it).

The Best 3D Printing Slicer for Beginners

You might be surprised to learn that your 3D printer doesn’t under .stl files…it understands .gcode. Unlike a paper printer, you have to use an intermediary program to translate the .stl file to .gcode. Why don’t we just share .gcode? Because .gcode contains specific directions for printing the file on your printer! Gcode contains information like the size of the build surface, the speed you want to print it, the temperature you’re printing and so much more!

Fun fact: we call this program a “slicer” because it cuts your model into thin layers. Your 3d printer recreates the model layer by layer — or slice by slice. A typical slice is .2mm, so most objects contain hundreds of slices!

The very best slicer for your 3D printer is the one they include with the machine. And it’s probably UltiMaker Cura. Cura is open source software, meaning it was put out in the world for free and developers are allowed to tinker with the code and make improvements.

9 times out of 10, the printers I’ve reviewed have come with Cura or directions on how to download it.

Cura’s defaults are fine for starting out. All you need to do is load a file, click support & adhesion, hit slice, and save to your print’s SD card. Boom. It’s that easy.

Ok, you don’t always need supports and if your printer is set up right you don’t need adhesion. But we’re talking about a getting started and keeping it simple. We can cover slicer settings on another post.