Husband, father, geek.

by Chris Pearson

© 2015–2016 Christopher Pearson, All rights reserved.

Review: Printrbot Play

Back in June of 2016 I was lucky enough to win an online raffle and the prize was a 3D printer, something I’ve been lusting after for a long time.

Printrbot Play Box

The prize was a Printrbot Play. This a small printer that comes fully assembled and ready to print.

Printrbot only sell to the US market so it took a while to arrive and it came with a US power lead. Fortunately the power brick took a standard IEC “kettle” lead, so I had a few lying around, and also handled the 240V mains just fine.

This is where the smooth sailing stopped. Following the instructions I fired up the printer, warmed the extruder and loaded the supplied filament. Using Cura 15 as specified I attempted to print the supplied calibration model. There was an obvious issue and it seemed that there wasn’t enough filament being extruded. I tried a 2nd print which was even worse. Mid way through the 3rd print the print head jammed completely solid.

Printrbot support handled the issue well and sent out a new hot end to replace the old one1 and after some minor surgery and calibration I was back up and running.

Hot End Comparison

3D printing is one of those things that takes some learning. It’s not like your inkjet where you can just click print. Theres settings to learn and understand and this all costs time and effort. Also whilst 3D printing is often called “rapid prototyping” it’s not fast, just faster then traditional means. This means learning takes a while.

I’ve now had the printer a while and I feel I can give it a fair review.

To run the printer I experimented with various slicing software, I tried Cura as recommended as well as slic3r and a few others. Both tools have pro’s and cons but ultimately the print quality from Cura2 was far superior.

Hot End Comparison

The print quality, when used with the right slicer, is really good and I’ve printed a lot of nice pieces. From the classic low-poly pokémon and the owl to more complex items like a helmet for a future costume the printer can produce good quality work.

Low Poly Pikachu

The printer is not without it’s faults though. Like any product some compromises have been made, some that I feel make the product worse.

Most 3D printers come with a small display and a way to control the printer built in. The printrbot does not and instead relies on you either working tethered to a computer3 or using special file names on the microSD card to auto start prints when the printer first boots.

Whilst this works it’s incredibly frustrating as you either have to tie up a computer to see what’s happening or you are not able to check on progress or status. The addition of some kind of display and controls would disproportionally increase the ease of use of this machine in my opinion.

Owl Statue

My second issue is the afore mentioned use of microSD cards, and the lack of an adapter in the box. I find the cards to be too small to handle easily and also struggle to get the card into the recessed slot. The lack of an adapter is also a problem as it means you have to order one in at an additional cost before you can print un-tethered.

I happened to have an adapter so was able to use the card but the instructions on how to use it required searching the printrbot support site. The fact these instructions were not on the main product instructions page maybe suggests that Printbot don’t want you to use this feature.

Printrbot also recommended the use of blue painters tape one the bed. Whilst my choice in tape probably is at fault I couldn’t get on with this and saw lots of warping. In the end I swapped to BuildTak and this proved to be considerably better.

Conclusions then?

The printer is in general pretty good.

The quality, which ultimately is the goal here, is good when you figure out the settings. However I feel that the size, lack of on printer controls and the fiddly microSD cards make this a complex recommendation. If you want a solid printer, for say in a classroom, with some of the higher end features, like auto leveling, and quality support then this might well be what you want.

If you’re more of a hacker at heart, perfectly at home fiddling and can spend the time on the device then you’re probably better off elsewhere. Spending the same money on something like a Wanhao i3 or one of the many DIY kits will probably better suit you. You might be giving up some of the high end features like bed leveling but you gain build volume and a heated bed.

  1. This was not a like for like and I was sent the older ceramic design UBIS not the 13S the printer came with. Research has shown there was a big issue with a number of these 13S hot ends jamming completely due to a manufacturing problem. Seems I was just unlucky to get a “bad one”.

  2. I’ve just started trailing Cura 2.3 which now supports non-Ultimaker printers. I have contributed Play profiles which will ship in Cura 2.4.

  3. There’s software options for PC, Mac and Linux platforms. The recommended legacy version of Cura includes tooling to control the printer, however I tend to use a tool called Pronterface.


GIMP Star Trails

Way back in 2011 I was bitten by the astrophotography bug and enjoyed taking star trail photography. For those who aren’t aware what that is, here is a brief summary from wikipedia:

A star trail is a type of photograph that utilizes long-exposure times to capture the apparent motion of stars in the night sky due to the rotation of the Earth. A star trail photograph shows individual stars as streaks across the image, with longer exposures resulting in longer streaks. Typical exposure times for a star trail range from 15 minutes to several hours, requiring a ‘bulb’ setting on the camera to open the shutter for a longer period than is normal.

Wikipedia (2016)

At the time there was no free software for the mac so I wrote a plugin for the free image program GIMP1. This got a reasonable amount of use by others but not long after a few more fully featured software became available, I ahem found ahem Adobe Photoshop (and now pay for it) and the plugin fell by the way side.

Star trail

Where am I going with this? Well being an open source project on github other users are able to contribute fixes and new features. This week exactly this happened. The new change adds a basic method to remove sky glow from the image as well as a few other minor bits.

The incredibly well named gimp-startrail-compositor 1.8 is available on github.

  1. Yes that really is the name of the software.


Celebration Europe London 2016

A few weekends ago I was able to go to Star Wars Celebration Europe at the Excel in London. This is a 3 day convention dedicated to Star Wars with many of the big names attending and big announcements made.

I had booked my tickets over a year in advance and went for the last day of the event. This meant having to miss out on a lot of the bigger panels for things like Rogue One and Rebels and having to endure post after post on social media showing me just how much I’d missed out on.

However on Sunday, my eldest daughter dressed as Rey, my wife and I stood in line waiting for the convention to start.

Celebration 2016 passes

Our first destination was the Rogue One Costume exhibit. Since the trailers first started to appear I’ve been drawn to the new Imperial troopers. After seeing them in the flesh I was very impressed with the new Shoretroopers and Deathtroopers. The members of the 501st are already deep in the rabbit hole to develop these as new costumes for the Legion. Something I’m really enjoying helping with, and already have a number of parts for.

Celebration 2016 passes

The rest of the day was spent exploring the rest of the exhibits and stalls.

LEGO had a stand where you could build a small X-wing or a TIE fighter and once handed over they’d give you a polybag set. The models were displayed on the stand with TIEs out numbering X-Wings significantly, as they should.

The Art Exhibition contained a lot of excellent work by a number of artists. Sadly not much was affordably priced but we did walk away with a signed limited poster print for the eldest’s room.

The UK Garrison along with the Rebel Legion, Galactic Alliance and Rebel Force Radio had a most impressive set up including a number of sets from a X-34 Landspeeder to a Wampa lair to a Death Star wall. These were all very busy and a great showcase for the members who built them.

VRS Landspeeder

The highlight of the day though was meeting A New Hope actress Pam Rose. She actually came over to us and introduced herself to my daughter. She was kind enough to talk with us for a little while and took some photos with us, including one with a Jabba the Hutt she commanded to come join in.

AT-AT

The day was excellent fun and I’m looking forward to chances to attend one again in future. My only real regret is not being able to troop the event. The costumed characters were all extremely popular and as always the UKG where shining examples.

TIE fighter


First Imperial Stormtrooper Detachment - Centurion

Within the First Imperial Stormtrooper Detachment (FISD) there are 3 levels of approval:

  1. Basic approval
  2. Expert Infantry Battalion
  3. Centurion

With the increase of each level from 1–3 higher emphasis is placed on the accuracy of the armour to the film used originals.

I passed my level 2: EIB on 7th May 2016 and yesterday, on 10th June 2016, I passed my Centurion approval.

I am especially proud of this because the staff go out of their way to find a nitpick but I was passed with out comment. This is pretty rare so I am really happy with this.

Now to carry this success forward with further costumes. I’ve already started work on my next, a TIE pilot from A New Hope.



TK-10911

Stormtrooper Portrait

I’ve completed my Stormtrooper armour build and had to take some photos to become a member of the UK Garrison. The wife took this one, it came out great.

Update: I now am an approved member of the UK Garrison of the 501st Legion. TK-10911 reporting for duty.


Made in the UK

Listening to a podcast today I noticed something. Halfway through a sentence a guest stopped to point out that the product was made in the US. You can listen to the episode of The Pen Addict at the right point here.

It occurred to me that this doesn’t happen here. You almost never hear some one say that some product they bought was UK made. In fact on the few occasions it is mentioned it’s usually to point out how poorly made something is. See The IT Crowd.


First Grind

For many modern fountain pen users a custom nib grind is a right of passage. This involves taking a fountain pen to some person who will grind away the nib to change it’s shape and so writing characteristics. This is generally to make the horizontal and vertical strokes different widths.

Being a somewhat handy person, and happy to wreck stuff on occasion I decided to attempt this my self. After all the nibmeisters1 had to learn some how.

The plan was to take a stock medium sized nib for my Kaweco Sport which I wasn’t overly fond of, having replaced the nib for an extra fine, and to apply an italic grind to it. This gives a thinner horizontal stroke to a broader vertical.

To ensure I wasn’t making a complete mess of things a quick google was done and some instructions located. I followed some by Ludwig Tan: http://www.marcuslink.com/pens/aboutpens/ludwig-tan.html.

Grinding equipment

The equipment required isn’t expensive and I actually had all of it already. To do the actual grinding I used a 250/1000 grit water stone designed to sharpen tools.

I simply followed along the steps initially using only the 1000 grit but then moving to use both the 1000 and the courser 250 once I grew bolder.

Eventually I was happy with the rough shape. I could have gone further in a few dimensions but I figured I can always go back and remove more, take too much and it’s into the bin.

Rough shape established, the nib was smoothed with some micro-mesh and tested on my current favourite paper Rhodia.

Testing the grind

The results were actually pretty good!

Front of the nib

The front of the nib got a couple of scuffs where I got the angle wrong a couple of times but the shape is good and clean. You can clearly see there’s a lot of tipping material left but this doesn’t touch the paper so I doubt it’s a big deal.

Side profile

Here again you can clear see I was rather light on the top of the nib, I’ll probably remove more once I’m happy. What you can also see is there is a lot of the stock round shape left on the front of the nib. I could have ground down more off the top to remove this but the shape was good and saves more work to re-smooth this later. Think of this as more of a cursive italic than a true italic. The rear shape was ground to a sharp edge then softened again by me.

Front of the nib

The business side of the nib probably came out the best which is fortunate! There’s only a thin layer of tipping left so I think I have the thickness about right. The side to side balance is about right but there’s a tiny bit of oblique, but practice would improve this I think.

After some smoothing, okay a lot of smoothing, the pen writes pretty well. Still a bit scratchy but I gather this is normal for this style of grind. I may try a bit more smoothing but I will wait and see how daily use goes first.

Before and After

The comparison shows the grind has had the desired effect but isn’t super strong. A medium nib isn’t going to be able to give huge variation as the nib was never that wide in the first place. Maybe I’ll source a broad or double broad to try again.

Whilst this was a fun way to spend a Sunday morning I can’t see this being something I want to specialise in. Maybe I’ll grind a few other cheap pens like my Lamy Safari (perhaps an architect grind?) but I’ll never try it on an expensive or hard to replace nib.

For those who care the ink is Visconti Blue. The comparison test is via a dip which is why the after is a bit paler.

  1. A nibmiester is the term used to refer to someone skilled at re-grinding a nib.


TKVoice is out!

TKVoice logo

After a much longer gestation than I thought1 TKVoice is now available on the App Store.

Download on the App Store

TKvoice allows Troopers to achieve a film like sound when trooping. It will automatically detect your voice, apply effects and even give a static burst at the end of your sentence!

In order to troop, as well as TKVoice you will require a microphone, speaker and a splitter cable though you can test it out with just the headset that came with your phone. Further details on compatible hardware will be added to the tkvoice section of the site over then coming days.

This isn’t the end of the road and I already have several improvements planned based on feedback from beta testers.

I hope you try this out as a more affordable alternative to other hardware units. I look forward to hearing from users.

  1. Apparently the first commit was on September 15th, 2015.


Pen Hacking

It all started when I bought our wedding rings. Everything was done I just needed to sign the receipt. The manager hands me a Montblanc Meisterstück Classique Rollerball. That was it, cheap pens were ruined for me forever.

It didn’t take long but soon enough I was listening to The Pen Addict podcast and had bought several fountain pens1 and a sea of different inks. Whilst I love using these they don’t always play nice with cheap paper and the ink tends to “feather” a lot. It was time to get a decent rollerball.

In the interest of cost, the Montblanc I used costs £310, I went with a more budget friendly option: A Lamy Vista. The refill that comes with it is a sort of blue-black and I wasn’t keen on the colour. Whilst I could have just bought a black refill I decided to attempt a “pen hack” and fit the Montblanc refill that started this all.

The hack

Lamy Vista and Montblanc refills

When you look at the Lamy M63 refill and the Montblanc standard refill you can see that the Lamy refill is a few mm longer, and also that the front of the refill is about 1mm longer on the Lamy. The difference at the front can’t be fixed without altering the pen permanently, at the rear we can use a spacer to fill the gap.

Lamy M63 vs Montblanc standard refill

Once fitted to the pen you can see the difference in the 2 refills and how far they protrude from the pen.

Montblanc protrusion

There’s not a lot that can be done here, but it seems useable. Time will tell on this one.

The gap at the back was filled using a piece cut from a ball point ink tube about 20mm long. This fits inside the moulding at the rear of the pen barrel and also inside the refill to keep things in place. You might not actually need this as the threads on the refill do grip on the section, but wear over time might make this needed.

Spacer to hold refill

This completes the coversion!

Ink by Montblanc, pen by Lamy!

Is it worth it?

Whilst I’ve not spent much time with the hacked pen I feel I can answer this one pretty easily. Not really.

Refill line widths

The line is a tiny bit thinner, not massively so, but noticeable. If this is super important then it might be worth it. For me it was all about trying to get that “first hit” feeling again and it just didn’t happen. Comparing the two refills I’d say the Lamy is a smoother writing experience, not by a lot, but it is. More fuel for the Montblanc is overpriced fire.

Whilst I don’t like the blue I wanted black anyway. In hindsight a black M63 would have been cheaper2 and easier. Unless you really must have the Montblanc refill, I would just use the Lamy. The Montblanc black is good though, but without a Lamy refill to compare to I can’t say if affects my conclusion.

As the conversion works and I already have 2 refills, I’ll just use the MB for now but once they run out I’ll be getting the correct M63.

Addendum

After using the hacked Vista in anger for a morning the short protrusion drove me nuts. At lunch I went and picked up a black M63 refill.

Again the Lamy refill feels nicer in the hand than the Montblanc and the line is the same slightly wide medium as the blue. The blacks are very similar to the point I couldn’t say one was better than the other.

The Montblanc does have one area of advantage though. On the beyond cheap paper pad I have at work the Lamy feathers ever so slightly, the Montblanc doesn’t. This could be due to the formulation or the volume of ink put down. Either way, it’s one area I’ve seen Montblanc excell in, their fountain pen inks behave exceedingly well in my experiance also.

If anyone has a need for some Montblanc rollerball refills, I have 2 sat on a shelf.

  1. Current count looks like 7, though I have 1 more coming some time next week.

  2. An M63 refill is £2.40 RRP, but Cult Pens currently sell them for £1.98. The Montblanc refill was £10 for 2 but £12 seems the norm.