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Maker culture is alive and thriving, thanks to endless YouTube how-to videos for any project imaginable, an army of creatives who love making things by hand, and new, lower-cost hardware for everything from 3D printing to laser cutting. 

3D printing, like virtual reality, is one of those technologies that edges ever closer to mainstream every year. We've seen the 3D print concept play out for years on TV and in movies (what do you think a Star Trek replicator is doing?), and printing with a 3D printer at home is finally growing beyond a wildly exotic hobby for a small enthusiast audience.

Back in 2018, I started playing around with 3D printing, less commonly known as additive manufacturing, mostly to satisfy my own curiosity, with an unexpected result. I'm now completely addicted to 3D printing. Since then, I've doubled down, getting into 3D scanning and even laser cutting, which lets you sculpt real-world designs from wood and leather. 

These creative tools, with a price range of under $300 to over $3,000, are awesome gifts for a creative person in your life -- or even better -- they're great for you to craft your own personalized creations. Having researched and tested many low and mid-priced devices, from rock-bottom Monoprice printers to step-up resin printers that produce a truly professional-level print quality for prototyping, my recommendations for every price range are below. 

Keep in mind that every 3D print requires a little smoothing and filing with a hobby file to look their best (you can also prime and paint each print, fill gaps with filler compound and so on) -- but the sample Abe Lincoln busts presented below are right off the print bed, with no touch-ups after the printing.

One printer I have not tested yet, but hear a lot of good feedback about, is the Creality Ender 3, which currently costs an affordable $230 and has a large community of dedicated fans. Just note that some manual assembly and tweaking is required. 

For what to print and how to start 3D printing, including quality materials with which to print (e.g., polylactic acid vs. ABS plastic) and 3D printing technology and software, see my latest tips and advice for 3D printing

3D printers 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Despite the low price, this is a pretty damn full-featured quality 3D printer, and a favorite affordable first step for testing the 3D print maker waters. Monoprice also sells a slightly less expensive, affordable entry-level design, called the Mini Delta (and the Monoprice Maker, which offers more volume), but this is superior quality for printing in just about every way -- and it's often on sale for $199, or even a little less.

But it's also a good deal harder to set up and use than some of the more expensive 3D printing models. One of the cons is that the print surface is exposed, so your printing is more vulnerable to the elements (or cats, or children), and it took much tweaking, calibrating and troubleshooting to get good print quality results. Despite the beginner price, it's not as beginner-friendly for printing as I'd like it to be. That said, it does come with a preloaded SD card, and we printed many a nice quality print from it, eventually. Read more.

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Abe, in a solid print considering the low price of the Monoprice V2. 

Sarah Tew/CNET
Sarah Tew/CNET

This is my go-to printer for balancing price, ease of use and print quality. Flashforge is the manufacturer, and sells this as the Adventurer 3, while the Monoprice Voxel version is the same hardware, just sold under a different name (the Voxel screen even says "Adventurer 3" when you turn it on). It's not the fanciest of 3D printing, but it has a fully enclosed print area, a touchscreen interface and a flexible heated print bed that lets you pop off a quality print with ease.

The most important thing about this pair of printers (and I tested both versions) is that the setup was easy, and I was up and 3D printing in less than 30 minutes after opening the box and gathering materials. I did find the Wi-Fi connection on this 3D print maker could be finicky at times, but at least there's a USB port right on the front panel for importing your files to the machine via thumb drive. My other complaint is about the filament -- the enclosed filament housing only takes half-size 0.5 kg filament rolls, not the more common 1 kg filament rolls. See the Monoprice version here.

Read more: Best TVs for gaming with low input lag

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Abe, very good, a little softer on the details, from the Adventurer 3. 

CNET/Lori Grunin
Sarah Tew/CNET

The Inventor II is a step-up in quality from the Adventurer/Voxel, even though this 3D print maker is roughly the same size and close to the same build volume. The larger color touchscreen is a huge improvement in printing technology, making it much easier to tap in Wi-Fi passwords before printing. The enclosed space means 3D printing will pause automatically if someone opens the door, and the removable heated print bed is hefty, with a clever flexible top surface that peels off magnetically.

The manufacturing speed was a little faster than the Adventurer's speed, with more calibration and fine-tuning options for 3D printing. But despite the faster 3D printing speed, it also gets the same knock, an enclosed filament housing that only fits smaller 0.5 kg filament spools, which are less economical and harder to find than other filament spools. In our Abe Lincoln test, it printed the cleanest, most detailed print quality of the filament-based printers with a resolution of 50 to 400 microns. Read more.

Read more: Best gaming chairs we've sat in for 2020

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Abe, looking sharp from the Inventor II. 

Sarah Tew/CNET
Sarah Tew/CNET

No matter how fine, a 3D print is still just a plastic design layered one drop at a time. That means layer lines when printing, surface imperfections and a look that's not as clean as professionally molded plastic. Resin printers are the next step up in rapid protoyping technology when you want your print to look as high quality as anything assembled in a factory. Instead of 3D printing your object with a hot nozzle with high temperatures depositing bits of plastic filament, resin printers use UV light to cure liquid resin, one paper-thin layer at a time, on an upside down print bed that rises at a slow speed from a vat of semitoxic slime. 

Yes, it's as unpleasant as it sounds. The resin smells bad and requires rubber gloves to handle (and a well-ventilated room for printing). You'll also need isopropyl alcohol to wash the print after it comes out, and a UV lamp to finish the curing process. It's a lot of work and mess. But the printed model we got from the Anycubic Photon was simply amazing and the best 3D printer for sharp details. (Resolution is 25-100 microns.) Cured resin feels almost like glass, and holds quality design detail. The print quality from the printing process is astounding -- just be prepared for what you're getting into when 3D printing. 

Read more: Best gaming keyboards under $100 for 2020

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Abe, stunning in a green resin from the Photon. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Related accessories 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Recreate pretty much anything by putting it on this 3D scanner, where a rotating base and camera create a 360-degree copy, which is then editable in any 3D program and printable on your 3D printer. It's $599, which is a hefty price, but the accuracy is impressive, the turntable spins itself automatically, and even the color accuracy is spot on. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Glowforge laser cutters can sculpt projects from wood, leather, lucite and other materials, making it an interesting alternative to filament-based 3D printers. Prices range from $2,500 to $6,000 for different models, but they all cut various kinds of wood, leather or lucite. 

Most of the projects I've tried use thin 1/8-inch (3mm) wood panels, although thicker 1/4-inch wood will work, too. The most impressive thing about the Glowforge is how fast it is. What would take a FDM 3D printer hours to do, takes just minutes instead.