How to Start 3D Printing with 10 Dollars and No Printer

by Jason King on October 1, 2015

Save MoneyIn this blog post I’m going to show you how you can start 3D printing, without a 3D printer and with very little money.

I’ll describe with examples how you can design some cool custom objects (for free) and have them 3D printed for less than 10 dollars!

Why would I give away my best secrets like this? Well, it’s all part of my plan to help people like yourself become involved in 3D printing and overcome any fears or hurdles you may face. Here’s a little background before we start with the nuts and bolts…

If you’ve seen some of my recent tweets and Instagram pictures you’ll probably realise that I’m now on a 3D printing mission. The work I do in 3D printing has been a little unplanned and almost random up to now, but that’s all about to change.

My vision for 3D printing has always been to promote it, to inspire people and to get people involved in 3D printing themselves. I just didn’t realise it until recently, when I sat down and gave it some real thought.

To make this vision crystal clear and to make myself accountable for executing it I’ve completely rewritten my About Page. Feel free to take a look, there’s even a picture of myself on there now.

So, one of the first steps towards achieving this vision is to identify the hurdles people are facing when considering taking up 3D printing for themselves, after which I need to address these hurdles.

3D Printing Can be Costly

Of all the reasons people give me for not becoming involved in 3D printing, the issue of cost seems to be the most common one.

Printrbot Metal SimpleThis is understandable as not many people can justify the cost of buying a 3D printer when they have other more important living expenses to deal with.

The fact that low cost 3D printers like the Printrbot Simple Range and low cost Kickstarter projects are so popular is further evidence that cost of entry is a big issue for many people.

For a very detailed breakdown of the true cost of 3D printing at home Click Here, where I describe every cost involved (even electricity and equipment depreciation costs).

I also developed a free Online 3D Printing Cost Calculator to help demystify the cost issue, after realising that there is very little information out there about the cost of 3D printing and after being asked about it regularly.

3D Printing on the Cheap

That brings us to the question of this blog posts title and back to the important stuff. Can you really start 3D printing on the cheap, without a 3D printer and for less than the price of lunch?

The answer is simply “yes” and if you read this blog post and take a little action you could literally do it today, but you may have to skip lunch to raise that 10 dollars and make the time available.

Having established that it can be done, the next and biggest question is how? That’s why the you’re reading this, right?

Start by Designing for Free

A quick note about designing something to 3D print. If the thought of designing your own stuff scares you, or you don’t feel it’s necessary then that’s ok.

Pop over to Thingiverse and browse some of the things you can download for free, most of which are suitable for 3D printing.

Otherwise, if you’re feeling brave and ambitious I’ll now tell you about some of the free and simple design tools I use daily.

3DPrintHQ OpenSCADTinkercad is one of the first design tools I used and I still love it. It’s a simple online 3D design tool which runs in your web browser, so no installation is required.

They have a number of online tutorials too which you can run through and although I usually like to learn by myself, I can recommend the tutorials as they’re simple, fun and will save you loads of time in the long run.

OpenSCAD is my latest design tool of choice though and is another free option. You’ll need to install this one but it’s simple enough to do.

OpenSCAD uses a simple programming language to create 3D objects so unlike Tinkercad it doesn’t use a drag and drop kind of interface.

It’s really easy in OpenSCAD to parameterize your designs so that you can change them just by tweaking a few numbers. Here’s a few examples of designs I’ve created myself and uploaded to Thingiverse:

I’ve also designed this Bespoke Jewellery which I had 3D printed and rose gold plated. There’s other jewellery I’ve designed too for upcoming birthdays, but I will reveal them after the birthdays have passed as not to spoil as any surprises.

Your First OpenSCAD Design

For your first practical step (besides reading this in the first place) I suggest you Download and Install OpenSCAD now, because I have some good news. I’ve designed you a personalised keyring, which you can paste straight in into OpenSCAD and change some of the values so it’s customised for your own name.

// Title: 3D Print HQ Name Keyring
// Version: 1.0
// Date: 27 September 2015
// Author: Jason King
// Web URL:
// Copyright (c) 3D Print Headquarters 2015

// Global parameters

// Fonts
fontSize = 10;
fontHi = 4;
fontLo = 3;
fontCurve = 0.8;
fontTwist = -7;

// Name
name = [
 [0, "3", 0, fontHi],
 [1, "D", 6.5, fontLo],
 [2, "P", 14, fontHi],
 [3, "R", 21, fontLo],
 [4, "I", 30, fontHi],
 [5, "N", 32, fontLo],
 [6, "T", 40, fontHi],
 [7, "H", 47, fontLo],
 [8, "Q", 55, fontHi]

// Ring
ringDim = [3, 3, 6];
ringPos = [-1.5, 10, 0];

// Quality
qualCurves = 25;
qualSlices = 7;

// Miscelaneous
centreXOffset = -28;

// Overlap
ol = 0.01;
ol2 = ol*2;

// Call main module to create keyring

// Create keyring
module keyring()
  $fn = qualCurves;
  translate([centreXOffset, -fontSize/2, 0]) {

// Create ring
module ring()
    difference() {
      cylinder(h=ringDim[0], d=ringDim[2]);
      translate([0, 0, -ol])
        cylinder(h=ringDim[0]+ol2, d=ringDim[1]);

// Create each character in turn
module characters()
  for(t = name) {
    translate([t[2], 0, 0])
      char(t[1], t[3]);

// Create single character
module char(char, height)
  linear_extrude(height = height,
                 twist = fontTwist,
                 slices = qualSlices)
  offset(r = fontCurve)
    text(text = char,
         size = fontSize,
         font = "Ariel");

It defaults to “3DPrintHQ” but I’ll briefly explain how to change this. I want you to play around with this design yourself and see what happens. You can’t do any harm by doing this and if all else fails you can just start afresh with my original version.

All you’ll need to do is go to the “Global parameters” section near the top, then change the “name” array, so that it includes the letters of your own name, rather than “3DPrintHQ”. You may need to increase or reduce the number of letters in the array to do this.

Also, you’ll need to adjust the distance parameters (the numbers to the right of each letter in the name array) so that the letters are spaced correctly. Remember that they must overlap so that the letters combine into one single object.

The ring at the end where the keyring attaches to your keys will need to be moved too (tweak the first two “ringPos” numbers), again so that it overlaps the first letter to make it a single 3D printable object.

This isn’t meant to be an OpenSCAD tutorial so I won’t explain every detail. However, OpenSCAD is fun to play around with, so change some of the parameters in this file and see what effect it has on the design. If you wish you can learn by trial and error, or use this Cheat Sheet to help you learn more about OpenSCAD.

In the example below I’ve highlighted the values you’ll need to change to customise the design for your own name, but feel free to change whatever you like if you’re feeling ambitious. Bear in mind that this design is very flexible, so you can change font types, sizes, heights and degrees of twist if you wish.

OpenSCAD Parameters

Consider this your homework, to change this design so that it’s a keyring with your own name on, or just your initials if you want to save even more on 3D printing costs. If you really get stuck with it, feel free to Contact Me and I’ll personally help you with your design.

Exporting Your Design For 3D Printing

When your design is complete and you’re happy with it, it’s time to render it in high resolution, ready for exporting as a .STL file for printing. To do this you should increase the “qualCurves” parameter to 100. This will increase the resolution of the curves.

You’ll also need to increase the “qualSlices” layer parameter up to 20, to improve the smoothness of the twist your letters have.

When you’ve done this, click the “Render” button, “Design->Render” menu option or just the “F6” key to render the object. You may need to wait a little while, depending on how fast your computer is and how complex your design is.

It’s now time to make yourself a well earned cup of tea while you wait.

When it’s complete you can do a final check of your design and then hit the “Export as STL” button. This will export your design in a .STL format, which is the most popular format used for 3D printing.

How to Have Your Design 3D Printed

There are many different 3D printing service companies which would be able to 3D print your design, but the one I use all the time now and can highly recommend is Shapeways.

They’re based in America but ship all over the world for a reasonable price. I’m in the UK and shipping is still quite cheap, but some days they even have special offers where shipping is free for a short time.

For more details about exactly how to upload your design and the checks Shapeways use before 3D printing your design you should take a look at this article I wrote about when I had Shapeways produce my first piece of Gold Plated Jewelry.

3DPrintHQ KeyringSomething to note here is that you can have your design 3D printed in a whole array of materials, but as this is your first design, you should chose one of the coloured plastic options, which are simple, cheap and quick to produce.

For the purpose of this blog post I just uploaded this design to Shapeways and to make it in any “Strong & Flexible Plastic” it passed all of the checks and would cost no more than 5 dollars to make in any colour.

By having it made in plastic you’ll find you should be able to have your design 3D printed and delivered to you for under 10 dollars, depending on where you live in the world and your shipping costs.

Of course if you love the finished object when they deliver it to you, you could always up your game a little and have it printed again in metal, or even use one of their precious metal options. At least it’ll ensure you’re more careful about not losing your keys 🙂

Final Thoughts on 3D Printing on a Budget

I hope you found this article interesting and useful and I urge you to take the time to tweak this design (or leave it as it is if you like) and have Shapeways make it for you.

The sole intention of this article is to break though the biggest hurdle people face when they’re considering becoming involved in 3D printing, that being the cost.

I hope I’ve demonstrated how you can design something for free then have it 3D printed for you and delivered to your home for very little cost and without having to buy any expensive equipment.

Trust me, when you’ve run through this exercise and see your first 3D printed object with your own eyes, you’ll likely be addicted. Before you know it you’ll be designing your own cool stuff from scratch and having it delivered to your door a week or so later.

Just think how many personalised Christmas and birthday presents you can design and have made, where there’s only one of them in the world. If you’ve followed me on Twitter or Instagram you’ll realise that I do this a lot now.

Thanks for reading and feel free to Like, Share and Comment on this article if you found it interesting. Also, if you’re interested in learning more about 3D printing at home then Download my FREE Beginners Guide to 3D Printing at Home eBook today!


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