Shopping for a 3D printer? You should still start with a Creality Ender 3.

Shopping for a 3D printer? You should still start with a Creality Ender 3.

I started my exploration of 3D printers with a Printrbot many years ago. It was a fun (and frustrating) introduction to 3D printing. As most do, I printed plenty of blocky trinkets for friends and family. Pikachu! Beyond that, it wasn’t useful for much, but I kept it around.

After years of watching makers on YouTube create amazing things with their machines I decided to upgrade to a Prusa MK3S+ as it was touted as the best of the best. Many say it still is.

It arrived as the pandemic was shutting down cities across the globe. At first, I loved it. The only problem was it was sitting mostly unused in my office as I did not yet have many ideas. Through Twitter I discovered an acquaintance of mine was printing face mask visors to help fill the shortages. I offered to jump in and printed a few hundred. After a while that fizzled and it was idle. Again.

At some point I found Treatstock and started making a few bucks here and there continuing to print parts for other creators. The Prusa was starting to pay for itself. I wanted to increase the amount of orders I could handle, but couldn’t justify the cost of another Prusa. So I decided to gamble on a Creality Ender 3. And then another. And another. And…

Today I have a dozen Ender 3 printers and a mix match of other Creality models. I’ve printed thousands of parts per month for customers and have moved on to running and selling my own designs.

The Prusa, well, as I mentioned, it arrived during the pandemic. I know people praise these machines up and down, but mine clearly didn’t get the same level of quality assurance. I’ve nicknamed it the Franken Prusa. I’ve almost sold it for parts. I’ve almost threw it out from rage a number of times. Nothing sticks to the original beds, the filament sensor died very early on. The bed thermister died soon there after. Part of the board shorted out and I had to hotwire the hot end thermister to different pins. On top of that I had the “blob of death” and had to completely replace the hotend - not a quick or intuitive process. That’s not the type of reliability I’d expect from a thousand dollar printer that was factory assembled. Again, this is my own experience with the Prusa and if it works for you, more power to you. Mine still runs, but I use it mostly for prototypes as I can trust it to run 24/7.

Alright, that’s quite a long intro. So why in my mind is the Ender 3 the printer you should chose?

If you look at what upgraded models, or competitors really offer as far as core functionality upgrades, it’s really honestly not that much. Touch screen? Fine. Custom firmware? Great. A space age look? Fabulous. But in a lot of cases the core components are still the same.

You can easily find used, open box, or returned Ender 3s for less than a hundred dollars online. You can’t beat that price to start a solid build.

A 3D printer as a machine boils down to a set of very basic components. A few axes, an extruder, and a hot end. That’s it. We could argue about ball screws, linear rails, corexy, and other new hotness (Klipper! Voron!) all day but for most of us, it’s not going to make a difference.

What matters?

The bed.

Get yourself a flexible bed plate of your choice. Smooth, or textured. Doesn’t matter. Most printers come with these today, but if yours doesn’t, do it. I’d add some adhesive such as Bed Weld as the first layer is always the most challenging.

The Extruder.

If your extruder is plastic, or single wheel drive, throw it out and upgrade immediately. There’s plenty of options here. I’m still using generic dual gear extruders myself. For the price, they last hundreds of hours. Even after that, you can swap parts in an hour from other scrapped extruders and keep them running. I’ve seen the gears grind down to nothing and friction wear through the metal arm before they need to be replaced. These things don’t fail, they turn to dust. I am testing out Micro Swiss extruders as a longer lasting option, but I haven’t justified the cost as of yet.

The Hot End.

If anything matters, it’s the hot end. It’s the primary component that differentiates any printer from more capable machines. Here’s where you spend the money. I’ve swapped out all my extruders with the Phaetus Dragonfly and haven’t had to dismantle my hot end to clean a jam once. This also unlocks the ability for other more exotic filaments, if you ever need them.

That’s it. Anything else worth an upgrade?

The Tubing.

I’ve definitely seen the stock tubing blacken with use, even just printing PLA. Switch to Capricorn. There’s no reason not to swap this out considering the cost, and the fact that it’s in direct path of the filament. Again, that’s where the money should be spent.

The springs.

Not much to be said here other than tighter springs will keep your bed calibrated longer. With compression springs I find I only need to dial up or down a quarter turn while a print starts every half dozen jobs or so. And if you print with a skirt, you can do that before the first layer even starts.

The carriage.

There’s nothin majorly wrong with the cooler setup, but taking it apart does take a few minutes and some tools (nothing compared to the Prusa). I’ve printed an upgrade for all my printers. Check out the Minimus Hot End Cooler System. It’s pressure fit and pops off in two seconds. If you really want a BLTouch (I don’t use ’em) this can help get you there was well.

So there you go. Build a machine, or a print farm, starting from an open source Ender 3 and my configuration. You’ll save a ton of frustration, and reach profitability much sooner than those that spend thousands of dollars on machines with less upgradability — and in a lot of cases, reliability.

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