4 Top Tips for Designing and 3D Printing Custom Miniatures!

4 Top Tips for Designing and 3D Printing Custom Miniatures!

Today we’ve got Arian Croft, or, as you probably know him better as, Dutchmogul, with us on the blog to share some tips and tricks of designing and printing out detailed miniatures and tabletop 3D models. Him and the folks at Ill Gotten Games have had tons of experience with gaming models optimized for 3D printing. He’s here to share the process so that you too can design your own custom miniatures for your tabletop needs, and finish them off on your 3D printer!


How I got started 

When I first heard about home-accessible 3D printing waaay back in 2012, the possibilities struck me like a lightning bolt. I’d been an avid gamer (and amateur game designer) for years, but hadn’t yet found a medium that allowed me to fully express my ideas. After a quick search on the availability of designers for 3D models (both within my extended friend circle and in the open randomness of the internet), I came up with two unfortunate takeaways: one, most of them were terribly busy, and two, I didn’t have the money to hire one. So, on a lark, I decided give it a shot.


The first program I found was TinkerCAD, a little start-up based out of Finland that had just exited its beta phase. I had never done any 3D design (unless you count gluing plastic junk and disembodied pieces of gaming miniatures together) and I was promised that the program would be accessible. Best of all, the program was completely free, which fit nicely into my budget.

Jumping in, I would liken the experience to playing with blocks or Legos. Taking an assortment of multi-colored primitives, and as I played with them, more complex shapes started to take form, first in my head, then on the digital platform.


Before long, I had made my first model, a spheroid, trans-dimensional doorway from the tabletop roleplaying game my friends and I had been developing (and would successfully crowdfund through Kickstarter a couple of years later). It didn’t look like much, but it was a start, and 1,500 TinkerCAD designs later, I’m still using the program (along with a few others).

Starting with a few orders through Shapeways (another service I still use) and, not long after, the purchase of my first 3D printer, a single-extruder MakerBot Replicator 1, I was on my way through the trial-and-error phase of learning to design for 3D printing methods (a journey which continues to this day, I assure you).


1. Designing your model parts

The largest portions of my workload are in two free programs, the aforementioned TinkerCAD, and Sculptris. In my experience, TinkerCAD is unparalleled at making inorganic models (robots, spaceships, et cetera), but for a quick and intuitive way to sculpt organic-looking parts, I haven’t found anything I can’t do with Sculptris. Starting with a sphere, you use a handful of dynamic tools to shape the sphere like a ball of clay. A quick 15 minutes of playing around with the program and you’ll likely have a bizarre alien face or something. Keep working at it and you’ll ferret out the nuances and be modeling to your heart’s content.

Unlike TinkerCAD (which functions in your browser), you’ll download Sculptris. As you get more comfortable with the interface, you’ll be able to combine multiple parts within the program, and even do some inorganic parts with a generous use of the “flatten” tool.


Here at Ill Gotten Games, my friends and I model the majority of our gaming models in 18mm scale.As a general rule, the “18mm” refers to the distance from the soles of the feet to the eye level of an average sized human in that scale with, of course, some considerable give and take. We initially started wanting to do more in 15mm and heroic scale (28mm-32mm scale, depending on who you ask),but for the current technology available for in-home printing, we settled on 18mm. After many tests we found this was the scale that was most ideal for the detail level/printing speed. 

This scale allows for detail than the 15mm models, and allows for much larger battlefields (or dungeons, or dioramas) than you can create with the heroic scale stuff. We have had success with some 28mm designs (especially larger or less organic models) and the technology is getting better, so don’t fret. It won’t be long before you can have tabletop-quality orcs, elves, and alien bio-weapons running around with your store-bought and laboriously hand-painted gaming miniatures.

As a quick aside, if you’re interested in designing for 18mm scale and throwing your lot in with the growing multiverse of models we create, we’d love to hear from you. 

2. Staging your models


One thing TinkerCAD excels in is acting as a staging area. You can import your Sculptris-made parts directly into TinkerCAD, arranging them as you would with any of the in-program primitives. If you’re going to do this, I would advise enlarging your parts when you import them (maybe at 500% as a general rule), as a sort of decimation occurs with high-triangle models that are imported in smaller dimensions.

Other free programs can be used as a staging area for combining your parts, such as Blender, MakerBot Desktop, and Meshmixer. I use all three of these from time to time, especially when I need to convert a file type. Sculptris exports its models as .OBJs, while TinkerCAD does so (and requires imports) as STLs. Blender is perfect for this, and pretty much everything else if you can devote time to learning its amazingly robust system.

Once you’ve arranged your parts, you’ll need to combine them into a single model. Right now, they’re just a bunch of separate, overlapping components, which will cause some problems down the road when it comes time to print, not to mention makes for a much larger and more complicated model than is necessary. TinkerCAD has a group function, which you’ll definitely want to use, but it isn’t free of issues when exporting the model.

Once I’ve gotten my models put together, I run them through cloud.netfabb, another (… drum roll…) free, browser-based program. This process usually takes a few seconds to a couple of minutes for really complex models.


3. Readying your models for printing

Posing your models for printing can be problematic, especially when you consider the limitations of desktop 3D printing. You can use support material (extra material that act as scaffolding under your print) to support the arms, weapons, and other bits sticking out from your model.  Your printer calibrations also have to be spot-on, and even then it’s not sure to make a successful print. For the vast majority of the models we make, we rely on “splitting” to see the model through.

Splitting Process

Basically, by cutting your models into halves (either in TinkerCAD or Meshmixer for us), you can print those halves and assemble them with a dab of model glue after you pop them off the plate. This sometimes leaves a visible seam, though you can use some basic conventional modeling techniques to make it disappear. We don’t bother doing that (or even painting) with most of our 18mm scale models, as we view them more like board game pieces than showcase miniatures, and it’s something we can live with for the expedience of printing out large armies of models.

With our larger, 28mm scale models, we take the time to clean them up (and paint them). If you’re printing your models split, be sure not to print with a raft. Rafts can be helpful for avoiding curling, but they’re difficult to remove, especially if you’re going to glue the two surfaces together. There are lots of ways to prep your models for clean printing, and we use a few, but splitting is the one we use the most. A combination of splitting and minor use of supports can produce some even more dynamically posed models, and you should definitely give that a try.


4. Finishing techniques 

If you’ve come this far, you’re doing well! If you’ve printed a board game prototype or toy, you might not care about gussying it up. This is true for the majority of models we make. If you do, there are a few options available.

For a smooth finish, many swear by vapor polishing for ABS prints (using brief exposure to acetone vapors to smooth the surface). We’ve never used this method, but there are lots of tutorials out there, and I’ve seen some great results firsthand. However, keep in mind that this may remove some of the details in the model, especially with smaller models.

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If you’re going to paint your models, I have some good news for you. The model paints that are currently sold in hobby and game stores work great on both ABS and PLA models. Something I do when I’m printing a model I intend to paint is to print it using black filament. The pigment count in modern, acrylic paints is so high that you can apply the paint directly to a black surface.

Many people use black primer as it makes for a great shortcut when you’re painting (those bits and creases you miss don’t show in glaring white or metal) and, if you’re printing in black, you can bypass the (highly toxic/unpleasant/expensive) step of spray-priming your models. Other than that, it’s pretty much exactly like painting a regular model.

That’s a basic rundown on the process my fellow Ill Gotten Gamers and I use, and I hope this has been helpful. We’re always around if you have questions, and we want to see what you come up with as well! We love being a part of the growing, open source, 3D printed games community, and can’t wait to see where all of this goes.


About the author

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Arian “Dutchmogul” Croft is the co-founder and lead developer of Ill Gotten Games, a 3D print-and-play tabletop game company based out of Bellingham, Washington. Ill Gotten Games designs open source board games (Pocket-Tactics, Breach, numerous others), tabletop roleplaying games (Wayfarer: Things Beyond Wonder), and miniature wargames (Wayfarer Tactics), along with miscellaneous toys and models. Check them out at illgottengames.net and take your print-and-play gaming to a new dimension!


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