All About Vapor Polishing

Jan 31, 2022 | 3D printing, CNC Machining | 1 comment

Finishing is a key part of any manufacturers, especially 3D printing. Once created, products still have rough edges- literally or figuratively- that need to be polished out to create something that functions properly. Vapor polishing is a key method for doing this and one of the most common ones for both custom work and at an industrial scale.


What is Vapor Polishing?

Vapor polishing is a method used to polish plastics. Some commonly used plastics that respond well to vapor polishing are acrylic, polycarbonate, ABS, polysulfone, and PEI. While 3D printed objects may be based on totally smooth computer models, the deposition or sintering done to create the object is done layer by layer. Even when the printer produces very fine layers, this creates some visible roughness that vapor polishing smooths away. It can be used anywhere on an object where a surface is accessible, including on internal surfaces. All vapor polishing does is smooth a surface. It does not alter its features.


Vapor polishing is done by exposing an object to a chemical vapor that smooths away roughness. Vapor polishing is done using a very strong and dangerous chemical, usually a solvent, that has been brought to a boiling point in a controlled environment and turned into a vapor. That vapor is then sprayed on a plastic to smooth it at a molecular level. The plastic melts on the surface, making every little scratch, bump, and rough spot vanish. The result with transparent materials is optical-level, allowing them to be used for windows and even eyeglasses.


How Vapor Polishing Works


The vapor polishing process is done after the object is sanded in order to minimize the deeper marks and ensure the vapor can reach them adequately. Most post-processors sand the surface between 1000 and 1500 grit sandpaper prior to vapor polishing. The object is then carefully cleaned to make sure the vapor makes contact with all of the surface and is not blocked by dust or some other environmental contaminant. 


Only trained personnel should perform vapor polishing. The chemicals are very dangerous, so personnel wear protective equipment to ensure that there is no contact or inhalation. Vapor polishing is only done in a controlled and sealed chamber. This ensures the chemicals pose no hazard to people or the environment, while also making sure that no contaminants interfere with the polishing process. 


Only work with companies equipped and trained to safely perform vapor polishing. It is an industrial technique with many hazards that require specialized precautions. Vapor polishing facilities are very specialized as it is a messy process that needs to ensure minimum risk to the health of the staff and the environment while ensuring optimum product quality. This is not a post-processing technique available to at-home 3D printing hobbyists. 


After vapor polishing is done, it’s important that post-polishing stress relief is done to avoid surface stresses causing networks of fine cracks called crazing (this is often seen in ceramic glazing). This is especially important when vapor polishing is being used to improve the clarity of a transparent object. This stress-relief process is done by heating the dried objects in an oven to ensure the steady non-traumatic release of surface stresses and also to make sure that any residual chemical residue that might be trapped is safely released.


Vapor polishing takes a fairly short amount of time. After the vapor is applied to the object, it becomes visibly smoother in moments.The surface then solidifies very rapidly so it can be handled. Long exposure to the vapor is not needed and object size makes very little difference to how long the process takes.Even the baking phase following vapor application and drying is short and not affected by object size. When it comes to smoothing an object and improving transparency, it is one of the quickest methods available. 


As well as increased smoothness and transparency, vapor polishing also enhances surface durability, reducing the likelihood of scratching. With clear materials, the result is amazingly glass-like. There is no sign of stripes where the material was worked or spots that could be missed, no risk of tool marks, just a smooth surface.


When it comes to cost, vapor polishing offers a lot of bang for the buck. Other smoothing post-processing methods involve some degree of hand-tooling or specialized tools. They often take longer and might miss areas much more easily. Because it uses vapor and can therefore access even small or odd-shaped interior surfaces, it can work to smooth objects that no other method can. It is a highly cost-effective way of getting your product as smooth as you need it to be. 


Vapor Polishing on Various Industries


Vapor polishing sees use in many industries. The automotive industry makes frequent use of it to mass-polish clear acrylic parts like headlamps rapidly. The windows of airplanes are also often vapor polished for maximum transparency that does not risk cracking. Anywhere industry where  acrylics are used, especially where they need to be clear, you’ll find vapor polishing.


If you are looking to use 3D printing for artistic products, vapor polishing of plastic materials is likely a must as it will ensure the best, most pleasing look possible. The kind of smoothness available with vapor polishing is not just aesthetic. Irregularities can cause numerous technical issues. Smooth surfaces are often vital for medical equipment to prevent bacterial growth, allow for easy cleaning, and ensure sanitation. Smooth parts will not catch and are less likely to have imperfections that cause later mechanical issues. With 3D printed parts and other objects, the exposed layers offer sheer points under stress that vapor polishing reduces or removes altogether. 


Jawstec provides vapor polishing services as part of post-processing for our CNC, 3D-printing, and stereolithography services. We make use of top-of-the-line the AMT post-processing machines and the DyeMansion VaporFuse machines.These machines have been optimized for modern use and do not require protective clothing to use and have a very high throughput of small to medium objects. The DyeMansion technology prides itself on its sustainable focus that does not compromise the high quality of the polishing.The AMT machine specializes in post-processing medical equipment and other equipment with a high level of detail that needs to be smooth.


We provide an industry-leading turnaround and can have a completed, vapor polished plastic product ready within four to five days. Our team are experts in the field of additive and CNC manufacturing and can help you take an idea from its earliest design iterations through post-processing. Quality is our main priority at every step. Contact us today or see our website for a 3D printing quote or CNC quote.

1 Comment

  1. Matt Quilici

    How do you remove residue that has pooled after vapor polishing a 3D printed nylon PA11 part?


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