The Simple (and Free) Way to Make 2D Art Into 3D Prints
This post is about the simplest, easiest and free way to take a flat image, convert it and 3D print it.
This article covers:
- What You Need
- Been There, Done That, Now You Will Too
- Choose Your Art
- SVGs Come in Bundles
- M is for Maker
- Extrusion Like Toothpaste
- Time to Tinker
- How thick is Too Thick?
- Cura is the Slicer
- Print, Wait be Rewarded
- Show and Tell
What You Need
To follow the steps in this article, you will need three things and two pieces of software:
- A file in the SVG format. Creative Fabrica has thousands if not tens of thousands to choose from.
- A computer (Windows, Mac, Linux, all good, just not a smartphone) to run the free software
- A 3D Printer
The software is free, and is found at:
- https://www.tinkercad.com – Web based, all you need to do is set up a free account
- https://ultimaker.com/software/ultimaker-cura – Select the free version. Runs on your computer, just select the type of computer you have (Windows, Mac, Linux)
Been There, Done That, Now You Will Too
This post is based on my personal experience. I have been in the Information Technology (IT) field so long that when I started it wasn’t even called that (It was called Data Processing (DP)). I first was introduced to 3D printing in the early 90’s when 3D printers cost hundreds of THOUSANDS of dollars instead of the couple hundreds of dollars they cost today.
My experience is that computer people like to make things sound WAY harder and more complicated than they are. I could tell you that you need all my experience, but I would be lying. If you can use the web (which I know you can since you are reading this), open a file in a program (Word, Paint, Notepad, whatever) and save the file, then you have all the skills you need.
Choose Your Art
There are sooooo many computer file types for art work. If you make use a vinyl cutter (or a Cricut) you are already familiar with SVG files. If not, the SVG (Structured Vector Graphics) format is different from file types like JPG and PNG because it uses lines (vectors in computer speak) to draw a picture instead of pixels (tiny dots of color). For computers, the advantage of vector graphics is that no matter how much you zoom in, the image is crisp and sharp. Fonts are vector graphics for this reason. Because the file understands the lines and curves of an image it can communicate that to devices like vinyl cutters and 3D printer. So let’s start by selecting a piece of SVG art.
SVGs Come in Bundles
While not an absolute truth (but what is), most SVG artwork on Creative Fabrica comes in bundles of many related pieces of art. It might be a collection of ship anchors that in turn are part of a nautical bundle of bundles (a meta bundle?) with several collections from the same creator. For this post I selected a bundle of Monogram Letters from Gentlemancrafter.
This bundle offers all the art in many different file formats, but I am only interested in the SVG files found in the “SVG CUTTING FILES” folder of the bundle.
M is for Maker
People that use 3D printers often call themselves “Makers”, so I chose the “M” graphic for this project. How is a Maker different from an Artist? Not sure, and for this example, it doesn’t matter. The “M” is stylish and easy to recognize.
Extrusion Like Toothpaste
When you squeeze a tube of toothpaste (or icing through a piping bag) you turn the flat opening into a 3D stream of material (or a mess if you are not careful). In manufacturing this is known as “extrusion”. It is how rigatoni pasta and plastic straws are made. It is the simplest way to turn something drawn as an outline into something with depth as well as width and height.
The “M” I chose becomes the computer version of an icing nozzle or a really unusual toothpaste tube. The black parts of the design are the openings that material flows through. The longer we extrude the thicker/taller the piece becomes. Just a little extrusion and we have something paper thin. A longer extrusion and we have something thick enough to be hung on the wall.
Time to Tinker
Opening my web browser, I go to Tinkercad.com. If you don’t have an account already it is quick, easy and most important of all free to do so. When you are logged in, click on the button in the upper left corner to create a new design.
CAD is short for “Computer Aided Design” and is used to create new designs and take existing designs and make them ready for use by other computer programs. In this way it is not very different from a program like Adobe Illustrator. CAD is the chicken that came before the egg of programs like Adobe Illustrator, but both have influenced each other and TinkerCAD is much less technical and more artistic than its grown-up siblings used to design cars and rocket engines.
On the right side of the screen are the two buttons we will use:
Click on “Import” to bring up the Import box:
Notice that one of the three formats supported is SVG, perfect for our needs.
Click “Choose a file” and choose the SVG file you want to convert from flat to thick.
Click Import to finish the process.
How thick is Too Thick?
You can ignore this step, but I thought I would mention it since it shows some of the power of TinkerCAD. When the file is opened in TinkerCAD it automatically becomes 10mm thick (about 3/8″). For me that is thicker than I want. To thin it out a bit, I click the height dimension (circled in green below) and change from 10mm to 4mm (between an 1/8th and a 1/4 inch).
Now I am ready to save the 3D sculpture I created. I click on the object and the on the export button. I click on the “.STL” button to save the file in the format needed for the next step.
Cura is the Slicer
Now that I have an STL file I am in the world of 3D printers. The final step is to use a “slicer” to read the file STL file I just created and prepare it for printing.
If you have never worked with (or even played with) 3D printing, it works by extruding (think back to the icing example but think of one of those tiny tubes used for lettering) a thin layer of the sculpture and then draws more layers on top of that to get the thickness. On my printer each layer is 0.2 mm thick meaning that my file will have 20 layers. The nozzle I use is 0.4 mm in diameter which is tiny enough to give me a lot of detail. It also means that there are about 25 lines drawn per inch to give a solid layer. A fine line pen might be 0.5 mm, so imagine drawing the monogram I selected 20 times with a fine line pen. It will take a while.
The good news is that both the slicer and the 3D printer have nothing but time on their hands.
If you have not already downloaded and installed the Cura software, do that now. Cura let’s you set many things about how your sculpture will be printed. I am going to believe that the person that usually 3D prints where you are, already has those settings tuned for the printer. They are probably using Cura already as well since it is very popular (and free).
Opening the file will center it on the virtual 3D printer in Cura. If the sculpture is too big, or you just want it a different size, you can do that now with the controls in Cura. When you have it the way you want, click the “Slice” button in the lower right and Cura will create the special information (called GCODE) that your 3D printer needs.
Slicing the sculpture should go quickly and you can save the results for sending to your printer. For myself, I put the files on an SD card and plug that into my printer. Some prints (not this one) can take more than 24 hours to 3D print. If I print directly from my computer and it crashes after 23 hours, then I will have an incomplete print. I once 3D printed a “Minion” that ran into an issue at the end of a multi-day print. He has to wear a hat made for a dog to hide his bald spot. But that is a story for another post.
Print, Wait, Be Rewarded
Big 3D prints take a long time and big is measured in all three dimensions. I printed the monogram nearly eight inches across. Shrinking the height helped speed things up, but reducing the height and width would have helped too. Just picture drawing those twenty layers with a fine point pen like I described earlier. After the waiting (during which I slept as my print took over 4 hours) you have a three dimensional object you show off and claim “Yes! I made that.”
Show and Tell
There is so much more you can do than what I did here today. You can combine multiple objects to make more elaborate sculptures, modify the sculpture in TinkerCAD, and print the sculpture in a wide range of materials. Tell me in the comments below what you created with these simple steps and free software.