A 3D pen is a slightly larger version of an ordinary pen or pencil, except that instead of using lead or ink, it creates lines with a plastic filament. A long thread of plastic is threaded into the pen and heated, and then cools upon exposure to the air. This line of plastic cools and immediately hardens, allowing the user to draw lines and shapes on any surface, and even building structures in the air.
How does a 3D printing pen work?
The heating and cooling of the plastic is similar to the functionality of a hot glue gun, except that the filament is thinner and hardens more quickly. These plastic filaments are often the same as those used in 3D printers and are available in a variety of colors and different materials, for different properties in your final drawing.
The end of the filament is fed into the pen, unspooling behind it. Inside the pen, the plastic filament is heated to the melting point, then extruded through the tip at either fast or low speed, depending on what the user selects. The filament needs to be changed every time you want to use a new color.
Using a 3D pen at a faster speed allows you to sketch rapidly and create loose lines. A lower speed allows for more control and precision of where the plastic is placed on your drawn object. Either way, the thin threads of plastic create dimension and allow you to draw objects into the air.
Be mindful that like a hot glue gun, the nozzle of a 3D pen gets very hot during use and should never be touched or come in contact with an unintended surface. Children should be supervised during use.
Different kinds of filaments for 3D pens
Provided that the pen includes temperature control, 3D pens can use a variety of filaments. The right choice depends on what you are drawing and what your final needs are, but all filaments come in a wide variety of colors. There are specialty pens that will accommodate more unusual filaments, but the most common types of filaments are:
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)
ABS is a strong and durable material, for finished objects that remain slightly flexible and heat-resistant.
- Suitable for a wide variety of purposes
- Finished projects have good strength and durability
- Finished projects retain some flexibility
- It is easy to process after printing
- Thicker lines make drawing faster
- May lead to curling and warping
- Shrinks during cooling
- Not food safe
- Soluble in acetone
- Must be used in a ventilated area
Polylactic acid (PLA)
PLA creates more detailed and refined shapes than ABS filament and has become the more popular choice in the marketplace.
- Biodegradable and renewable
- Odorless and safe to use
- Creates detailed, rigid shapes with smoother layers
- Shrinks slightly when cooled
- Deforms easily when heated
- Finished shapes are more brittle than ABS
- Slightly more expensive than ABS
Due to the different operating temperature requirements of these filaments, not all 3D pens will accommodate both types. ABS filaments require 210° C, and PLA require 175° C. Almost all 3D pens are compatible with PLA, and most are also compatible with ABS, but check the manufacturer’s recommendations for your specific pen. Note that most manufactures recommend PLA by default since it does not emit unsafe fumes, and it should be the 3D filament of choice both for safety and environmental reasons.
Tip: if you don’t know what kind of filament you have, use a lighter to quickly light one end on fire. ABS will burn with a red flame, and PLA will burn with a blue flame.
What are 3D pens used for?
3D pens are currently being used in many ways, from fashion accessories and jewelry, to art, toys, quick project prototypes, and more. In addition, many people use a 3D pen in conjunction with a 3D printer, to add fine detail and organic quality to the finished shapes.
We also have an article about how to get started using a 3D pen.
What are the features of a 3D pen?
With more 3D pens hitting the marketplace all the time, the features can be very different from pen to pen. Common features and options to consider with a 3D pen include:
In many pens, it is desirable to be able to control:
- The temperature settings
- The speed of drawing/extrusion
If you will be using the pen for a long time, it should be comfortable to hold in your hand. Some pens are bigger, bulkier, or heavier than others.
Type of filament
Filament should be appropriate for your final project, and also inexpensive and widely available for replacement.
Many pens get hot during use, but the pen should remain comfortable.
Easy to use
The perfect 3D pen would be as intuitive as drawing with a pencil. While it’s natural to expect some learning curve, a new pen should not be too difficult to use.
Quality and durability
Once you’ve invested in a 3D pen and learned to use it, it should last for a while. Pens that break easily or don’t last can be frustrating and expensive to replace.
Very few 3D pens have internal batteries, so most require being continually plugged in in order to operate. Many have options not only for AC inputs, but also USB inputs that enable the pen to be operated via a power-bank or other portable power source. If you are frequently using ABS filament, the option to use a 3D pen outside, and therefore have a portable power source, is a good one.
How much is a 3D pen?
Currently, 3D pens range in price from less than $40 to nearly $200, depending on the brand and features. You can get a high-quality, feature-rich 3D pen in the $50-$60 range.
This information should help you understand the features and options in a 3D pen, and help you choose the right one for your needs. Have fun learning a whole new art form and exploring your creativity in an entirely new way with the exciting potential of a 3D pen!