What Purpose Does Support Material Serve In 3D Printing?

Certain parts have to have supports to print properly, while others might not need any supports at all. I’ll explain the basic purpose of supports, cover different support types, and go through different methods of using them.

Supports in 3D printing are used to hold up areas of the part that would otherwise be suspended in midair. They counteract the force of gravity so that the plastic doesn’t deform before it hardens. Supports also help to keep the shape of the part accurate by reducing the load on it during the print.

So even if there aren’t areas that are suspended in midair, supports can hold up and retain the shape of the part while it’s still soft. This makes sure it doesn’t fail under its own weight.

Baby Yoda Tree Support 2

Sometimes, you can eliminate the need for supports if you orientate the print optimally. For example, if you print these drill holders on thingiverse.com in the same orientation they’re used in, supports will be needed to hold the top section up. But when you print them as shown by the creator, standing on its side, you won’t need supports to hold anything up because the part will support itself as it’s being printed.

You don’t need supports if the part can support itself, as in the example above, or with basic shapes like cubes and others that don’t have any overhanging areas.

You can also avoid using supports by printing the part in two pieces and then gluing them together afterward. The surface where you split the part will act as a base and support the part as it prints upward.

Once the part solidifies with the supports, you’ll simply remove them with your hands, but sometimes you’ll need tools like pliers or knives for stubborn supports.

Supports don’t need a lot of infill, so around 15% density usually works perfectly. If you’re printing a small part, you can even reduce the support infill to 5 to 10%, on larger parts, you may need to increase the support infill higher than 15%.

It’s also important to make sure the “Support Z distance” is set correctly because this setting determines how close the connection between the support and model will be. If you set this value too low, you won’t be able to get the support off easily. A safe value is around 0.165mm.

There are many types of support types, patterns, and materials. Let’s look at the different types and explain when to use them, along with the pattern and material options.

Lattice Supports

Lattice supports are used in most instances because they work for many types of 3D models and are easy to generate. In Cura, lattice supports are referred to as “normal” supports. They are effective at holding up parts where the surface of the overhang is flat.

Sometimes this type of support leaves marks on the model, so you might need to do some post-processing if that’s the case for you. Cutting and sanding the pieces of support off is the best way to clear it up when using PLA. If you’re using ABS, you might clear the surface with an acetone dip.

You should choose a support pattern appropriate for the model you’re printing. A zig-zag or grid pattern will work well on flat surfaces, while a concentric pattern works well on uneven surfaces.

Tree Supports

The connection between tree supports and the model is small. This is good because they won’t stick too tightly to the part. At the bottom of the support is a wide base to keep it stable. At the top is a thin connection to the part, the “branch” that holds the part up. Multiple “trees” are used to hold the part up at varying heights.

So tree supports are very good at holding up areas of a part that aren’t flat. Use this support for natural shapes like people, animals, and other objects in nature that don’t have flat surfaces to connect to.

Tree supports are easier to remove because the connection point is so small. But that comes at the cost of increased printing time because tree supports are created dynamically, meaning the software creates them differently for every different type of shape.

Baby Yoda Tree Supports Removed

Dissolvable Supports

Dissolvable supports are easy to remove from the model. PVA can be used to print the supports while you print the model with PLA, ABS, and other materials that won’t be affected by water.

Once the print has finished, soak the model with supports in water for the PVA to dissolve.

This is an awesome way to print models with no scarring from supports, but you’ll need a dual extruder set up to do it, one extruder for the part material and one for the support material.

What Is The Best Support For 3D Printing?

The best support for 3D printing is usually lattice supports because they’re quick and easy to generate and work well with most types of models. For parts that have many different shapes and angles in the geometry, like people and animals, tree supports work best because the branches of the tree support the model in all the right places without scarring the rest of the model. It takes longer to print but it’s worth it.

Baby Yoda Tree Support 3

How Important Are Supports In 3D Printing?

Supports are extremely important in 3D printing whenever the model has large overhanging areas or bridges. Parts with 60° overhangs usually need supports. If the model doesn’t have any steep angles in it, supports aren’t very important.

How Do You Know If A Print Needs Supports?

Overhangs and bridges that have an angle of more than 60° will usually need to be supported. You can also instruct the slicer to generate supports to see what it suggests. An example of a print that might not require support is the letter Y, it has 45° overhangs and should be able to support itself. The letter T has 90° overhangs and will require support or the part will droop down.

What Happens If You 3D Print Without Supports?

If you print without supports, overhanging areas and bridges of the part will collapse or deform unless the steepness of the angles is under 60°. Sometimes you don’t need supports and adding cooling fans to solidify the plastic faster can help reduce the need but if the part starts to droop in certain areas, you’ll have to use supports to hold it up.

Overhang Test Print

Why Is There No Need For Supports In SLS Printing?

There’s no need for supports in selective laser sintering (SLS) printing because unsintered powder surrounds and supports the part as it’s being printed. That’s why you can print incredibly complex parts with SLS printing without worrying about removing any supports afterward.

Why Do You Need Supports For Resin Printing?

You need supports for resin printing because overhanging areas of the model will deform and fall apart without them. Supports in resin printing serve the same purpose as supports in FDM printing. The only difference is that supports in resin printing hold up the part from above and not from below.

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Supports are extremely important to make sure that the models you print don’t deform under their own weight. Different patterns and infills are available but you can usually achieve excellent results by using lattice supports with the settings I’ve mentioned.

For more complicated parts, tree supports are a better option because they’ll be much easier to remove afterward and won’t scar the model.

Make sure you check out my YouTube channel, and if you’d like any additional details or have questions, please leave a comment below. For more 3D printing articles click here.


I'm Rob, the founder of 3dprintscape.com. I’m a Marine Corps vet with a master’s degree in Information Systems and have been working in the technology field for over a decade. I started working with 3D printers because I was fascinated by the technology and wanted a hobby that my kids and I can enjoy together.

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