How to build a 3D printer: Part one – The basics

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To celebrate the launch of our new magazine,’s Tech Made Easy, we’re giving you the opportunity to win3D printer designed right here in South Africa by Centurion’s Quentin Harley. You can enter that competition here.

Since we’re assembling the award-winning printer in our offices, using materials we’ve printed ourselves and those that have been donated by the excellent folk at, we thought we’d take the opportunity to explain a bit about how 3D printers work and what to do if you want to build one. And we’ll be doing it by showing you the stages of putting together our competition prize before we send it out to the winner.

Apologies we’re a bit late to starting the series off (we were going to begin this a couple of weeks ago) but we’ll aim to complete the build by the time the competition is drawn in mid-May.

Before we get too bogged down in the process of putting the printer together, though, below is a quick 3D printing primer that you’ll do well to understand before we begin:

3d printer
My own printer, a homebuilt Prusa Mendel 2.

A (very) brief history of 3D printing

To put some sort of age on 3D printing you have to define what it is – after all, technically speaking any manufacturing process whereby a mould is filled with a material to create an object is 3D printing. Glass blowing is 3D printing, and so on.

It’s generally agreed, however, that modern 3D printing began in 1984 when Charles “Chuck” Hull began working with ways to turn digital data into physical objects and went on to invent ‘stereolithography‘ – a process whereby lasers or ultra-violet lights fired into a vat of liquid or powered plastic which hardens wherever the focused light touches it. In stereolithography, models are created by hardening one very thin layer of resin at a time, using two-dimensional shapes. A virtual 3D object is sliced up into many thin 2D layers, and each one is built slowly on top of the last to create the full physical ‘thing’.

Unlike traditional sculpting, which involves removing material from a large block to create a shape, stereolithography and 3D printing work by creating layers that are bonded together – and are thus known collectively as ‘additive manufacturing’.

Hull’s machines and spinoffs were fabulous for creating prototype parts for engineers, but they had one big drawback: cost. Up until recently 3D printers of this kind have carried price tags of millions of Rand and consume fantastic amounts of power.

Hull himself still works for 3D Systems, the company he founded in 1986. It remains at the forefront of large-scale 3D printing, and is currently collaborating with Google on parts for the search giant’s up-and-coming modular phone, Project Ara.

The domesticated printbot

Desktop 3D printing of the sort that is taking over the world is a much more recent phenomenon. While some experimented with the idea of a low-cost printer in the 1990s, the real visionary was Dr Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath (now a 3D print entrepreneur). Bowyer’s dream was to kickstart a manufacturing revolution by not only producing a 3D printer anyone could make themselves, but one which would reduce the cost of 3D printing exponentially by adhering to one key principle: to design a printer that could print itself.

His original design, RepRap, was brought into being in 2006 and hasn’t quite achieved this goal yet, but it’s close. Aside from a few metal rods for stiffness and the unprintable motors and electronics, the vast majority of RepRap machines are made from 3D printed parts. Bowyer’s real genius, though, was to trust the community. He made all the plans for RepRap publicly available, believing this was the best way to put a printer in every home, and hackers from all over the world have refined and adapted his original design either to reduce costs or make use of local materials.

Nearly every low-cost commercially available printer – including Makerbot, Printrbot, Cubify and all those Kickstarter prototypes for domestic printers are based on Bowyer’s work.

Bowyer continues to refine RepRap himself too: ultimately, he sees a world where you’ll be able to recycle plastics in a domestic printer. One example he’s fond of, for example, is printing a pair of children’s shoes which can be broken down and reprinted in a bigger size as the owner’s feet grow.

Our printer, which we’ll be making, is an open design too: it’s called the RepRap Morgan and was created right here, in South Africa

Adam Oxford

Adam Oxford

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar,, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.