Are you ready to embrace the dream of having that little Orion model sitting in the corner of your desk? Did you look at Deimos and think "I want one of those" or Sathanas and think..."y'know what, I do
wanna poke out my eye..." Are you a complete tit of a human being who knows nothing about 3D Modeling, 3D Printing, or 3D Vision (seriously don't poke your eye out on that Sathanas).
Well, oh boy do I have the thread for you. Buckle up cos it's a long one...
I'm gonna go through all the things I do to take the ships in FreeSpace out of the game and turn them into something a bit more physical. This includes getting them out of the game files, how I prep the models for printing and, how I finalize them after they have been printed, as well as a few tips for painting them. A few of you will probably know me from my postings on the discord but for everyone else, I've spent the last couple of years making and painting models of the ships from FreeSpace (among other things) with a little help from my trusty 3D printer.You will need:
Choosing a 3D Printer:
- A 3D Printer
- Something to access FreeSpace's VP files
- Something to convert FreeSpace's .POF models into something more useful.
- 3D Builder
- Your Preferred Slicer
- Infinite Patience
- No, really. This can be a bit of a nightmare...
- A range of Fine-Grit Sandpaper (200-1000 grit)
- Epoxy Glue or SuperGlue
- Scalple/Hobby Knife Set
- Modeling Paints and Fine Brushes
- A Cookie, You deserve it
As of 2021, Just buy an Ender 3. Im serious, that's all the advice I have. The Ender 3 is a relatively inexpensive, flexible printer. They come in a few versions (Ender 3, Ender 3 Pro, Ender 3 v2, Ender 3 Max, etc). I personally own the Ender 3 Pro. This printer is an excellent, reliable, easy to maintain, beast of a machine. The build volume is a little small at 220x220x250mm or so but for the price the capabilities are basically unmached. It's a popular model so replacement parts are very widely available, as are various upgrades and customizations (though I will note that unless you're an enthusiast, these are largely unnessisary). The one essential accessory that I do reccomend is a glass build plate. It's a little less convenient than the standard magentic build plate the printer comes with, but you will get prints sticking to the bed much better, as well as a much smoother underside to your prints which is essential if you're assembling a multi-part model.
You might have heard that Resin Printers are good for modeling and to some degreee this is true, Resin Printers print at incredible detail levels but they require much more upkeep and maintenence. They require expensive parts replaced regularly, and thorogh cleaning. Using them also requires handling toxic chemicals (the resin itself, as well as solvents for cleaning the finished model and the printer). If you are prepared for this hassle, and have experience handling Resins and Solvents then go ahead, but everyone else should just buy an Ender 3 or similar FDM type printer. Choosing a Filament for your Printer:
I print all my models in PLA+. PLA+ is very similar to standard PLA filament but has a couple of advantages. It tends to adhere to build plates better and most critically, it warps sigificantly less, and extrudes more cleanly than standard PLA. It usually costs slightly more, but trust me it is well worth the small extra cost. For this particular application I do not reccomend ABS filament. While ABS is more durable, it is prone to warping, and can give off unpleasant fumes during printing, as a material ABS is better suited to things like mechanical prototyping. Finding and Extracting the model you want:
Navigating FreeSpace's files can be a little daunting to the uninitiated. FreeSpace 2 stores all it's assets in these things called .VP Files.
These are essentually just fancy folders, you can think of them a bit like a .RAR or .ZIP file (though .VPs do not compress data, only store files) but Windows has no idea what to do with them so accessing them requires a 3rd party piece of software. I use Quick VP which can be found here.
Once you're in the .VP file, you can locate the ship you want and extract it, in the modern .VPs the files for each ship are named accordingly but if you're unsure as to the filename of your preffered ship look it up on the wiki and that will tell you.
Once extracted you should have something called a .POF file, another thing that Windows has no idea what to do with. A .POF is how FreeSpace 2 stores its models. You can open and view them with POF Constructor Suite 2.
This will let you view the chosen model, and most critically, save it as something useful, spefically, save it as a Collada (.dae file) as these can be opened with blender.Preparing your model for printing:
So here's where it gets...nightmarish. We're going to use blender to remove a lot of crap from the model. When you import the model, you might notice it is HUGE. Pressing the "S" key while everything is still selected will allow you to scale it down a bit. The next thing you're gonna wanna do is open the Object Menu and select "Shade Flat" this will allow you to better see the geometry of the model. You might notice the ship looks a bit odd. Thats because blender has combined EVERYTHING about the ship into the scene (The ship itself, debris chunks,greebles , turrets, LOD versions, EVERYTHING) so we need to seperate out the parts we want, and delete everything else. You can do this by clicking on different bits and moving them. You can get an idea of what's what in the Collections Panel and you can also use it to delete unwanted bits. Ideally you'll want to keep the main model itself, the turrets, engines, y'know important stuff. Be sure not to change any of the scaling, when we put things back together later you want everything to be the right size. It doesn't matter if they stay in the right place, many of these parts it is a good idea to print seperately and glue together later on anyway.
Don't worry too much about keeping the Greebles or the Gun Barrels. A 3D Printer has limitations, thin structures and complex overhangs are a real challenge and a 3D printer will often reproduce them so poorly it actually looks better if they're removed altogether. Removing the Gun Barrels from the turrets might seem like an odd idea but bear with me here, I'll come back to it and show you what I use instead. Another thing to keep in mind is that if a Ship has more than one identical part (for example, 4 identical turrets) you only need to keep one example of this part, as you can print multiple copies. In the example images you can see how I have seperated the Aeolus out, and kept one copy of each of the different Turrets.
Once you've seperated out the bits you want from everything else, save the result as a .STL file. This we're going to open in a windows app called 3D Builder. It's free on the Microsoft Store, and it is my go-to tool for doing final prep on models before printing. It's a "baby's first 3D modeling app" for sure, but it has some very useful features. If there are errors with your model, or holes in it, this app will, upon importing, ask if you want to fix these problems. Click yes, It does a good job. Once imported the first thing to do is decide on a scale. I recommend doing the models at roughly 200mm in length. Set your preffered length, and make sure dimensional scale is locked, otherwise you're gonna get a very stretched ship.
You'll notice that your ship and the bits you kept (turrets and such) are grouped together, so now you need to cut up your ship so you can print it. Once all the individual components are seperated, open a new instance of 3D Builder, cut-paste each one in on it's own and save it as it's own .STL file, now the original file should only have the main hull of the ship left which we are now going to cut up for printing. How exactly each ship is cut up really depends on the ship, the goal is to minimize overhangs while having as few cuts as possible. Overhangs need to print with Supports and look much worse than top surfaces of prints. Once you have cut the ship up rotate the parts so they lie flat. 3D Builder has a "Settle" function that will lay the piece flat on the "ground" once it has been rotated (you don't want it to print floating above the build plate do you?). You can cut-paste the pieces of the Ship into a new instance of 3D builder to save them as seperate files if you like (I do). When all is said and done you should have .STL files for the vairous pieces of you ship as well as it's turrets and radar dishes etc. Slicing:
The Slicer is what takes the .STL 3D model and turns it into something your printer can understand. I use Ultimaker Cura
(it supports most 3D Printers) but your printer may have come with it's own, or you might have another you prefer. From here on out it's just a matter of importing your models, picking your print settings and then letting your printer do it's thing. I print my models at a 0.08mm Layer Height. This is an extremely high resolution for an FDM Printer. Prints at this level of detail take Hours to Days
to complete. If your just starting out, do some small test models at different resolutions and see what you like. Printing a 3D Benchy
is a good way to test your print settings. 0.1mm Layer Height is the upper end of what FDM Printers are capable of and is a good resolution for the kinds of models in FS2, however it can be fun to see just how far your printer will go, but above 0.1mm expect deminishing returns and greatly lengthened print times. My print is done, now what?
A little sanding goes a long way. Fine Grit Sandpaper is great for cleaning up any stringing or rough edges that may exist on the print and Gap Filler or Builders Bog can be really helpful for filling in any gaps left by print warping. I usually use Epoxy Glue to assemble my models because it can double as a bit of a gap filler, and when sanded down will help minimize any seams. Some surfaces of your print will likely have a layered look to them (espeially shallow curves and inclines), sanding can help reduce these but they are very difficult to get rid of. 3D Print smoothing proucts exist. You can smooth ABS prints using acetone, and PLA/PLA+ prints can be smoothed by painting a very thin layer of liquid Epoxy Resin onto the surface of the model, be warned though, you may trade one ugliness for another as smoothing the models like this will make them look less crisp. So, why delete the gun barrels?
Remember how I said that 3D printers struggle to reproduce fine or delecate overhanging structures? If you print a big ship at 200mm long, the barrels on the turrets will only be a milimeter or so wide, they come out extremely fragile and don't look great either. Fear not though, there is a solution. I use Nails for all my gun barrels, they're about the right shape and can be found in a wide range of sizes to suit different scales. I use a pair of snips to cut nails down to length if I need them to be shorter. I use a small drill bit to drill a hole in the turret to fit them into and drop a little glue in too which keeps the nail in place. I used 2 different kinds of Nails on my GTC Leviathan model, a Finishing Nail for the Ventral Turret and a pair of Flat Headed nails to make the spike in the middle of the Radar Dish. Another good option is re-purposing model weapons from Warhammer 40k or something similar (the gun barrels on my Orion Model are off Tau Crisis Suits). This is the kind of mindset to apply to many of the little fiddly bits which may not 3D Print well, see what easily available items can be used to replace them, the odds are you'll find something. First time painting a Model?
I paint my models in 4 basic steps:
- Priming (usually a spray-on primer)
- Basecoat/Layering (Painting the basic colours onto the model)
- Wash (painting a very thin, dark, ink like paint into crevaces and recesses to give a shaded look)
- Highlights (gently painting, or drybrushing brighter, shinier colours onto raised edges, giving those edges the impression of catching the light)
Youtube Tutorials are your friends if you want more details about each of these steps. A good place to start is the Warhammer Paints, they are very easy to use and usually only need one coat to produce a good colour (many modeling paints need several coats to produce the desired affect) and there are lots of tutorials out there on how to use these paints extremely effectively. Model painting is fiddly buisness, it might take a few goes to get the hang of it, maybe do a couple of test prints to give you something to practice on and there is not shame in just starting again, it took me three goes to get my Leviathan right.
Oddly enough, the more detailed a model, the easier it is to paint, this is because in a more detailed model the textued surface gives a great look with a lot of depth with a lot of nooks to paint shade into, and a lot of raised edges to highlight. A lot of the Retail FS2 models are actually quite hard to get to look good because they have big flat surfaces with no texture. Now you are the Master!
I have a confession to make, you see, I'm a bumbling idiot and this methodology was entirely created through a process of trial and error and the truth is I still have no idea what I'm doing. Everything above is just what I've been able to awkwardly piece together thus-far. There are undoubtedly ways to improve on what I've laid out here. If you have tips, or have discoved some cool new way you create your own models please share.
And with that, all I have left to say is happy printing. Enjoy the myriad of frustrations and suffering you have loosed upon the world for it is worth it to get some truly awesome and unique models. Oh and seriously, don't poke an eye out.