Basics

3D Printer Bed Leveling (Step-by-Step Guide)

By Marc Leo

Updated

Achieving consistent great prints requires a good printer, excellent filament, and a level bed.

Bed leveling is crucial to getting a good first layer and setting the foundation for the rest of your print. Whether setting up a new printer or fine-tuning an existing one, here’s a step-by-step manual and automatic 3D printer bed leveling guide.

When to Level Your 3D Printing Bed

You should level the printer’s bed after assembling a new printer, after every 5-10 prints, or after a failed print.

A level build plate is essential for producing a consistent first layer and proper bed adhesion.

Whenever you start a new print, it’s best practice to watch the first layer. Most bed leveling issues are apparent during the first few layers of printing, and catching problems early in the print process can save you from wasting filament on failed prints – not to mention wasting hours of printing time.

Visually, the first layer should have slightly “squished” lines throughout the first layer.

Don’t overthink it.

It’s usually very obvious when there’s an issue with your bed leveling.

Common problems to look out for include:

  • The filament doesn’t stick to the build surface in some areas
  • The extruded filament’s height varies across the build surface
  • Gaps between the build plate and the filament
  • Rough or uneven texture

Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to level the bed.

There are two methods of bed leveling, manual and automatic. We’ll first cover manually leveling the printer’s bed before moving on to automatic systems.

But, if you struggle with manual leveling or are a perfectionist like me, an auto bed leveling sensor (ABL) is your friend.

Manual Bed Leveling

3D Printer bed leveling on an Ender 3 V2

You don’t need an ABL to level your 3D printer bed. Getting a perfectly level build surface is easy to do with manual leveling.

The process of manually leveling a bed is similar, no matter your model printer. Simply follow the steps below.

Tip: Leveling a brand-new 3D printer is tedious and can take up to 30 minutes. Getting high-quality prints is worth the effort. Take your time and do it right. After the initial leveling, you’ll only need to re-level the build plate every 5-10 prints. Sometimes longer if you take good care of the printer between prints.

Tools Required

The goal of 3D printer bed leveling is to ensure a consistent 0.1mm distance from the build plate to the print head. Fortunately, you can achieve a level build surface using the paper method and a few household items.

Before you get started, there are a few tools you’ll need to get:

  • A piece of paper: We’ll use paper to gauge the distance between the nozzle and the printer bed. Standard printer paper works well, but a Post-It note works too.
  • Screwdriver or hex key: If your 3D printer doesn’t have rotating knobs, you’ll need one of these to level the bed.
  • Heat-resistant gloves: For safety when working with a hot nozzle and heated bed.
  • Isopropyl alcohol (IPA) and a paper towel: It’s essential to clean the print bed before leveling and printing. The filament doesn’t adhere well to a dirty bed. Find an IPA with more than 70% alcohol.
  • A clean cloth or bass brush: Used to clean the nozzle for proper filament extrusion.

Preparing Your 3D Printer

Now that you’ve got your tools ready, it’s almost time to begin leveling. But first, we need to prepare the printer:

  • Clean the bed: Lightly wipe the surface with Isopropyl Alcohol and a paper towel to remove leftover filament residue, dust, and oils.
  • Clean the nozzle: Wipe the nozzle with a clean cotton cloth or brass brush. If the print head doesn’t come clean, heat the bed to the temperature used during the last print and give it another wipe. Wear heat-resistant gloves, as the heated nozzle can burn your hands. 
  • Preheat the bed and nozzle: Set the bed and nozzle to the normal operating temperature. This step is a bit controversial, but the bed and nozzle expand slightly when heated. The heat expansion is minor, but we recommend leveling the entire bed under operating conditions for the best results. For PLA, we recommend setting the extrusion nozzle to 200°C and 60°C for the bed.
  • Set the printer to the home position: Find the home setting on your printer settings. It will return the nozzle to the 0,0,0 position.

Bed Leveling

Close up of manual bed leveling on a an Ender 3 V2 3D printer

Manual 3D printer bed leveling is a tedious and often frustrating experience, even for seasoned makers.

Once you understand the basics, it’s a valuable skill that you’ll often use. 

Leveling a brand-new 3D printer can take up to half an hour. Regularly leveling your printer saves time in the long run and reduces the number of failed prints.

Step 1: Home the Extrusion Nozzle

Set the printer to the home position. The home position brings the extrusion nozzle to the 0,0,0 position. The home position sets the height where your first layer prints.

Step 2: Disable the Stepper Motors

You need to disable to stepper motors to move the print bed freely. With the stepper motors disabled, you can freely move the print head to level all four corners of the build surface.

Some printers, such as the Creality Ender 5, have an assisted bed leveling program. The setting automatically moves the extruder to each corner and middle position. You can use the assisted bed leveling setting instead of disabling the stepper motors.

Step 3: Adjust the Distance Between the Nozzle and the Print Bed

Now it’s time to begin the process of leveling the print bed. Bring the printer nozzle to one corner and place a sheet of paper between the nozzle and the build surface.

Slide the paper between the nozzle and the build plate. If there’s no resistance moving the paper, adjust the closest knob to raise the print bed until you feel the nozzle drag against the paper.

Turning the knobs raises and lowers the by adjusting the bed springs. You should raise the build plate until you reach the point just before experiencing resistance when you slide the paper.

You want to make sure each screw pinches the piece of paper with the resistance across the build surface to have a level bed.

Avoid putting too much pressure on the bed when sliding the paper. If you put pressure on the bed, it could throw off the leveling process.

While adjusting the bed springs, you want to keep some rigidity. Completely loosening the springs is a common mistake because it allows the print bed to bounce while printing. We want to keep a level and rigid build plate.

And be very careful not to raise the bed too high. If the nozzle touches the bed, it could damage the printing surface. Stop raising the bed immediately if you feel the nozzle dragging against the build surface, and lower the printing bed.

Repeat the process for all four corners and the middle of the build surface.

After checking all five points, repeat the process once again. Adjusting one corner will affect the other corners of the print bed. Repeat the process until you’ve leveled all five points.

Tip on Paper Friction: As soon as the nozzle tip touches the paper, you’ve reached the correct friction for bed leveling. If the paper forms waves while you push it through, you’ve raised the bed too high. You’ve entered the optional range when the friction is between these two points. The goal is to set the same friction in all four corners and the middle of the print bed. You can fine-tune the exact friction range after inspecting your test print.

Step 4: Inspect the First Layer

After leveling the 3D printer bed, it’s time to print. If you want to confirm that the bed is level, you can begin by printing one of the test prints below.

It’s essential to inspect the first layer to ensure a consistent surface across the build platform. If you notice any gaps or issues with the filament adhering to the print surface, you may need to adjust your leveling.

When the print bed is leveled, the nozzle should “squish” the extruded plastic onto the printing surface. The extruded filament should spread out slightly as the nozzle moves across the bed.

Adjusting the Nozzle Gap

Close up of the extruder nozzle on an Ender 3 V2 Pro after bed leveling

The gap between the nozzle and the print bed is known as the Z Offset (or Z height). Setting the Z Offset is often considered part of the leveling process because it affects the filament extrusion.

There are two ways to set the Z Offset: firmware or slicer settings.

Setting the Z Offset through the firmware provides a fixed value. It’s typically only done during the calibration process.

The second way to set the Z height is by adjusting the slicer settings, often termed “first layer height.” Adjusting the Z Offset through the slicer allows more flexibility and can be adjusted based on the filament material, print size, or bed type.

Either way, set the Z height before leveling. Once correctly positioned, it’ll only need to be changed if you upgrade your build plate.

If you rely on the Z Offset to level your print bed, you could set it to an extreme value that makes future bed leveling challenging.

Running a Test Print

5 squares printed on an Ender 3 v2 as a test print for bed leveling

We recommend running a test print if you’re working with a new 3D printer or leveling a wildly unlevel printer.

Before getting ahead of ourselves, it’s best to run a test print. We recommend using a test print that produces squares at each of the four corners and the middle of the build volume. The test print is the best way to know if you’ve done a good job leveling the bed.

Our preferred choice is the bed leveling squares below:

Choose the size that best fits your 3D printer. After running a test print, examine each square individually.

Results from a bed leveling test print showing a bed thats too high
Bed too high
Results from a bed leveling test print showing a bed thats perfectly leveled PhotoRoom
Bed perfectly leveled
Results from a bed leveling test print showing a bed that's too low
Bed too low

Each square should have a smooth and consistent surface. If you notice lines that don’t touch the print bed or gaps between lines, the distance between the nozzle and the bed is too high. If the distance between the nozzle is too small, you’ll notice the print head pushes the filament in front of it or if the lines appear overly squished.

Another excellent test print is the Calibration Shapes plugin in Cura, which prints six squares.

Upgrade to an Auto Bed Leveling System

If you’re a perfectionist or find the process a bit too tedious, you should consider upgrading to an auto bed leveling system. Most printers will hold their levels for several print cycles, but I’ve yet to come across anyone who actually enjoys the process of leveling the bed.

You can upgrade a budget and entry-level printers with a leveling sensor. The three most popular options are the BLTouch, CRTouch, and 3DTouch.

Auto bed leveling systems work by detecting the distance between the nozzle and the print bed. The system automatically adjusts the Z Offset when printing by measuring the distance at different points.

An auto-leveling system provides consistent first layers across the entire print surface.

Some higher-end 3D printers come with an auto bed leveling system. If your printer doesn’t have one built-in, you can upgrade by purchasing a BLTouch auto bed leveling kit.

FAQs

Do You Need to Level Your Printer Before Every Print?

You don’t need to level your 3D printer bed before every print. 3D printers should be leveled every 5 to 10 prints. And new printers should be leveled after assembly.

How Often Do You Need to Level Your 3D Printer?

You should level your 3D Printer every five to ten prints depending on the stability of the bed surface and how carefully you remove finished prints. We recommend leveling the surface before every large print (15 hours or more) or after a failed print to avoid prints failing during the printing process. It’s also essential to re-level the print bed if you change the bed material.