The Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing Post-Processing Techniques

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02 May, 2023

3D printing post-processing turns rough parts into usable ones

3D printing post-processing turns rough parts into usable ones

3D printing post-processing techniques turn rough and incomplete models into functional, aesthetic parts that are ready for their end-use. This article looks at the main techniques available.

3D printing has revolutionized the world of manufacturing, enabling the creation of complex and customized parts with unprecedented speed and precision. While 3D printing technology has evolved rapidly, producing high-quality printed parts typically requires a further crucial step: 3D printing post-processing. 

3D printing post-processing is an essential aspect of the 3D printing process, as it enhances the quality, appearance, and mechanical properties of printed parts. Different 3D printing technologies, such as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), Stereolithography (SLA), and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), require specific 3D printing post-processing techniques to address issues like layer lines, support marks, and rough surfaces. By understanding and mastering these techniques, you can ensure that your 3D printed parts meet industry-specific requirements and achieve the desired functionality and aesthetics.

In this guide, we will explore the various 3D printing post-processing techniques used with different 3D printing technologies, from common methods like sanding and painting to advanced techniques like hydrographics and cold welding. We will also discuss safety considerations and best practices for post-processing, ensuring that you can confidently and safely improve the quality of your 3D printed parts.

Why Post-Processing is Necessary in 3D Printing

3D printing has become increasingly popular for its ability to create intricate and customized parts. However, the quality and appearance of 3D printed objects often depend on post-processing steps. Post-processing not only enhances the aesthetics of printed parts but also improves their mechanical properties and compliance with industry-specific requirements.

The Importance of Post-Processing

Post-processing plays a critical role in ensuring that 3D printed parts meet the desired quality standards. One of the primary objectives of post-processing is to improve the appearance of printed objects. For example, the FDM 3D printing process produces visible layer lines on the surface of parts, detracting from their overall aesthetic quality. But post-processing techniques such as sanding, polishing, and painting can effectively eliminate or minimize these lines, resulting in a smoother and more professional-looking finish.

In addition to enhancing appearance, post-processing can also improve the mechanical properties of printed parts. For example, techniques like annealing and heat treatment can increase the strength and durability of a 3D printed part by altering its internal structure. This is particularly important when the printed part needs to withstand mechanical stress or harsh environmental conditions.

Meeting industry-specific requirements is another crucial aspect of post-processing. Different industries, such as aerospace, automotive, and medical, often have strict regulations and standards for part quality and performance. For instance, manufacturers typically use either the ASME Y14.36 standard or the ISO 21920-1 standard for specifying surface texture.[1] Post-processing techniques like polishing, vapor smoothing, and electroplating can help ensure that 3D printed parts meet these standards, making them suitable for use in various applications.

Common Issues in 3D Printed Parts

layer linesA common issue for FDM parts is layer lines

3D printed parts can exhibit various issues that require post-processing to ensure optimal functionality and appearance. These issues often stem from the inherent limitations of the printing process and material properties. By addressing these common issues through post-processing, you can improve the overall quality of your 3D printed parts.

Layer lines are a pervasive issue in 3D printing, particularly with Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology and related extrusion-style techniques. These lines are the result of the layer-by-layer printing process and can negatively impact the aesthetics and surface quality of the printed part. Post-processing techniques like sanding and polishing can effectively reduce or eliminate layer lines, resulting in a smoother and more professional finish.

Support marks are another common issue that arises in 3D printed parts. Supports are necessary during printing processes like FDM and SLA to prevent the collapse of overhanging structures. However, once the supports are removed, they can leave marks or scars on the surface of the part. Techniques like sanding, filing, and chemical treatment can help reduce the visibility of these marks and create a clean surface finish.

Dimensional accuracy is a critical concern in 3D printing, particularly for parts that must fit precisely with other components. Due to factors like material shrinkage and nozzle diameter, printed parts may not meet the desired dimensional specifications or fall within an acceptable tolerance range. Post-processing methods like post-machining can be employed to refine the dimensions of 3D printed parts, ensuring a proper fit and function in their intended applications.

Rough surface textures are another issue commonly observed in 3D printed parts, especially when compared to alternative processes like molding or casting, which can produce exceptionally smooth parts. Rough textures can occur for different reasons. In SLS, for instance, it can be the result of partially fused powder particles adhering to the part's surface. Surface finishing techniques like bead blasting, tumbling, and polishing can help to achieve a smoother, more uniform surface on these printed parts.

Recommended reading: Surface Roughness in 3D Printing

Post-Processing Techniques for Different 3D Printing Technologies

Different 3D printing technologies have distinct characteristics that require specific post-processing techniques. Understanding the unique requirements of each technology is crucial for selecting the appropriate post-processing methods and achieving the desired results.

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is a widely used 3D printing technology that creates parts by depositing thermoplastic filament layer by layer. Due to the nature of FDM printing, printed parts often exhibit layer lines and support marks that require post-processing to improve their appearance and mechanical properties. Here, we will discuss several post-processing techniques that are particularly suited for FDM printed parts.

Sanding is a fundamental post-processing technique for FDM printed parts. By using progressively finer grits of sandpaper, you can reduce the visibility of layer lines and smooth out support marks on the part's surface. This method is time-consuming and labor-intensive but can significantly improve the surface quality of FDM printed parts.

Priming and painting is another technique commonly used to enhance the appearance of FDM printed parts. After sanding, a primer can be applied to the part to fill in small imperfections and create a uniform surface for painting. Once the primer has dried, the part can be painted using acrylic, enamel, or spray paint, depending on the desired finish and appearance.

Chemical smoothing is an advanced post-processing technique that can be employed to improve the surface finish of FDM printed parts, particularly those made from ABS plastic. This method involves exposing the part to a chemical — acetone, in the case of ABS — which partially dissolves the surface layer of the plastic, effectively smoothing out layer lines and surface imperfections. It is essential to use proper safety precautions and ventilation when working with chemicals like acetone.

Stereolithography (SLA)

SLASLA 3D printing requires post-processing steps like support removal

Stereolithography (SLA) is a 3D printing technology that utilizes ultraviolet (UV) light to selectively cure liquid photopolymer resins layer by layer. SLA printed parts often have a higher resolution and smoother surface finish compared to FDM printed parts. However, they still require post-processing to achieve the desired appearance and mechanical properties. In this section, we will discuss several post-processing techniques specifically suited for SLA printed parts.

One of the first post-processing steps for SLA printed parts is washing. Immediately after printing, the parts are coated in uncured resin, and this excess material needs to be removed to ensure a clean surface finish. Typically, the parts are submerged in a solvent, such as isopropyl alcohol (IPA) or a proprietary cleaning solution, to dissolve and remove the residual resin. Proper safety precautions and personal protective equipment (PPE) should be used when handling chemicals during this process.

After washing, SLA printed parts may require post-curing, which involves exposing the part to UV light to fully cure the remaining resin and ensure optimal mechanical properties. Post-curing can be performed using a specialized curing chamber or by placing the part under direct sunlight. The duration and intensity of UV exposure should be adjusted according to the specific resin used and the end-use of the final part.

Support removal is another important post-processing step for SLA printed parts. Unlike dual-extrusion FDM 3D printers, SLA printers always produce supports made from the same material as the printed part, and removing them requires careful cutting or breaking to avoid damaging the part. Once the supports have been removed, any remaining support marks can be sanded or filed down to ensure a clean surface finish.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) is a 3D printing technology that uses a high-powered laser to selectively fuse powdered material such as nylon, layer by layer. SLS printed parts exhibit high strength and durability, making them suitable for functional applications. However, SLS parts typically have a porous and rough surface finish that requires post-processing. In this section, we will discuss several post-processing techniques specifically designed for SLS printed parts.

One of the initial post-processing steps for SLS printed parts is powder removal. After printing, the parts are surrounded by unsintered powder, which must be removed to reveal the final part. This process typically involves brushing or blowing away the excess powder using compressed air. It is crucial to wear appropriate PPE and use proper ventilation during this step, as the fine powder can be hazardous if inhaled.

Dyeing is a common post-processing technique for SLS printed parts, especially those made from nylon. Due to the porous nature of SLS parts, they can easily absorb dyes, allowing for a wide range of color options.[2] The dyeing process involves submerging the part in a heated dye solution for a specific duration, which depends on the desired color intensity. After dyeing, the part is rinsed and dried to remove any residual dye.

Infiltration is another post-processing method used to improve the mechanical properties and surface finish of SLS printed parts. By impregnating the part with a low-viscosity material, such as epoxy or cyanoacrylate, the part's porosity can be reduced, resulting in increased strength, stiffness, and a smoother surface finish. Infiltration can be performed using vacuum, pressure, or simple dipping methods, depending on the specific requirements of the part.

Sanding and polishing are also commonly used to refine the surface finish of SLS printed parts. While SLS parts generally have a rougher surface than SLA or FDM parts, sanding can help eliminate imperfections and create a more uniform finish. Progressively finer grits of sandpaper can be used to achieve the desired surface smoothness. For metal SLS parts, polishing can be employed to achieve a mirror-like finish.

For SLS printed metal parts, heat treatment is a crucial post-processing step to improve their mechanical properties and relieve internal stresses. Heat treatment processes, such as annealing, hardening, or tempering, can be applied to alter the internal structure of the metal, resulting in enhanced strength, ductility, or toughness, depending on the specific requirements of the part.

Popular 3D Printing Post-Processing Techniques

In this section, we will explore various popular post-processing techniques that are applicable to a range of 3D printing technologies. These methods can significantly improve the appearance, functionality, and durability of 3D printed parts, providing the desired characteristics for various applications.


Sanding is a widely used post-processing technique that involves the removal of material from the surface of a 3D printed part using abrasive materials, such as sandpaper or abrasive pads. This method is employed to smooth rough surfaces, eliminate layer lines, and remove any imperfections or defects, resulting in a more visually appealing and professionally finished part.

The sanding process typically begins with a coarser grit sandpaper to remove larger imperfections and then progresses to finer grits to achieve a smoother surface finish. It is important to use a consistent motion and apply even pressure during sanding to prevent the creation of new surface imperfections.

For parts with complex geometries or hard-to-reach areas, specialized sanding tools, such as needle files or flexible sanding sticks, can be used to achieve the desired surface finish. Additionally, using a sanding block can help maintain a flat surface and prevent unintentional rounding of edges.

In some cases, wet sanding can be employed to achieve an even smoother surface finish. Wet sanding involves the use of water or other lubricants to reduce friction and heat generation, preventing the clogging of sandpaper and resulting in a finer finish. This technique is particularly effective for polishing clear or translucent 3D printed parts, as it helps to enhance their transparency and optical properties.

Priming and Painting

Priming and painting are essential post-processing techniques for enhancing the appearance, durability, and UV resistance of 3D printed parts. These methods not only improve the visual appeal of the parts but also protect them from wear, tear, and environmental factors.

Primer Application

Priming is the initial step in the painting process, and it serves to create a uniform, adherent surface on the 3D printed part. Primers are specially formulated coatings that fill in small imperfections, such as layer lines and voids, and provide a smooth, even base for the subsequent application of paint.

Before applying primer, it is essential to ensure that the part is clean and free of dust, grease, and any residual support material. Light sanding can be performed to further enhance surface adhesion. Once the part is adequately prepared, a suitable primer, such as an automotive filler primer or a primer specifically designed for 3D printed parts, can be applied. It is crucial to follow the manufacturer's instructions for the primer, including recommended drying times and the number of coats required.

After the primer has fully cured, the part should be lightly sanded using fine-grit sandpaper to remove any imperfections and create a smooth surface for paint application. This step is critical in achieving a high-quality, professional-looking finish.

Paint Selection and Application

Selecting the appropriate paint for your 3D printed part depends on the material used for printing, the desired appearance, and the intended use of the part. Common paint options include acrylic, enamel, and spray paints, each with their specific advantages and limitations.

Acrylic paints are water-based, making them easy to work with and clean up, while providing a wide range of colors and finishes. Enamel paints, on the other hand, are solvent-based and offer a more durable and glossy finish. Spray paints can be used for a quick and even application, but they require proper ventilation and safety precautions, such as wearing a respirator and protective clothing.

When applying paint to the primed part, it is essential to use thin, even coats to prevent drips, runs, and brush marks. Multiple coats may be necessary to achieve full coverage and the desired color intensity. Each coat should be allowed to dry according to the manufacturer's recommendations before applying the next layer.

Protective Clear Coat

Once the paint has fully dried, a clear protective coating can be applied to further enhance the durability, gloss, and UV resistance of the part. This coating can be in the form of a clear spray paint, a brush-on varnish, or a two-part epoxy resin. The protective clear coat not only provides an additional layer of protection against wear, tear, and environmental factors, but it also enhances the overall appearance of the part, giving it a professional and polished look.

Vapor Smoothing

acetoneAcetone is used for the vapor smoothing of ABS parts

Vapor smoothing is a post-processing technique used primarily for 3D printed parts made from thermoplastic materials such as ABS and ASA. The process involves exposing the printed part to the vapor of a solvent, which dissolves the outer layer of the material, effectively smoothing the surface and removing layer lines. This technique results in a glossy, professional finish, while also improving the part's mechanical properties, such as strength and watertightness.

Solvent Selection

The choice of solvent is critical for the vapor smoothing process, as it must be compatible with the material used for the 3D printed part. For ABS and ASA, the most commonly used solvent is acetone. Acetone effectively dissolves the outer layer of these materials, resulting in a smooth, glossy finish. Other solvents, such as ethyl acetate or methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), can also be used for different materials.

Vapor Smoothing Setup

The vapor smoothing process requires a closed container in which the 3D printed part can be suspended. The container must be made of a material that is resistant to the chosen solvent, such as glass or a chemical-resistant plastic. A wire rack or a similar setup can be used to suspend the part, ensuring that the vapor can reach more of its total surface area.

To generate the solvent vapor, a small amount of the solvent is placed within the container, typically by soaking tissue or rags and attaching them to the inner walls of the container. The container is then sealed to prevent the escape of the vapor and to maintain a consistent vapor concentration. The solvent will evaporate at room temperature, creating a saturated atmosphere within the container that dissolves the outer layer of the part.

Monitoring the Process

Vapor smoothing is a time-sensitive process, and the duration of exposure to the solvent vapor impacts the final result. Too little exposure may result in insufficient smoothing, while excessive exposure can cause the part to become deformed or weakened. Typically, the vapor smoothing process takes between 10 and 60 minutes, depending on the material, the solvent, and the desired finish.

It is essential to carefully monitor the part during the process, periodically checking the progress and removing the part from the container once the desired finish has been achieved. When the part is removed, it should be allowed to air dry to evaporate any remaining solvent and to solidify the softened outer layer.

Safety Precautions

Vapor smoothing involves working with potentially hazardous solvents, and it is crucial to take appropriate safety precautions. These include wearing protective gloves, goggles, and a respirator, as well as working in a well-ventilated area to minimize the risk of inhaling harmful fumes. Proper storage and disposal of the solvent are also essential, as it can be flammable and may pose environmental hazards.

Recommended reading: 3D Printer Ventilation: A Comprehensive Guide

Support Removal

Support removal is a crucial step in post-processing 3D printed parts. Support structures are necessary for overhangs, bridges, and other complex geometries that cannot be printed on their own due to gravitational forces. However, support structures must be removed after printing to achieve the desired final appearance and functionality of the part. There are several methods for support removal, each with its advantages and challenges.

Standard Supports

Standard supports are printed in the same material as the part itself and must be manually removed from the printed part with the help of pliers, a knife, or other tools. This is the case for all SLA supports and FDM supports printed on a single-extruder printer.

Breakaway Supports

Breakaway supports are printed in a brittle material to allow them to be snapped off the printed part by hand. Although faster to remove than standard supports, the process can still leave small imperfections or marks on the surface of the part, which may require additional post-processing steps, such as sanding or filing, to achieve a smooth finish.

Soluble Supports

Dissolvable or soluble supports are an alternative to breakaway supports and are useful for complex geometries that are difficult to access manually. These support structures are made from a material that dissolves in water or a specific solvent, leaving the primary material of the part intact. Commonly used dissolvable support materials include PVA (Polyvinyl Alcohol) and HIPS (High Impact Polystyrene).

To remove dissolvable supports, the printed part is submerged in a container filled with the appropriate solvent or simply run under a tap. PVA supports dissolve in water, while HIPS requires a limonene solution. The dissolution process can take several hours or even days, depending on the size and complexity of the support structures. Once the supports have dissolved, the part is rinsed with water to remove any remaining residue, and then allowed to dry.

It is important to note that dissolvable supports are not compatible with all materials, as the primary material must be resistant to the solvent used to dissolve the support material. For example, PVA supports are commonly used with PLA (Polylactic Acid) or PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol) parts, as these materials are not affected by water.

Water Jetting and Ultrasonic Cleaning

For parts printed using technologies such as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) or Binder Jetting, support removal may involve eliminating excess powder or binder material from the part. In these cases, methods like water jetting or ultrasonic cleaning can be employed to remove the unbound material.

Water jetting involves using a high-pressure stream of water to blast away the excess powder or binder material from the part. This method is particularly effective for parts with intricate geometries or internal channels that are difficult to access with manual tools.

Ultrasonic cleaning, on the other hand, uses high-frequency sound waves to create microscopic bubbles in a liquid bath. The implosion of these bubbles generates a powerful cleaning action that dislodges the unbound material from the part. Ultrasonic cleaning is gentle on the part and can effectively remove powder or binder material from complex and delicate geometries.


Annealing is a post-processing technique that involves the controlled heating and cooling of a 3D printed part to improve its mechanical properties, dimensional stability, and overall performance. This process is particularly useful for parts made from thermoplastic materials, such as FDM-printed components made of PLA, ABS, or PETG, as well as SLS-printed parts made from nylon.

In 2021, researchers studying the effects of annealing on 3D printed PLA found that the mechanical properties of the parts could be improved by 4.88 % to 10.26 % using annealing temperatures up to 110 °C.[3]

Thermal Stress Relief

One of the primary benefits of annealing is the relief of internal stresses within the printed part. During the printing process, thermoplastic materials experience rapid heating and cooling, which can lead to the development of internal stresses. These stresses can compromise the part's mechanical properties, making it more prone to warping, cracking, or failure under load.

Annealing allows these internal stresses to be released by gradually heating the part to a temperature below its glass transition temperature (Tg) or melting point (Tm). For example, PLA has a Tg of approximately 60–65 °C, while ABS has a Tg of around 100 °C. By holding the part at this temperature for a specific duration, typically ranging from 30 minutes to several hours, the internal stresses are allowed to dissipate, resulting in a more stable and robust part.

Improved Mechanical Properties

The annealing process can also enhance the mechanical properties of the 3D printed part, such as its tensile strength, impact resistance, and elongation at break. During annealing, the polymer chains within the material have an opportunity to reorganize and form stronger intermolecular bonds. This reorganization can lead to a more crystalline structure, which translates to improved mechanical performance.

Annealing Procedure

To perform the annealing process, the 3D printed part is placed in an oven, a temperature-controlled chamber, or a heated water bath, depending on the material and the desired outcome. The temperature and duration of the annealing process are carefully controlled to achieve the desired improvements without compromising the part's dimensions, surface finish, or overall quality.

It is crucial to note that some materials, such as PLA, can be more susceptible to warping or deformation during annealing due to their lower glass transition temperature. To mitigate this risk, it is essential to use a temperature-controlled environment and provide adequate support to the part during the process.

Post-Processing Techniques for Metal 3D Printing

metal 3d printingMetal 3D printing requires a different set of post-processing techniques

Metal 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, encompasses technologies such as Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) and Electron Beam Melting (EBM). These processes involve the layer-by-layer fusion of metal powder to create complex and functional parts. Post-processing techniques are essential to achieving the desired mechanical properties, surface finish, and dimensional accuracy of metal 3D printed parts.

Support Removal and Machining

Support Removal

Support structures are often required in metal 3D printing to anchor the part to the build platform, provide support for overhanging features, and dissipate heat during the printing process. Once the part is complete, these supports must be removed to realize the final geometry.

Support removal in metal 3D printing is typically performed using various cutting tools, such as band saws, wire electrical discharge machining (EDM), or CNC milling machines. The chosen method depends on the material, part complexity, and the required precision. For example, wire EDM is well-suited for removing supports from intricate geometries, while CNC milling is more appropriate for parts that require high dimensional accuracy.


After support removal, the metal 3D printed part may require additional machining operations to achieve the desired surface finish and dimensional tolerances. CNC milling, turning, and grinding are common machining processes used in post-processing metal 3D printed parts.

CNC milling is particularly useful for achieving tight tolerances and creating precise features, such as holes, pockets, and threads, that may not be achievable directly through the 3D printing process. The use of CNC milling also allows for the refinement of part surfaces, improving the surface roughness and overall appearance.

Similarly, turning operations can be employed to refine cylindrical or symmetrical components, ensuring that their dimensions meet the required specifications. Grinding, on the other hand, is used to achieve ultra-fine surface finishes and high-precision geometries, such as those required for sealing surfaces or bearing components.

Heat Treatment

Heat treatment is an essential post-processing technique for metal 3D printed parts, as it can significantly enhance their mechanical properties, such as strength, hardness, ductility, and resistance to wear and corrosion.

Various heat treatment methods are used depending on the material and the desired properties; however, as additive manufacturing is a new technology, the optimal heat treatment conditions for the process are yet to be fully defined.[4]

Stress Relieving

Residual stresses can accumulate in metal 3D printed parts due to rapid heating and cooling cycles during the additive manufacturing process. These stresses can lead to warping, cracking, or distortion in the part, adversely affecting its performance and durability. Stress relieving heat treatments are applied to alleviate these residual stresses.

Typically, stress relieving is performed by heating the part to a specific temperature below the material's lower critical temperature and holding it at that temperature for a predetermined time before cooling it down slowly.

Solution Annealing and Aging

Solution annealing and aging are heat treatment processes that can be applied to metal 3D printed parts made from precipitation-hardening materials, such as certain stainless steels, aluminum, and titanium alloys. The purpose of this treatment is to improve the material's mechanical properties, such as tensile strength and hardness.

Solution annealing involves heating the part to a high temperature, usually above the material's solvus temperature, and holding it at that temperature for a specific time. This treatment dissolves the precipitates present in the material and homogenizes its microstructure. The part is then rapidly quenched in water or another cooling medium to retain the homogeneous microstructure.

After solution annealing, the part is subjected to an aging process, in which it is heated to a lower temperature and held for a predetermined time. This controlled heat treatment allows the precipitates to form in a controlled manner, enhancing the mechanical properties of the material.

Hardening and Tempering

Hardening and tempering are heat treatment processes applied to ferrous materials, such as carbon steels and tool steels, to increase their hardness, strength, and wear resistance. Hardening involves heating the part to a specific temperature above its upper critical temperature and holding it there for a specified time. The part is then rapidly quenched, transforming its microstructure into a hard and brittle phase called martensite.

To reduce the brittleness and increase the toughness of the part, tempering is performed after hardening. In this process, the part is heated to a temperature below its lower critical temperature and held there for a predetermined time before cooling. This treatment causes the martensite to transform into a more ductile and tough phase, called tempered martensite.

Surface Finishing

Surface finishing is a crucial post-processing step for metal 3D printed parts, as it enhances their appearance, functionality, and performance by altering their surface properties. Various surface finishing techniques can be employed, each offering distinct advantages and resulting in different surface characteristics.

Abrasive Blasting

abrasive blastingAbrasive blasting can improve the surface of metal printed parts

Abrasive blasting, also known as bead blasting or sandblasting, is a surface finishing method that involves propelling a stream of abrasive media, such as glass beads, aluminum oxide, or silicon carbide, against the surface of the 3D printed part at high velocity. This process removes surface irregularities, eliminates residual powders, and creates a uniform matte finish.

Abrasive blasting parameters, such as the type of abrasive media, blasting pressure, and nozzle distance, can be adjusted to control the aggressiveness of the process and the desired surface finish. For instance, using fine glass beads at lower pressures will result in a smoother, more polished surface, while coarse aluminum oxide particles at higher pressures will produce a rougher texture.


Electropolishing is an electrochemical surface finishing process that removes a thin layer of material from the surface of metal 3D printed parts, resulting in a smooth, mirror-like finish. In this process, the part is immersed in an electrolytic bath and connected to the positive terminal of a direct current power source, while a conductive cathode is connected to the negative terminal.

During electropolishing, the applied electric current dissolves the surface irregularities preferentially at peaks, creating a smoother surface with reduced roughness. In addition to improving the surface appearance, electropolishing also enhances the part's corrosion resistance by removing embedded contaminants and passivating the surface.

Mechanical Polishing

Mechanical polishing is a surface finishing technique that involves the use of abrasive tools, such as polishing wheels, belts, or discs, to remove material from the surface of the 3D printed part and produce a smooth, shiny finish. Various grades of abrasive materials, ranging from coarse to fine, can be used in a progressive sequence to achieve the desired surface finish.

Mechanical polishing can be performed manually or using automated equipment, such as robotic polishing systems or CNC machines. The selection of abrasive materials, polishing speeds, and applied pressures can significantly influence the final surface finish and must be carefully controlled to achieve the desired result.

Advanced Post-Processing Techniques

Advanced post-processing techniques are employed to enhance the aesthetics, functionality, and performance of 3D printed parts beyond the capabilities of traditional post-processing methods. These techniques can add value to the final product by achieving unique surface finishes, imparting specific properties, or enabling intricate design features.


Hydrographics, also known as water transfer printing or immersion printing, is an advanced post-processing technique used to apply intricate patterns and designs onto 3D printed parts. This technique involves dipping the part into a water-soluble film containing the desired pattern, which adheres to the part's surface as it is submerged.

Before the hydrographic process begins, the 3D printed part must be properly prepared. First, the part is sanded to achieve a smooth surface, then primed and painted with a base coat. The base coat color depends on the design being applied and is chosen to complement or contrast the pattern.

The hydrographic film is carefully placed on the surface of a water-filled tank, where it dissolves, leaving the ink pattern floating on the water surface. A chemical activator is sprayed onto the ink, causing it to liquefy and allowing it to adhere to the part's surface. The part is then slowly and steadily immersed in the water at an angle, with the ink pattern enveloping and adhering to the part's contours.

Once the part is completely submerged, the remaining ink on the water surface is removed to prevent any unwanted adhesion. The part is then lifted out of the water, and the newly applied pattern is allowed to dry. Finally, a clear coat is applied to protect the pattern and provide a glossy or matte finish, depending on the desired appearance.

Cold Welding

Cold welding is an advanced post-processing technique used to join 3D printed parts made of metallic materials without the need for heat. This process relies on the inherent properties of metal surfaces, such as ductility and a natural tendency to form bonds when brought into intimate contact under pressure. Cold welding is particularly useful for joining parts made from metals that are sensitive to heat or have low melting points, such as aluminum, copper, and gold.

In cold welding, the surfaces to be joined are first prepared by removing any surface contaminants, such as oxides or residual particles from the 3D printing process. This can be achieved through chemical cleaning or mechanical polishing. The cleaner the surfaces, the stronger the bond formed between them during the cold welding process.

Once the surfaces are prepared, they are aligned and brought into close contact, typically with a gap of no more than a few nanometers. Pressure is then applied to the parts, forcing the surfaces together and causing the metal atoms to intermingle and bond. The magnitude of the applied pressure and the duration of the process depend on the specific material properties and the desired strength of the bond.

The success of cold welding relies on several factors, such as the quality of the surface preparation, the type of metals being joined, and the pressure applied during the process. In some cases, additional techniques like ultrasonic vibrations or mechanical deformation may be employed to facilitate the welding process and create a stronger bond.

One of the main advantages of cold welding is its ability to join parts without the need for heat, which can be beneficial for applications where thermal stress or distortion could compromise the integrity of the 3D printed components. Additionally, cold welding can be performed in various environments, including vacuum or inert gas atmospheres, making it suitable for specialized applications like aerospace and microelectronics.


Electroplating is a sophisticated post-processing technique used to add a metallic layer to 3D printed components. This method leverages the principles of electrolysis and can be used in industries such as aerospace, medical, and microelectronics.

During the process, the 3D printed part is immersed in a liquid electrolyte solution. The part functions as the negatively charged cathode, while a metal bar functions as the positively charged anode. An electric current is applied to the solution, causing metal ions to migrate from the metal bar to the surface of the 3D printed part, forming a new metallic layer.

Electroplating creates an aesthetically impressive metallic surface finish while also increasing a part’s strength and durability. The process may also be used to make a plastic part electrically or thermally conductive. Furthermore, selective electroplating can give a part an impressive range of functions. For example, a magnetic metal such as nickel and a conductive one such as copper could be deposited onto the same part.[5]


Post-processing techniques play a crucial role in enhancing the quality, appearance, and functionality of 3D printed parts. As the field of 3D printing advances, a wide variety of post-processing methods have emerged to cater to the diverse needs of different industries and applications. From basic techniques like sanding, priming, and painting to advanced processes such as hydrographics, cold welding, and electroforming, these methods provide valuable solutions to address the limitations of 3D printing and ensure that printed parts meet the required specifications and standards.

By understanding and implementing the appropriate post-processing techniques, engineers, designers, and manufacturers can unlock the full potential of 3D printing, creating high-quality parts that are suitable for a broad range of applications. The knowledge of these techniques is essential for anyone working with 3D printed parts, as it ensures the successful integration of 3D printing technology in various industries and fosters continued innovation in the field.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is post-processing in 3D printing?

Post-processing refers to the steps and techniques applied to 3D printed parts after they have been produced by a 3D printer. These techniques are used to improve the surface finish, appearance, mechanical properties, and functionality of the printed parts.

2. Why is post-processing important in 3D printing?

Post-processing is important because it addresses limitations and imperfections in 3D printed parts, such as layer lines, support marks, and poor surface finish. By applying suitable post-processing techniques, the quality, appearance, and performance of printed parts can be significantly enhanced, making them suitable for a wide range of applications.

3. What are some common post-processing techniques for plastic 3D printed parts?

Some common post-processing techniques for plastic 3D printed parts include sanding, priming and painting, vapor smoothing, support removal, and annealing. Each technique offers specific benefits and is chosen based on the desired outcome and the material used.

4. Are there different post-processing techniques for metal 3D printed parts?

Yes, metal 3D printed parts often require unique post-processing techniques, such as support removal and machining, heat treatment, and surface finishing. These methods help to improve the mechanical properties, surface finish, and overall quality of metal 3D printed parts.

5. What are some advanced post-processing techniques used in 3D printing?

Advanced post-processing techniques, such as hydrographics, cold welding, and electroforming, are used to create intricate designs, join parts, and deposit metal layers onto 3D printed components. These advanced methods offer high precision, improved surface quality, and the ability to create complex geometries, making them suitable for applications in various industries.


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