In the world of FDM 3D printing, the first layer of printing is often the most important. Poor first-layer adhesion, which can be caused by incorrect calibration, too-fast print speeds, or a badly prepared build surface, is the cause of many failed prints.
One of the best ways to prevent bed adhesion problems is to maintain a clean build surface. By taking good care of the surface, the extruded thermoplastic has a better chance of sticking to it, and the odds of print failure are significantly reduced.
However, it’s not always clear how to clean a 3D printer bed or its build surface. Different print surfaces are made from different materials, which react in different ways to certain cleaning solutions. This article goes over the basics of cleaning your 3D print bed, looking at the supplies you’ll need and the different methods you can use.
An FDM 3D printer is made of many parts, but the (literal) foundation of a good print is the print bed.
Usually made of glass or aluminum, the print bed is a solid, flat surface upon which the printed part gets made. In Cartesian-style printers, these beds are square or rectangular, while on Delta-style printers they are circular. Sometimes called a build plate, the print bed can be heated or unheated: a heated bed helps improve first-layer adhesion and makes it easier to remove the finished print.
Somewhat confusingly, not all FDM users use their built-in print bed as their build surface. The build surface is whatever substrate the nozzle deposits the first layer of plastic onto; it can be the print bed itself, or it can be something else like a removable glass plate, a rigid plastic sheet, or strips of masking tape. Furthermore, printer users often treat their build surface with additives like glue stick or hairspray to improve adhesion.
When we talk about 3D printer bed cleaning, we may be talking about cleaning the print bed or cleaning the build surface — or both! Cleaning the build surface is important because a dirty surface with filament buildup can negatively affect adhesion and lead to failed prints. But it is also important to clean the print bed even if it is not used as the build surface, as it will ensure a longer lifespan and better adhesion to removable surfaces like tape and BuildTak.
Isopropyl alcohol (IPA) is a colorless chemical compound that is often found in antiseptics, detergents, and disinfectants. It is sometimes called “rubbing alcohol” due to its former use as a topical preparation for massages.
FDM users can use IPA (containing 70–90% alcohol) as a cleaning product on print surfaces like glass and PEI. The chemical substance is strong enough to remove grease and residue but is unlikely to damage these surfaces.
Another compound used to clean 3D printer beds and build surfaces is acetone, which is found in products like nail varnish remover and paint thinner. The solvent is also used as a smoothing agent for ABS prints, as it is able to dissolve the plastic (though it won’t cut through PLA).
Acetone can be used to clean glass beds, working well against dirt, grease, and some types of plastic filament residue. It may also be used to clean PEI and other surfaces, though it can damage a plastic surface if used too frequently.
Spray-bottle window cleaners typically contain a form of alcohol such as ethanol or isopropanol, in addition to other grease-dissolving agents. They may also contain additives such as perfumes, though products with fewer additives are better for print bed cleaning.
Window cleaning sprays are formulated for the cleaning of glass and can therefore work well for cleaning glass print beds and surfaces.
Ordinary dishwashing soap mixed with warm water is a cheap and effective solution for cleaning print surfaces of various kinds. Unscented products with minimal additives work best.
In addition to chemical substances, a few pieces of equipment are needed to clean a printing surface. It is useful to have the following on hand:
Scraper: A flat-blade scraper is used to remove residue without damaging the print bed or build surface
Sandpaper: More abrasive than a scraper or cloth, sandpaper can help maintain an even surface
Cloth: A soft microfiber cloth can be used to apply various substances to the print bed or build surface
Paper towels: Paper towels are suitable for applying mild cleaning agents like soapy water and window cleaner
Glass is one of the most popular and effective build surfaces, since it distributes heat evenly and is relatively easy to clean. Some printers have glass print beds, while some users affix a removable glass sheet (usually borosilicate glass) to a metal print bed.
While glass provides a flat printing surface, its smoothness can actually prevent good first-layer adhesion. Because of this, users often apply glue or another adhesive to the glass surface before printing. This naturally creates a buildup of residue, which should be cleaned between prints.
How to clean glass 3D printing beds:
If possible, remove the glass plate from the print bed to avoid getting cleaning solution in the printer’s mechanical parts.
Scrape away any large pieces of glue or filament residue with a dry scraper, applying firm and even pressure.
Use a cleaning cloth soaked with warm soapy water to clean grease and other residue from the glass about once a month or when required (but only if the surface can be removed from the printer). Alternatively, use window cleaner.
While wearing protective gloves, soak a cloth with a small amount of IPA and wipe the surface before each print.
Avoid getting fingerprints on the glass where possible.
Polyetherimide (PEI) is a chemically stable thermoplastic that is used as a printing surface due to its good material characteristics such as heat resistance. Low-cost PEI sheets can be attached to a build plate and last many print cycles.
An advantage of using a PEI sheet over glass is its superior adhesion, particularly with materials like ABS. Typically, no extra adhesive like glue is used on the surface, which reduces buildup of residue. However, regular cleaning is required to maintain good adhesion.
How to clean PEI 3D printing beds:
If possible, remove the PEI surface from the print bed to avoid getting cleaning solution in the printer’s mechanical parts.
Soak a dry cloth in IPA and wipe the PEI bed surface to remove gunk and residue. Repeat this procedure between prints. Alternatively, use dish soap and warm water.
Apply acetone with a cloth around once a month to smooth down and further clean the plastic surface.
If the surface is scratched, use a fine-grit sandpaper to smooth it down. If the imperfections are too severe to be fixed, replace the PEI sheet.
Avoid getting fingerprints on the PEI where possible.
Blue painter’s tape — a kind of masking tape — and NASA-developed Kapton tape are common build surfaces for FDM 3D printers that do not have heated beds. (A heated bed could melt the glue on the adhesive side of the tape.) Despite the improvised look of a taped print bed, the material works well and can easily be replaced.
The obvious disadvantage of using adhesive tape is that there will be small seams between each strip, which can leave a visible line on the base of a print. However, this problem can be mitigated to some extent by using thicker tape. Furthermore, the cleaning process for tape is trickier than with solid surfaces like glass, as tape cannot be treated with solvents or other wet cleaning solutions.
How to clean adhesive tape 3D printing beds:
Use a dry scraper to remove residue and leftover filament.
Replace damaged sections of tape. If possible, try to keep the surface level and even to avoid issues with future prints.
Avoid getting fingerprints on the tape where possible.
Replace the entire tape bed when it is visibly worn, torn, or uneven. Clean the bed underneath with IPA or acetone to remove glue residue before applying the new layer.
One of the most popular branded printing surfaces is BuildTak, a low-cost, heat-resistant adhesive sheet that is easy to clean and replace. Although its material is not disclosed, users suggest it may be a mixture of PEI and glass.
How to clean BuildTak 3D printing beds:
Soak a dry cloth in IPA and wipe the BuildTak surface to remove gunk and residue. Repeat this procedure between prints.
Try using warm water if the IPA is unsuccessful.
Avoid getting fingerprints on the BuildTak surface where possible.
Replace the BuildTak surface when it is worn and parts no longer adhere to the bed.
There are many print bed surfaces to choose from, and different surfaces suit different print jobs. ABS filament works best on surfaces like PEI sheet or BuildTak, but struggles when printed onto a very smooth surface like glass. PLA offers more options, working well on a heated bed with a glass surface.
Whatever surface you choose for your 3D print bed, cleaning and maintenance is vitally important — both for the longevity of the surface and for ensuring good first-layer adhesion that will prevent failed prints.
To get the most out of your FDM printer, always have a selection of cleaning supplies on hand, always wipe down hard print surfaces between prints, and carry out a thorough deep clean every few weeks or months.
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