3D printing is an amazing technology that allows you to create objects from a digital file. It's perfect for solving supply-chain issues because you can print the missing parts at home. Plus, it's great for indulging your inner creative self. You can print anything you can imagine, from board game miniatures to Star Wars props.
3D-printing technology has come a long way in recent years, and I've even doubled down by getting into 3D scanning and laser cutting, which lets you sculpt real-world designs from leather and wood.
Current 3D printers, which range from affordable (under $300) to high-end (over $4,000), are also great gifts for a creative person in your life. Even better, they're great for you to craft your own personalized designs if you're looking to open an Etsy shop or something similar.
We've taken a deep dive into many of the best 3D printers available today. This list includes both small and large 3D printers, with attention paid to print speed, the size of the build plate, the cost of, the kind of print head included and other important details. And once you've decided to take the plunge into additive manufacturing (that's what 3D printing essentially is), there's a FAQ below.
Our top picks
The Anycubic Vyper FDM printer attempts to be both an affordable 3D printer and easy to use. It's a tricky needle to thread. Plenty of 3D printers offer automatic bed leveling and calibration to make sure prints come out even and firmly anchored to the print bed. This, however, is the first time I've seen a 3D printer run its bed leveling once, with zero manual input from me, and be totally good to go. I printed a 3D test file from the included SD card within minutes of powering on, and I've never seen a first print from a 3D printer come out so perfectly.
Read our Anycubic Vyper review.
The Anycubic Kobra Max earned a 9 out of 10 in our recent review, in large part because it's one of the most enjoyable printers I've used in years. The build area is large enough to print entire helmets for cosplay, and the auto-bed-leveling system makes setting the machine up a breeze. The Kobra Max is the best choice for a large build area printer, bar none. --James Bricknell
Entry-level 3D printers
The Mini Plus is one of the best small-footprint printers you can buy. It has everything you would expect from a Prusa machine: Auto bed leveling, crash detection and great print quality, all for under $400. Building it with my son gave us a lot of good insights into how a 3D printer works, and potentially how to fix one.
I had high hopes for this dirt-cheap 3D printer with a tiny footprint. It's usually under $200 and requires no additional assembly. And I do like it, but it's for a specific audience. This is not the great low-cost entry-level printer I was hoping for. It required some tweaking and troubleshooting to get up and running. The included microSD card was so cheap and corrupted it never worked, the built-in Wi-Fi was never able to connect to my network, and the machine's arms got caught on some poorly installed plastic wire covers (I just ripped the paper-thin covers off).
But once I had all the problems ironed out, it was a reliable little machine for quick jobs. It would make a great second 3D printer, or if you need to fit one into a small space. I especially liked the auto-leveling, which worked well, and the color touchscreen, which is a feature that often gets chopped from low-cost models. If you're willing to put a little effort into getting it set up correctly, it's a great printer for the price.
Resin printers are the next step up in rapid prototyping design technology when you want your printing to look as high quality as possible. Just be warned: The liquid resin is harder to work with, and it requires both good ventilation and a portable UV light to properly cure. This model is extremely popular with board game hobbyists who want to print pro-looking miniatures, and sometimes you'll see it fall in price.
Midrange 3D printers
Standard resin printers are fine if you want to print small items or miniatures. For more oversized cosplay items, practical models or collections of gaming miniatures, you're going to need a bigger build area.
Enter the Anycubic Mono X, a resin printer that solves that issue by having a build plate nearly three times bigger than the standard Anycubic models. For example, I managed to print the entire blade of a Dune Crysknife, something that would have needed to be split into three parts if it wasn't for the extra build volume.
The Mono X also prints at insane speeds. Because resin prints the entire layer in one shot, they tend to be quicker than traditional FDM printers in the first place, but the Mono X takes this to the extreme with layers printing in as little as 1 second. It's incredible to watch. --James Bricknell
The Flashforge Adventurer 3 has long been one of CNET's favorite midprice 3D printers. The updated Adventurer 4 brings a handful of iterative improvements that make for a winning evolution. The Adventurer 4 is a fully enclosed unit, which helps control the temperature and block drafts. The build area is 220 by 200 by 250mm, and it has a system for easily swapping out nozzles -- all good features to have in a mid-level to high-end printer.
Recreate pretty much anything by putting it on this 3D scanner, where a rotating base and built-in camera create a 360-degree copy, which is then editable in any 3D program and printable on your 3D printer. Simply scan the object, import the scan into your slicing software for cleanup, and print. The included software alerts you of next steps in the printing process with either sound or texts. Scan quality and print resolution are great, and setup is easy, although you might want to clean up your 3D model a bit in a 3D software app after.
High-end and professional 3D printers
A word of warning; the CR-30 is not for the beginners out there. It is a complicated machine, and you will need some 3D-printing knowledge to really get the hang of it. It's also a very different beast, and instead of printing on a static-sized build plate, it uses a conveyor belt to create an "endless Z-axis." That lets you print very long things or lots of things over and over again.
If you are a cosplayer looking to make weapons or large armor pieces, the CR-30 gives you a lot of room to create. I've managed to print Squall's Gunblade from Final Fantasy VIII as well as the Whisper of the Worm from Destiny 2 (both were printed in two halves and attached together). It's great for small businesses looking to mass-produce small parts, and with just two CR-30s you could create a small empire on Etsy or Shopify. --James Bricknell
I can't begin to tell you how much I love the Glowforge professional 3D printer. Laser cutters can sculpt projects from wood, leather, lucite and other materials, making it an interesting creation alternative to filament-based 3D printers. Even better, what would take a 3D printer hours to do takes just minutes in the Glowforge.
With it, I've created laser-etched LED lights, birch wood tool caddies, and even a three-tier box for my Nespresso sleeves. There's a robust community of makers creating and sharing files, but pretty much any line drawing you can create in something like Adobe Illustrator can be turned into a project.
The software is all cloud-based, which adds a layer of complication (you need internet service to use it), but the ability to create amazing gifts and more from simple 0.125-inch or 0.25-inch cheap plywood is pretty empowering.
A smaller, desktop-size version of its more industrial large-format 3D printers, this recent model from BCN is a dual extruder printer, which means it can use two different spools of material at once.
That lets you either 3D-print two copies of something at the same time, or use two different colors of material to create a multicolored 3D object. The build volume is also huge, at least compared to the simpler models listed above, at 420 by 300 by 200mm.
The build quality, menu system and bundled custom version of Cura (a 3D slicing software) are all excellent. But the instructions and documentation, at least in English, are thin, and the setup is nowhere near as plug-and-play as some of the simpler printers on this list.
Printing is fast, and the built-in settings option goes far beyond what normal consumer printers offer. The automated calibration tools are also much more precise than other printers I've tested. You can go far beyond the standard 1.75mm PLA filament most consumer 3D printers use, and it's set up out of the box for 3mm filament of various materials.
Note this leans more toward the industrial side than the consumer marketplace, but if you need bigger volume, more speed or an easy easy way to create multimaterial or multicolor objects, it's something that could easily fit in your workshop, makers' lab or garage.
3D printing FAQs
What material should I use to print with?
Most home 3D printers use PLA or ABS plastic. Professional printers can use all sorts of materials, from metal to organic filament. Some printers use a liquid resin, which is much more difficult to handle. As a beginner, use PLA. It's nontoxic, made mostly of cornstarch and sugarcane, handles easily and is inexpensive. However, it's more sensitive to heat, so don't leave your 3D prints on the dashboard of a car on a hot day.
Which brand of PLA is best?
Generally speaking, Hatchbox has never let me down and runs about $24 for a full 1kg spool on Amazon. Some of the printers I tested only accommodate narrower 0.5kg spools. In those cases, I sometimes used a larger Hatchbox roll with a separate spool-holder. Other times, I had good luck with AIO Robotics 0.5kg spools, which are a little more expensive, at $14 for 0.5kg. Amazon Basics and Monoprice can also be good, but for any brand, weird colors like metallic or glow-in-the-dark filament can be hit-or-miss. Note that a 1kg roll prints a lot of stuff.
What settings should I use?
Most 3D printers include or link to recommended software, which can handle converting 3D STL or other files into formats supported by the printer. Stick with the suggested presets to start, with one exception. I've started adding a raft, or bottom layer of filament, to nearly everything I print. It has cut down dramatically on prints that don't adhere to the bed properly, which is a common issue. If you continue to have problems, rub a standard glue stick on the print bed right before printing.
What are supports?
Your 3D models probably need some help to print properly, as these printers don't do well with big overhangs -- for example, an arm sticking out from a figure. Your 3D printer software can usually automatically calculate and add supports, meaning little stands that hold up all those sticking-out parts of the model. After the print is done, clip the supports off with micro cutters and file down any nubs or rough edges with hobby files.
Where do I find things to print?
When you're ready to create your own designs, there are a ton of software packages to choose from, but it's easiest to start with the browser-based free TinkerCad app from Autodesk.