Are used 3D printers worth the hassle?

Buying a used 3D printer is like buying a used car, with the exception that there is no pushy salesperson trying to sell you some old shitbox to help their sales figures. It’s easy to draw comparisons to buying a used car in that it can be a real mine field out there when you start looking around and searching the classifieds, unless you know exactly what you looking at it can end up costing an arm and a leg and just as much if not more than just buying new. I don’t mean to scare off any potential used 3D printer buyers as there are definitely positives to consider when buying a used machine. I myself have bought three printers second hand myself, in fact the only new printer I have ever bought was my very first printer, the mighty CR-10.

However my latest purchase of a used machine, the Tevo Tarantula, left a bitter taste as it really was an up hill battle to get this machine to work as I wanted. Something that was sold as ‘working perfectly’ took up way too many hours with various issues and teething problems. After much time elapsed, I have the Tarantula printing somewhat decently and consistently, albeit with much swearing along the way. This latest transaction did make me ponder the experience of buying yet another used 3D printer and I couldn’t help consider whether buying used was actually worth the hassle or would buying new be preferable…

There are benefits to buying used machines. The most obviously being that it’s cheaper than buying an equivalent new machine, there can also be additional fringe benefits that go along with it such as upgraded parts and even sometimes freebees thrown in. Yet can this justify buying a used machine? Does this mean that buying used is suitable for all looking to purchase their next 3D printer? The short answer is it depends on the buyer in question.

Know what type of buyer you are

A good place to start when contemplating a used machine is asking yourself: what type of buyer are you? Are you a complete novice? Do you have some experience? Do you have an interest in electronics and engineering? Do you want one because it’s the cool new thing that all the kids are doing these days? There are many different ways to approach this question, for the purposes of this article though I’m going to keep things binary and ask if you fall into one of two categories – Newby or Experienced.

If a total noob ye be, knowing hardly anything about 3D printing and understanding just the bare bones basics, would it be a sensible to buy used? In all honesty no. If you are just at this stage I would say, while temping to buy something much cheaper than retail, with this price tag there comes associated risks. There are real possibilities that your purchase may backfire and you end up with something that won’t print without further effort on your behalf.

If the call of a cheap used machine is too great for a first machine then at least try to find a machine in its factory specs, standard form, which hasn’t been modified and that is in need of work, fixing up or “a service”. Learning how to navigate all the other 3D printing crap that comes with is a steep enough learning curve for a noob before adding in troubles with getting your printer operational as well.

On the other hand, if you have some experience under your belt and are looking to add to your farm, upgrade or get just something with different specs, then a used machine would definitely be a realistic option. The same risk of issues exists as it does for newbies, a cheaper price isn’t a guarantee that it’ll work. The only difference now is that with experience you’ll be more likely to successfully diagnose faults, replace parts and work towards getting things working as they should.

Facebook marketplace ad for 3D printer
A typical add for used 3D printer (Wanhao Duplicator) found on Facebook marketplace.

What’s out there on the classified market?

Consider what is actually available for sale at any given time in your area. Here in ‘Strylia, I hardly ever see Original Prusa’s for sale, every now and again maybe but very rarely, whereas Cocoon Create (the Aldi branded Anycubic i3), Anet A8’s even Ender 3’s and CR-10 are more frequently put up for sale in my local area. As much as I have my heart set on certain models of printers, say like a Tronxy core XY machine, its unrealistic to expect many of them to pop-up for sale if ever. This then becomes more a situation of what model am I willing to settle for as I am not going to get what I really want.

There are always alternatives, comparative models which can be considered if your first choice doesn’t appear readily available on the usual classified spots. If you can’t find a Tevo Tornado consider a Creality CR-10, if you can’t find an Ender 3 try a looking for Anycubic i3. Different manufacturers make alternatives which all have similar specs to one another. There’s always choice for what you can end up with.

While there is always someone selling something, shopping the classifieds can almost resemble a game of chance mixed with opportunity and in the end becomes a compromise between what is available for sale and what you are willing to settle on. Obviously this same scenario doesn’t apply when buying new…

All the same but different

Some machines will remain standard as they came from the factory. This makes it easy enough to gauge prices, adjusting for depreciation, when comparing to same model but new. Here’s where it becomes tricky, typically most printers being sold used are modified in some way or another making like for like comparisons difficult.

One thing I just want to mention, when I say modified I’m not referring to parts which you print yourself and then bolt onto the printer. To me this is simply window dressing and is questionable whether these actually provide any real improvement to print quality at all. When I say modified I mean upgraded parts, those that cost real money, change the configuration of a machine and need some sort of know-how to install.

For example, say you see a used Creality Ender 3 with a E3D clone hotend and you also find an Ender 3 with a Microswiss hotend. Both have an upgraded hotend, difference being one hotend is $20 from Ebay and the other can cost as much as the printer itself. So how can you possibly tell what is a good used price in this instance? Are you paying for the printer or the modifications on that printer?

The only piece of advice I can offer, is consider what modifications have been made and if you can do them yourself. If you can, then price is probably too much, here’s why: many sellers will include the cost of the upgraded parts as part of the sale price, some I’ve seen will try and sell a printer for more than that machine is worth new. The attitude being that the sum total is greater than the individual parts, a machine is significantly superior to standard and will have better prints as a result, not to mention that persons time and effort making everything work. To a degree there is true. But can you read a wiring diagram? Can you solder? Can you make changes in firmware? Then you could probably just do it yourself and much cheaper. As with anything, research what all the upgraded parts are worth to buy and then add to the cost of a new machine and apply depreciation accordingly, this should be the best way to get a figure for what it should actually be worth.

Pricing aside, if there is a machine which has some tasty mods already installed and aiding in the overall print quality then this is a bonus! Having someone else do all the hard work of installing upgrades takes the hassle out of you doing it yourself.

used 3D printer add off Gumtree
An add found on Gumtree for used XYZ Da Vinci 3D printer.

How much effort are you willing to put in?

Typically, cheap machines do not come with quality and if you want quality expect to pay more, it’s as simple as that. Of course there are exceptions to this and there are the occasional bargains to be had. However don’t expect to pay $100 and get a machine that will print anything but mediocre.

My Geeetech is a perfect example of this. It was cheap to buy, very cheap, and has the least impressive print quality of all my printers. I know that I can of course improve on the print quality but changing parts and adding features but this leads into the question of how much time and effort am I willing to put into such a cheap 3D printer? By the time I change this and change that what will be the monetary cost to me not to mention the hours that I have to sink into it to install and commission all these upgrades?

If you have a lot of experience and are comfortable working on tinkering and fixing a machine then by all means go for it and change a cheap, bottom feeder into something better. Just keep in mind that for the time and money it will take you could probably find something just as good if not better which will print better out of the box.

One other thing to be mindful of is that you are also buying the faults that are inherent in that used machine. If the printer you buy has issues, faults or quirks then that becomes your headache to rectify. Some fixes will be easy some not so easy, you never really know until you hit send and try printing something. This is just part of buying used, sometimes you win, sometimes you loose. This is where a new machine is definitely superior, it removes. much of the unknown elements out which could turn into problems down the track.

Ain’t no joy rides

As much as It would be ideal to take a 3D printer for a test drive before actually handing over the cash, in reality it is almost impossible to see a printer complete a whole print before settling on a deal with the seller. Say for example you wish to see a machine in action, even for a simple print such as a XYZ calibration cube this can take almost an hour to complete. I don’t know about you but I have places I’d rather be than standing around in a strangers house waiting for them to show me what their 3D printer can produce, all the while try and make polite conversations with that person. I mean yes it’s definitely and option, but I’d rather have my eyes gouged out by badgers than awkwardly stand around watching a 3d printer slowly complete layer after layer of a little plastic cube. If possible, ask the seller to show you examples of what the printer has actually produced, even just a benchy will give a good indication of the quality that is to be expected and it means not having to stand around for ages while it completes a print.

Don’t forget the software!

It’s helpful to be able to speak with the pervious owner to pick their brain and find out more about the best settings to use when slicing, tips and tricks they may have come across in their time using the printer, what works and doesn’t work when it comes time for printing. I am still in contact with the person I sold the Anet to and they will ask questions on a semi-frequent basis just to try get a better understanding of how to get best results from it. Another useful thing to get from the previous owner is the configuration.h and configuration_adv.h files for the printer especially if its running a non-standard version of the firmware. If there are modifications such as a auto bed leveling or aftermarket hotend such as an E3D V6 hotend for example, then there will definitely be an altered version of the firmware running on that machine. Because the Marlin (firmware on most printers) config files cannot be downloaded directly from the printer itself, its especially handy to have these files available should anything go wrong or require reconfiguration. This just takes a lot of the guess work out of setting up the firmware for how it has been configured by the previous owner. If the worst should happen, say you need to flash the firmware for whatever reason, the only option is starting with a blank slate Marlin version, reverse engineering all settings changing the configurations from scratch. Simply by asking the seller “could I get the config files from you as well” could save a lot of time and headaches in the future.

But wait there’s more!

When buying used there’s a good chance that the seller maybe getting out of the hobby all together, most likely having lost interest or maybe it just wasn’t what they were expecting from 3D printing, in which case it’s more than likely extra things will get thrown in as part of the sale. For example when I bought (used) the Anet, the Geeetech and Tevo Tarantula I got a few rolls of filament and a heap of spare parts for each machine included. These little extras don’t make or break the sale for me but its nice to have included. Keep in mind it should not be expected that extras just get included, its luck of the sale – sometimes the seller will throw things in and other times they won’t, it really just depends on the sellers specific circumstances and their reasons for selling.

So what is it: new or used??

That is the million dollar question, should you buy a nice shiny new machine or one which has a few nice mods and upgrade parts on it. In the end it comes down to the buyer.

Double down on reviews, even old reviews from when they were new are great resources. Places like user groups on Facebook and subreddits on Reddit are a gold mine for real world everyday user feedback and opinions on specific machines. Learn as much as possible about it. From this, it is good to do the research into what these models are all about and if they are worth considering. Not only does it help refine a short list but it gives a pricing point to consider and even to bargain with.

Being armed with the best available information will help prevent falling into the trap of the “it’s a deal too good to miss out on” impulsive purchase. If something is advertised and its either too expensive for what its worth or needs some work (the ad will say ‘just needs a simple fix to get going’ but in reality it never really just a simple fix) then just walk away, something else almost always comes up in time. Be patient and get the correct printer the first time for the right price. If it’s taking too long to find the right one for you or if you are a total noob then maybe it’s a sign that buying new is probably your best bet.

Tevo Tarantula modified
Tevo Tarantula with upgraded parts being dialled in and tuned

Leave a Reply