Explore your 3D-printing superpowers
Your 3D printer can do more than you realize, from making video game characters real, to helping you cosplay as a Knight of Ren, to even printing out a working film camera. If you're a bit less ambitious, you can turn to your 3D printer to help produce an elegant midcentury chess set that doubles as an herb garden. The possibilities are endless, so we've helped you narrow it down by selecting our top 10 picks for the things you might not have known your 3D printer could do.
Print video game models
Want to print out your own Hammer of Serious Smiting or Snarglax Star Cruiser? It's easier than you might think, as many video games store the objects in them as 3D models. These can often be extracted and printed, with a bit of tweaking.
Using a couple of free programs, I was able to print out the alien blaster from Fallout 4. I did this using two free, open-source programs called B.A.E. and Nifskope. I used the first to extract the 3D model from the game files and then the second to convert the model to an .OBJ file that I loaded into MakerBot Print, where I scaled and printed it. A few hours later, I had an alien blaster ready to use on any Mirelurks I came across. I do live in Boston, after all.
Credit: Richard Baguley
Print VR sculptures
Virtual-reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift offer more than just gaming; you can also turn to them for 3D sculpting. Using apps like Oculus Medium, you can create 3D sculptures with tools that would make Michelangelo weep tears of virtual joy.
Once you have created your 3D masterpiece, it's easy to print it out. In Oculus Medium, choose the home icon, and select Export. This will create a copy of your masterpiece as an .OBJ file, a common 3D format. Most 3D-printing programs can load these directly, or you can convert it to an .STL file with this free 3D-model converter. Load the model into your 3D-printing program, scale it and hit Print, and your virtual masterpiece will become a real one. And to think, it took Michelangelo two years to carve his sculpture of David, while your masterwork took only a few hours.
Credit: YamFuFu via Instagram
Print a 3D model of your house
Whether it's a shack in the slums or a castle on the hill, there's no place like home, and a 3D-printed model of your dwelling makes for a fun gift. To create this, fly a drone around the house in a circle, taking pictures of the house from all angles (otherwise known as an orbit shot). Then, sign up for the free trial of ReCap Pro from Autodesk. This includes an app called ReCap Photo, which can take these photos and create a 3D model — a technique called photogrammetry.
Once this program has created your model, load it into your 3D printer program, and hit Print. The next step is to make a scale model 3D print of your house. If you want to keep creating models, you'll need to subscribe to ReCap, which costs $40 a month. If that's more than you'd like to pay, you can do this with the free software MeshLab, though it takes a lot of tweaking to use it effectively.
Turn Barbie into a medieval warrior
Barbie may be many things these days, but a fierce warrior isn't usually one of them — well, except for the Wonder Woman Barbie, who would kick your rear if given the chance. But if you've got a regular Barbie and a 3D printer, you can make your own Warrior Barbie, thanks to Jim Rodda. He sells a set of 3D models called the Faire Play kit, which turn a Barbie Fashionista doll into a warrior with full plate armor (either battle or parade type), or an ancient Greek warrior. For a different look, the Faire Play III: Maid for Battle offers a Conan the Barbarian-style fur outfit, shield, battle ax and faithful battle Tardigrade to ride into war. Each set costs $29.99 for the set of models that you can print yourself or send to a 3D-printing service, like Shapeways.
Credit: Jim Rodda
Print a combination chess set/plant garden
If you love playing chess and tending to tiny plants, why not combine those two passions with this nicely designed set of chess pieces/plant pots? Print out the full set in black and white, stuff in some soil and succulents or herbs, and you've got a garden that can teach the game of chess. Then, it's knight takes bishop, cactus takes mint, and checkmate.
Print 3D photos
Lithophanes are photos that can be seen only when backlit, with the image appearing when you hang it in a window or put it over a light. It's easy to print your own lithophanes with a 3D printer. Just pick a photo (simple, graphic images work best); then upload it to the free Image to Lithophane service. This will convert your image into a 3D model, where the brighter parts of the image become thinner parts of the flat model. Download the model it creates, and print it out. Then, when you hang it up in a window, the image will appear as the light shines through the 3D material.
To get it right, though,you do need to experiment with the printing material. The process works best with translucent materials, such as white or natural PLA. If you use anything too dark, the light won't show through, which ruins the effect. I printed this example in blue PLA, which is mildly translucent.
Credit: Richard Baguley
Print an SLR film camera
A camera might not be the first thing you think of creating with a 3D printer, but this remarkable bit of 3D design is just that. The OpenReflex is an SLR camera that can be 3D printed, except for the lens. The finished product works with 35mm film and includes a mechanical shutter, film winder and viewfinder. As for the lens, your new 3D-printed camera can work with pretty much any older SLR lens you have lying around. If you are really serious, though, it is possible to 3D print the lens as well, using a high-end printer that can print clear, glass-like material.
Print a birdfeeder
Feeding the birds is a good thing to do, especially over the winter, and this neat 3D print lets you do it from inside the house. It's a wonderfully designed birdfeeder that includes a set of antlers on the front that the birds can land on. The feeder is designed to attach to a window using Velcro or wire, so you can hang it right outside your favorite window and watch the birds get some lunch without squirrels climbing up to spoil the fun.
Here's another neat thing about this project: The lattice design minimizes the weight of the feeder, which means that it is both easier to put outside (as it's designed to stay in place with double-sided sticky pads) and uses less filament to print. It's a pretty large object to print, though, so you will need a printer with a large print area, as well as some patience.
Credit: Printed Nest
Print your own Star Wars blaster/lightsaber
Want to become a Knight of Ren or a lovable smuggler? These 3D models of Han Solo's blaster and Kylo Ren's lightsaber will help your cosplay efforts. Sadly, these are purely models, not working blasters, so they won't help you dispense of that Rancor in your basement.
The lightsaber model is pretty simple to print, and there is even a cut-down version that can be printed in three parts on a smaller printer. The blaster is more complex, with 37 separate parts that need to be printed, finished and assembled. This does mean, however, that you can print the parts in different colored filaments to make it look more like the original.
These are not official or licensed products, so we can't guarantee that Disney's lawyers won't reach out and force-choke you for finding your lack of faith in its copyrights disturbing.
Print a measuring cube
Measuring cups are one of those things you can never find when you need them. Fortunately, your 3D printer can come to the rescue by printing this neat measuring cube. It can measure liquids or powders ranging from a quarter of a teaspoon to 1 cup, all in a cube measuring just 3.5 inches on each side. (There's also a metric version.)
One thing to note here: If you are planning to measure liquids or other cooking ingredients, you should print this in a food- and dishwasher-safe material, like nylon, so you can use the measuring cube and then toss it in the dishwasher.