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Custom 3D Printed Snowflakes
Custom 3D Printed Snowflakes

How to Make Your Friends into Flakes (if they aren’t already)

Roy (aka "The SmithBot") fills us in on a fantastic DIY holiday gift idea - custom snowflakes that incorporate hidden names within the design. All made possible by the science of 3D printing (and 3D printers like you).

You can print custom 3D snowflakes with the names of your friends and family members magically hidden within their snowy crystals!  Follow these easy steps, and your friends will be impressed. So will you!

You need the following software on your system:

  • Adobe Illustrator, or at least some drawing program that allows you to convert text to outlines; a program that can flip, duplicate, rotate, and combine shapes into compound shapes, and that can save files in a format that your 3D software can import.
  • 3D software: I’m using 3DS Max because it can import Illustrator 3 files as splines. (That’s right: Illustrator 3, not CS3. Old school.)
  • Your 3D printer software. I’m using a MakerBot Replicator 2 (MakerWare), printing with MatterHackers white PLA filament.  MatterControl is also a fine software choice for RepRap users.

THE 12-STEP PROGRAM:

Step 1. In Illustrator (or other): Type a name of a friend. I’m using “MatterHackers” as an example. Choose a font that’s not too crazy and that’s bold enough to print well.


Step 2. Convert the text to outlines: Using the solid arrow tool, select your text box, then under Type > Create Outlines.


Step 3. If your friend’s name has a lower-case “i” or “j” then the dots will fall off when you print. Every shape must connect well with every other shape to produce a viable snowflake that you can proudly hang from your tree. Keep this in mind while proceeding to Steps 4 and 5.


Step 4. Go to Effect > Distort and Transform > Free Distort; use your mouse to create a distorted shape as in the example here. The result should look about right for half of one arm of a six-armed snowflake, then go to Object > Expand Appearance. Save your work: You might need to adjust this later. I know I did! The “MatterHackers” snowflake took me two tries.


Step 5. Using the Reflect tool, choose Horizontal and Copy. Holding the Shift key, move the resulting shape down, leaving some space between the right-side-up and upside-down versions of your friend’s name.


Step 6. Draw a long, skinny rectangle between the two names that slightly covers the bottom of the top one and the top of the bottom one. Align and center it carefully to overlap the two shapes equally. Using your Pathfinder palette, unite all shapes into one compound shape.


Step 7. Using the Reflect tool again, flip and copy the entire shape on a vertical axis, and move the result to the right, again using your Shift key to keep everything in line.


Step 8. Select all your shapes, use your Rotate tool at 60 degrees, clicking Copy, and then do it once more. This will give you a snowflake shape. Be sure corners overlap enough in the middle to provide strong connections. Use your Illustrator Pathfinder palette to combine every shape into one compound shape. The ascender in the “k” in the name “MatterHackers” happened to overlap its reflected offspring. This can either contribute to the strength of your snowflake or totally confuse your computer, causing spurious results. Hopefully your friends have shorter names without too many ascenders or descenders or dots. If not, find new friends with names like “Ron” or “Jan.”


Step 9. Save your file as an Illustrator 3 document. If you try to save it as CS5 or whatever, lines of code will be too long. Your file format needs to be importable as an editable spline for your 3D software.


Step 10. In 3DS Max (or other), choose File > Merge, and find your file. Maybe this won’t work. If not, back up a few steps and try a different font or adjust your shapes. Maybe your compound shape wasn’t complete? Try ungrouping and using the Pathfinder tool again. When you’re confident that you have an extrudable spline, then extrude it about 0.1 inches.


Step 11. Export your file into .stl format, or whatever your printer prefers.


Step 12. My MakerBot is happiest printing snowflakes between three to five inches in diameter. This MatterHackers snowflake is 4.75 inches from corner to corner.


At first, when you show these snowflakes to your friends, they won’t notice their names at all. This provides all kinds of fun opportunities for you to gradually reveal those magically hidden crystalline words in whatever creative ways you can imagine!

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