3D Printing: Reality Check


3D Printers; are they as good as you think they are?

Taranis 4

Greetings fellow wargamers!  Caleb with White Metal Games here.   White Metal Games is a miniature painting commission service based out of Raleigh, North Carolina.

There is no doubt that 3D printers will play a major role in the future of miniature casting technology.  But how soon is that future, and are we approaching it is quickly as many bloggers out there would have you believe?  Recently we were commissioned to paint up a 3D printed RPG figure and the results may surprise you.

It had been a few years since we received a commission on a 3D printed figure I was hopeful the technology had improved a great deal.  The last time we received 3D printed figures was two years ago, back when a local company called Proxy Army’ approached us to paint up some sample models.   That company went belly up after their Kickstarter flopped and I never heard from them again.

Proxy 001

The guys who ran the company were young and eager, but lacking experience.  Their goal was simple:  100% design interchangeability.  They wanted a site where you could design a character, a weapons platform, or a monster in any scale, and have them printed and shipped directly to you.  Certainly this isn’t a new idea . . .

Potato Head

The boast of 3D printing is that you can custom tailor a figure in any way imaginable and it comes out fully printed with NO ASSEMBLY REQUIRED.  Case in point, this is  Taranis, a 3D Printed RPG figure.  First off I will said that the design is incredible, and I was impressed with the 30mm rendering of the figure when I received it.

3D Rendering

Just imagine a world where I can go to some website and though a drag and drop gallery, create a figure with every detail imaginable, from the drawstrings of his pouch to the scar above his eye.

Character Designer

In many ways THIS is the bridge many of us are waiting for between our favorite MMORPG and our favorite RPG!  In so far as I know, that’s just what my client in the case of Taranis did.  This IS HIS CHARACTER in his local RPG, crafted to 100% accuracy.  Minus color of course, which is where I came into the process.

Hedrack 1Hedrack 5

So what are the trade off’s you get when you had a figure 3D printed, rather than having someone like me convert and kit bash your figure like this custom Hedrack (above) we did for a D&D campain last year?

Firstly, and to a lesser extent is brittleness.  When we received the first figures from Proxy army a few years ago, the models were surprisingly brittle, being as they were made from Sandstone.   3D printers can print from a variety of materials,  but every figure I’ve handled so far is made from this same material or something very close to it.  While you can use regular super glue to repair these sorts of figures, plastic glue will ONLY work if the figure was printed from plastic in the beginning, so I guess the rule of thumb here is ask what material the figure will be printed from and use the right glue to repair it when/if it breaks.

Taranis 1

Secondly and to a greater extent is surface texture.  If you look at the attached image, we laid down a thin primer on this figure with an airbrush and this single layer revealed a practically unworkable surface.

imagejpeg_1 (1)

Unfortunately, at the moment, these figures tend to have a very textured, gritty surface, which makes achieving high end results and smooth transitions on these figures practically impossible.  Imagine blending paint, even wet blending, across sandpaper, and you’re in the ballpark.

Taranis 3

Seen above, this shot of the cloak may look good now, but it took A LOT of paint to get these layers to blend, and certainly I would have been worried about obscuring detail if I wasn’t trying to hide the surface texture anyway.

Taranis 5
 However, some surface textures CAN be printed into the figure.  For example on the staff, the designer printed a few gashes into the wood that I was able to pick out, then then add a few of my own.  Unfortunately, using a wash to pick out these details would not be my suggestion, due to the surface texture.
What this means is that many basic techniques, such as blending, highlighting, and washes are going to be EXTREMELY limited based on the materials this figure is cast from.  As you can see in these sample pictures, the model has practically NO highlights and despite a balanced color palette, is practically without depth in terms of light and dark contrast.
Taranis 7

So, in summary, while 3D printing is on the rise, and I am pleased with the way this figure turned out overall, I think we’re still a few years away from seeing 3D printing figures being a serious threat to major miniature manufacturers.

As for me, when it comes to painting RPG figures, IMHO you get your best detail on figures in the following order:

  1. Mould Injected Plastic
  2. White Metal/Pewter
  3. High Quality Resin, such as that used by Forgeworld and other miniature manufacturers, both due to durability and detail level.
  4. Moderate Quality Resin, such as Finecast, which frequently experiences problems with air bubbles and is a little brittle for my taste, but DOES have good detail.
  5. Low Quality Resin, such as Reaper Bones.   (I love the price of Bones, but the quality is lacking in the smaller figures)

What do you guys think?   I’d love to see some pictures of your 3D printed figures and tell us what you think?

White Metal Games is a miniature painting commission service based out of Raleigh, North Carolina.We specialize in producing custom models for any range, including wargames, board games, roleplaying games, historical figures, and display dioramas.


And until next time, this is Caleb reminding you to PUT YOUR MINIS WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS!!!

Caleb Dillon

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  • I think where 3d Printing for wargaming and RPG’s really will come into it’s own is on building scenery for the tabletop, the rough sandpaper texture that 3d prints tend to leave at the present doesn’t really matter so much if the item in question is supposed to be a concrete bunker or stone castle wall.

    I have no doubt though, as the print nozzle’s get finer and the material quaility improves, 3d prints will get better textures.

    • jazeroth

      total! the progress advancement is asounding! in 2 years its got this far from really blocking looking models.

  • piglette

    Looks terrible

  • JN7

    Sounds like a problem with the printer. You can get pretty reasonable results with SLA 3D printers, but they are more expensive than the FDM type that most hobbyists can afford. You’ll probably still have some strata, but it shouldn’t end up with the weird texture they talked about in the post.

    The bear here is a pretty good example of what SLA is capable of producing. https://3dprint.com/25221/3d-printed-bear-form1/

    • Michael Sellwood

      An interesting link. The end result is good, but still lacking in some deep detail.

      However reading the document a couple of things I would note:

      It is 33 cm tall so absolutely not representative of what you would get in 3cm tall models.
      Even within this context it sounds like he did quite a lot of work to clean the model.
      He is obviously skilled with Z Brush which is not true of everybody.
      It took 56.5 hours to print. If you went and got a second job at a pub and worked 56.5 hours you would earn around $600 after tax in Australia, which would buy a 40K army.
      He used a litre of resin, which is not free.
      Purchasing the machine will set you back around at least a couple of thousand (the machine he used is around $2,700 new). For most people this is an unreasonable spend.

      So final conclusion if you currently have many thousands of dollars, skills in z-brush, hours of free time, and a deep devotion to not paying for other peoples talents then 3d printing is great.

      • JN7

        You are absolutely correct. 3D printing isn’t really a cost-effective alternative to model production. That may well change in the future. Even if people don’t have the systems at home, there are a growing number of service bureaus willing to work with the public.

        • Michael Sellwood

          Oh yes, we are at the very beginning of what is very exciting times.

        • Severius_Tolluck

          AKA your local library in some towns. In Naperville IL you can use their high end printer so long as you pay for the media you use to print said objects. They also have a scanner that can duplicate parts for you. Crazy times.

    • Azrell

      I see what you did there…

  • Simon Chatterley

    The cost of high end 3D printing is really prohibitive for entry level. Especially when those who are trying to get cheap miniatures are still able to order less legit versions from countries I won’t say….

    I get it that people want something unique but as the author states a decent hobbyist can kitbash and convert something from high end bits no bother.

    Terrain though – that’s the world that 3D printer can take to the cleaners.

  • Darth Bumbles

    I love the idea of being able to 3D print minis. The execution is still in early days, but it’s a great idea.

  • Thatroubleshootah

    all of the articles I have read give the exact same verdict that in a few years 3d printing will pose a serious threat to traditional miniature companies. This follows the same arc all technologies take. First only corporations can afford it, then only rich people, then the middle class, then poor people and then the tech is everywhere and the next thing is being developed. By the time the middle class are adopting the tech its pretty much been perfected at least at a certain price point. My dad’s first hard drive cost $700.00 and held 20 MB.

    • jazeroth

      for the same price now u can get a brand new medium grade gaming rig. mine is 7 years old and still works as i put more money into it then i needed to

  • Slaanesh Devotee

    Judging by this example, 3D printers look pretty much exactly as good as I thought they were.

    They make the hated Finecast look awesome.

    GW said a year or two ago, ‘If we thought 3D printers were the future of model production, we would be investing in it – We aren’t’.

    I can’t see how building plastic models speck by speck could ever produce as smooth a surface as something cast. So its a ‘no’ from me. I’m ooot! (Duncan Banatyne accent)

    • In this instance, GW is right, for now.

      3D printing technology will eventually begin to contend with injection-molded plastics and spin-casting (and etc.), but we’re at least a decade away from that even BEGINNING to be a problem for the industry.

      • jazeroth

        scenery will be the main stay for 3D printing. also small parts like shoulder pads with a custom design will be big.

        • It’ll be a good long while before 3D printing will overtake simple spin-casting for small parts like custom shoulder pads from niche manufacturers. The resolution on current small 3D printers just isn’t high enough, and won’t be for years yet.

          Terrain, on the other hand, will become easier to do more quickly, since it depends less, generally speaking, on huge amounts of fine detail and the characteristic roughness of extrusion-type printers (versus DMLS and such) isn’t as much of a detriment. Durability versus cost of raw materials is still an issue, but costs always fall as a technology matures.

  • Morgan

    I reckon my 3d printed heat lances came out pretty well.


    • euansmith

      Nice work. I can see the artifacts you mentioned, but an acetone vapour bath might reduce them without damaging the over all geometry of the model. Your design work is pretty cool.

      • Morgan

        Thanks – I’ll look into that!

  • Jice

    The thing is, many companies use 3D printing to make their master casts. So I thought to myself ‘well what are they printing their miniatures on’ and once I went searching for the answer to that question I found out what the difference is.

    It’s all about Microns. Most Tabletop 3D printers use the Extrusion method, that is, they extrude plastic from a needle and build it up from there. Models made like this are cheap but gritty and texturally have line where you can see the printing process happening. The other type is fluid based, where a laser hardens resin from fluid form and the miniature is built as it’s pulled from the fluid so to speak, this allows for a lower micron count [AKA More detail] Think of it as Dots per inch on a printer. If you print a pictures at 12 DPI, they’ll look terrible and blocky, if you print it at 300 DPI then it’ll be picture quality.

    So a Home/small company based 3D printer can only get down to like 30 microns, industial 3D printers can get to like 12 microns, which gives a much smoother and crisper miniature. However, those printers cost as much as a car would, but the technology is already there.

    • Morgrim

      They also go over the printed masters fixing any rough areas with dilute washes of acetone to smooth them out, or even with putties like milliput in particularly bad areas. It may be a bit longer before the industrial quality printers can produce a master that doesn’t need touch ups.

    • euansmith

      Dr Who and the Terror of the Microns.

  • Moose

    It took 50 years for mould injected plastic to not look like balls.

    3d printing, especially some of the stuff being produced as the print head gets smaller… is going to be stunning.

  • James Cowling

    Deposition printing is useless for miniatures. SLA printing produces very usable figures, but the liquid resin is expensive enough that there’s no cost benefit for the end consumer.

  • DeadlyYellow

    A few more years yet it will be practical. I say a decade will see it viable as a household appliance.

  • Dan

    I’ve bought a couple of 3D printed mini’s from Heroforge that I had them print off using bronze as the material for printing. They turned out fantastic and I was very impressed with the results. Mind you, bronze costs a bit extra and is a bit heavy on the wallet.

  • Crevab

    Yes, 3d printers are as good as I think they are. Go to Shapeways and grab a mini printed in ultra or extreme detail for something that’s smooth with primer.

    Are 3d printers going to let everybody have perfect minis leap from their imagination? No, of course not. Magnetizing is beyond many people. I know a guy almost as old as I am and he can barely handle building his dudes without dumping a bucket of glue on them. I don’t want to imagine what him trying sculpture would be like.

    Some will learn how to do it themselves, others will throw money to get their dreams commissioned.

  • Phil

    Like home printing didn’t stop people buying books, 3D Printing won’t kill off cast and injection moulded miniatures.

    Even if you can get hold of the files (like you can with books and magazines) the cost and time of printing out a high quality version for yourself is prohibitive for most and will be reserved for very specific scenarios.

  • Spacefrisian

    Lets wait till that pricetag for the 3d printer itself drops to affordable prices.

  • Paul

    There’s already a company out there that does custom 3D printed miniatures, using a drag and drop parts interface. It was a Kickstarter a couple of years ago and was successfully funded

    It’s called Heroforge (https://www.heroforge.com/), and their quality is quite good in the detailed plastic, at a cost of being very brittle compared to say, GW plastic, more akin to Finecast without the mould marks and flash.

    The overall miniature size is an accurate 28mm-30mm scale, so they look a little small next to GW offerings, but compare well to Mantic human miniatures.

    • jayadan

      This is just a front-end for Shapeways.

  • Give it another tenish years, and this technology will be something miniature manufacturers will have to contend with. It will eventually become precise enough and cost-effective enough.

    As it stands now, the technology has its uses in the hobby (terrain, mostly) but it’s no threat to even small miniature makers.

  • Incidentally, desktop plastic moulding is allegedly about to become a thing:

    If you want a small army of custom figures, small scale plastic molding might be competitive with using a 3D printed original to make resin castings. (Using it to make wax moldings and then lost wax metal casting is another possibility.)

    Like a high end 3D printer, it’s priced out of range of most hobbyists, but they could be shared use in a local Makespace.

    Even if Allforge doesn’t deliver, I expect someone will in the near future.

  • WholeHazelNuts
    • jayadan

      Check the reviews on Amazon – http://amzn.to/1Ok2Ab4 – It’s essentially a thin, 20 minute epoxy. The problem with any of the things that fill in detail is that they can work well at large scale and not really improve matters at smaller scales like we work with.

  • Knight_of_Infinite_Resignation

    I have to disagree with his idea on materials. Good quality resin is the most detailed material and can cope with undercuts and protruding detail plastic cannot. It also reproduced texture brilliantly. Plastic and metal are on a par for me, plastic can do slightly crisper surface detail but loses out to metal on depth of detail, undercuts, three dimensionality as the sides of a curved surface in plastic lose detail. Obviously poor qualutu anything is poor quality.

  • Ironchestnut

    So while I think the examples shown are terrible I can give you a bunch of examples of were 3D printing could be used effectively in the Miniture Wargaming industry. Not only that but 3D printing technology is contantly being improved on, heck just check out the new 3D printing material that can be sculpted.

    The problem when using 3D printing for this industry, and there are 3D printing artists that will back me up, is the scale, the fact that filament 3D prints sag over time, the lack of finishing on the print and generally just a lack of knowledge from the person printing.

    If you ask me what I think these companies should do. Invest in a program like Zbrush or Mudbox, do the print in a bunch of pieces and then cast them in resin (which not only makes the pieces stronger but also means they can be produced much faster then printing the same part multiple times) to solve the problem for interchangable parts just design the parts to be interchangeable and problem solved.

    Anyway if you want some example just checkout any of the videos I’ve posted below. (most of these videos are from a single source but feature diffrent 3D printing artists and applications for the technology)


    Hope you enjoy.

    • jayadan

      I saw the video on the low-temp filament a couple of days ago. I’m really excited about the possibilities and that may actually get me to buy a 3D printer.

  • LordKrungharr

    Who the heck would use the sandstone material for a miniature?!?! That makes no sense at all.

    • Bad Meat

      Because it is cheap.

  • Ty Hayden

    I have 3D printer [small home model], and it does print very striated models, but there are things you can do to finish it. Acetone vapor bathing helps, if you use ABS plastic. It smooths it out pretty well. For most gaming applications, I keep to terrain, tokens, measuring tools, and so forth. I haven’t been able to get anything small enough for a miniature game to turn out well enough to use.

  • Deet

    I have access to a variety of 3D SLA machines at work that cost $30k-$40k or more. They can print in a variety of materials and hardnesses. Some can even print in full color. I can tell you we’re a long way off from printers that are at all useful for the minis business, and even farther off from models that are useful in the home.
    We use our printers to make prototypes for injection molded plastic products. As good as they’ve gotten, the parts still require a ton of cleanup from highly talented model makers to be anything better than a quick prototype. The base material is still going to look a little gritty, even at a resolution better than .002″ (that’s two thousandths of an inch per pixel).
    The prototype printed in the article comes from a powder based modeler. Those are and will always be crap. The extruding ones are not much better. The real deal (for now) is the photo-cured resin as your resolution can be much higher. There’s a couple of important points there though- the higher the resolution, the slower the print (an action figure sized part we usually put in over night), and the resin ain’t at all cheap. That same part might run $300-$500 (so no, scenery pieces are not really the fantastic option some are advocating). All for a part that looks fuzzy unless you want to get in and sand it all down, something not really doable on a 1″ mini.

    Now eventually, they’re going to get there. But the real crazy thing is that by the time we do get there, nobody is going to be painting anymore. The parts will come out in full color. And it’ll look good.

    • Benoit Tremblay

      As far as I know, we didn’t stop painting when photography was invented

      • Azrell

        You did if you wanted photo of your family. I have yet to see the walmart paint shop that offered home portraits.

      • Deet

        Uh, ok? If you want to represent your models on the table with photographs, go ahead. Sure, there will be people who will continue to paint models because they enjoy it, but the vast majority will move to an all digital process for their customizing because the results will be far better than they can achieve by hand.