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Exclusive: 3D print a tabletop miniature with this Shapeways tutorial

Contributed by
May 3, 2017

The idea of 3D printing something geeky when you've never done it before might sound intimidating and expensive, but it doesn't have to be. These days you don't have to buy your own printer to 3D print something. There are quite a few options out there that will print for you and try to make the process as approachable as possible.

One of those options is Shapeways, a website that can make a 3D design a physical reality.

"We will print it for you or you can put that into a shop like Etsy and sell it to other people. We have 35,000 shops on our website of independent designers who are selling their products to all sorts of different communities and that includes things like tabletop gaming," Shapeways community manager Andrew Simon Thomas told Syfy Wire.

For the beginner, there are a few ways you can get started. According to Thomas, you can use one of their 3D creator apps available on the website, you can contact a shop owner or designer available for hire, or you can design something on your own with the help of tutorials they offer. The time it takes to print something through the website varies depending on the material used. Thomas said most materials fall into the two to four day range though some will take longer. There are quite a lot of materials you can choose from including plastics, gold, silver, brass, bronze, and steel and prices will also vary depending on your project.

To Thomas, the main challenge first-time designers should keep in mind when starting out is learning the design philosophy, especially if you're not familiar with the process but are very enthusiastic about the possibilities.

"You have to let go of the idea that the first time you make something it needs to be perfect. You get into this concept that you make something, take a look at it, you say ‘I like this aspect of it. I don't like how big it is. I don't like how it feels.' Then you make changes and then you print it again and sort of repeat that iterative creative process that exists in everything," Thomas said. "This is how writers work, that's how musicians work, that's how artists do things, so knowing that it takes time and multiple tries to get something is the real challenge. We make that easy too with cheaper materials so you can print something in a strong flexible plastic to kind of get the look of it and then if you wanted to put that in a metal afterwards you would be ready after the iterations you needed."

There are endless possibilities for creating geeky items when it comes to 3D printing. Thomas highlighted a few favorites and stand out items he's seen on the site such as dinosaur figures, unique dice, and shoulder pads for Warhammer 40K figures. Even cosplayers and prop designers have found ways to use the site to make stunning pieces with Thomas highlighting the work of Melissa Ng who printed some impressive armor through Shapeways.

With all these possibilities, why not give it a try yourself? For anyone who wants to try creating a miniature for a tabletop game like Dungeons & Dragons, Thomas has put together an exclusive tutorial for Syfy Wire readers walking you through the process. If you're wondering about pricing for such a creation, according to Shapeways printing a 28mm miniature in white strong and flexible nylon for prototype would cost about $3 and printing in a material good for painting like FUD and BHDA would be $10.

Check out the tutorial created by Thomas below and if you have any questions, feel free to ask him on Twitter!

Design your own Dungeons & Dragons character tutorial

The Shapeways community loves to use 3D design to create their own characters for D&D (and custom accessories for basically every hobby). There's really nothing that compares with creating a character and then bringing it to life in 3D.

In this step-by-step tutorial, we'll show you how to create your own highly detailed figurine using 3D design softwares Blender, Meshmixer and Sculptris. These are all free-to-download tools, and you'll need little to no experience with 3D modeling.

First we'll focus on planning and getting familiar with Blender (you can download it for free here). We'll then focus on design using Meshmixer, Sculptris, and Blender, then uploading your file for printing. I'd suggest you go ahead and download each program now using the embedded links here.

Remember: 3D designing is always a learning process. If these are new tools they may look intimidating, but this guide will show you a path to get what you need out of them. This tutorial is about learning the process for making a game character, but there are other tutorials out there that will teach you the ins and outs of the programs themselves. If you make a mistake remember the undo button! (control z for windows, command z for macs) and remember to save often in case you need to go back. Take it easy, be patient, and have fun! Once you've got this process down feel free to explore and add more to your character.

1. Look at inspiration: You likely already have a character created for your campaign, and if you're a talented artist, you may have a drawing ready to go. If not, scan for cool source material in your favorite movies, shows, video games, or comics. Unless you plan to sell your figurine, all these forms of entertainment and other artists' work are all fair game, but it's a lot cooler to use these as points of inspiration rather than just straight copying your favorite characters.

2. Start with a sketch: Draw a picture of your character. I draw on gridded paper to help keep the proportions consistent. Draw out as many sketches as possible to help predict the maximum amount of design considerations before moving on. Don't worry if drawing isn't your thing. Try your best, and be specific about the look of the body, clothes, and gear. By making important design decisions early, you can avoid having to restart your design from scratch. You can always choose to depart from the original later on if you still want to.

Some artists will draw their character in a T-pose to copy, but generally I don't find that necessary. I just like seeing a reference to keep things to the right scale.

3. Open Blender and start by updating the user preferences: If this is your first time using Blender, don't be intimidated by all the buttons. We're only going to use a small portion of what Blender can do. First, we want to change a few preferences to make things easier. Go to User Preferences and change the select to be the left button click. If you're on a laptop (like me) make it so that we're using the number keys at the top of your keyboard by checking Emulate Numpad.

Pssst—If you want to really dig in and learn everything Blender has to offer, check out Andrew Price's free YouTube tutorials.

4. Import your drawing into Blender to use as a reference for your miniature.

Hit N on your keyboard to open a new panel menu. We're going to call this window the N menu for the rest of this tutorial as it's pretty useful and we'll be using it often. First scroll down, check and open Background Images, hit Add Image, click Open, find and double click your image file.

Now I need to put the image into the scene. To do this I go to the Axis drop down and select Top view, then hit 5 and 7, which makes the image visible in the background. Hitting 5 allows you to toggle in between perspective and orthographic mode (showing objects without perspective, making it easier to judge sizes and relationships of objects). Clicking 7 shows the image from the top.

I also make the image transparent by lowering the opacity to 0.25. Then I select Front to ensure the image sits over the objects in the scene so both are visible.

Finally, I slide the image over—you're going to do this by using the number counters in the gif above. They're the number counters directly under the sketch, fit, and crop buttons.

5. Thinking symmetrically: Time to start Blocking in all the body parts. Start just with the forms that are in the center of the body and work outward. I go up from the pelvis, up to the chest and then the head. For the limbs, only work on one side of the body, I chose the right side but it doesn't matter which as long as it's consistent—we're going to mirror that side later.

Start by Blocking in the major shapes:  Using the sketch as a guide, I take the default cube that blender opened with change it by using transformations to have it fit the sketch.

There are three ways I can transform an object: move, scale, and rotation.

To scale, I have two options. With the first option, you can hit S on your keyboard and move your mouse to scale in all dimensions or hold the center mouse button to choose just one. The other option I prefer to use is to scale each dimension on the top of the N panel menu. I like transforming this way because it gives me some values to know exactly how much I alter it. You can transform the location (move) and rotation in these ways as well.

The Pelvis:

I scale the X and Y and then move the view (hold the middle mouse button, or MMB, and scroll [see this page for instructions on how to emulate an MMB with 1- or 2-button mouse designs]), so that I can see the other side of the cube and change the Z dimensions.

Now for the chest. I duplicate the box we used for the pelvis by pressing Shift and D. Then I click without moving my mouse. I want it to stay perfectly in line with the other box so all I need to do is move it straight up by clicking the green arrow on the transform gimbal and dragging up. Then I scale each dimension it to fit the chest area.

Next I repeat the process for the head. I make sure to scale it down so that it is about the depth of his neck. I'll add the skull later while sculpting.

Next I'm going to make just one of the arms. I hit Shift and A to open the menu to add new objects into the scene. I go to Mesh, choose an icosphere (one of the present options called primitives) and it loads at 0, 0, 0 in the scene. I scale it down to the appropriate size for his shoulder.

The isosphere, the cube, and other shapes are called primitives, they're the simplest shapes we can use but we'll be changing them to be a little more complex with just the primitive shape, using cubes, spheres. I scale the sphere down and move it up to be his shoulder.

Now I duplicate the chest, move and scale it down to create the upper arm. Remember to always rotate the view with the middle mouse button to check the size and location from all angles, sometimes it's hard to really know just from one view.

For the lower arm, I'm going to make it a bit larger because it will turn into his gauntlet gloves down the road. An important key to remember—make the primitives the max size they need to be, because as you make detail you'll generally be shrinking the shape.

Now I'm going to select both parts of the arm and duplicate them. To select multiple objects I hold Shift and left click. (deselect the same way)

I'm going to rotate the larger block and turn it into the thigh. Rotate by hitting R and dragging the MMB or by imputing the degree of rotation in the N menu. Once they are rotated 90 degrees, I move them into place based in the image.

Finally, I duplicate the lower leg, move, and scale it to be about the size of his shoe.

Great, now I've got a nice block man ready for the next pass.

6. Refining the forms: Now add a subdivision modifier to the primitive that represents the chest. You can do that on the rightmost menu by hitting the wrench icon and selecting "Modify" from the dropdown menu. I choose subdivision surface. The number of faces on the primitive will increase, causing the shape to appear smoother. By selecting View you can adjust the level of smoothness, but for now I keep it at level 1.

Now, go into edit mode by hitting Tab on the keyboard and you'll see the overall shape along with the subdivided version. A menu will appear on the left side of the screen with options on how you can edit the mesh, open the topmost Tools tab. In the 3D view, notice that each subdivision is averaging out the points between vertices, smoothing the form. This is a super useful way to add detail but keep the forms flexible as you iterate.

On the left side of the screen you'll see that the menu has changed to a bunch of options related to edit mode. Click Loop Cut and Slide add a new line into the model. Click once near an edge to add the loop, then move your slide it up and down with your mouse and click again to set the location. Notice that, as you move it around, it changes the shape of the model based on the subdivisions. Add the new Loop cuts to the locations where you want the shape of the object to change. Think of the lines as defining where the top of a mountain, or bottom of a valley would go. Moving the lines closer to the edges makes the corner sharper, and moving it away makes it softer. This is an easy way to quickly get closer to the shapes of the body you want to make. Take your time with these and hit undo (control/command z) if you need to.

Once the Loop Cut is in place (I add two on either side of the chest) I switch to selecting vertices and start selecting the points to move them around. Again, this changes the shape of the part.

Through this process, I'm just adding loops to add more vertices to move. Keep number of cuts down for the sake of simplicity to change form, try to make the most out of each vertex moved, and only loop cut again once you have put all the available vertices where you want them to go. Loop cuts are powerful but be sparing with them, the more you add the more limited your control. You can always hit "undo" (Ctrl Z) if you didn't get it right the first time. Switch between selecting vertex points, edges, and faces by clicking the icons on the bottom toolbar.

Next, move on to the pelvis.

My goal with the pelvis is to make it clearly shaped like the hips, which I visualize as looking like a bag tipping forwards.

Each time I move to a new part I add the subdivision modifier, I move around the vertices to change the shape and, as needed, I create new loop cuts to have more points to refine the form.

TIP: you can select or deselect multiple points by holding shift, and you can box select them by holding Shift and B.

On the arm, I skip to the forearm to make his large gauntlets. I add a loopcut near the inner side of the glove to give it a harder edge. Then I select the face and click inset faces from the add section of the edit mesh menu to create a new face in the center of the other one. Once it is in the right spot I hit Extrude (under Add on the edit mesh menu) to push a new face inwards. This will give the glove a sense of thickness and make it feel like the arm is going into it.

Finally, I tweak the neck so that it tilts forward towards the chest. I'll add the actual head later in Sculptris.

7: Duplicate and Mirror: Duplicate the arms and legs and mirror them to the other side. In the Object menu I select all the objects that make up the right limbs and select Duplicate Part (can also use Shift + D), but leave it where it is. From the same menu, I choose mirror and select across the X axis.

Now that the parts of the limbs have been mirrored, I need to move them into the right place. I could do this by guess work, but if I want it to be perfect, I can do some very simple math. Selecting the objects shows me their location in the N menu. By comparing the locations values at the top of the N menu I make them the same number but opposite value in the X axis. To do this I simply copy value the X location of the right arm and paste it into the location for the left arm, but change the negative value to a positive so that they are in exactly the same place but on the opposite side of the X axis (change +1.25 into -1.25). I repeat this for each part that I mirrored.

8. Posing the character: We've been working in a T-pose, but now it is time to give this dude some energy! I use that annoying little circle that moves everywhere (it is actually called the 3D cursor) to set the pivot.

I need to set the pivot as close to the "base" of the body part so that it rotates and seems to still be attached to the body. To do this we need to switch to rotate by the 3D cursor, use the dropdown right beneath the 3D view area. Then I click near the should to set the pivot point, and rotate in each dimension until I am happy with the results.

When I'm working on the legs I make sure to select all of the parts of the limb and work from the hips first. Only after I'm happy with the whole legs position I move to the knee and give it a bend. Next I move the foot at the ankle so that it is parallel to where the ground would be.

Sometimes the rotation isn't perfect, so I have to move the parts into place. That's ok, I just switch back to the transform gimbal and slide the parts around.

9. Repairs, and prepare to sculpt

If you mirrored parts as we suggested in this tutorial, we need to get them all to be "right-side in" before you import your model into Meshmixer. This is because when we mirrored those parts, it also turned direction the face goes (called a Normal) inside out. If you didn't mirror any parts, skip to just exporting.

For those that mirrored, select all the faces on a part in edit mode (Tab) and select the Shading/UVs tab on the menu. With faces selected under Normals you can click "flip direction" This should turn the selected parts a darker color. Do this for each of the parts you'd mirrored during your designing.

Once done select all of the parts you want to export, head to File and choose Export as an obj. Make sure you click the check box for "selection only".

10. Import into Meshmixer:

Solidify: Next I need to solidify the mesh to make it easier to work with in Sculptris. To do this I import the repaired model into Meshmixer and go into Edit mode.

I choose solidify and make sure I'm pleased with the settings. This will make it so that all the parts get combined into one large mesh, easier to sculpt.

11. Sculptris and beyond

Open Sculptris and import the mesh you've solidified here. Sculptris is a cool program because you can treat the 3D mesh as if it were a piece of clay. Digital sculpting is similar to traditional sculpting in that we're no longer following a step by step system for making adjustments, but going by "feel" and making incremental changes. Take your time and have fun with it. Remember to work from largest to smallest forms (start with the whole finger before the fingernail) and save early and often so you can go back if you don't like what you've done.

I'm using primarily 4 tools with a variety of settings.

Tools settings: Every tool shows a "radius" by which it will affect that portion of the mesh, I recommend starting large as possible and working down to the smallest as you resolve the parts of the sculpt.

Strength: This is how easily you'll affect the mesh when you use a tool. I recommend starting stronger and making bigger changes in the beginning, then refining as you go. Remember most of this process is iterating, you're making a decision and then refining it (or fixing totally necessary mistakes as you go. Hold Alt on your keyboard to switch from adding to subtracting.

Draw: This allows you to add or remove thickness of the materials. This is great for when you're building up new forms and maintaining the integrity of older ones.

Inflate: To enlarge or shrink areas of the mesh. This is similar to draw but it enlarges the space rather than adding onto it.

Flatten: Very useful for making areas smoother and adjusting the surface.

Smooth: Sort of a 3D version of erase, it evens out the mountains and valleys on the surface of the mesh.

Crease: This is really useful for drawing lines and indents into the mesh, think of it like drawing a pencil across clay.

12. Add the accessories

Now I've got a sculpted figure with some details and personality. I'm ready to finish him with some bits and accessories.

First, I'll add a base (Shift+A) by creating a cylinder, scaling and moving it into location.

I make sure that the base is the right size to hold him up and that his feet slightly overlap with the base.

Next I'll give him a shield so he can protect himself.

I use the base to start, I duplicate it and move it into position.

I inset the front face and extrude inwards so that there's a lip around the edge. Later I'll paint something cool onto his shield for decoration.

I add some torus, which is a "donut shape" like loop in to act as straps so that it looks like the shield is attached to his hand. Again, I want them to overlap but not so much so that the straps stick through the other side of the shield.

Finally I add a box to create the sword. I scale it down so that it's the correct size. Then I'll duplicate the box and rescale it to be hilt.

I add a subdivision surface modifier (see Refining the forms from earlier if you haven't) to each to give it some more shape. And add more loop slices for good measure.

I move the vertices on the end of the sword to make the pummel and move the whole sword into position.

13. Upload and print!

Now I'm ready to export the model and upload to Shapeways.

I head to Shapeways.com and log in. I hit upload, select "millimeters" as my scale.

Once the model has been uploaded I noticed that the figure is too small, so I scale him up to around 40mm tall so that it will look good once printed. It's very important to consider real world sizes when printing your miniature because you don't want it to be too small and easy to break!

Now you're ready to order!

This model is 3.50 in WSF and 10 in FUD

KEY IDEA: Work from largest to smallest forms—prefer to start with the overall shape and move vertices inward to shrink.

Work with the lowest number of vertices possible.

Keep your quads if possible at all times- we can triangulate later.

It's OK to have overlapping forms for 3D printing on Shapeways.