2.1 Leveling the Build Plate

The first step towards ensuring the success of a 3D print is making certain that the build plate — the surface atop which the 3D print is printed — is well “trammed” to the extruder nozzle. Despite the fact that this process is commonly referred to as “leveling”, you should not use a level as you are not leveling the plate to the horizon. In actuality, you are making sure that the top surface of the build plate is parallel to the plane the extruder nozzle travels in. While machinists call this “tramming”, in the world of 3D printing this is called “leveling”.

pictImportant If your printer features auto-leveling or assisted-leveling, then consult the directions for your printer to check whether or not you should manually level the build plate. It is strongly advised that you follow your printer’s specific directions for initial setup. Often, printers with these features arrive already leveled and merely require some printer specific “first run” checks.

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Before beginning:

1.
Check your printer’s documentation to determine where the build plate’s leveling adjustments are. Most printers have either three or four leveling adjustments.
2.
Once the leveling adjustments are identified, determine how to adjust them to raise and lower the plate. A common form of adjustment is a threaded stud with thumbnut. If you are looking down towards the top of the plate, you then turn the thumbnut clockwise to raise the plate and counterclockwise to lower the plate.
3.
Find a sheet of paper to use as a “feeler gauge”. You will use this to set a consistently small gap between the tip of the extruder nozzle and the top of the build plate. Slicers typically assume this gap to be about 0.1 mm — approximately the thickness of a sheet of paper. If you have actual automotive or machinist’s feeler gauges, then use such a gauge instead.
4.
If your build plate requires a surface treatment (such as tape) which is not already applied, then apply it now before leveling. Some build plates, such as those provided with ZYYX printers, do not require any treatment. Most build plates have an aluminum or glass surface that requires a treatment of Kapton (polyimide) tape for ABS or blue “painter’s” tape for PLA. Often, these plates come shipped with tape already applied. Like your filament, the tape is a “consumable” and will need to be replaced in time. Note that if your plate requires a treatment but is shipped without one, then you need to decide with what type of plastic you will be printing. If you will not be using ABS or PLA, consult the directions that came with your printer.

To level your build plate for the first time, the procedure is as follows. Again, note that you should consult the documentation that accompanied your printer to check for printer-specific instructions, as the following instructions are generic by necessity:

1.
Adjust the leveling points in order to lower your build plate relative to its support mechanism (e.g., support arms). This does not mean you should lower the entire assembly down the Z rods. Rather, compress the springs on which the build plate rides and tighten the thumbnuts, thereby lowering the plate itself in relation to the arms and other structures supporting it. This ensures that there is a significant gap between the nozzle and the build plate’s surface in order to reduce the risk of damaging either.
2.
Remove any debris from the tips of the extruder nozzles. If there is a small bead of plastic, it can be broken off with small tweezers.
3.
Turn on the printer.
4.
From the main menu (Section 3.2) of your LCD display, select the “Utilities” menu (Section 3.7) by pressing the down key twice and then pressing the center key. The keypad and the LCD screen are normally located close to each other somewhere on the front of the printer.
5.
Within the Utilities menu, press the down key to scroll downwards until you have selected the “Home Axes” item (Section 3.7.6). Press the center key to choose the item.
6.
Having selected “Home Axes”, the printer will move the extruders to the back, right corner. Then the printer will raise the build platform twice, slowly the second time.
7.
Once this homing operation is completed, manually slide the extruder assembly over the build surface, ensuring that it does not touch the top of the build surface anywhere. If it does, then continue to lower the build surface using the leveling adjustments. If the build surface cannot be lowered further and the extruder is still hitting it, either the Z endstop1 may need to be lowered or a shim should be installed, after which Steps 5, 6, and 7 should be repeated.
8.
Before beginning leveling, you need to heat up the build plate if you will be printing with it heated. As some heated build surfaces expand a small amount or may even “crown” upwards in the middle a little when heated, the plate must be leveled in its operational configuration. From the keypad press the left key to return to the main menu, then scroll up using the up key and select the Preheat item by pressing the center key, Section 3.6. Make sure you are not heating the extruders by scrolling to their lines and pressing the center key to toggle the value to “OFF”. Likewise, ensure that the heating platform reads “ON” before scrolling up to the first line and pressing the center key to begin preheating. A monitor screen will appear, similar to the one shown in Figure 2.1. Wait until the platform reaches its target temperature, which is usually 100 C for ABS or 50 C for PLA; the temperatures are displayed in the form current temperature/target temperature in degrees Celsius. Once the platform is fully heated, press the left key to return to the main menu.

pict
Figure 2.1: Monitor Screen

9.
From the Utilities menu, scroll down until you reach “Level Build Plate”, then select it using the center key, Section 3.7.5.
10.
The printer will now home its axes as before, then move the nozzle to the approximate center of the build plate. Directions will appear on the LCD screen; press the center key to advance from screen to screen. The final screen will be the one depicted in Figure 2.2.

pict
Figure 2.2: Leveling

11.
To level the build plate, manually move the extruder so that the nozzle is roughly over one of the adjustment points. Take care to avoid dragging the nozzle across the build surface, as that may cause damage. Then, adjust the point so that there is only a small gap between the tip of the nozzle and the top of the build surface. Place the piece of paper between the two as you adjust. You want to be able to slide the paper back and forth, but with some friction.
12.
After you are satisfied that this point is adjusted, move the extruder to the next point to repeat the process. Do not press the center key yet.
13.
Once you have finished adjusting all the points, recheck them. You may also wish to check the center of the build plate. The plate may crown a little when heated and the long X rods supporting the extruder can sag a tiny amount. As such, you may find the gap to be too small at the center. If so, you may need to fiddle with the adjustment points until a more uniform gap across the plate is achieved.2 Note that turning all thumbnuts by an equal amount will raise or lower the entire plate evenly.
14.
If you have finished checking and rechecking all your test points, and you are satisfied that the plate is level, then press the center key. Now that you have completed leveling, you are ready to load filament.

pictNote In general, you do not need to level your build plate before every print. As you continue to use your printer, the frequency with which you need to level your plate will diminish. However, in the first week or so you may need to level it every few prints. This is in part due to your lack of experience, but may also be the result of your printer settling in.

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1The Z endstop is typically a limit switch which, when triggered, stops further upward motion of the build plate. Consult your printer manual for information on the location and adjustment of this endstop.

2For small, centered prints, having a 0.1 mm gap near the plate’s center is critical and a slightly larger gap at the edges can be tolerated. However, when doing large prints, it may be necessary to print with a raft or to obtain a flatter build surface. See your slicer’s documentation for information on generating rafts.