Wax seems like the opposite of a good 3D printing material. Its defining property is how changeable it is, never quite hardening to settle into a definite shape, always moldable at the slightest push of a finger.
But, when we learned that you could, in fact, get great 3D printed objects from wax material and filament, we were very pleasantly surprised, even more so when we saw how easy it is if you have the right equipment. We’re passing that knowledge on to you for your own personal enjoyment and use.
What is Wax Material?
In chemistry, the wax is defined as a simple lipid made from long-chain alcohols and fatty acids combining together. There is a variety of specific types of waxes found in nature, the most common being the type that bees secrete. 3D printing uses the castable resin form of wax, which means the extra material in the wax cures it to make it harden after being manipulated into its final shape.
Waxes can be naturally occurring or synthetic, but because additive manufacturing is necessary to guide waxes’ behavior for fabrication purposes, 3D printing with wax tends to use the man-made stuff. So you won’t be 3D printing with pure wax, but your finished objects will have very similar properties to it once you’re done.3
How do you 3D print with wax?
3D printing with wax can be slightly more involved than working with traditional filaments like ABS or PLA. There is also more than one way to 3D print with wax; we’ll discuss each in detail so you can decide which will work better for your needs.
- Inkjet 3D printing with wax. First up is a 3D printing process that you will recognize as the most common type – the kind that uses filaments added onto themselves from an extruder from a programmed pattern to complete a finished object. This is the basis of additive 3D printing, and the concept for printing with wax is the same. However, the process of getting to that same end is different. Because wax is not firm enough to be spooled into the threadlike filaments you see with standard thermoplastics, it has to be heated and melted within the printer and then dripped onto the printer bed instead of fed through.
- The most common sub-process of inkjet 3D printing with wax is called drop on demand. During this process, the material – in this case, wax – is deposited in tiny dots instead of a continuous line. DoD printers often have two extruder heads to supply the main printing material with dissolvable support material so that the final product can hold patterns with gaps and holes until the final object is hardened.
- Lost-wax casting 3D printing with wax. Another way to 3D print with wax involves using the wax as a mold – but not as an injection mold. Although that’s possible, that’s a very different process, and here we’re talking about the ability to make a wax mold that is printed in the exact shape of the object. This process is called lost-wax casting, and your first step is to create a 3D model of your object in your drafting software of choice. Then, you 3D print a wax model of the object. You cast a mold around the 3D wax model, and you melt the wax so that only the mold remains. Finally, you pour whatever surface finish material you want to use into the mold, let it harden, and dissolve the mold. A lot of fine jewelry makers in the jewelry industry use this process because it allows for one of the best levels of detail possible in 3D printing, and if any adjustments need to be made to the molds before the final step, it’s much easier to adjust on the computer and 3D print again than to manipulate the metal itself without damaging it.
Because its physical properties can shift more easily than materials rooted in firmer molecule bonds, you have to consider several general factors no matter which process you choose as your wax 3D printing preference.
So here are a few pros and cons to consider whether you’re looking to mold delicate metal shapes or just want to try wax as new material.
What are the pros of 3D printing with wax?
The finest layer of mold detail
Wax is most commonly used to create molds because of its stellar layer resolution of 0.025 mm. This is, frankly, the most amazing level of detail we’ve seen in 3D printing, especially in the area of molds and supportive materials. And when used as molds for intricate yet delicate products like printed jewelry, the metal that fills the mold takes all that detail with it to the final product, something you could never achieve with the lower layer resolution of pretty much every other 3D printing material.
No need for different supportive material
3D printers that can use wax can print two wax types at the same time to produce supportive bracing as well as the 3D printed object itself. They do this by printing the wax at two different temperatures; the wax that melts at the higher temperature, about 70 degrees Celsius, is used for the object itself, and the wax that melts at a lower temperature creates the supportive material that bridges gaps in the wax patterns until the initial wax hardens. Then the supportive wax is melted off.
Variations of color and properties
Wax is thought of as a uniform range of beiges, yellows, and browns, but you can find 3D printable waxes in all sorts of colors, including those you can’t find in nature like neons. You can also find variations on wax’s general properties in different viscosities and different mixes of resin within the material to better suit the type of object or mold you want to create.
Easy melting points
Wax generally has a lower melting point than most other 3D printing materials. This makes it easier to use as a mold and supporting material, of course, since you can melt them off whatever they are upholding without worrying about melting the actual molded object itself. But it also means that wax 3D printers run cooler than other 3D printers, so you’re able to operate with a larger safety margin than polymers or thermoplastics that require extrusion temperatures over 100 degrees Celsius.
Insoluble in water
In nature, the wax is often excreted by leaves and other parts of plants to keep them from absorbing too much water in rainy areas of the world. Wax acts as a water protector for your 3D printing objects as well; it’s yet another reason why the material makes such a good mold. It doesn’t dissolve in water, so if you need to use a water cooling process for molded metals before they’re ready to come out, the wax is the perfect way to hold the metal’s shape during that last step before breaking off of it easily to reveal the final product.
What are the cons of 3D printing with wax?
The inherent instability of material
The biggest drawback of working with wax to make any sort of solid final object is that you will not be able to use untreated wax on its own without putting your object in major danger of destruction. Since pure wax is so malleable and has such a low melting point, it’s crucial to know how to work with resins, UV light vulcanization, or other firming techniques to make it stiffer.
Even with the assistance of finishing details such as these, the wax is difficult to use as material for a final product. It’s melting point is above room temperature by about 50 degrees Celsius, which sounds like a lot but can put your wax figures in more danger of warping if you aren’t able to control the temperature of the environment where you store them.
Can’t be extruded like spooled filaments
We’ve run across this trait in several other 3D printing materials, most notably chocolate and silicone, so wax is not the only thing that has to be melted into a liquid instead of threaded through an extruder. But this is worth mentioning as an extra burden on whoever is looking to 3D print with it. Inkjet 3D printing is just as developed and discussed as traditional extruding, but it’s not a great place for the first time 3D printing enthusiast to start. Although it doesn’t mean learning a completely foreign skill, it does require a mastery of another branch of the process, so be prepared for that if you ever want to work with wax in a 3D printer.
This comes from the inkjet drop on demand process printing technology that best serves wax’s properties when 3D printing. We’ll discuss the specifics of what to look for to facilitate this below, but keep in mind this is a subsection of an already specialty process with the 3D printing world, so your ability to adjust to new things is crucial if you want to 3D print with wax. If you aren’t willing to invest in more equipment explicitly made for a drop on demand or at least inkjet 3D printing, you won’t be able to get your wax to behave as it should. 3D printing with wax is an investment of both more time and money.
What do I need to look for in a 3D printer that can work with wax?
Now that we’ve gone over the details of 3D printing with wax, let’s list what you need to look for in a printer that can handle this process.
An inkjet or drop on demand 3D printing process.
Wax needs an additive process that will deposit it onto the printing bed, and both inkjet and drop on demand equipment can do that for you. They’re similar but not identical, so check the details on the specific printers you’re eyeing to see which one will work better for your needs.
An internal material heater is able to handle two temperatures at one time.
In its role as both a top-notch mold material and a support filament, wax can’t be both at the same temperature. Therefore you need to make sure the 3D printer you’re looking at can warm up your main object/mold wax at a higher temperature than your support system wax; it’s totally possible to find equipment that will do this, and when you do, you’ll be rewarded by a superhuman ability to create details without a trace of all the background props needed for that level of work.
UV vulcanizing chamber and light.
Is this absolutely necessary to process 3D printing with wax? No. Is this a good way to ensure any finished products you want to 3D print in wax stiffen so they aren’t as prone to damage? Yes. Is this the part of the 3D printing process that is most likely to turn into a science fiction movie starring Tom Cruise? You bet!
Additional materials to use in your 3D printed wax molds.
Although you can 3D print wax objects to be their own thing, 3D printing with wax goes to the next level when you use it to create molds for other materials. We strongly recommend trying this method if you work with small to medium objects in materials that are difficult to detail on their own, like precious metals. You will be blown away by the results, and you’ll even be able to go pro if that’s something you’ve wanted to do but haven’t had the capacity to reach for until now.
What are some good 3D wax printers?
- Solidscape has a great variety of choices for you, no matter what kind of 3D printing process with wax you ultimately decide on.
- Sculpteo print on demand services are an excellent alternative if you don’t want to jump all in with your own 3D wax printing equipment. We understand – that can get expensive if you’re adding it to your current wares – and so does Sculpteo, so they’ll give you a taste on their own machines for less than setup costs for a new printer.
- EnvisionTec is all business with its line of printers designed to help you print multiple molds for custom designed jewelry or dental work at once. Their machines get a bit pricey for hobbyists, but they can’t be beaten for professionalism.
Finding a 3D wax printer shouldn’t be a major hassle no matter what you want to use it for. Use these details to find your best fit!