As an entry level into the world of 3D printing, a cost-effective technology for the artistically inclined emerged recently in the form of the 3D pen. Anyone familiar with a hot glue gun will get the idea behind a 3D pen. A plastic rod, heated by the pen, melts and extrudes like ink from the pen’s tip. Unlike a glue gun, however, the 3D pen plastic hardens almost instantly, supporting its own weight. So unlike a conventional pen, there’s no need for substrate like paper, in the case of ink. The artist creates lines at any angle — up, down, across, sideways — working with a medium in three dimensions.
The heated plastic method — Fused Deposition Modeling or FDM — matches the method used for many 3D printers. It’s not, however, the only 3D pen technology. Photopolymer ink begins in more liquid form and hardens upon exposure to ultraviolet light. This technique proves ideal for children, since there’s no heating element to cause burns. LED lights at the pen nozzle firms the photopolymer into solid form and similar results to FDM pens emerge. This technology is commonly known as “cool ink” 3D printing.
The 3D pen market aims for three general levels of user: children, general and advanced use. Despite those rough divisions, price points and features mix across the levels. Here, we take a look at 10 of the best 3D pens currently on the market.
|Product Name||Weight||Target Market||Technology|
|NEXTECH Intelligent 3D Pen||40g||Advanced||FDM|
|Smarson 3D Printing Pen||55g||Advanced||FDM|
|Da Vinci 3D Pen||70g||General||FDM|
|7Tech 3D Pen||64g||Advanced||FDM|
|AtmosFlare 3D Drawing Pen||99g||Children||Cool Ink|
|Hatchbox 3D Printing Pen||40g||Advanced||FDM|
|Tech 4 Kids 3D Magic ImagiPen||120g||Children||Cool Ink|
|Manve Intelligent 3D Pen||68g||General||FDM|
3D Printing Pen Reviews
1. 3Doodler Create – Editor’s Pick
The 3Doodler name is the first in 3D technology, makers of the original 3D printing pen. That history provides a lot of added value for users working in the 3Doodler community. The Create is essentially version 3 of the 3Doodler, and it shows refinement borne of experience. Controls are intuitive, simple and responsive. The company’s experience with 3D pen technology led to improvements in the filament transport system, resulting in better feed, temperature control and overall stability.
The pen tip is reinforced to facilitate nozzle changes and the pen itself comes in five colors now. The 3Doodler remains one of the more ergonomic 3D pens, and it still has two feed speeds and two heater temperatures. The print button sits right under the index finger, natural placement with such a pen. Pressing once starts printing. Pressing again stops and a double click reverses direction.
Thermoplastic 3D printing has two formulations of filament material, ABS and PLA (see 3D Pen Plastics below). Each has a different melting temperature. So that’s why the 3Doodler offers two heat levels, as do some other FDM pens.
3Doodler has 65+ colors of filament, including metallic, glowing and sparkles. The Create is compatible with all earlier filament plastics and product accessories. The user community is also well-developed. Stencils, templates and tutorials help get the most out of the pen.
For its elegance, level of development and strong user base, we rank 3Doodler at the top of our 3D pen rankings.
From the first 3D pen maker, we move to the first cool ink 3D pen maker. That makes the CreoPop safe for anyone to use since there’s no heat. The cool ink feature makes this pen safe for children to use, but the design is sleek enough for anyone. In fact, adults who struggle with the power cords on thermoplastic pens may quite enjoy the CreoPop’s cordless nature. No more dragging things off the work surface with the forgotten cord.
Each ink cartridge prints about 46 feet of line with the standard 1 mm nozzle. Inks come with a variety of colors and properties. As well as glowing and sparkling inks, such specialties as fragrant, magnetic and conductive inks put a new spin on the function of a 3D pen project. There’s even a temperature sensitive ink available that changes color with the air temperature. Body painting ink is something thermoplastics will probably never manage successfully, yet it’s on offer from CreoPop.
The cool ink can be a bit messy, and for those not instinctively capable of creating in 3D, there’s a learning curve. Finished designs aren’t particularly durable and the reaction that hardens the photopolymer does create heat, but it’s not at the burn level.
The CreoPop pen is thick. Unlike the thin thermoplastic filaments, there’s an ink cartridge inside. It’s easy to change, so multicolored designs are as simple as a cartridge change. The pen isn’t has heavy as it may appear. It’s balanced and easy to hold.
Despite the fact that the cool ink process is somewhat shakier than thermoplastics, it is safe for kids with its lack of hot nozzle and hot output. Given the creativity children can bring to anything artistic, it can be amazing how kids adapt to drawing in three dimensions.
3. NEXTECH Intelligent 3D Pen
Nextech’s Intelligent pen uses thermoplastic technology, like the 3Doodler. Temperature setting is variable, so both ABS and PLA filaments work with the Nextech device. There is even a wood filament available to take advantage of the variable temps.
The tip design permits quicker cooling of the active filament, though this advantage is somewhat compromised by the wide body above the tip and nozzle. It’s tougher to see what’s happening around the Nextech pen, though the improved airflow around the nozzle may have the potential for more accurate work.
Another worthwhile feature is the unload button, which makes the changing of filaments quick and keeps the pen clean at the end of work. Extrusion speed is adjustable to match the user’s comfort level.
The pen itself feels balanced and comfortable, even if it’s not as streamlined as the 3Doodler. It does allow good range of motion, making it more unfortunate that the tip is not as easily visible as some other 3d pens. Since the tip does heat substantially, the Intelligent 3D pen isn’t recommended for younger children.
The Nextech pen ships with a pen holder, and has a standby mode, so the company does have the user in mind with the basic package. Two filaments come with the basic package, so it won’t be long until more consumables are necessary.
Clogging does occur, despite the unload feature, and more frequent with PLA filaments than with ABS. This is a trait of the plastics rather than the pen, so this is not unexpected.
The Nextech Intelligent 3D pen doesn’t have the community that makes the 3Doodler attractive, but then it’s marketed as for artists, who may be more self-sufficient than hobbyists. It’s a competent 3D pen with room for a few refinements.
See More: Best Bluetooth Speakers
4. Smarson 3D Printing Pen
This 3D pen is very similar to both the FDM technology pens ahead of it in the rankings, showing that there’s a level of development in 3D pens that is plateaued. Variable speed and temperature feature here as well, so users have their choice of filaments.
With so many similarly featured 3D pens, the one that’s perfect for a user may come down to simply the way it feels. The Smarson pen takes a different approach to button location. Filament feed is placed for thumb operation, assuming a right-handed user. This may not be to everyone’s taste, though the Smarson feels as well balanced as the other top performers.
Part of the reason for the placement is the vent in the body of the pen, just above the tip assembly. This improved airflow likely speeds temperature adjustments and prevents overheating. Accurate temperature is key to proper setting with thermoplastic 3D pens.
The heat and button placement make this pen less suitable for kids, who instinctively hold writing instruments closer to the tip. Adult artists and hobbyists will be more comfortable with the Smarson, and for some users, this grip will be the ultimate in natural feel.
There is no user community that’s obvious for the Smarson pen, another reason for its lower score. Those who are comfortable with navigating their way through the details of a new hobby won’t feel hindered by the lack of a dedicated Smarson user’s group, but those who are more tentative about it may miss the lack of peer advice. Previous 3D pen users should have no difficulty adapting to the Smarson.
5. Da Vinci 3D Pen
XYZprinting has a solid background in 3D printers. They took a very basic design approach to the Da Vinci 3D pen. There is none of the flexibility of the other FDM tech pens. There are two buttons to feed and to unload filament. That’s it. Without temperature adjustment capability, the Da Vinci pen uses PLA filament exclusively. XYZprinting offers 11 colors of their own PLA filament, but any similar 1.75 mm diameter PLA product should work as well. Note that problems arising from non-XYZprinting filaments may void the warranty.
Using ABS filament with the Da Vinci pen will result in frustration. ABS requires temperatures over 210 degrees Celsius for proper extrusion. PLA maxes out at 200 degrees Celsius, not high enough to bring ABS to printing conditions. It will soften, but it will not behave as a proper 3D pen medium.
PLA filaments for the Da Vinci pen are, like all PLA products, biodegradable and non-toxic. XYZprinting’s filament material goes through testing for DEHP — a plastic softening compound with negative health implications — and heavy metals.
One of the more streamlined pens, the Da Vinci 3D pen does suffer a bit from hidden tip syndrome. It’s not a major handicap, but it contributes to the Da Vinci pen being ranked down the list.
6. 7Tech 3D Pen
Packed with features, the 7Tech 3D pen offering may top some users’ best of lists. All the bells and whistles of the thermoplastic design are here. Adjustable temperature and speed are augmented with a filament jam detector and a mechanism that clears clogs. Both PLA and ABS filaments are supported, and two-direction feed buttons extrude or unload filament.
The 7Tech pen is quiet and goes into standby mode automatically after 5 minutes. Like the Smarson 3D pen, there are vents on the pen’s body, most likely to aid temperature control. When moving from ABS to PLA, this venting permits the heating tip to shed degrees quickly.
The 7Tech gets ranked somewhat lower due to its recessed tip. This has the toughest tip to observe extrusion from a conventional writing type position. Though the pen’s shape is not unusual for an FDM device, the hand position doesn’t feel as balanced as higher ranking pens.
The 7Tech design has a long list of clones under other brand names. As such, not only is there no user community, it’s hard to tell which pen is the original, if there even is one. Once again, this has no bearing if a user is comfortable with the 7Tech pen. The added features may even invite some tolerance of the visibility issue.
See More: Best Wireless Bluetooth Speakers
7. AtmosFlare 3D Drawing Pen
The AtmosFlare pen is definitely targeted to the younger market. Not only is it a cool ink pen, it has no automation in the extrusion process. The user squeezes the ink bottle as it sits in the AtmosFlare pen body. As well as supporting the ink bottle, the body holds a single AA battery that powers the LEDs that drive the photopolymer hardening process.
Despite its simplicity, the AtmosFlare pen is effective. With that basic construction, it’s also affordable, so there’s no budget excuse for anyone wishing to get into the hobby. The ink bottles are refillable, and four nozzle tips come with the basic package.
The AtmosFlare website has some basic video tutorials that explain the basics of 3D drawing with cool ink technology. Of the pens ranked so far, only the 3Doodler has better resources for the beginner. The AtmosFlare blog doesn’t restrict to 3D pen drawing, creating a broader world to keep younger users engaged.
Photopolymers have unique challenges. Drawing on a bright or reflective surface can prematurely cure the ink by bouncing UV rays around, causing the ink to harden in a different way than against a darker surface.
Though heat isn’t an issue with cool ink, the UV rays of the pen can damage vision if shone directly into eyes. This is still a technology that requires parental supervision. There may be no initial sensation of damage or pain with UV light.
Though simple and affordable, the AtmosFlare does deliver as a 3D drawing pen.
8. Hatchbox 3D Printing Pen
The Hatchbox pen is a promising up and comer. Visiting the Hatchbox website shows lots of content yet to be developed. In fact, the pen only makes a visit in a photo connecting to Hatchbox’s ABS filament. There’s no description or specifications for the device posted yet.
The pen is all plastic construction with a ceramic nozzle. This results in a very light 3D pen that’s easy to hold and easy to move. The balance is good, a result of ergonomic forethought. Temperature and speed adjust and both extrusion and unload directions exist. Once again, the tip of the nozzle sits behind a large collar, requiring a side view to see what’s going on at the business end of the pen.
Had the Hatchbox website been further along in development, it’s likely this pen would rank higher. Developing a community seems important to the Hatchbox team, and since their core business seems to be filament sales, that’s sound planning.
In the meantime, the Hatchbox pen remains affordable and competent. It should be on the list of users who prefer lightweight devices.
9. Tech 4 Kids 3D Magic ImagiPen
Tech 4 Kids has the community idea down. A kid friendly website offers downloads and videos for all Tech 4 Kids products, not only the ImagiPen. This 3D pen is quite affordable, runs on 3 AAA batteries and uses a pumping motion to move the photopolymer gel ink through the nozzle, where UV LEDs cure the material.
The pumping action seems well suited to kids’ hands, though it gives a less smooth result than thermoplastic pens with extruder mechanisms. Nonetheless, it’s a capable entry level 3D pen for a segment of the market likely to be excited by the results.
The on/off switch seems delicate for a device meant for children. Since the UV lights are, of course, essential to the 3D pen’s operation, more durability in the switch makes sense, even at the price that the ImagiPen sells for.
As with other cool ink pens, parents should teach their kids about the invisible dangers of UV light. Directing the LEDs at eyes, theirs or others, is potentially harmful to vision. Otherwise, the lack of a heating element keeps this 3D pen kid friendly. Be sure to check out the videos on the Tech 4 Kids community web page.
See More: Best Foot Massager
10. Manve Intelligent 3D Pen
The Manve 3D pen offering is another with an extensive list of identical clones, like the 7Tech pen. In fact, the Manve Intelligent pen resembles the 7Tech closely, minus the LCD screen. The 5-minute standby mode is also common, but the Manve misses out on a number of the 7Tech’s more advanced features.
Two buttons control filament extrusion and unloading. A speed slider controls the rate of extrusion and a pair of LEDs indicate power and activity. Though the Manve 3D pen ships with ABS filament, the company’s website strongly recommends PLA filament as a safer and healthier alternative.
The Intelligent 3D pen shares the slightly off-balance characteristics of the 7Tech pen and the recessed tip makes sideways orientation almost mandatory for operation. The wide collar around the extrusion nozzle does protect fingers from burning heat, however it comes at a cost of visibility. Considering the design of soldering irons with their exposed tips, the extent of the protection around the tips of 3D pens seems excessive, even if the intended market of the pens is 8 year olds and up. The best performers in the rankings strike a balance between visibility and safety.
Still the Manve Intelligent 3D pen may have the right feel for some users. Comfort is a key factor in successful freehand 3D printing. The magic of defying gravity with a pen is an experience that tickles the fancy of young and old alike.
3D Pen Basics
Two 3D pen technologies emerged to feed the 3D drawing market. FDM techniques require melting a plastic filament that re-hardens almost immediately upon extrusion. Cool ink uses a special plastic that hardens with exposure to ultraviolet light.
The challenge of 3D drawing is that the “ink” must harden almost instantly and support not only its own weight but potentially everything else that’s drawn above. While physics and gravity also play a role at pulling down poor designs, some level of material strength is necessary. The most obvious candidate for the job is plastic, with a relatively low melting temperature, good extrusion characteristics and the ability to harden quickly.
3D Pen Plastics
FDM technology can use two different filament media, each with a different melting temperature. ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) has the higher temperature. It’s a plastic used for some plumbing pipe, among other uses, and it’s the more durable of the common 3D pen filaments. On the down side, ABS has a chemical smell that, while not particularly harmful, is not pleasant. Good ventilation is a must. ABS also has a tendency to shrink a bit when hardening, though this isn’t usually a problem with 3D pens as much as 3D printing.
PLA (Polylactic Acid) has a lower melting point. It doesn’t have the same tendency to shrink, but its lower melting point means that some finished products may be vulnerable to direct sun or other overly warm locations. PLA tends to jam more often in 3D printer uses, though there’s no overwhelming mention of problems in 3D pen use. Not only does PLA avoid the fume issue, it actually smells a bit sweet. It’s not as strong as ABS, but in 3D pen applications, both strength and melting point aren’t as critical as 3D printing use.
Cool Ink Drawing
This 3D drawing medium starts out as a room-temperature thick photopolymer ink. It’s much more like conventional ink pens in terms of flow, with the obvious exception that it hardens right away, thanks to the high ultraviolet content from the LEDs surrounding the nozzle. The hardening process is called curing, and it doesn’t have to occur immediately.
For example, a user drawing a barn might first lay out a flat foundation. Drawing a rectangle with the UV light off may permit smoother extrusion of the photopolymer ink. Then, when the satisfactory base is drawn, the user turns on the LEDs and cures the base before starting on the upward portions of the design. Drawing vertically requires instant curing to support the weight of the drawing itself.
Cool ink technology doesn’t suffer from clogging the same way FDM filaments can. One manufacturer recommends baby wipes to clean unwanted photopolymer away, or conventional dry paper products such as tissue and roll towel suffice.
Cool ink does warm up with the chemical process of curing. Pens, however, remain cool. For younger children, the combination of low heat and non-toxic inks make cool ink 3D pens the best choice.