Dec. 2, 2020
Having your 3D prints come out perfectly comes down to more than just a calibrated first layer and a properly leveled bed, you need to make sure that your bed surface is compatible with the material you are printing. There are almost as many bed surface options as there are materials to print, and each surface has their unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. Maximum printing temperature, compatible materials, bottom layer surface finish, and the ease of finished part removal are all things to consider when choosing your bed surface.
Glass build plates are generally made from what is called “float glass”. Float glass is made by pouring molten glass onto molten metal (usually tin) to achieve a uniform thickness and flatness. Having a flat, uniform surface is critical in the success of the first layer, and glass is one of the most uniform and flat build surfaces available. Installing a sheet of glass, especially borosilicate glass which has low thermal expansion, is one of the easiest ways to correct a 3D printer with a warped build plate. To use a glass bed at its fullest potential, you will want to use some form of adhesive applied directly to the surface which are both easy to apply and can be regularly cleaned off to maintain a nice, reusable surface.
Additional adhesives are highly recommended for most bed surfaces to ensure you lock down your 3D prints. Some are simple but originally designed for general purposes like PVA glue sticks, and others are specifically designed for 3D printing like Magigoo or 3D Gloop. Glass or garolite won’t react to solvents that may be used to clean the adhesives off, like acetone or isopropyl alcohol, and Magigoo or PVA glue stick can be easily wiped off with some warm soapy water and a credit card or the rough side of a sponge. For other bed surfaces, adhesives can double as a release agent, ensuring that the 3D print doesn’t permanently bond to the surface below while still providing something for the 3D print to stick to. You can learn more about when adhesives should be used as release agents in some of the other bed surface sections.
A unique build surface made using phenolic resin and fiberglass cloth pressed into a sheet, garolite has found its place in 3D printing as the build surface of choice for nylon based filaments. Other surfaces - despite being textured, made for 3D printing, or successful with seemingly all filaments - usually struggle to keep nylon locked to the surface for the duration of the print. Garolite doesn’t have that problem and is able to successfully hold onto nylon and nylon composites with ease. To increase adhesion for prints with smaller footprints, like the teeth of a gear, use a thin layer of PVA glue stick. Though it’s the ideal surface for nylon filaments, Garolite is a highly durable bed surface and is also compatible with PLA, PETG, TPU, TPE, ASA, and ABS.
Smooth Polyetherimide (PEI) is a popular build surface that is compatible with a wide range of materials. For most materials that it works with, PEI adheres strongly to the print when warm/hot, and releases the part when cooled. This ease of part removal is one of the best features of a PEI build surface. From 65°C for PLA to the 120°C for ABS, PEI works at a wide range of temperatures for an equally wide range of materials. Generally you can find PEI in two different forms: sheet and film. PEI sheets are significantly thicker than films and are usually applied to glass beds using an adhesive sheet like 3M 468MP. In general, PEI sheets aren’t intended to be flexed and instead rely on the releasing nature of cooled PEI. PEI films are what you’ll find on printers that have flexible build plates. PEI film is a durable surface, but a little too much aggression with a spatula (if it isn’t on a flexible bed) or other scraper tools increases the risk of a tear. Important note: TPU/TPE and PET based filaments have a tendency to bond to PEI permanently if your first layer is too close to the bed. Applying some PVA-based glue stick can help prevent this by acting as a release agent, rather than as a traditional adhesive.
Powder-coated PEI is a durable and versatile build surface made by coating flexible spring steel with a baked-on layer of PEI. The powder-coating process leaves a unique texture on the bottom of your 3D prints that hides any sign that your part was 3D printed. (Insert picture showing bottom surface of smooth PEI vs powder coated) Designed to be used on magnetic build surfaces, part removal is a breeze. Simply lift the build plate off the 3D printer’s bed, flex it, and the print should pop right off. The powder-coated surface is less susceptible to permanently bonding to PETG or TPU/TPE , but care should still be taken when printing those materials to avoid damage to the build surface.
Polypropylene has some wildly useful properties - high chemical resistance, extreme resistance to fatigue, durable - but 3D printing with it can be very difficult. The main difficulty is due to it not adhering to any material other than itself. LayerLock Build Surface for Polypropylene is specifically designed to work with polypropylene and polypropylene-like filaments like OBC. Unlike most other build surfaces, this is a material-specific build surface. So, if you aren’t printing with Polypropylene or Polyethylene, you’ll want to look at other build surface options.
First layer height is critical when printing polypropylene. Too close and your part will be permanently bonded to the surface. Too far and it won’t stick well enough to successfully finish. Magigoo PP or SmartMaterials Smart Stick work well as release agents to help prevent your part from permanently bonding to your build surface.
Some build surfaces are able to be flexed like painter’s tape, Buildtak, or PEI, which means if you apply it to a flexible spring steel sheet, you can bend it, tweak it, and flex it without worrying about creasing or breaking the applied surface. These spring steel sheets are also magnetic, which means you can remove the entire build plate from the printer, get a better angle at it, and remove the print without needing any sharp instruments to pry off your delicate 3D print. Being able to remove your build surface without modification means you can have several spring steel sheets on hand to swap to depending on the material at hand, ensuring you always have the perfect build surface for your materials. Some examples of these are the Buildtak FlexPlate System or the LayerLock MagBase.
One of the most common 3D printing-specific build surfaces you can find is Buildtak. It has a slight texture to it to provide grip, and can be used at room temperature or at 110°C without issue, which makes it a great choice for printers with unheated beds or for the high temperatures needed for ABS printing. Make sure when you’re using Buildtak that you optimize your first layer distance, as some materials like ABS or PETG can weld to the Buildtak if you are printing too closely to it, resulting in small chunks being ripped out of the sheet, or even creating a tear that requires a replacement of the entire sheet. Buildtak is one of the more versatile bed surfaces in that you can use it with almost any material except for nylon, nylon based composites, and polypropylene, with the caveats mentioned previously.
While it was one of the more common bed adhesive materials in the beginnings of desktop 3D printing, Kapton tape has become significantly less common than it used to be. The most common place you might find Kapton tape now is as part of a wrap for a heater block on some of the cheaper printers you can find. Kapton tape is basically a nylon based tape with an adhesive backing that helps evenly spread out the temperature of the build plate while serving as a replaceable build surface in the event of damage from a nozzle that was closer than it should have been. Application of kapton tape usually requires squeegeeing it on using some soapy water in order to limit bubbles, as this thin material is prone to bubbles if it’s applied dry and without care. Some printers you might find with Kapton tape are MakerGear and CraftUnique printers.
The simplest of the bunch, using painter’s tape as a bed surface is as old as desktop 3D printing. While some of the less expensive printers you can find today may come with small rolls of cheap, tan masking tape, blue painter’s tape is more commonly used when that roll of masking tape runs out. Some users, and even our MatterHackers Pros, swear by blue painter’s tape and use it exclusively on their 3D printers. If you are looking to use painter’s tape, make sure you grab a roll of the cheapest blue stuff; the tan rolls don’t hold up nearly as well and the more expensive tapes are too gentle to grab onto prints well enough. Blue painter’s tape is best suited for PLA, PETG, or TPU and can be used with or without a heated bed. This tape is paper-based, so it will wear down and need replacing as spatulas, removed 3D prints, and nozzle gauges remove bits of it over time.
The perforated build plate is a thick mesh-like plate that filament is forced into for strong adhesion. By nature of extruding filament into the holes it does take considerably more force than other bed surfaces to remove the finished 3D print, but that proves that it holds strong while you’re printing as well - even with ABS . A caveat of using perforated build plates is that you have to use rafts in order for the print to be removable without damaging it in the process.
There is an incredible variety in the different build surface materials that can be used for 3D printing. Some are tailor-made for specific materials and others are a good all-purpose build surface for your everyday 3D printing, but each of them is unique in their own way. Hopefully, with this walkthrough you have a better understanding of which build surface is the one you need for your 3D printer or your upcoming 3D printed project. Best of luck on whatever prints come your way; for all your 3D printing needs, bed surfaces included, check out MatterHackers.com.
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