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Do 3D Pens Really Work?

Do 3D Pens Really Work | 3D Printing Spot

Updated by

William Stone

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March 1, 2021

3D pens are a newer and exciting technology that naturally causes a lot of questions. One of the most common questions that first-time users or general observers may have is, do they really work? 3D pens have lots of pros and cons, but the barrier of entry can be expensive. I remember doing quite a bit of research into these pens when I was looking to buy one myself.

Do 3D pens really work? Yes, but not for everything. 3D pens are great for quick ideation of 3D models, repair work in plastic, and for general arts and crafts use. You will most likely not get high quality, finished pieces out of a 3D pen, but that does not mean they don’t work.

Knowing that, answers the first question but opens up many more. To remedy that, here is a comprehensive beginner’s guide to 3D pens, their capabilities, and if they are right for you.

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Table of contents:

What Is A 3D Pen?

One of the first follow up questions to answer is what exactly a 3D pen is. Simply put, 3D pens are small machines that are held like a pen, melting plastic into a usable form. It can be useful to think of these as a hot glue gun that dries into a thick and durable plastic.

Often, they can be seen as a sort of cousin of 3D printers. 3D printers are large machines that can accurately print out plastic into a variety of 3D forms. Ultimately, the function of a 3D pen is more limited than a printer but much more free form.

The benefits of a 3D pen include:

  • No computer files necessary
  • It works very similarly to a normal pen - low barrier of entry
  • Quickly producing 3D shapes
  • Quick-drying time

 All of these benefits combine to make a product that is perfect for creating a quick “sketch” of almost any object you can imagine. The ease of use of 3D pens is one of the medium’s strongest attributes.

What Are 3D Pens For?

The uses for a 3d pen are only limited by the user’s imagination, assuming they have the patience and material to do what they want. Still, that does not mean that 3D pens do not have specific strengths and weaknesses.

3D pens are great for quick ideas and basic shapes. Producing a 3D cube or sphere is easy and quick to do using a pen, especially when compared to other 3D methods. Because the material used by the pen is almost always plastic, they can also be useful for plugging small holes in household items. The best uses for 3D pens are almost always creative. Producing small trinkets, key chains, 3d coins - all of these are supported greatly by 3D pens.

However, 3D pens tend to falter when it comes to small details. This will change depending on the specific 3D pen you use, but in general, most are not equipped to handle any finished product with more than a few faces. Faces, in the context of 3D modeling, are any large area that is filled in with plastic. For instance, a cube has 6 faces. 

Safety Concerns For 3D Pens

Due to some marketing toward children and general arts and crafts use, a common concern for 3D pen users is safety. Due to the heating of plastic being central to the tool’s use, it is possible to do some damage with a 3D pen.

The tip of a 3D pen reaches significantly hot temperatures, possibly upwards of 200 degrees Celsius. This is hot enough to cause severe burns if it makes enough contact with skin. Given how close the fingers of the user will be to the tip, as with a normal pen, this can deter some people from using a 3D pen.

Luckily, many 3D pens include large grips and leave ample space before the nozzle itself, allowing for a greater range of hand motion. Most adults will be fine using any 3D pen, assuming they treat the device as potentially dangerous, similar to a hot glue gun. This comparison is only surface deep, however. Many 3D pens get significantly hotter than a hot glue gun, so be sure to use caution. 

If you are interested in purchasing a 3D pen for a child, do not fear. There are many 3D pen options available, made specifically for children, that have increased safety features. Often, these can include plastic coverings over the nozzle for when it is not being used, a lower operating temperature, or different methods of plastic distribution. 

The two most common child safe forms of 3D pens are:

  1. Low-temperature 3D pens that use a different plastic with a lower melting point
  2. A cool plastic that dries utilizing UV light 

For particularly young children, under the age of 8 or so, the UV drying 3D pens are most likely the best option. They are the safest but often produce the least detailed results. These pens are not able to make anything but the most basic shapes but can serve as a great introduction to the hobby for children.

How 3D Pens Work?

3D pens are a fascinating new technology development that allows for a wide variety of uses. They can work in a few different ways, but the most common involves the heating of plastic. 3D pens heat up plastic to incredibly high temperatures, upwards of 200 degrees Celsius. This transforms the plastic into a liquid which can then be shaped and transformed similarly to a ballpoint pen.

The plastic dries quickly after it has left the pen, allowing for 3D shapes to take form. This quick-drying is what makes the pens special, as after only a few seconds a line stretching above the table will hold its shape.

The plastic used by the pen determines how quickly it dries, as well as some other minor differences. Your 3D pen will most likely come with a recommended plastic to use, but each has its pros and cons. The two most popular forms of plastic to use in a 3D pen are ABS and PLA plastic, but there are others that can be used. These include:

  • ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)
  • PLA (Poly Lactic Acid)
  • Nylon (Polyamide)
  • PC (Polycarbonate)

Some 3D pens can also print in other materials such as wood or metal.

ABS Plastic

ABS plastic is often the first type of plastic a 3D pen user will use. It comes with the 3D pen and can be bought in a variety of colors. Due to how widely produced and used ABS plastic is, it is also the most cost-effective option. 

ABS plastic can be bought in a variety of places including online retailers and most craft stores. Unfortunately, ABS plastic also has one of the highest melting points of any plastic used in 3D pens. While this is not generally an issue for modern 3D pens, it does limit this plastic’s use to adults only.

The environmental impact of ABS plastic is also fairly significant. Luckily, the amount used by a 3D pen is minimal, but it is something to keep in mind. 3D pens using ABS plastic can emit mild fumes if used for a long period of time, so do your work in a well-ventilated area or while wearing a mask.

PLA Plastic

PLA plastic is much more environmentally conscious than its popular cousin, ABS. PLA is produced from natural plants and food sources such as corn or potatoes and is biodegradable because of this. 

PLA plastic is more fragile than its ABS counterpart and has a much longer cooling period. This makes PLA plastic difficult to use for complex 3D shapes, though it is possible. Simply cool the plastic with other methods such as fans. The workflow of PLA plastic is often much more tedious when producing large structures, however, and many consider it not worth the extra effort.

PLA plastic is best used for objects that do not need to stick up into the air while cooling. This can include things such as coins, coasters, or any flat 3D shape. 

Staying safe while using PLA plastic is easier than when using other materials, as it does not emit any harmful fumes given its natural origins.

Nylon

Using a 3D pen to print in a nylon material is rarer than other options but can be the best-case scenario for a few different prints. Nylon plastic results in an almost fabric-like feel of the end product, and it can even be dyed once fully dry.

The nylon material is often best for use on bags, patches, and other plastics which you want to have a more natural feel.It is not great for everyday use due to its fairly high price and fickle printing conditions.

Nylon is fairly tough and dries well enough to make large objects out of, although it is important to not allow much moisture into the environment while printing using it. This can cause the Nylon to warp or not dry properly, ruining the project.

PC Plastic

PC plastic is a highly durable printing plastic, although uncommon when compared to other plastics. This is largely due to its price point, which can be significantly higher than other plastics.

PC plastic is useful for creating any 3D shape that will stand on its own and shares the quick-drying properties of ABS plastic. It is also highly resistant to impact, improving its durability. One of the most important qualities of PC plastic, and what sets it apart from other options, is its transparency. This opens up quite a bit of creative freedom for 3D pen usage, letting opacity play a role in artist’s work. 

Safety concerns about PC plastic are numerous, and also contribute to quite a few environmental hazards. If using a 3D pen with PC plastic, be sure to wear a mask or work in a well-ventilated area. 

Wood or Metal

3D pens that can print in wood or metal are fairly rare. These materials are generally printed using a mixture between wood and plastic, or metal and plastic.  

Wooden 3D printed structures combine wood fibers with plastic so that it shares the natural look and feel of wood. In addition, this can be sanded down once dry to allow even finer control over the finished product.

Metal 3D structures are generally created from either bronze or copper. Metal prints will be heavier, possibly making a product feel more high quality. Metal printing is also one of the most durable options available, as it shares a similar hardness to real, nonprinted metal structures. These can be polished when dry to create a shiny look. 

What Can I Do With 3D Pens?

3D pens have a large variety of uses. Truly, your imagination is one of the only limiting factors for creating with this tool. Any plastic object you can think of can be created using a 3D printer if enough time and material are devoted to it.

Commonly, 3D pens are used for artistic endeavors. This encompasses everything from pieces to use in a collage to full sculptures themselves. Other uses include prototyping of early ideas for product design, such as modeling what a new phone’s shape may be or creating a mechanical pencil mockup. Repairing or combining other 3D printed work with a 3D pen is another common use case. 

Each of these broad categories encapsulates an enormous amount of options for what 3D pens can do, either in a professional sense or for a fun and new hobby. 

Prototyping

Prototyping early designs are one of the most inventive ways to use a 3D pen in a professional sense. Anyone who works with 3D objects can utilize a 3D pen to prototype early designs and help make a decision on where to go next. 

Common positions where prototyping could be useful include:

  • Product designers
  • Woodworkers
  • Dentists or other medical workers
  • Graphic designers

3D pens are best in the early stages of a product, where major decisions still need to be made. This includes things like the general shape of a product, the sizing, and general look. If, for instance, a small speaker needs to fit in the palm of someone’s hand, a 3D pen is a great way to test that. Rather than waiting for a full 3D printer to print out a high-quality but possibly flawed model, a pen can get the same result insignificantly less time. 

Modeling

Modeling small miniatures can be done extremely well with a 3D pen. While lacking in detail, anything that relies on the general shape to be noticed can be modeled quickly. Things such as small figurines, trees, rocks, or anything else for miniature models are perfect for a 3D pen, assuming they are small enough.

For larger sculptures, 3D pens can still serve as a great tool. Pens can create the whole sculpture if enough time is given to let individual strands dry. Examples include 3D penned glasses, bracelets, animal sculptures, and other creative uses. 

This is the most common use that people think of when considering what a 3D pen can do, and for good reason. Modeling sculptures with a 3D pen is one of the best and most modern ways to express yourself creatively.

Repairs

Repairing or combining other plastic pieces is a less exciting idea for 3D pen usage, but often the most useful. Taking a quick second to consider how many household items are made of plastic will ensure you of the fact that this can be a great and common use for the pen. Due to how many different colors you can purchase 3D pen plastic in, the repairs can even look seamless. 

Another use for a 3D pen is combining other parts of plastic. This is most common when combined with a 3D printer which can better handle large parts. Combining the two tools, you can create incredible structures that are even larger than humans. The extra precision and material from using a 3D pen on the joints and connections will even add durability to the piece. 

Fashion Design

A surprising use for a 3D pen is fashion design at both the professional and hobby levels. This can be done at almost any stage in the process, as well. 

Especially for geometric shapes or patterns, a good 3D pen should be more than enough to produce the final product, skipping over other, possibly more expensive printing methods. The wide array of colors and materials available can also help ensure that the resulting product is exactly what you hoped for.

Commonly, 3D pens will prove most useful for fashion accessories. This includes things such as bracelets, rings, necklaces, and even buttons. However, the uses in fashion do not just stop at accessories. Capes, dresses, and even gloves can all be created using a 3D pen. This is sure to produce a unique piece and add some fun to any wardrobe.

Arts And Crafts

Using a 3D pen for arts and crafts is one of the most common uses. This large category encapsulates a tremendous amount of creativity and usefulness, allowing the 3D pen to help artists and hobbyists create almost anything they wish in 3D. 

The possibilities for what can be done with a 3D pen for arts and crafts are enormous. Some common examples include:

  • Scrap booking Pieces
  • Game Pieces
  • Coasters
  • Unique Knickknacks
  • Toys For Children
  • Key rings

There is an incredible amount of resources online to gain inspiration for what crafts can be done with a 3D pen. In addition, the pen can be incredible for adding a personal or unique touch to any normal arts and crafts projects, even if they are 2D. 

Tips For Using A 3D Pen

Using a 3D pen for the first time is certainly a learning experience. Much of the skill that allows advanced users to produce beautiful artwork will come with time, but there are a few tips and tricks for making the beginning of the process easier.

Make Connection Points

Making connection points between weak pieces of the 3D pen work is essential for producing designs that will not break easily. These connection points serve multiple purposes depending on where in the piece they are going. The two most common uses are:

  1. To strengthen thin parts of the plastic
  2. To connect floating parts of the piece

Strengthening thin parts of plastic is how you will use connection points the majority of the time. Essentially, if you notice that a piece of the art you are creating is brittle or seems to sag under the weight of the other plastic, one of the best things you can do is make a connection point between that area and a stronger one. Try to fit the connection in with the design as much as possible so that people do not notice.

Floating pieces, such as the glasses a man wears, have to be connected to the rest of the plastic. This is often forgotten by beginners as 3D pens are one of the only mediums where this matters. Any accessories or isolated pieces must be connected somehow to the larger, stronger piece. This is mostly done through thin strands that can stay generally hidden.

As you get better with using the 3D pen, start to incorporate connection points into the design. That way, everyone will just see one continuous piece, rather than a shape that needed extra support.

Allow Ample Time To Dry

Allowing enough time to let the plastic set before moving on to the next strand is a skill that develops over time. In general, though, it is best to leave the pen in place for longer than you may think is necessary. Especially while learning, it can be easy to want to rush to the next piece and ruin what you have done so far.

Drying time will depend on the pen you are using and the plastic melting out of the pen. As a baseline, you want to leave the pen in place for at least 10 seconds. This should be even longer is the strand you are working on is a support piece or sticking directly into the air before any supports are added. Your 3D pen should come with instructions on how long to leave the plastic in place before moving on to the next step. 

Don’t Move Unless Necessary

Even after the plastic from the 3D pen has dried enough to stand on its own, it is not necessarily at its strongest. Most plastics take extra time to harden fully, meaning they are still fairly sensitive to movement for a long period after drying.

To prevent any warping of the shape you are creating, or perhaps even total collapse, it is best to avoid all unnecessary movement. This includes trying not to touch the piece more than necessary, choosing a holding spot where you will not need to move your hand often, and setting up a work area where you can concentrate on the task at hand for a long enough time.

When you are done working on a piece, you should let it sit and harden as much as possible. Most 3D pen users recommend letting the piece sit for at least 24 hours before handling when possible. This does not apply to prototypes or other less detail-oriented work, however. Anything that is created to be the final form should be let still for a while.

How Much Do 3D Pens Cost?

Purchasing a 3D pen can be a large investment if you try for a top of the line model from the start. The range of cost for 3D pens is quite large. 3D pens can be found for as little as $15, quickly rising upwards of $250. Commonly, you will get what you paid for in this market, although there is always the possibility of a cheap gem.

The main factors that decide the price of a 3D pen include:

  • Brand
  • Extra Features
  • Temperature
  • Usability and Ergonomics

Generally speaking, cheaper 3D pens are meant for children. As such, they do not get as warm and will not be able to produce as detailed work as high-end models. 

Common Choices

Despite being relatively new technology, there are some established brands in the 3D pen world. Although these often may not be the best deal, they are reliable products that have been heavily tested by the community.

3Doodler was he first company to produce 3D pens, and they make a great choice for a beginner. Their price range is wide as well, ensuring that anyone who is in the market can find something for themselves through this brand.

MYNT3D pens are specifically designed for artists. The pen can normally be found for around $75, making it relatively cheap as far as good pens go. This brand is known for affordable quality that can last a while. While not incredibly feature heavy, the pen is highly usable and easy to grip, making it a solid choice. If you are willing to drop a little bit more money on a beginner pen, this should be able to take you to the next level. Be careful of knockoffs and clones!

Scribbler pens are a bit of a catch-all. While making great pens for first time users, their quality can leave much to be desired and reviews generally place them in the solid middle of the pack. They are worth it if you find a good deal or want a full kit that includes lots of plastic to start with.

If you are looking for a pen for children, the 3Doodler Start is a great choice that includes lots of safety features to help not get burned. For adults, it really comes down to preference. For the best general value, the MYNT3D is hard to beat but can lack the bells and whistles of other brands, including features like more temperature control or an LED screen updating you on what’s happening. 

Be sure to read reviews and look for deals when buying your 3D pen! They do not have to be a huge investment, especially for a beginner.

About THE AUTHOR

William Stone

William Stone

William has spent 20 plus years in the custom manufacturing industry as a COO, CEO and Owner of various custom product businesses. His experience has exposed him to all types of manufacturing from die cast, die struck, injection molding, CNC machining, laser etching, engraving and of course 3D printing.

Learn more about William Stone

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Do 3D Pens Really Work?

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