At MatterHackers we want to equip you with the knowledge and confidence to succeed with each and every print. To start - let’s discuss the initial layer that is printed for any part - we refer to it as, not surprisingly, the “First Layer.” Let's dive into the details.

The first layer of any 3D print is the foundation all subsequent layers are built on, which makes it important - it is also critical to remember that bed surface and material compatibility play a role in the outcome of the first layer. Ensuring that the first layer is set properly will put you on the right path for a successful 3D print. Dialing in your first layer is a trivial task and worth the brief moment it takes to get right; calibration just requires knowing what to look for in a first layer that’s too close, too far, and just right.

Achieving a Perfect First Layer

We’ve compiled some examples of a small square at various Z offsets to show you the right way to adjust your printer settings to achieve a perfect first layer for your parts every time. 

  • The perfect Z-offset will have a top that looks like the top surface of a finished 3D print and a clean, uniform pattern on the bottom surface. If you were to print a cube with this setting, you wouldn’t see any flare out or tapered in at the base.
A calibration 3D print with the Z-Offset set perfectly.
A calibration 3D print with the Z-Offset set perfectly.
  • You can see the “0.1mm too close” print has ripples along the top where each pass of solid infill slightly pushes up the previous pass of solid infill. On the bottom, it is clean and smooth but has a cell-like pattern to it. While it looks good, this will cause the bottom face of the 3D print to flare out, which means if it needs to fit in another part it will need to be trimmed back in order to fit, and the ripples from above can eventually catch on the nozzle and peel up the entire first layer.
A calibration 3D print with the Z-Offset set approximately 0.1mm too close.
A calibration 3D print with the Z-Offset set approximately 0.1mm too close.
  • The “0.05mm too close” print is almost perfect. This sort of first layer is acceptable and isn’t likely to lead to complications, other than creating a tight fit if it needs to fit in a different part.
A calibration 3D print with the Z-Offset set approximately 0.05mm too close.
A calibration 3D print with the Z-Offset set approximately 0.05mm too close.
  • “0.05mm too far” and you start to be able to see between the infill and the solid infill is only slightly squished into each other. You may not be able to see through to the top, but with this offset you are beginning to lose surface area touching the build plate, and therefore bed adhesion.
A calibration 3D print with the Z-Offset set approximately 0.05mm too far.
A calibration 3D print with the Z-Offset set approximately 0.05mm too far.
  • At “0.1mm too far”, you will begin to experience lifting, maybe at the corners or at thin features. At this point, the infill lines are easily seen without fully adhering to each other and are able to be split apart from the perimeters.
A calibration 3D print with the Z-Offset set approximately 0.1mm too far.
A calibration 3D print with the Z-Offset set approximately 0.1mm too far.

Bed Leveling Methods: Manual vs Automatic Leveling

Your printer either has manual or automatic bed leveling hardware capabilities, and it may also have some helpful wizards and features to make it easier to set your first layer, while others often lack those features and require a more attentive touch. Even if your printer doesn’t have an automatic bed leveling sensor doesn’t mean it can’t be upgraded. The BL-Touch is one of the most commonly chosen bed leveling sensors for upgrades as it works on nearly every bed surface and is easy to install and test.

What is a Wizard?

Just like computers and other electronic devices, 3D printers often have built-in wizards to help guide someone with any level of 3D printing knowledge - even those that are brand new to 3D printing. These wizards will usually take the form of a guided walkthrough of the different steps you will need to take to make a change, like prompting you to adjust some thumbscrew for the heated bed or moving some sensor out of the way. Not every printer has one, but in general these are used on printers that have the room on their screens for a verbose and coherent explanation of what you need to do.

A Calibration Wizard on the Craftbot FLOW IDEX XL that walks the user through setting a perfect first layer.
A Calibration Wizard on the Craftbot FLOW IDEX XL that walks the user through setting a perfect first layer.

What is an Automatic Bed Leveling Sensor?

Automatic Bed Leveling sensors (ABLs) are used in the place of setting the first layer by a user’s sense of touch and calibrating by eye and instead calibrate the first layer consistently with some electronic sensor.. They come in many different forms with some better at detecting materials than others, like inductive probes being able to consistently detect metallic objects from nearly the same distance every time, but they are not able to detect anything non-metallic whatsoever. Or there are IR sensors that don’t require touching the bed surface to detect the bed, but have a tough time registering bed materials that are too reflective. Because there is so much variety in how they work, installing them differs for every form factor if you are choosing to upgrade a printer.

Without Wizards, Auto Bed Levelling 

While most 3D printers that include a bed leveling sensor will also feature some code in the firmware to make it easier to use, in the form of a wizard, not all 3D printers will have additional aids. Some home built 3D printers may have a sensor but no wizards to back them up, which requires a hands-on approach to successfully adjust the first layer Z-Offset. It’s not often that users will need to consider this approach, but if you’d like to learn more about how this process differs, you can read more about it here.

Without Wizards, Manual Adjustment

Without any additional features to make setting your first layer easier, you will have to  recalibrate your level bed. A bed that is perfectly leveled but is 1mm too far away from the nozzle at the start of a print is as good as a bed that starts 100mm away, so you need to know how to level your bed properly, and for that it’s important to watch our bed leveling guide here.

With Wizards, Manually Adjusted

The Craftbot+ features a guided leveling procedure, moving the print head over the bed leveling screws as you manually turn the thumbscrews to adjust the bed. Some printers can get complex with their wizards and take even more of the guesswork out of first layer calibrations. The BCN3D Epsilon’s wizard will print multiple lines side by side and ask you which one looks best, then remember the Z-Offset used to produce that result and apply that to the firmware, saving the offset for all Gcodes printed on that specific machine.

The Craftbot Plus Pro being levelled utilizing a guided manual bed levelling process.
The Craftbot Plus Pro being levelled utilizing a guided manual bed levelling process.

With Wizards, Automatic

This is one of the most hands-off processes that you can have for your first layer. The sensor will detect the relative mesh of the bed using the probe, then apply the currently saved Z-offset before running through a test print that you can adjust with babystepping to create a clean first layer. It’s really that easy.

A Pulse E-Series 3D printer utilizes wizards and an automatic bed levelling sensor to achieve a perfect first layer.
A Pulse E-Series 3D printer utilizes wizards and an automatic bed levelling sensor to achieve a perfect first layer.

After a few runs it will be easy to identify a  perfect first layer, but this guide should offer guidance to point you in the right direction to become an expert in troubleshooting your 3D prints and calibrating your 3D printers in no time. If this guide has proven helpful to you and gives you a better understanding of what to look out for in a first layer and how to diagnose whether or not you need to make adjustments to your 3D prints, be sure to check out some of our other 3D Printing Essentials tutorials to help you develop your 3D printing skillset.

Happy Printing!