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STL vs. Reality: The Highs & Lows of 3D Sculpts

One of the interesting aspects of owning a 3D printer is that you come to appreciate the difference between a digital sculpt and its physical counterpart. Not all 3D sculpts are made for printing, and the consequences of using a digital sculpt that's not built for 3D printers can be disastrous for the end product.

[h=3]A STL Primer[/h] STL files are the digital format widely used for 3D printing, which defines the basics of a three-dimensional object (color, texture, etc.). It's basically the instructions for a 3D printer. The STL file format is native to the stereolithography CAD software created by 3D Systems. It doesn't atcually stand for anything, although "Standard Triangle Language" and "Standard Tessellation Language" have been floated as backronyms.

What makes STL such an appealing format for 3D printing is that it creates content in triangles, giving a mesh support for the physical structure. This is important, because the actual product is subject to gravity and surface tension, something a 3D digital object is not. There's also the matter of how 3D printers work, building upon each slice to create a three-dimensional object.

STL files that have protrusions (say, a hero miniature pointing) are liable to sag without supports, which must then be removed from the figure. These supports leave residue (flash) on the object, that can be filed down or snipped. Depending on the intricacy of the object and how sturdy it is, removing this flash can damage the sculpt.

A well-made STL file has enough depth to easily capture fine details like facial features, minimizes protrusions to prevent sagging, and creates a strong enough structure so that the object can stand on its own. A poorly-made STL file can snap off at the weak points (like the ankles of a miniature). Jared Zichek delves into the difference between a digital render and a printable sculpt:

If you are printing it at a small scale, don't bother with excessive fine detail (like skin pores, for instance) that won't show up on the print. You may also have to exaggerate things like chainmail, rivets, buttons, etc. for them to show up on the print. Exaggerate the thickness of long and thin objects like swords so they are robust enough to survive production and shipment. Get a draft print done through Shapeways using their Frosted Ultra Detail (FUD) material to gauge how close you are to having something production-worthy; you will have to hollow it out beforehand though to keep the cost reasonable. A wall thickness of .6mm has been sufficient for me.

If you own a 3D printer, the worst case scenario is that you waste a lot of printer filament and have to print the figure again. But if you're a company with a Kickstarter, the difference can cause serious financial impact.
[h=3]Digital Isn't Real[/h]Companies have increasingly turned to using digital sculpts to show what miniatures will look like before they're actually produced. This was initially popular on Kickstarter, where sunk costs are at a premium, but has become common for the big publishers like Wizkids too. Digital sculpts look crisper and show better detail than photos of miniature prototypes, which have to be printed and painted before they're camera-ready.

The intersection where digital and physical meet are when problems can arise, particularly with printing high-detail objects like miniatures. HBR goes into the wide gulf between digital render and finished product:

Creating printable files involves two steps: creating a three-dimensional volume model that can be printed, and “slicing” that volume model in the best possible way to avoid material wastage and prevent printing errors. Both steps require tacit knowledge. Following the printing, the parts produced have to be recovered, cleaned, washed (or sanded and polished, in the case of metal prints), and inspected. This, in turn, means that using 3D printing for the aftermarket services — an application where it makes a lot of sense — requires making a significant upfront investment in generating the printable files of the spare parts that would likely be needed. This investment would have to outweigh the cost of keeping a lifetime supply of spare parts in inventory, which is a tough call for small bolts, brackets, and connectors that make up the bulk of aftermarket demand.

For an example of just what can go wrong, look no further than the recently failed Robotech RPG Tactics Kickstarter. Kevin Siembieda, president and co-founder of Palladium Books, explained:

After delay after delay that we, like you, did not understand, we learned the problem stemmed from the fact that STL files, the 3D sculpts from the sculptors, were not compatible with the tooling process the manufacturer would be using. The 3D sculpts we had all worked so hard on, and that Palladium had paid $35,000 for, and looked gorgeous, had to be completely recreated – from scratch – by the manufacturer. And Palladium and Ninja Division had to go through the creation, correction and approval process a second time for ALL of the Wave One and most of the Wave Two game pieces. A process that took MONTHS.

3D printing has made miniatures more affordable and customizable than ever before. But in some ways it has moved the flaws inherent in printing (flash, brittle sculpts) from the manufacturer to the customer, who may be surprised to discover that the awesome digital render makes for a terrible physical sculpt.

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Well, I guess if you needed a colossal Cosmic Eldritch Horror mini, that image at the top would do…

I’ve started to see more 3D printed terrain at cons, some of which looked absolutely incredible. The one GM I talked to about it said that you really need a lot of time to make these things. And also, be prepared to have things just mess up and botch in the printing now and then.


I recently bought a 3d printer purely to churn out dungeon tiles and terrain for various games and it's providing an amazing amount of bang per buck so far. There are some incredibly good dungeon tile sets to be had, including the free OpenForge ones, as well as excellent models of buildings and terrain pieces suitable for Necromunda and Frostgrave etc.

Minis are a different proposition to terrain due to the level of detail required. Although I'm happy enough to print out the odd random monster mini as needed, I don't think the quality is quite there on FDM printers. Some of the minis I've seen produced on resin printers are incredible however.

Thomas Bowman

First Post
You know, there must be a way to use 3d sculpts on a virtual table top without having to print it out. Making physical objects produces a lot of junk, and you would need a lot of storage space if you 3-d printed everything in the Monster Manual and enough to represent the numbers encountered on top of that. Wouldn't it be nice to keep all your 3-d objects in the computer without printing them out, and then using a mouse to manipulate and move them around on the screen?


A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
I looked into getting a 3D printer when Fat Dragon Games did their first Kickstarter, but in the end, I didn't go forward. 3D printers a still slow and you really need to have a well-ventilated place to be running it for hours. While certain terrain looks nice, the mini quality has never impressed me. And you still have to paint them.

The best thing I've done for my hobby is getting a paper-cutting machine (I use a Silhouette). Even though they are 2D, I can print an army of vibrant colored, detailed, 2D minis the night before a game. If they get banged up in play, I can print more. They are also flat pack. I can bring many hundreds of minis, organized in envelopes in a single show box.

I also buy Arc Knight games plastic 2Ds, which are nice and save even more time.

One Monk miniatures and Printable Heroes are my favorites. Printable heroes have been doing some amazing things. For me to buy demo lords and huge minis and paint them would be cost prohibitive. Paper minis, give an affordable option that is still impressive looking at the table.

Yes, I know about VTTs, but I mostly play at the table, and even if I were to use a VTT for in-person games, it would be for the battle maps and fog of war. We still like moving physical minis around and rolling physical dice and eating real pizza around a physical table with flesh and blood friends.