Choosing Your First 3D Printing Project

So you have a 3D printer, or you know someone who does. And you really want to 3D print something. The question is, where do you start?

We asked several 3D printing professionals what they would recommend to a 3D printing newbie. And in true 3D printing spirit, their answers were all a little bit different.

MORE: 10 Amazing 3D Printed Artworks

Luc Nikiema, co-founder and president of TJIKO, suggests you start with what's closest to hand — yourself. He isn't being metaphorical; Nikiema advice was to "scan yourself and try to print yourself, replicate yourself. That's got to be really, really fun."

That may sound complicated, but if you have a 3D scanner, it's actually one of the easiest ways to go from an idea to a printed object.

A scanner creates a digital model of a physical object, which can be exported to a computer-aided design (CAD) program like 123D Make or zBrush for editing, or sent straight to a printer to return to the physical world.

If you don't have a scanner, you can still get digital models from one of the many public libraries where artists upload and share designs.

"You can go to It's a gallery of 123D models," said Andrew Taylor, a community manager for CAD software company Autodesk.

"There's also Thingiverse, which is Makerbot's equivalent. Just pick [a design] and go."

But if you really want to do it right, you'll start with a simple modeling app and create a design from scratch. Trevor Cash, a programmer for 3D printer software at B9Creations, recommends Sketchup.

"I would just start with simple geometries," says Carine Carmy, director of marketing for the 3D community Shapeways. "Get yourself used to squares, then maybe try just one interlocking piece so you can start to understand how things move with 3D printing."

"Just make a castle or something," Cash suggested. "Something simple."

A castle might seem a bit intimidating for first-time 3D designers, but so long as you don't go crazy with the arrowslits, parapets and other details, it shouldn't be too hard.

Zachary Vader, co-founder of 3D metal-printing startup Vader Systems, agrees that simple is the best place to start. "Something without overhangs, something that's purely vertical would be the most simple to do and most successful early part," he said. "To do anything more complex requires a little bit more experience with the printers. They're a little touchy."

MORE: 5 Coolest 3D Printers of Maker Faire

Carmy suggested looking around your surroundings. "I would say, what is missing in your office?" Carmy said. "Do you need a new side for the door or a pencil holder? Whatever it is, it should be functional or we're just going to have a lot of stuff in our life that we don't need."

That's the beauty of 3D printing," said Taylor. "You can just print something, and if you don’t like it, it costs you about an hour, about a dollar in material. So just start printing something."

Email or follow her @JillScharr and Google+. Follow us @TomsGuide, on Facebook and on Google+.

Jill Scharr is a creative writer and narrative designer in the videogame industry. She's currently Project Lead Writer at the games studio Harebrained Schemes, and has also worked at Bungie. Prior to that she worked as a Staff Writer for Tom's Guide, covering video games, online security, 3D printing and tech innovation among many subjects.