When I was asked to write about “The Best 3D Printers for Jewelry Makers” I was, it is fair to say, pretty much thrown off balance.
You see, I got into 3D printing through my interest in robot building, arduino/electronics and prop making. These things tend to be much larger and more robust than jewelry. Heck, the only jewelry I wear is my plain gold wedding band.
So I had a lot of research to do if I was going to answer this, seemingly straightforward, question.
Then once you start digging into the entire topic the question also opens up further questions such as: how much money are you going to be willing to spend, how are you going to make money from this jewelry, if at all, and what is your skill level? Are you going to manufacture or just design this jewelry?
Well, as it turns out, it seems even the experts right now mostly use a 3d printer for jewelry casting rather than jewelry making.
What this means is, they use a high resolution 3d printing process (which we will get into later), to create the mold, which is then in turn used to make the actual jewelry.
Making molds and casting means that creating a one-off piece or making multiples pieces is not as huge a leap as it would at first have seemed.
SLM - Jewelry 3D printing of the future?
Recently, Selective Laser Melting has become an affordable and practical option. As the name suggests, this is a 3d printing process where real metal powders are melted into shapes by a laser.
Actual metal 3d printing!
Currently there are general purpose metals, such as stainless steel, with more exotic and precious metals becoming practical options. This is amazing and perfect for single one-off projects, and definitely a boon for rapid prototyping.
What about your reasonable at-home options? Well from what I have gathered in my research, you have two options, both of them turning out nice results.
3D Printers for Jewelry in the Home studio or office
The first is to ship your 3D designs off to Shapeways; yes, this is pricey and takes turnaround time you might be too impatient to wait for. The nice thing, of course, about services like Shapeways is they have state of the art equipment. They have material quality control, they have strict processes performed by trained operators, and they have customer service. So you are paying for more than the outcome, you are paying for how they approach and achieve that outcome.
You are still going to have to produce your 3D design, though, and for most of us that means being able to hold a prototype in our hands to really get a feel for if that design is working. At least until VR really improves!
So that leaves us with the second option, a consumer or prosumer level 3D printer that can be used in an office or studio.
Again, I did my research, and the options are broadly in two categories.
The recommended option for the highest resolution, accuracy and surface texture, is a desktop Stereolithography (SLA) 3d printer, such as the Formlabs Form 2. If, like me, you would love to own a Form 2 but without selling a kidney probably cannot afford to purchase a Form 2, then check out the cheaper resin-based alternatives, such as the Wanhao D7.
Rather than the SLA process, the Wanhao Duplicator 7 uses a DLP process, which stands for Digital Light Projector. Yes, instead of a laser inside the machine it has a projector, which flashes frames of images for each layer as the print builds, and that cures and hardens the light or photoreactive resin.
Even though the projector technology is not as advanced or precise as the laser alternative, it is orders of magnitude cheaper and still super high resolution capable of beautiful outputs.
Resins are not particularly family-friendly, however. Storage, personal protective coverings, and disposal of these materials, as well as costs, are obvious factors, and these factors are compounded when considerations are being made for what you want in your home or classroom.
Plastic Filament 3D Printers for Jewelry-Making
So we return to our familiar FFF technologies, using traditional plastics such as PLA. Can these printers be used for creating jewelry quality prints? Yes. As it happens, there are a whole bunch of people using Ultimaker 2 and Prusa Mk2 3d printers successfully in their hobby or small business designing and making delicate and beautiful designs.
Even better, they are using these printers mostly stock. One major change to the as-delivered printers you would want to seriously consider, though, is nozzle diameter.
Stock 3D printers usually come with a 0.4mm or 0.5mm nozzle size as standard. This is the default because it is a general-purpose size. These diameters are generally regarded as not too small to make the print time excessive, and not too big so that you lose all details.
While we usually talk in terms of the layer height as synonymous with resolution, the diameter of the nozzle is as much of an influence on outcome as the height of the layers, so looking at the nozzle would be the next step to getting maximum output quality, especially with tiny, detailed models, like the ones used for jewelry.
Luckily both the Prusa and Ultimaker 2 allow easy nozzle changes, and the Ultimaker 3 just had a 0.25mm nozzle announced. These smaller diameter options will help give a better x and y resolution to go with sub 1mm vertical resolutions.
Accuracy is a big deal in jewelry if the print is being produced not just for how it looks but also how it fits. If you are designing jewelry as a bespoke item for an individual, you need to be able to depend on the tolerances. A well-calibrated official Prusa or Ultimaker is going to give you confidence.
So what are the best 3D printers for jewelry designers and makers?
Print on your FDM printer to get a feel for the product then send off to Shapeways for final make.
Form 2 or other high-end SLA, or cheaper DLP alternative like the Wanhao D7.
Look out for actual metal 3d printers that are just starting to arrive on the market at reasonable (comparatively) cost.
Use a reliable and accurate printer such as the Prusa Mk2/Mk3 or Ultimaker to get a high resolution and good finish for metal casting.