How to Remove a 3D-Printed Support Structure

Use these tips to remove support material from 3D-printed objects

Removing 3D printed support

Lean over far enough, and you'll fall down. This is an obvious law of physics, but when you start working with a 3D printer, you may not think about it. When you try to print something with an overhang or protruding part, say an outstretched arm or the brim of a large hat, or maybe a bridgelike distance between two points, you rediscover the laws of physics and gravity.

3D printing often requires a support. Any object that has an overhang or anything other than a basic form — think cylinder, block, or something flat — needs a support element to keep it from falling over, sagging, or melting.

Adding Supports for 3D Printing

Supports can be added manually in a CAD program when the model is designed, in the repair phase with specialized software, or at the printing phase using slicing software. Simplify3D, a paid program, is frequently mentioned by 3D professionals as an effective option for adding supports. Freeware programs, such as Meshmixer and Netfabb, are good possibilities for the budget minded.

How to Remove a Support in 3D Printing

Most 3D printing hobbyists remove support material in one of the ways described here. In the image accompanying this article are two objects (both with the Voronoi Diagram or pattern) and two red arrows pointing to the most obvious support structures.

In this case, most of the support material can be broken away with your fingers. Then, use needle-nose pliers or a putty knife with a sharpened edge to remove the rest of the support. The process requires only time and a steady hand.

The best way to remove a support easily is to use a dual extruder-equipped 3D printer because you can load a standard PLA or ABS material for the primary extruder and a lower-density support material for the other. That support material is usually dissolvable in a chemical water bath. The Stratasys Mojo 3D printer offers this approach, which is sweet but not within the budget range of the typical consumer hobbyist.

If you are designing your own object or purchasing a finished product through a 3D printing service bureau, you can pick the level of finish you prefer or opt to have someone else do all the finish work for you.

Tips for 3D Support Removal

Keep these tips in mind when you are experimenting with the best methods for removing the supports from your 3D-printed models:

  • When using a knife or scraper of some sort, heat either the model or the blade to make it easier to slice. A tiny butane torch can help, but be careful with it for your model’s sake.
  • Sandpaper works wonders. Wet sanding with high-grit sandpaper – 220 up to 1200 — both removes the support structure and polishes the model.
  • With PLA material, you can get stress marks where the support material comes away from the model. If this happens to you, use nail polish varnish to patch the scratches and marks.
  • If you are up for operating your 3D printing shop like a dentist, get a small drilling tool called a Dremel. These handheld grinders come with a variety of bits and attachments that make removing support material easy. If you don't have steady hands, be super cautious when grinding on your easy-to-destroy plastic creations.