The Anatomy of a 3D Printer: Print Surfaces
A vital component of your 3D printer is the surface on top of your print bed - it can have a huge impact on your printing. Learn more about print surfaces here.
As 3D consumer 3D printing has developed, so has the material that parts are printed on. The print bed can be as simple as a sheet of aluminum or as advanced as a laminated sheet of heaters, plates, and specially designed surfaces.
Nowadays, most printers come stock with a heated bed. Some of these are made with a cast plate of aluminum with a PCB embedded under the surface (cast vs cold rolled aluminum because it won’t warp from the heat). These are usually mounted with the PCB on the bottom and the plain aluminum on top and then printed directly onto the aluminum. From here you can apply various bed adhesive sheets or materials instead.
Glass, and specifically borosilicate glass due to its heat transference, is another surface commonly used. Some printers come with glass bare, like Ultimakers, or with some other surface adhered to it, like Lulzbots or MakerGear 3D printers. Glass works really well at providing a mirror finish on the bottom of prints, but best results can be found when using a quick spritz of Aquanet hairspray, Elmer’s glue stick, or Magigoo.
MakerGear and CraftBot 3D printers come with glass and kapton tape on its surface. Kapton tape is commonly used in electronics for is thermal insulation, but conversely in 3D printing it is used to distribute heat evenly across the bed and can even keep ABS stuck to it without adhesives, a notoriously difficult task. Kapton tape can be damaged by aggressive print removal and scraping, but a 100’ roll costs about $20, which is enough to last a very long time.
LulzBots and Prusas have a PEI sheet adhered to glass, which is a plastic that has unique properties. As the bed is heated, it sticks to parts really well, but as it cools it contracts and releases parts. Some materials stick to it too well, like PETG, and others basically weld to it, like TPU and TPE. In these cases, glue stick can be used as a release agent rather than an adhesive, creating a barrier between to two materials and prevent them for adhering nearly permanently.
Garolite is one of the least common bed materials but with some interesting properties. It’s glass fiber cloth impregnated with epoxy resins and cured under pressure. It comes in sheets that are only a couple mm thick but this is enough to print nylon on and prevent it from warping, even when the bed is unheated. Nylon is known for warping off the bed without some heat and PVA glue, but with garolite neither are needed.
There’s also BuildTak and various other adhesive sheets that can be applied to bed surfaces like glass and aluminum. It’s a plastic with an adhesive backing and can hold onto even the warpiest of filaments like ABS. With a flexplate - which is a removable print surface that you can bend to release parts - you can really squish plastic into it and pop it off without issue when it’s finished.
Very occasionally you can find printers that just have an acrylic or some other plastic buildplate, and those usually come with some form of a replaceable sheet for adhesion. The Robo 3D C2 has what feels like blue painter’s tape, but is small black squares specially sized for the bed. Or there’s the Dremel Idea Builder which has a big sheet of tape with Dremel at the front. You theoretically could print directly on the plastic, which I did for a while, but one print was a little too close to the nozzle and the parts never came off; I had to order a completely new sheet.
There are other forms of print surfaces out there, but those are usually proprietary and only found on that model or brand of printer.