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Smooth It Out!

ABS Smoothing – A Beginner’s Guide to ABS Vapor Smoothing

Picture of Pranav Gharge
by Pranav Gharge
Aug 1, 2019
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Vanquish those layer lines and make your 3D printed part look more professional with ABS smoothing! This guide will get you started.

ABS Smoothing What Is It?

A calibration cube smoothed out with vapor smoothing.
A calibration cube smoothed out with vapor smoothing. Source: Pranav Gharge / All3DP

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) is an industrial plastic and 2nd to PLA in terms of commonly used 3D printing materials. It can be tricky to work with, but it’s still popular because of its ability to be post-processed with acetone.

Acetone is a colourless solvent that is mainly used for cleaning purposes. For instance, nail polish remover is an acetone product. ABS is highly reactive to acetone – it dissolves in it. This is used to our advantage in the vapor smoothing process.

The process completely eliminates any visible layer lines and gives you a clean and smooth surface finish, thus making your 3D printed part look more like an injection-molded object.

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ABS Smoothing Here's How It's Done

An ABS part: Smoothed, but not melted.
An ABS part: Smoothed, but not melted. Source: rigid.ink

Vapor smoothing is a relatively easy process to carry out. It doesn’t involve a lot of technicalities, and once you’ve perfected it, you’ll wonder why you waited so long to start.

What You Need

  • Acetone
  • 3D printed part (Duh!)
  • Metal or glass container
  • Tissues (many of them)
  • Clips or magnets
  • Aluminium foil
  • Timer

Safety Tips

Acetone itself is highly flammable. Also, it is not something you should be breathing for a significant period of time. Hence, make sure you’re smoothing in a well-ventilated area with no naked flames nearby.

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ABS Smoothing Step 1: Placing the Object

A slightly fancier setup for vapor smoothing.
A slightly fancier setup for vapor smoothing. Source: sinkhacks.com

This is where you consider how to orient the object so as to get the finish wherever it is required. A preferred way to go is to place the object on its base, or the side on which you won’t be needing a good surface finish on.

Take an aluminium foil sheet and fold it three to four times to make a base on which the 3D printed part will rest. You can also use anything made of glass or metal as a base. Soak the tissues with acetone and place them on the walls of the glass container you’re using. Use magnets to hold the tissues in their place.

Place the container upside down on the part, making sure the tissues don’t touch the part.

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ABS Smoothing Step 2: Waiting for the Magic

Magnets holding acetone-soaked tissues in a glass container.
Magnets holding acetone-soaked tissues in a glass container. Source: Make Anything / YouTube

Here, you don’t have to actually do anything. Just observe and be patient. Set a timer for about 15 minutes and wait.

As time passes, you’ll begin to see the part getting a little bit shinier. After the 15-minute mark, just remove the container and let the finished part rest.

There is a chance of overdoing the vapor bath. This will produce a part which has lost all of its surface details. For the first time, 15 minutes is a good starting point.

It’ll take some practice to perfect the time required to get your desired level of surface finish. But don’t worry, after a little hands-on experience, you’ll eventually figure out the best settings for yourself.

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ABS Smoothing Step 3: Letting It Dry

A vapor-smoothed keychain.
A vapor-smoothed keychain. Source: PeterA8 / Instructables

Don’t immediately touch the part after you remove the container, you can ruin the part’s surface. After all, it’s still in a partially-deformed state and will immediately catch your fingerprints if you do so.

Let the part rest for at least one hour before even touching it. Make sure it is in an isolated space. This resting of the part ensures that all the acetone has vaporized from the surface of the part.

Also, it is at this stage where you will see the magic of acetone smoothing. The part will start to look more finished and shiny. Have some patience and let time do its thing.

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ABS Smoothing Voila!

An unsmoothed part (left) and a smoothed part (right).
An unsmoothed part (left) and a smoothed part (right). Source: 3DWithUs/ Youtube

There you have it: A finished acetone-smoothed part which barely looks 3D printed. Have a go at it and you’ll be amazed by the results you achieve once you perfect the method. You’ll only want to try it more and more.

Feature image source: sinkhacks.com

License: The text of "ABS Smoothing – A Beginner’s Guide to ABS Vapor Smoothing" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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