3D Printing -- Getting a Model

Your 3D print starts with a mathematical model for a three-dimensional mesh. There are several ways to obtain it, but it is also possible to edit a 3D model and create one from a blank space. 2D vector graphics can be a great place to start if you just want to add thickness to a flat drawing. 3D models can also be scanned using a parallax scanner and sampling multiple angles of the object.

Intellectual Property

Please note that 3D printers have made it possible to reproduce copyrighted works, so you should review the information on our page about Protected Works.

Banned Prints

The Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988 and 18 U.S.C. 922(p) makes it an unlawful act to manufacture, import, sell, ship, deliver possess, transfer, or receive any firearm that is not detectable by walk-through metal detectors. Our Makerspace will not provide a service for manufacturing any part to be used in a firearm.

The FAA has jurisdiction over the fabrication of all aircraft parts. In October of 2017, the FAA has drafted a 7- to 8-year roadmap to address regulations, certifications, and policies regarding additive manufacturing. At the time of writing this guide, our Makerspace will not provide a service for manufacturing any part used in aircraft under the jurisdiction of the FAA.

This Makerspace is a community service that is hosted by a public library. Community members of any age and background are allowed to walk around the Makerspace and view all ongoing projects. For this reason, we will not support projects that are hateful, obscene, and/or derogatory.

Download a Model

Thingiverse is a website that hosts 3D models for free and these works are often protected under a Creative Commons copyright. This is also a great place to start when you need inspiration for your next project. All you have to do is search for want you want or browse through a collection of common projects.


Thingiverse: Search for "gears", March 15, 2019


Thingiverse: "Nautilus Gears" by MishaT, July 24, 2012

A simple search for "gears" can give you over 4000 matches. Clicking on a particular project will take you to that project's page. This page usually contains a few useful features that you should look at before deciding if this is the right print for you. For an example to follow, look at the "Nautilus Gears" that appear on this page.

First, notice the pictures. There is usually one large picture and smaller thumbnails. Full-color photos are usually the proof of a good design, because these are pictures of the item after it has successfully printed. Sometimes you can even find a video in these thumbnails. For example, the Nautilus Gears page includes one picture of the gears printed in a gray material and a video right next to it. But what you are looking for is the original mesh file(s), which are represented as blue objects on a gray plane with white grid lines. Clicking on one of these allows you to view the model in 3D.

The second thing you want to check for are the details, and you might have to scroll down a little bit to see them. Instructional projects on Thingiverse will include a description of the project, including a summary of how it was designed and instructions for printing or assembling the model. For example, the Nautilus Gears require printing four pieces, which are snapped together after printing.

Note: If these instructions contain information about "supports" or "infill", keep those in mind when you are slicing the model later.

The last thing you want to check is the license, which will be on the left column next to the details. If you hover over the icons, you can see the individual conditions that the creator has set. For example, the Nautilus Gears are by MishaT and you are allowed to use this model as long as you give the proper credit to MishaT.

When you download from Thingiverse (the link on the top right of the project page), you are downloading a zip file that contains several files. The *.STL files (or *.OBJ files) are required for proceeding with your print.

From this point, it is possible to proceed directly to slicing the model. If you want to customize the design, jump down to "Designing a Model" below.

Scan a Model

Our Makerspace includes a 3D scanner that is capable of creating a 3D mesh from a physical object. Check out the training page for more information about how to use this scanner.

Design a Model

*.STL files are visualization models of 3D objects. The information includes the locations of several vertices (3D points) connected by edges that are enclosed by faces. You can jump straight to 3D manipulation for a design or you can build from one or more 2D designs by adding depth.

2D Vector Design


Adobe Illustrator

“Vector” graphics store information about drawing points that are connected by curves. Compare this to drawing something on paper: (1) a pencil is lowered so that it touches the paper at one point, (2) the pencil is dragged across the paper to another point, (3) the pencil moves to the next point, (4) the path continues through points until it is lifted from the page. This is quite different from a “raster” graphic, which stores information in pixels, which are squares of individual color values.

Easy: Inkscape is open-source software that is available for Windows, Mac, or Linux. The experience is similar to designing figures on a presentation software like PowerPoint or Keynote. However, it presents much greater control over shaping objects.

Intermediate: CorelDraw and Adobe Illustrator are commercial software options that are available for purchase. They are more professional than Inkscape and have more features, but most of these are excess aesthetics that you may not be using if your intent is to build toward 3D design.

Advanced: DraftSight is also a commercial software option. If you prefer the exactness of a drafting software, this software is worth looking at.

3D Geometric Design


Geometric simplification is a technique for the start of a drawing. Some programs take this technique into 3D design by arranging geometric shapes onto a scene and blending them together.

Easy: TinkerCAD is a free software available online with an Autodesk registration that only requires an email address. SolidWorks Apps for Kids is a similar free software available online with a SolidWorks registration.

3D Sculpting Design


Before 3D printers, sculpting was the primary method of creating 3D art. This was a practice of shaping a malleable material or removing parts of a material with chisels.

Easy: SculptGL is a free software that is available online but can also be downloaded for offline use.


Fusion 360


Greater control over a 3D design can be achieved by CAD software. This often allows the most direct control over the shape of your model. This step can also be useful as a last step to refine the details from early designs. For example, you can prototype in Tinkercad, you can upgrade the design in Fusion 360, and you can adjust all the detailing in Blender.

Intermediate: Fusion 360 is a software from Autodesk that is essentially an upgraded version of TinkerCAD. The software is commercial and available for purchase, but it is possible to obtain a hobbyist license for free from Autodesk if you work for a non-profit like a library.

Advanced: 3D editors have been used for animations and computer games before 3D printers became popular, and any of them can also be used for 3D modeling, e.g.