First Impressions: WanHao Duplicator i3 Plus 3D Printer

Late last week I picked up a WanHao Duplicator i3 Plus 3D printer. The cost is low enough that I could justify it as a backup and secondary printer, as well as just to have first hand experience with this popular model. These are some thoughts after a few days’ use and a number of prints, with a mind specifically toward miniatures terrain and similar hobby work. The upshot is that I think this is a great printer for the price, well suited for terrain production, and very accessible to newcomers to 3D printing provided they’re willing to look for and utilize other documentation.

I also have a walkthrough here for newcomers of some basic 3D printing concepts in the context of miniatures wargaming. A detailed tutorial on 3D modeling and printing using a miniatures wargaming example is here.

Wanhao Duplicator i3 Plus all set up and ready to go.

Cost & Availability

It’s stereotyping a bit to say, but in many respects the WanHao i3+ is typical of low cost but solid quality Chinese electronics. WanHao itself doesn’t produce retail products, at least for the US market, so there’s a confusing medley of rebranders under which the printer is actually sold. Monoprice is probably the most common; they sell their version as the Maker Select Plus on Amazon and elsewhere for $400. I bought a PowerSpec branded model from Micro Center for $350; it’s apparently sometimes offered on sale there for $250, a steal. I refuse to let it not be amazing that I can pop out to the store for under an hour, spend just a modest amount of cash, and come back with a robot that can make “anything.”

It’s worth taking some note of that availability. A big part of why I got this specific printer was because I could pick one up right away that evening when my main printer went down for non-trivial maintenance. Contrast that with Prusa Research, whose manufacturing is continually overwhelmed by their popularity and notoriously have backlogs of weeks or more. I produce a lot of prints for events and other deadlines, so it’s useful to know what I can likely grab with essentially no delay if/when necessary.

Tools

The PowerSpec edition, and I assume most rebrandings of the WanHao i3+, come with everything needed to get started. Included are the few tools necessary to assemble the printer and some extras for later maintenance; enough PLA filament for a a couple small prints; a spackle knife for removing pieces from the print plate; and an SD card with a few ready-to-print test designs preloaded. Including an SD card is a nice small touch, removing the need to hunt down or buy one to get started.

The spackle knife is a somewhat negative note among the included accessories. It’s useful, and more so than some other removal tools. But it has sharp corners that can easily gouge the print surface. I quickly switched back to the print removal tools I’ve been happily using for some time (especially the small tool).

A sidenote on the topic of tools to get started, I also use a simple pair of curved tweezers all the time. They’re handy for plucking at loose bits and threads of filament, or holding a cloth or paper towel to clean off a heated hotend.

Left to right: Spackle knife packaged with the i3+; knife that comes with Lulzbot printers; the Foreasy print removal tool I actually use; and curved tweezers for plucking filament threads.

Setup

Shipped in just a few major sub-assemblies, physically putting together the WanHao i3+ is intuitive and takes only a few minutes. Again typical of rebranded electronics though, PowerSpec’s documentation doesn’t quite track with the final product or packaging. The first indicator is that a description of the locations for the handful of bolts to be put in isn’t quite right. More problematic, the booklet doesn’t mention a cable you have to plug in (don’t miss cable E!). But it all makes simple sense: Bolt the gantry onto the platform; attach the filament holder on top; and plug in cables A through E. The cables & plugs in particular are very neatly and clearly labeled. The whole process is quick, the necessary hex wrench is included, and many good videos and writeups are available online to correct for the somewhat unclear documentation.

Plugging in well-labeled components.

Usage

Using the WanHao i3+ is also more or less straightforward, with the caveat again that the documentation is not great. Unfortunately this includes the touchscreen prompts. Sometimes these are just funny quirks and bugs, like the bed leveling procedure listing “x/4” steps when there are really 5.

Sometimes they’re less funny. Most notable are the instructions in both the documentation and the onscreen prompts for bed leveling to adjust the print plate to be “a millimeter away” from the hotend. That’s excessive, and even contradicted by more detailed notes in the booklet. Getting this distance right is where 3D printing starts to blend art and science, and there are tradeoffs: Too far and the first layer won’t adhere well and the print may fail; too close and the print’s first layer may blob up too much, or the hotend even potentially gouge the print plate. I’m still learning the best distance for the BuildTak print plate surfacing supplied with PowerSpec’s version of WanHao’s i3+ as I’ve found it to grip extremely well. That’s good in that prints adhere very well, achieving which is more commonly the challenge in 3D printing, but can make prints difficult to remove. I’m adapting by permitting a bit more gap in the bed leveling adjustments to compensate. A distance more like 1/3 of a millimeter seems appropriate, such that you can just barely push in a standard business card. For those just coming to 3D printing that might not seem like much of a difference from “a millimeter,” but it’s actually huge—under common settings each print layer is only 0.1–0.2 millimeters, and that first layer is the most critical in the whole print.

Misleading prompt for the bed leveling procedure.

Adjusting the bed leveling with a business card.

With the print plate pushing down just slightly to accommodate this business card under the hotend, for about 1/3 of a millimeter gap, prints seem to adhere very well and remove reasonably.

In general the touchscreen interface is workable but not great. I wish more or all screens had the hotend and print plate temperatures on them, e.g., to avoid having to go into subscreens to monitor cool down once a print completes. Some of the screen flow is not obvious or ideal, and there are some minor oddities or shortcomings like the limited number of visible characters in the file listing. But the control screen works and is ultimately straightforward once you learn the quirks. With the printer assembled and leveled, getting going just involves slapping in an SD card, hitting “Print,” and selecting a file. I’ll almost certainly set up an OctoPrint server on a Raspberry Pi to drive the printer, to have a better interface and remotely monitor progress, but it is nice to have a built-in SD card reader so the printer is ready to go on its own out of the box.

Fortunately, these issues with the documentation and limitations of the controls are mitigated by readily available resources. Since so many people have this printer, there are many guides online from which to learn the basic routines, and multiple active forums on which to ask questions. For those new to 3D printing, I strongly encourage watching a few videos or reading a few writeups about assembling and adjusting the printer before diving in. The aforementioned OctoPrint and similar open source projects can also supplant and improve the control interface if desired.

For slicing 3D models into G-code to drive the printer, I have been using the open source Cura and as expected had no problems. Several commercial and open source options exist. All of the settings needed to configure slicers for the WanHao i3+ are listed in the documentation, and many notes on the topic may be found online.

Although probably not the quietest available, I find WanHao’s i3+ to be very quiet. Certainly not a problem to run in a den or home office and not be noticeable elsewhere.

Print Quality

Straight out of the box, with no adjustment or tuning beyond basic bed leveling, I think WanHao’s i3+ produces very good prints given its price. Certainly they meet my expectations for tabletop ready miniatures terrain with which I’m happy to play games.

Some first prints on the WanHao i3+, from my Kolony designs.

Closeup on a building.

Fine details on small scatter terrain pieces.

With some tuning of settings I’m sure the quality can get even better, and no doubt some will be required for more challenging designs featuring tough retractions and bridging. Physical modifications of varying expense and difficulty to improve the printer can also be made and are extensively discussed online. An easy one for which I’ve already ordered parts is adding a brace to the gantry to further reduce unwanted motions. Thicker print plate chassis are also available and seem simple to install, reducing bed warping and making leveling easier and less frequently required. However, I think this printer is more than suitable for miniatures terrain out of the box.

Filament

WanHao’s i3+ uses 1.75mm filament, probably the most common size these days. Unlike some other popular entry level printers it isn’t restricted to proprietary spools, a huge boon for better availability and lower costs. Just as with the printer itself, it’s nice to know that in a pinch I can run to any of several nearby stores and grab more filament. A kilogram of PLA, almost certainly the most commonly used filament type for miniatures terrain, runs about $15 to $23 for typical quality without any shopping around for a better price and is enough to print quite a pile of models.

Cost and Longevity

From a filament price we can do some rough calculations on the cost efficiency and longevity of the printer. Obviously the value of a 3D printer can be hard to quantify. If you do custom design work it could be invaluable in expanding your capabilities. Just being able to acquire and build niche models is similarly hard to put numbers on. But we can do some basic calculations as a value floor. In particular, presumably one of the tradeoffs of a low cost printer is some reduction in expected lifetime. As a baseline, how long does this low cost printer have to last to make sense under the minimal use case of just printing existing designs? In considering miniatures terrain of the styles in which I am most interested (i.e., buildings, not interior tiles), we can put some numbers to that through comparison to buying MDF terrain.

Kolony 4×5 Habitats

A Kolony 4×5 Habitat, rendered above, is arguably a bit more detailed but fairly directly comparable to a simple MDF building commonly used for Infinity and other ~28mm games. It consumes ~120–150 grams of filament depending on whether or not it’s printed with a floor (the roof is also designed to be optional and easily made with foamcore or styrene instead to save print time, and burns about 1/3 of the filament, but is included here to fairly compare to similar MDF buildings). So a standard 1kg spool for $15 will produce 6–10 of these buildings for $1.50 to $2.25 each in direct filament costs. Electricity consumption is negligible for home use (i.e., not mass production).

Compare that to about $8–$9 for a comparably sized simple MDF small building (e.g., from Shark Mounted Lasers or Black Sheep Industries, both of which I play on often and like a lot). With the printer factored in at retail pricing, the 3D printed buildings using $15 spools become cheaper at about 50–60 small buildings [e.g.: 54*$1.5+$350=431 while 54*$8=$432]. Using $23 spools the crossover is higher, but not considerably.

So, as a very raw measure of pure economic sense, will this low cost printer produce at least 50 small buildings before additional costs are incurred, such as its semi-consumables needing replacement (like the print plate surface), or more serious repairs becoming necessary? I don’t myself know yet for sure. But I’m fairly confident it will.

Total costs for collections of small buildings for MDF versus 3D printing.

From that simple evaluation the capabilities scale very differently. 3D printing simply takes a long time and as such isn’t well suited to producing large terrain. It’s much better applied to producing small pieces to augment and detail larger constructions. On the other hand, 3D printing scales well with increasing model complexity. Even simple structures like the Kolony Outpost and Storage Shelters, the prints pictured earlier in this post, would be somewhat more complex and costly MDF models, but still only use about 100–150g/$1.50–$2.50 of filament with typical settings and take similar or less time to print. The Kolony BioDome, pictured below, also only consumes about 108g/$1.62 in filament and similar print time. But an MDF version would be very complex with numerous parts and almost certainly sold at a good bit more than $9.

Kolony BioDome (printed in HIPS on a Lulzbot Mini).

What these very rough calculations indicate is that if you’re producing a non-trivial but modest amount of terrain (a couple tables’ worth, figuring a typical generic layout is equivalent to ~15 small buildings in the analysis here), then there’s some reason to believe that this low cost printer will last long enough to make basic economic sense: Provided it does last that long, it’ll be similar or better in terms of pure dollar outlay relative to prices for reasonably comparable market offerings.

This isn’t to say 3D printing terrain like this makes sense for everybody. Maybe the finish quality isn’t acceptable, you feel it simply takes too long to print, or printers are just too much hassle to work with and maintain—these are all reasonable viewpoints to hold! Further, maybe you simply don’t envision printing enough to make it worthwhile. Alternatively, maybe printing is extremely valuable to you because you love a niche game for which models are really only available through 3D printing, or you have grand plans for crafting many boards full of bespoke, personalized terrain. I’m just arguing that under some plausible assumptions, parameters, and requirements (such as acceptable quality level), the per-piece cost using this printer is reasonable.

Newcomers

For people coming to 3D printing new, the WanHao i3+ seems a very reasonable option for those willing to put just a little effort into researching, thinking about, and using the printer. It’s affordable, prints well, and is ultimately pretty straightforward. My only hesitations for true beginners stem from issues like the touchscreen prompts and documentation. You have to know just enough to realize those are a bit off and then either figure out or track down better information. Light searching will also yield a number of improvements that are easily made but come built into some other, more costly, products, such as better G-code boilerplate to plug into your slicer to make printing more convenient by moving the hotend entirely out of the way when done.

A more subtle example is that the printer’s design essentially has three points of contact along the Y axis: Front, back, and the gantry. If they or the underlying surface (i.e., the table or shelf) are not level, it can rock a bit. So, for example, I assembled mine on one table and then moved it to another as its current home. A very slight difference in these surfaces led to the printer rocking just a bit front-to-back on the latter. So I loosened the gantry bolts, re-settled it in place, tightened the bolts back up, and the problem was solved. Anybody could do this very easily. But you’d have to be paying just a bit of attention to notice the rocking is possible, realize it could be a problem, and be just the tiniest bit mechanically minded to resolve it. This particular issue doesn’t come up with some other common printer configurations, so it’s an example of a small potential issue that could trip up an unwary user.

All of this is to say that, despite Micro Center’s questionable shelving decisions, 3D printing and especially this printer are not as thought-free as a typical 2D inkjet printer or similar appliance. If you’re happy going into it with just a hint of a hobbying and tinkering mindset, then WanHao’s Duplicator i3 Plus is probably a great option. Otherwise it might be worth looking elsewhere.

Summary

Long story short, my early impressions of WanHao’s Duplicator i3 Plus, and specifically the PowerSpec version from Micro Center, are very good. It and its filament are affordable and easy to find. Installation and usage is fairly straightforward. The output is good enough for ~28mm miniatures terrain, my main interest, even before any significant tuning. A tremendous number of people have one of these or a closely related model, so there are many tutorials and notes online. Numerous modifications are also possible and available to improve it even further. As a low cost printer I think this is a good option, and newcomers willing to put just a bit of thought toward the process will get a lot out of it for the money. Good luck!

WanHao Duplicator i3 Plus, hard at work!

Magnetizing Inceptors

I’m not actually sure whether I really like the new Space Marine Primaris Inceptor jump pack models or if they leave me kind of “Meh.” Some details I love, some I don’t. But I do know that I don’t like the flight stands at all. Unlike some of GW’s peg-and-socket designs in the past, these have to be affixed to the model. They don’t just slot in firmly or anything like that. Affixing them though means they take up a lot of transport space. The connection between stand and model also seems very very prone to breaking in transport or play. As a final insult, it’s also kind of finicky to glue.

I dealt with all this by magnetizing mine. Many people have of course suggested this but I don’t see any detailed notes around so this is a quick tutorial.

Assembled models.

Ball & Socket

You could magnetize these guys in a couple ways. I’ve done it the way most people do X-Wing ships: A ball bearing on the end of the stand and a ring magnet somewhat hidden in the the underside of the jump pack.

Side view in which you can see the ball & ring magnet connection.

There are several reasons for this approach.

Perhaps most important, in general you don’t want to use two magnets if you can avoid it. A pair of magnets makes a stronger connection but incurs a bunch of extra work. Obviously in that case you need to orient each pair of magnets properly, which can be difficult to get right for small magnets while affixing them in place. But then ideally they should be aligned the same way across all of the models so that you don’t have to worry about which stand goes with which model. That’s a hassle, especially when you add more models later. In contrast, the ball bearing is just a metal surface. There’s no polarity to get right and any model can use any stand without worrying at all about orientation for either any single pair or the squad/army.

Somewhat similarly in reducing fiddliness, using a ball bearing rather than a steel disk means the magnet doesn’t have to be set perfectly on the model. Even if it’s placed a bit crooked you’ll be able to rotate the ball bearing connection to orient the model however you want. Taking that further, if the connection is strong enough, you can rotate the model around into funky angles either for fun or to move it out of the way in tight spaces (a big help in X-Wing, less of an issue here).

A ball bearing and a plain disk magnet would probably also work if the latter was strong enough. However, by using an appropriately sized ring magnet, the ball bearing fits inside and it works like a socket. This lets more of the magnetic field pull on the bearing while at the same time making a bit of a pressure fit. It’s much much stronger than a bearing just sitting against a flat surface and only minimally reduces the angles at which you can position the model.

Finally, ball bearings and ring magnets are cheap and easy to come by, in contrast to cylinders or something like that. I order from K&J Magnetics in sufficient quantities to make shipping worthwhile, but they can be found other places as well.

Model

The ring magnets I used are 1/16″ thick, with 1/4″ outer diameter and 1/8″ inner diameter, specifically the R421 from K&J. Inner diameter needs to match the ball bearing. Outer diameter needs to fit the model, and these just happen to fit nicely on the underside of the jump pack between the secondary thrusters. A nice bonus of the ring magnet is that from a distance it arguably looks vaguely like just another thruster.

Attaching the magnet is straightforward. You could use either CA (superglue) or green stuff, putting a small amount in the cavity on the model and dropping the magnet on. Since polarity doesn’t matter, you can actually literally just drop it on with the model facedown on the table and let it sit there to cure. I used gel CA so I could easily form a small blob to sink the magnet into and fill up the tiny gaps between it and the model. Whatever you use though, be sure to not fill up the hole on the magnet.

Note in these pictures how the glue vapors frosted up the surrounding area a bit, which is a good reminder to never use superglue on painted models if at all avoidable.

This size magnet fits perfectly in a slight cavity on the jump pack underside.

And it hardly stands out at all on the model amid the thrusters.

Attaching the ring magnet is a simple matter of putting the model face down and dropping it on.

Stand

Putting the ball bearing on the stand is just slightly more involved. The bearing I used is 1/8″, matching the inner diameter of the magnet, specifically the NSB2 from K&J but you can find similar tons of places.

The bearing fits well in the little hook on the flight stand. I attached it in three steps:

  1. Using gel CA so it doesn’t flow all over, put a dab in the hook and then drop in the ball bearing and let it cure.
  2. Pack a very small quantity of green stuff around the stand and bearing, being sure to leave most of the magnet exposed, essentially creating a tube around both to be a very strong connection.
  3. Once cured, file down any excess green stuff.

More talented greenstuffers could no doubt just pack it on in one step, but I found it helpful to glue on the bearing first to help keep it in place and wound up with just enough bulge to be worth filing down.

Some people have reported trouble gluing the stand to the base. I didn’t have any such problem using my usual plastic cement but it’s probably avoidable or fixable by roughing up the bottom surface of the stand and then rinsing both, creating more surface area and removing any release agent on the pieces.

However, the foundation of my bases is vaguely swampy greenstuffing. So with the stand glued on I also built up some greenstuff over the edges of it. This both obscures the bottom flare out of the stand and makes its connection to the base stronger.

Stand with ball bearing affixed to the top.

Fly!

This process took literally a couple minutes, and now the transport and fragility hassles of these flight stands are almost entirely mitigated. With the bearing in the ring the connection is very strong, the models can be picked up and moved around with no fear at all of the base falling off. As a bonus, the Inceptors can fly around at kooky angles!

All that said, if I pick up another squad of these there’s a good chance I’ll simply mount them on the base. Done well I think they might actually look even better on the ground, it gives them extra visual bulk and intimidation.

But, if you want the flying look, a ball bearing & ring magnet is a good way to do it.

Inceptors flying around.

Derelict Depot

Battle breaks out amid the newly completed Derelict Depot!

Advancing through the wreckage.

Looking out from the abandoned garage.

Lurking in the shadows.

Moving through the scrapyard.

Garrisoning the mechanical building.

Scouting for trouble.

Overlooking the battle.

Showdown at the depot nexus!

Derelict Depot

The Derelict Depot is a board I put together for RECON+, essentially half-size games of Infinity, but it should work for a variety of skirmish games. It’s a mix of scratchbuilding, scale models, and 3D printing. More details on its creation are here:

I designed all of the 3D printed parts. Many of them are already available as free downloads in my Thingiverse collection.

The armies fighting it out here are my Military Orders and Aleph painted by Tim D.

The first step: Putting down some initial ideas.

3D printed and scratchbuilt elements.

Construction complete!

Base coating.

Painting details.

The final board!

Narrative

The story of this terrain is something like:

Early in the colonization of Ariadna, Depot E-7 was a supply outpost used by militias fighting the antipodes on the fringe of the settled area. As the border expanded outward and it was no longer militarily useful, a bold, risk-taking entrepreneur began using it as a base for an air courier service. Given the harsh conditions, limited technology, and few resources available to the colonists, its equipment was all based on very old and simple technology easy to construct and maintain. The service provided an important link ferrying supplies, messages, and people over the dangerous ground between the new, far flung settlements popping up as the colony grew rapidly. Later though the depot was overrun as its region collapsed in one of the periodic waves of antipode fighting. Although abandoned since then, it has recently come to be occasionally used as a waypoint or temporary base by various special forces teams operating on Ariadna.

The board is of course designed overall to feel abandoned and disused, but particulars of that story are captured in details here and there: Signage declares the garage to be the home of the “Air Bonsky” courier service (Bonsky being our local lead Infinity TO); militia recruitment and “EVACUATION NOTICE” posters are scattered about on some of the walls and littered on the floor; blood spatters mark where the last defender was caught when the base was overrun; a walkway has been twisted and burnt by high explosives in more recent fighting. It’s not much of a story, but it was just enough to generate some unique, cohesive imagined micro-vignettes and details to add flavor.

Air Bonsky: Why fight the antipodes when you can fly over them?

Evacuation notice poster on a wall.

Littered recruitment poster and evac notice handbill blown into a corner.

A warning not finished in time.

Play

This board is definitely designed with just a bit of priority toward aesthetics and narrative versus gameplay. In a few places it can be a touch awkward to place figures because of details, many of the shapes are slightly odd so models often don’t perfectly snug up into cover, and so on. But it’s very playable, and has interesting features.

As one example, none of the buildings have the ubiquitous low walls found on almost all Infinity MDF terrain. In places where railings make real-world sense and cover would be useful for gameplay, the metalwork is more realistically thin and open, but overgrown in thick vegetation to physically obscure models and leave no doubt they’re intended to be cover. In other places, a variety of mechanical boxes, large vent outlets, and other details scattered about provide partial cover instead of walls and screens. This approach creates some interesting dynamics. For example, the top of the garage can be a great vantage point for controlling ground below. But it’s essentially not possible to move around on it without either breaking cover between features or going prone out of sight and foregoing your own shooting, quite different from moving along a rooftop railing or edge. At the same time, it’s not possible to get cover from all angles, so no sniper can rest easy if there’s a chance the enemy can flank them—which they might very well do by running through the garage directly underneath them!

Similarly, the tallest point, the silo, has a piece on top such that models can generally only be placed solidly at the very center. A small lip prevents models from fitting at the edge. So a sniper can be placed there for a commanding view, but if they go prone they won’t be able to shoot anything, and if they stand up they won’t get cover.

The board as shown here is very dense, which impacts some armies negatively, but that just means there’s plenty of pieces to be used or not used in different games, generating a lot of variety in potential setups.

Face-on view.

Mechanical building side.

Fuel reservoirs side.

Top view.

Sniper hiding behind a rooftop mechanical box.

Roof of the garage.

Poster inside the garage.

One of Bonsky’s relic aircraft.

The mechanical building.

Gas mask warning and ladder on a fuel reservoir.

Burnt out low-tech car.

Fuel distribution tank.

Creeping behind the distribution tank.

Truck dumped out front the distribution tank.

A silo, the tallest point on the board.

Door on the silo and truck left outside.

Next!

I’m very happy with how the Derelict Depot came together. It was a nice, tractable effort that didn’t drag on forever, and got done on schedule—just barely!—for an event I wanted to use it in. My small library of 3D printable parts made expressly to quickly add details to scratchbuilt terrain like this provided plenty of variety and interesting features, and I enjoyed making good use of a number of found objects. People seem to enjoy playing on the board, the pieces have some neat game dynamics, and the terrain has a lot of character and cool visuals. Mission accomplished!

For another example of this kind of scratchbuilding + scale models + 3D printing, check out my Medea Refinery build. Partly by chance and partly by design, pieces from the two sets go together well to create a really cool, large, detailed board. I also have a few tutorials up on 3D printing and modeling.

I’m not sure quite when I’ll get to them with NOVA and other events coming up, but I’m kicking around a couple neat ideas for new boards and in some cases have even started some work. Stay tuned!

As a bonus, the Derelict Depot packs up perfectly into a box I had on hand!