Shapeways shop owner Dain Penman of MadasU shares some insights into choosing the right material for printing scale objects meant to be part of a larger train set.

When you are looking at a model to purchase, the material choices available can be confusing.  While some models are offered in only a single material, others are offered in multiple materials which have different characteristics.  Where a model is only offered in one material, sometimes you want to understand why.  Let’s explore the main material options used for scale models:


HO scale 44-gallon drum groups

HO scale 44-gallon drum groups

Strong and flexible plastic – this plastic comes in a variety of colors and finishes.  The finishes available are unpolished which is only black and white or polished which includes white and a range of seven great colors.  This material is fairly flexible, depending on thickness but quite strong.  The finish does show print lines or ‘stepping’ although this can generally be taken care of with some post-production light sanding and painting.  This can be seen in the barrels.



1000 gallon watertank (HO)

Metallic plastics – available in both polished and unpolished. Very similar to strong and flexible plastic, although comes in a metallic finish.  This can be great when the model is either entirely or in part based on a metal prototype as you won’t need to paint the model before placing it.  Have a look at the corrugated iron water tank for an example of metallic plastic.



Scale HO luggage set

Acrylic plastics (black, white and transparent) – These are more detailed plastics than the strong and flexible plastics, but still have thicker wall requirements.  So they are good for showing surface detail on a model, but not good for fine pieces like thin walls or wires.



Four single station lights (HO scale)

Frosted detail plastics – the two frosted detail plastics (ultra and extreme) allow for the finest level of detail, with the smallest thicknesses of any product.  This makes the material perfect for models with a lot of fine detail including thin walls or wires.  While these models look great raw, they will need to be painted for a realistic effect.  This material is the most expensive in terms of volume, but allows for finer details and thinner walls so the models are not necessarily more expensive.


So which material is best?  The answer to this is entirely dependant on the model and how it was designed.  Firstly, have a look if multiple options are available as often the designer will make the choice on your behalf.  This will usually be a balance between the design and the cost, with the quality of the design the most important of the two.  If you do have a choice, look at the price of each material as there are no absolutes with pricing.  Some of my models are cheaper in the more expensive materials!  Now you can compare the qualities of the different materials and determine the best choice!