The coolest-ever tool and toy

Out of filament and seemingly thin air come a world of cool gadgets, all from your desktop.|

3D printer project ideas for Dad

Golf tees:

Coaster set:

Fishing lures:

All things “Star Wars”:

Eyeglass stand:

Bottle opener cap gun:

Poker chips: (This one requires a dual-extruding printer that uses two filaments at once)

Baby Groot model:

And, of course, for Father’s Day, something for the barbecue — a hamburger patty maker: (It’s recommended to use food-safe PETG filament instead of PLA or ABS for this project.)

Useful 3D tutorial videos:

In case you haven’t noticed, 3D printers — the coveted wonder machines of the early aughts — have been drifting down in price. What was once the gee-whiz darling of maker spaces is now affordable enough to be a common household tool and toy for all ages.

“Prices on printers have come way down,” said Donald Laird, chair of the computer studies department at Santa Rosa Junior College, where he teaches classes in 3D printing.

In his lair in Maggini Hall, he has 12 printers of different sizes, makes and costs, from a $3,500 Ultimaker, a workhorse made by a Dutch company that will print almost anything, down to a Monoprice mini that for $189 comes fully assembled and calibrated.

Still wondering what to get Dad for Father’s Day? With decent little starter printers at less than $200 and spools of plastic filament selling for $25 to $30, 3D printing is no longer an expensive hobby for the highest of high-tech geeks.

“It reminds me a little bit of cellphones,” said John Carlsten, a retired physics professor who lives in Santa Rosa. “I had a cellphone for so long and then somebody said, ‘You really ought to get one of those smartphones.’ And when you do get it, you find out there is so much you can do with it.”

Carlsten was intrigued when 3D printers first came out. But the four-figure price tag put them out of reach. Then, during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he thought he could help others by making caps that provide fresh filtered air behind a plastic face shield.

Like many who get these printers and discover the worlds of making they open up, he was hooked.

The number of objects that can be made with them is amazingly endless, from spare parts for anything broken to useful household gadgets to toys and gifts for friends and family that can be made while you’re sleeping or doing something else. There are loads of free designs available on open-source websites and many designs that can be purchased for as little as a few dollars.

“There are all kinds of fun things you can do with this stuff,” Laird said on a recent afternoon in his campus maker space, filled with his printers and the models and gadgets and geegaws he’s made with them.

He pulled out a fidget spinner toy, an articulated octopus and a necklace he made for his teenage daughter that is UV reactive so when the sun hits it, it’s bright purple.

During the pandemic, he teamed up with mask sewers to print 800 ear protectors for first responders and medical workers whose ears were chafed by long hours of wearing masks. The small plastic pieces fit on the back of the head and have connectors to spare the ears.

But there are many practical items that can be printed to give new life to old objects otherwise doomed for the dump for lack of spare parts, giving the 3D printer promise as a must-have household appliance in the near future.

Laird said a colleague came to his workshop seeking help when an inlet cover for her 25-year-old hot tub broke. The piece is required by code but was no longer available for her make and model.

“She was going to have to scrap the entire hot tub,” he said. “I had her give me a piece of it and I modeled and made one for her.”

Different types of printers

There are several types of 3D printers. Resin-based printers use UV light to cure the material, and while the product is tougher and of a finer quality and higher resolution, resin is a more toxic material and not as safe and easy to work with.

Laird said people who do finer-quality work, like jewelry makers or tabletop gaming enthusiasts who love to make precise miniatures, opt for resin.

But the popular home desktop machines use plastic filament. The most common is PLA (or polylactic acid), which is made from an organic sugar beet base and is nontoxic and biodegradable.

There is also ABS, a petroleum-based filament. It is slightly stronger, necessary for submersible objects like the hot tub piece and has a high melting point. But it emits a foul odor. Most people settle for the PLA, Laird said.

Among the available filaments are a multitude of colors and styles to incite imagination and creativity.

“There are nylon and carbon-fiber and metal-impregnated filaments and wood-based filaments,” Laird said. “I got a spool of filament that is brass. It is 40% micro particles of brass in the plastic, so the idea is when you print with it you can polish it up like brass.”

An artist is born

Carlsten said he never considered himself an artist, but he was drawn to the idea of sculpture.

“I thought, why don’t I make an artistic sculpture, especially during this time of COVID when we’re so concerned about everything? We need something to look at during times of stress to relax us.”

Recalling an amazing kinetic sculpture he saw at the 2016 Olympics, Carlsten was inspired to create something smaller with his 3D printer, “to take our minds away from COVID,” as he put it.

He designed it himself on a free CAD program for 3D printing called Fusion 360. He put the design on a small SD flash memory card and inserted the card in the printer, and it printed out the design.

“Each individual part is designed to fit together and you assemble it,” he said of the process. It takes him about a month to make one sculpture. He made his own metal stand, post and holder with a lathe and mill.

“It’s just a blast,” he said. “I’ve shown it at an arts and crafts fair and a lot of people came up and said, ‘Oh my God. That is so cool.’”

But he has made many other things. For one friend, he printed a replacement part for a screwdriver that had a cracked end cap, sparing the whole tool from the trash. For another, he printed a replacement piece for a hummingbird feeder.

“I’ve made other things like gifts for people,” he said. “I made my wife for Valentine’s Day a red heart with our names on it. It’s almost like, instead of giving a card, you can give a little emblem. For my grandson, I’m going to make a dragon. There are a lot of designs people have done for castles and dragons. I’ve made little flower pots for a single rose.”

Carlsten spent about $300 for his first Delta 3D printer in 2019, an investment he said is worth it for the beginner. He eventually upgraded to a PRUSA, a popular and reliable brand made in the Czech Republic. Make-it-yourself kits are $799 or fully assembled for about $1,000 (

“It’s reputed to be the best printer for small hobby size,” he said. “They have technical people you can talk to. And if you have to repair it, there are all sorts of videos telling you how you can do it and how you can keep it in top shape.”

One printer leads to another

Dan Bush Crispo, a 29-year-old Santa Rosa firefighter who lives in Windsor, also took the 3D printer dive during the pandemic.

“I had always been interested in 3D technology, but it was still in its infancy and you would be spending a lot of money for not that much functionality. But in lockdown, I had a lot of time to spend on the internet looking at stuff. And I had found the sophistication had come way up and the cost way down,” he said.

He started out with a $270 Ender 3D Pro printer by Creality with the capacity to print an object up to 4 by 4 inches. Several months ago he upgraded to a CR10 Pro V2 by the same company, with a capacity to build larger objects.

“I’m thrilled with it,” he said. He made a personal pocket organizer to hold his tweezers, earplugs, flashlight and other small objects that used to rattle around at the bottom of his pockets.

“I printed mostly functional tools, tool holders, little specialty parts like handles and knobs. I have printed a few ornamental things. I made a Christmas ornament.” He printed out a giraffe for a friend.

Printers also can be great for family projects that parents can do with kids. has tons of free designs simple enough for kids to make.

There is really no limit to the objects you can print, from predesigned gadgets to things you can design and make to solve a problem.

Crispo replaced a worn-out knob for an outdoor gas fire ring, made a glow-in-the-dark scale model of the moon for his little cousin and fixed a broken part on a kayak that would have cost $300 to buy online. He printed it out for 30 cents in plastic.

Ron McCully, another 3D printer enthusiast and retired computer systems programmer and analyst from Santa Rosa, finds his printer to be the ultimate useful tool and toy.

He made a container box for his son’s truck, a baby Yoda toy and miniatures of Greek statues. He even printed a miniature Parthenon. Frustrated that spices kept falling from the open sides of a wall spice rack, he designed and printed side pieces to keep everything in place. His greatest triumph is an 18-inch-tall nutcracker.

“I usually make something once a week. Sometimes I’ll spend the whole week printing something every day when I find something I really like,” he said.

Depending on the object, it can take less than an hour to all night to print. It’s like having a small factory on your desktop.

And for those who don’t have the money yet to invest in their own machine, the Sonoma County Library has 3D printers at all its major branches. People only need to bring in their design and library staff will print out small projects at no charge.

“You’re taking something from the digital world and getting to make something from it you can actually pick up,” Crispo said. “To see, over the course of however long the print takes, an object forming right in front of your eyes is really cool.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

3D printer project ideas for Dad

Golf tees:

Coaster set:

Fishing lures:

All things “Star Wars”:

Eyeglass stand:

Bottle opener cap gun:

Poker chips: (This one requires a dual-extruding printer that uses two filaments at once)

Baby Groot model:

And, of course, for Father’s Day, something for the barbecue — a hamburger patty maker: (It’s recommended to use food-safe PETG filament instead of PLA or ABS for this project.)

Useful 3D tutorial videos:

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