What You Need to Know About 3D Printing and Cosplay

3D Printing Icon3D Printing September 11, 2018

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When cosplay tools are brought to mind, a few immediately stand out: worbla, exercise mats, heat guns… Slowly but surely, 3D printing is entering the maker lexicon as a means of producing higher quality cosplay. Today, 3D printed cosplay can be seen at most every large convention. What is 3D printing though exactly, what can you make with a 3D printer, and how can it improve cosplay?

Let’s dive in!

History of 3D Printing

3D printing, or additive manufacturing (as it is often referenced), isn’t new. In fact, it has a rich past beginning in the 1980’s.

The first 3D printers used polymers on a bed that hardened when exposed to UV light. In 1988, the first printer was revealed that extruded material (much like the typical 3D printer today). Heated material was laid layer by layer to achieve the desired form.

It wasn’t until consumer production of 3D printers started happening in the early 2000’s that 3D printer usage started heating up. In 2005, Dr. Adrian Bowyer started the RepRap Project to start development of an open source 3D printer that could create parts to build itself—that is a 3D printed 3D printer. Now, what was once relegated to large manufacturers was more economical for consumers.


Photo by Chris Hamby

What followed was a wave of devices and printers aimed at democratizing and enhancing the technology. Nowadays, 3D printers not only use additive processes, but stereolithography, fusion, and many other processes to create 3D models. Models can also be made in a variety of materials including plastic, metal, and wood.

How 3D Printing Impacts Cosplay

One of the benefits of 3D printing is that, given a particular 3D file, most anyone can print a 3D model as long as they have a 3D printer. This makes it possible for anyone with access to 3D printing capability to easily search online for a particular cosplay part and have it made.

This can be a huge timesaver, as it opens up time for cosplayers to work on other aspects of their cosplay.

Another benefit of 3D printing is the ability to custom make parts. No longer does one have to figure out how to fit purchased parts into a cosplay. 3D modeling software, paired with printing opens up the possibility of quickly iterating upon and building, exactly what you need, when you need it.

Controversy Brews

3D printing does have its share of controversies though, when it comes to the cosplay community. One of the biggest issues that many have with 3D printing is that people think of it as cheating.

3d printed cosplay of Iron Man

Photo by Bethany Weeks

Many incorrectly assume that you can have a 3D printer, with the right files, print you a fully vetted cosplay. There’s much more that goes into the process of 3D printing, though, as I’ll expand upon later in this post.

For now, much of diminishing this issue just comes down to education—letting others know that 3D printing is just as much a craft as creating a dress from scratch or building pauldrons out of foam.

Perhaps the bigger issue is that, even though 3D printers have become much cheaper over the years, 3D printing is still fairly cost prohibitive. First, factor in the cost of the printer. Decent printers can easily go up the thousand dollar range. Printers also need some find of material to turn into a 3D form. Prices here can vary wildly depending on the material and quality. Last but not least, consumer printer beds are still pretty small—making larger models like helmets fairly expensive to create in one shot.

There are resources that are slowly beginning to change the unit economics of all of this. It will still be a long ways out before people are able to print quality suits of armor out of their closet though.

What 3D Printing Can and Can’t Do

When 3D printing isn’t seen in a negative light, it is often viewed as a magical means of creating cosplay. As I previously mentioned, the ability of a 3D printer is a bit more nuanced.

Today, most 3D printers cannot print files on a large scale. A helmet, in this manner, may need to be printed in multiple sections that will then have to be fused and finished together.

Those printers that can produce large prints are often really expensive to acquire and use.


Photo by Creative Tools

3D printing, in this light, is great at producing smaller parts more reliably. The dozen or so skulls that a Necromancer cosplay might have are suited for 3D printing.

Many cosplayers also turn to 3D printing to produce weapons that may otherwise be too intricate to easily create in a more durable fashion.

Incorporating 3D Printing into Your Cosplay

If you have skills in designing, I recommend using Autodesk Fusion 360 or Blender to design models that are just what you’re looking for. There are hundreds of posts out there to help with everything from understanding what a chamfer is to exactly what thickness your outer shell should be.

If you don’t have modeling skills but still want to incorporate 3D printing into your cosplay, fear not! There are dozens of resources out there to help. For starters, you’ll want to answer if you have access to a 3D printer or not.

If you have access to a 3D printer, you’ll want to search for 3D printable files of what you’re looking for.

If you don’t have access to a 3D printer, there are options out there that can take a file you have, print it, and ship it. There are also on-demand print services that you can search for parts on and print directly from.

I’ve listed some of the top resources for all of these cases below.

Tips and Tricks


Photo by Creative Tools

  • Whether you’re designing your own models or picking up one that someone else has designed, reducing the thickness of the shell to balance printability and stability can greatly help reduce cost and the amount of material needed to print the model.
  • Oftentimes when designing a 3D model, it can be designed in a dozen ways. The best way is the means by which a model can be printed with less material, fewer parts, and fewer supports.
  • If you’re looking into purchasing a 3D printer, pay attention to the build volume. I often have to slice up models in order for them to print because the maximum build volume isn’t that big. Sometimes this is inevitable though for printers within the consumer and prosumer range.
  • A cheap 3D printer doesn’t necessarily mean a bad printer. There are a number of inexpensive 3D printers that both come preassembled and require assembly. If you’re good with putting together your own machine, you can easily save more money or use those funds towards an even better build.
  • When printing pay attention to your build surface. I’ve lost so many prints because a print loses connection with the surface its being printed on. Heated beds or Kapton/painter tape can help with this. Finger oils are bad news.
  • Think about each layer for additive machines as a tube. The more tubes there are squished together, the smoother the outside of the model will look. For this reason, .3mm is great for quick and dirty prints but .1mm will look even better and be easier to make smoother. The downside, of course, is that this will take much more time to print.
  • Using super glue or a 3D pen can be super helpful when it comes to fusing two 3D printed pieces together.
  • Always calibrate if you move your machine around.

Additional Resources



File Repositories

3D Printing Services (Bring Your Own File)

3D Printing Services (No File to Upload)

Finishing Tools

Hope this helps get you going with 3D printing.

If you’re interested in any of the cosplay items I’ve designed, feel free to check them out here. I’m also willing to help you design what you’re looking for. Just shoot me a message!

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