Review: Are commercial build surfaces worth it?

Is it time to replace your painter’s tape and Kapton build surface with one of the “professional” options?

3DLac (couldn’t find a link…)
Printafix (coming soon with a better recipe)
ZebraPlate and ZebraSkin
PEI sheets

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For today’s video, i wanted to take a look at some of the commercial build surfaces that you can use as a top layer for your bed to print onto. I mean, we all know that you can print onto glue stick, regular hair spray and blue tape but what if you wanted something that’s a bit more professional and repeatable? Well, let’s have a look, shall we?

So in total, i tested six different surfaces, and they fall into two categories: Liquids and solids. On the liquid side, we’ve three solutions that you you can either brush or spray onto your bare bed surface, say, aluminum or glass. In no particular order, those are 3DEez, a north American product that comes as a thick liquid that gets wiped onto your bed with a sponge and then dries to a semi-permanent layer; the Spanish 3DLac, basically a branded type of hairspray; and the yet unreleased Austrian Printafix Basic, another clear spray-on coat, but that one didn’t do particularly well, so the manufacturer is actually delaying the launch to get it right.

And for the “solids”, i’ve also got three different types: Starting with the Coropad from Poland, a thin adhesive sheet that you could compare to something like Buildtak; Then we’ve got the american ZebraPlate and the new ZebraSkin, with the ZebraPlate actually being a stand-alone build surface that you could also clip onto an existing bed and the ZebraSkin with the same material, but as a thinner sheet with some 3M adhesive on the back; and, lastly, the PEI coated aluminum plate i got from Sven Krause from Germany, again being a completely stand-alone bed and he even included a silicone heater with it. You can also get PEI as a sheet or film and stick that to your bed, which is what the Lulzbot Mini uses.

So how does one test a bed surface somewhat objectively? Well, my methods obviously included lots and lots of test prints. Using the the same set of gcodes, i ran six different tests on each surface. I used what i think are the three most common plastics these days: ABS, PLA and PET. The ABS i used was some no-name, but decent natural ABS, printed at 245°, then white PLA from BQ, which is also not a super expensive filament, but prints marvelously at 215°, and lastly, as the PET of choice, i used genuine Taulman T-glase at 245°, which isn’t the most challenging type of PET you could print, but makes for a good sample of what you would typically use.

And for each material, i ran a print with and without a heated bed, which, i mean, for PLA and PET is still something you might might want to do, especially on low-end printers that are lacking a heated bed, but honestly, ABS onto a cold bed was just something i wanted to know if it was even possible in the slightest bit. The temperatures for the heated bed, when it was used, were 60° for PLA, 70° for Tglase and 105° for ABS. The ambient temperature around and inside the printer was at a controlled 18° for each test, and that was also the temperature i had the heated bed cool down to when i ran a “cold” test.

And the printer i used was my usual Mendel90 experimentation platform, which is a total mess, but works extremely consistently, probably due to the fact that i know every nook and cranny of that printer by heart. It has a Wade’s style extruder, an E3D v5/v6 bastard hotend, an inductive sensor to get that nozzle distance really consistent and it has no part cooling fan.

So on to the print parameters, and we should have all the constraints covered that make this test run scientifically reproducible: And the test part, again, was chosen to be challenging, it’s a 100mm long, 8mm wide and 15mm tall stick (download below) that has a pointy tip on one end – this is probably # the worst shape you could torture any print surface with. Because it’s so long, it will create enormous forces as the plastic cools, and the pointy tip tends to pop up first since the actual surface area it has to stick to the bed is smaller, but it’s still getting the full amount of force from the center of the part. I printed this with a 0.25mm layer height, with the first layer bumped to .4mm and a 1.5mm width to reduce the effects any sort of misalignment would have. 2 shells, 4 solid layers on top and bottom, 20% hex infill, printed at 60mm/s. No brim. So you do still have some wiggle room if you have to make a material work with a particular surface.

Okay, so how did the surfaces fare? The six different test prints for each surface turned out to be like a linear progression – every surface handled PLA and PET onto a heated bed beautifully, but some struggled with ABS onto a heated bed, some did horribly with a cold bed, but as soon as for example PET failed, ABS definitely wouldn’t work.

So let’s make our way through the individual surfaces. Again, starting with 3DEez, which pretty easy to apply with that sponge, but if you forget to wash it afterwards, you’ll be left with a useless brick and will have to find a fresh sponge. 3DEez is odorless and if i had to guess what material this was, I’d say it’s like a polymer-filled PVA glue, but i’m probably wrong there. It leaves a film that is very robust and can be used for many prints without reapplying. It’s easy to touch up and easy to remove with some warm water, as the entire film will completely turn to mush and you’ll be able to scrape it off. Acetone or alcohol don’t seem to attack the surface, so you can use those to clean it. So how did it perform? Definitely better with a heated bed than without one. All the heated prints turned out perfectly, but the cold PLA print already showed some warping and PET or ABS onto a cold bed failed completely.

Moving on to 3DLac, which is applied by spraying it onto the bed. And that makes it easy to get a nice, even layer on there. You do need to completely wet the surface, just a thin whisp of 3DLac won’t do. Unfortunately, you do have to apply it outside of your printer, with the bed removed, or you are going to end up with something like this. And it does smell like typical hairspray, even more so if you heat the bed. You do have to reapply it before every print, a freshly applied surface will work best, but removing a print will also tear off that spot of 3DLac from the bed. To completely remove the 3DLac surface and start over, you can easily remove it with acetone. But, i mean, for printing, it works amazingly well, especially for cold prints. The heated prints obviously all worked, but even the cold prints with PLA and PET were surprisingly good. Cold ABS still failed. And as a bonus, since the 3DLac actually comes off the bed, large prints will often just pop off when they cool down after you give them a slight tap.

Now, moving on to the solids, starting with the Coropad: And just to get it out of the way, this thing is an absolute adhesion beast. I did correct for the extra .3mm of thickness the Coropad adds, but everything just stuck to it incredibly well. Maybe even a bit too well. This surface is the only one i could see cold ABS printing happening with. Add a bit of a brim and maybe print the first layer a bit hotter, and you could have some success getting compact ABS prints out with no heated bed. Cold PLA worked perfectly, cold PET showed some slight warp, but the really interesting tests are the heated prints. Because each of them says “bonded” on the side, my remark for how easy it was to remove them. The PET print even stuck so well that it broke in half and took a sizeable chunk of the CoroPad along with it. So, maybe, reduce the heated bed temperatures even more if you’re planning on using it, or just use it cold. The Coropad in general also isn’t the most robust surface, as it easily gets kinks and tears from removing stuck prints, especially since the adhesive on its back isn’t particularly strong, probably to make replacing it easier. But then again, it is the surface that i got absolutely the most adhesion out of in the widest range of situations.

Next up, the Zebras, i tested the ZebraSkin, which uses the same material on the surface as the ZebraPlate, but is a good bit thinner since it’s doesn’t have to hold its own weight as it’s going to stick to your your build platform with the permanent 3M 468 tape on its back. There is one disadvantage of using the ZebraSkin over the ZebraPlate, though, and that’s the fact that it’s incompatible with the standard 4mm sensing distance inductive probes. It’s just thick enough so that the sensor won’t trigger, which, in my case, had the printer shoving the hotend into the ZebraSkin. The ZebraPlate has a few copper layers inside, which spread the warmth from the heated bed and also allow the probe to trigger. It is a relatively sensitive surface that will melt when the hotend comes in contact with it, and i’ve routinely found the piece of paper i use to set the nozzle distance tacked to the ZebraSkin in that spot. However, it is thick enough to allow for a few sanding passes should you have worn out the top layer. Adhesion was good for all materials as long as the surface was heated – since the ZebraSkin and Plate have a significant thickness, you’re also going to see a significant temperature drop from what the heated bed reads to what you’re actually getting on the surface. The cold prints for PLA and PET showed a minute amount of warp, but were successful overall, while ABS onto a cold surface looks like it might work with a higher hotend temperature and a bit of a brim.

And lastly, PEI. It’s actually quite hard to tell that this bed is coated with a layer of PEI, which is chemically somewhat similar to Kapton. It’s quite a hard surface coating when cold, but does get quite squeaky sticky once it’s heated. For the testing i did for this video as well as with the printing i’ve done on the Lulzbot Mini, i can say that PEI is an extremely robust coating and isn’t going to show any sign of wear in any time soon, even if you’re heavily using it. Sven Krause, the guy who made this PEI coated bed calls it a permanent printing plate for that exact reason. By the way, that’s the same guy who sent me this insane watercooled hotend – and unlike that last one, this one is definitely going to work. Since the PEI coated bed, for me, is the entire bed setup minus the undercarriage, he also included a beefy enough 200W silicone heater for this 16cm bed. And the PEI works amazingly well – as long as it’s heated. It’s completely useless when cold and then won’t even print PLA at all, but once it gets that temperature bump, it works beautifully with ABS and PLA and had the prints sitting completely loose once cooled down. You just shouldn’t try to print PET, because, for whatever reason, that did not stick at all, even when heated. It should theoretically work, but at least for me, didn’t.

So do we have a winner that’s, like, the best surface? Well, no, not because they all suck, but because they’re all good for their own specific use cases. Pick the one that fits yours best, but keep in mind that none of the surfaces can do any sort of magic and bend the laws of physics. If you try to print in cold basement room, especially with an unheated bed, you’re going to get less adhesion than when you’re propping up your printer right next to the fireplace. Which i wouldn’t recommend, by the way. You can increase the adhesion with any of these surfaces by moving the nozzle closer to the bed, increasing the hotend temperature for the first layer or using a raft or a brim.

So i hope this comparison was helpful to you – let me know in the comments below this video if i should do the same thing for the materials that weren’t originally intended as print surface, like the common blue painter’s tape. Some also say brown packaging tape works well for some materials, but i’m not so sure about that.

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This video is licensed as Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike thanks to my supporters on Patreon!