Fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printers are everywhere – from the home to the office, from the classroom to the workshop!
The most commonly used materials in 3D printing are the thermoplastics PLA and ABS, but the list goes on (and on). Other materials that are sold as 3D printer filament include nylon, polycarbonate, carbon fiber, polypropylene, and many more! There are even special blends which can conduct electricity or glow in the dark!
With so much variety on offer, it’s easier than ever to create functional, beautiful, and high performing prints in a variety of exciting materials. Read our 3D printer filament guide to find out which 3D printer filament – standard, exotic, or professional – is right for you.
This first category introduces the six most commonly used 3D printer filaments in desktop 3D printing, popular for their ease of use and their physical properties.
In addition to providing general information for each of the following filaments, this section also attempts to present a comparison of their properties, as well as suggest in which situations they might be used.
We apologize in advance to any readers who have knowledge about 3D printing materials; some of the following information could be a bit of review.
In the realm of home 3D printing, polylactic acid (PLA) is king. Although it’s often compared to ABS – next in line to the throne – PLA is easily the most popular 3D printer filament, and for good reason.
First and foremost, it’s easy to print with. PLA has a lower printing temperature than ABS, and it doesn’t warp as easily, meaning it doesn’t require a heating bed (although it definitely helps). Another benefit to using PLA is that it doesn’t give off an evil smell during printing. It’s generally considered an odorless filament, but many have reported smelling sweet, candy-like fumes. Finally, as a biodegradable thermoplastic, PLA is more environmentally friendly than most 3D printer filaments, being made from annually renewable resources such as corn starch or sugar cane.
To see further comparisons between PLA and ABS, check out the following article: PLA vs ABS: Filaments for 3D Printing Explained & Compared.
3D Printer Filament Properties: PLA
When should I use PLA 3D printer filament?
In this case, the better question might be, When shouldn’t I use PLA? Compared to other types of 3D printer filament, PLA is brittle, so avoid using it when making items that might be bent, twisted, or dropped repeatedly, such as phone cases, high-wear toys, or tool handles. You should also avoid using it with items which need to withstand higher temperatures, as PLA tends to malform around temperatures of 60°C or higher. For all other applications, PLA makes for a good overall choice in filament. Common prints include models, low-wear toys, prototype parts, and containers.
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) ranks as the second most popular 3D printer filament, after PLA. But that just means it’s the second most commonly used. With respect to its material properties, ABS is actually moderately superior to PLA, despite being slightly more difficult to print with. It’s for this reason that ABS is found in many manufactured household and consumer goods, including LEGO bricks and bicycle helmets!
Products made of ABS boast high durability and a capacity to withstand high temperatures, but 3D printer enthusiasts should be mindful of the filament’s high printing temperature, tendency to warp during cooling, and intense fumes. Be sure to print with a heating bed, and in a well-ventilated space.
3D Printer Filament Properties: ABS
When should I use ABS 3D printer filament?
ABS is tough – able to withstand high stress and temperature. It’s also moderately flexible. Together these properties make ABS a good general-purpose 3D printer filament, but where it really shines is with items that are frequently handled, dropped, or heated. Examples include phone cases, high-wear toys, tool handles, automotive trim components, and electrical enclosures.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the most commonly used plastic in the world. Best known as the polymer used in water bottles, it is also found in clothing fibres and food containers.
While “raw” PET is rarely used in 3D printing, its variant PETG is a popular 3D printer filament. The ‘G’ stands for “glycol-modified”, and the result is a filament which is clearer, less brittle, and most importantly, easier to use than its base form. For this reason, PETG is often considered a good middle ground between ABS and PLA, the two most commonly used 3D printer filaments, as it is more flexible and durable than PLA and easier to print than ABS.
Three things 3D printer enthusiasts should keep in mind when using PETG:
For more information on this 3D printer filament, check out our in-depth article on PETG here.
Polyethylene coTrimethylene Terephthalate (PETT) is another PET variant. Slightly more rigid than PETG, this 3D printer filament is popular for being transparent.
3D Printer Filament Properties: PETG (PET, PETT)
When should I use PETG 3D printer filament?
PETG is a good all-rounder but stands out from many other filaments due to its flexibility, strength, and temperature and impact resistance. This makes it an ideal 3D printer filament to use for objects which might experience sustained or sudden stress, like mechanical parts, printer parts, and protective components.
Nylon, a popular family of synthetic polymers used in many industrial applications, is the heavyweight champion of the 3D printing world. Compared to most other filaments, it ranks as the number one contender when together considering strength, flexibility, and durability.
Another unique characteristic of this 3D printer filament is that you can dye it, either before or after the printing process. The negative side to this is that nylon, like PETG, is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture, so remember to store it in a cool, dry place to ensure better quality prints.
In general, many grades of nylon exist, but among the most common for use as 3D printer filaments are 618 and 645.
3D Printer Filament Properties: Nylon
When should I use nylon 3D printer filament?
Taking advantage of nylon’s strength, flexibility, and durability use this 3D printer filament to create tools, functional prototypes, or mechanical parts (like hinges, buckles, or gears).
As the name implies, thermoplastic elastomers (TPE) are essentially plastics with rubber-like qualities, making them extremely flexible and durable. As such, TPE is commonly found in automotive parts, household appliances, and medical supplies.
In reality, TPE is a broad class of copolymers (and polymer mixtures), but it is nonetheless used to label many commercially available 3D printer filaments. Soft and stretchable, these filaments can withstand punishment that neither ABS nor PLA can tolerate. On the other hand, printing is not always easy, as TPE can be difficult to extrude.
Thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) is a particular variety of TPE, and is itself a popular 3D printer filament. Compared to generic TPE, TPU is slightly more rigid – making it easier to print. It’s also a little more durable and can better retain its elasticity in the cold.
Thermoplastic copolyester (TPC) is another variety of TPE, though not as commonly used as TPU. Similar in most respects to TPE, TPC’s main advantage is its higher resistance to chemical and UV exposure, as well to heat (up to 150°C).
3D Printer Filament Properties: TPE, TPU, TPC (Flexible)
When should I use TPE, TPU, or TPC 3D printer filament?
Use TPE or TPU when creating objects that need to take a lot of wear. If your print should bend, stretch, or compress, these are the right 3D printer filaments for the job. Example prints might include toys, phone cases, or wearables (like wristbands). TPC can be used in the same contexts, but does especially well in harsher environments, like the outdoors.
Polycarbonate (PC), in addition to being the strongest 3D printer filament presented in this list, is extremely durable and resistant to both physical impact and heat, able to withstand temperatures of up to 110°C. It’s also transparent, which explains its use in commercial items such as bullet proof glass, scuba masks, and electronic display screens.
Despite some similar use cases, PC shouldn’t be confused with acrylic or plexi-glass, which shatter or crack under stress. Unlike these two materials, PC is moderately flexible (though not as much as nylon, for example), allowing it to bend until eventually it deforms.
PC 3D printer filament is hygroscopic, able to absorb water from the air, so remember to store it in a cool, dry place to ensure better quality prints.
3D Printer Filament Properties: PC (Polycarbonate)
When should I use PC 3D printer filament?
Due to its physical properties, PC is an ideal 3D printer filament for parts that need to retain their strength, toughness, and shape in high-temperature environments, such as electrical, mechanical, or automotive components. Also try to take advantage of its optical clarity in lighting projects or for screens.
Having paid the proper respects to the Big Six, the gods of 3D printing should now be appeased. Time to move on to something a little more fun!
What makes the following 3D printer filaments types more fun? Well, where before we mostly focused on physical characteristics like strength, flexibility, and durability, the next seven filaments are popular for other reasons, often due to their aesthetics, composition, or special effects. Just look at next one. Wood? How cool is that!
Thanks to their exotic natures, these filaments are especially popular in recreational 3D printer use. In other words, this is the fun category!
Interested in printing objects that look and feel like wood? Well, you can! It’s not really wood of course – that wouldn’t make for a very good 3D printer filament – it’s PLA infused with wood fiber.
Many wood-PLA 3D printer filament blends exist on the market today. These include the more standard wood varieties, such Pine, Birch, Cedar, Ebony, and Willow, but the range also extends itself to less common types, like Bamboo, cherry, Coconut, Cork, and Olive.
As with other 3D printer filaments, there is a trade-off with using wood. In this case, aesthetic and tactile appeal comes at the cost of reduced flexibility and strength.
Be careful with the temperature at which you print wood, as too much heat can result in an almost burnt or caramelized appearance. On the other hand, the base appearance of your wooden creations can be greatly improved with a little post-print processing!
When should I use wood 3D printer filament?
Wood is popular with items that are appreciated less for their functional capabilities, and more for their appearance. Consider using wood 3D printer filament when printing objects that are displayed on a desk, table, or shelf. Examples include bowls, figurines, and awards. One really creative application of wood as a 3D printer filament is in the creation of scale models, such as those used in architecture.
Maybe you’re looking for a different type of aesthetic in your prints – something a little bulkier and shinier. Well, for that you can use metal. Like wood 3D printer filament, metal filament isn’t really metal. It’s actually a mix of metal powder and either PLA or ABS. But that doesn’t stop the results from having the look and feel of metal. Even the weight is metal-like, as blends tend to be several times denser than pure PLA or ABS.
Bronze, brass, copper, aluminum, and stainless steel are just a few of the varieties of metal 3D printer filament which are commercially available. And if there’s a specific look you’re interested in, don’t be afraid to polish, weather, or tarnish your metal items after printing.
You may need to replace your nozzle a little sooner as a result of printing with metal, as the grains are somewhat abrasive, resulting in increased nozzle wear.
The most common 3D printer filament blends tend to be around 50% metal powder and 50% PLA or ABS, but blends also exist that are up to 85% metal. For more information on these filaments, and how to use them, take a look at our Complete Guide to Metal 3D Printing.
When should I use metal 3D printer filament?
Metal can be used to print for aesthetics and for function. Figurines, models, toys, and tokens can all look great printed in metal. And as long as they don’t have to deal with too much stress, feel free to use metal 3D printer filament to create parts with purpose, like tools, grates, or finishing components.
Biodegradable 3D printer filaments make up a unique category, as their most valuable characteristic does not lie in their physical natures. As most hobbyists can attest to, not every print turns out the way you want it to, and this results in having to throw away a ton of plastic. Biodegradable filaments seek to negate the environmental impact this has on our planet.
As was mentioned earlier in this article, PLA is in fact a biodegradable filament, but others include twoBEars’ bioFila line and Biome3D, by Biome Bioplastics.
When should I use biodegradable 3D printer filament?
Regardless of their primary reason for existing, biodegradable filaments often produce items of sound physical quality. Use them any time you don’t have specific requirements for strength, flexibility, or endurance. And if you really want to take advantage of the guilt-free printing biodegradable filaments offer, try using them in projects which require prototyping.
With so many strong, flexible, and durable 3D printer filament types available, structural and mechanical projects are everywhere, it seems. Enter conductive 3D printer filaments. Time for electrical and computer engineers to join the fun!
With the addition of conductive carbon particulates to PLA or ABS, it’s easy to realize dreams of printing low-voltage electronic circuits. Just couple a conductive 3D printer filament with an ordinary PLA or ABS in a dual-extrusion machine.
When should I use conductive 3D printer filament?
Even though this 3D printer filament only supports low-voltage circuitry, the sky’s the limit with customized electronics projects. If you’re experimenting, try coupling a circuit board with LEDs, sensors, or even a Raspberry Pi! If you’re looking for something a little more specific, popular ideas include gaming controllers, digital keyboards, and trackpads.
Glow-in-the-dark 3D printer filament – pretty self-explanatory. Leave your print in the light for a while, then flick the switch and behold that eerie green glow.
It doesn’t have to be green, of course. It can also be blue, red, pink, yellow, or orange. But green is so cool…
So, how does it work? It all comes down to the phospherescent materials mixed in with the PLA or ABS base. Thanks to these added materials, a glow-in-the-dark 3D printer filament is able to absorb and later emit photons, which are kind of like tiny particles of light. This is why your prints will only glow after being in the light – they have to store the energy before they can release it.
For best results, consider printing with thick walls and little infill. The thicker your walls, the stronger the glow!
When should I use glow-in-the-dark 3D printer filament?
Thinking about that eerie green glow, it almost doesn’t even seem necessary to suggest using a glow-in-the-dark 3D printer filament for Halloween projects, like jack-o’-lanterns or window decorations. Other examples of where these filaments really shine – er, glow – include wearables (think jewellery), toys, and figurines.
Are metal and conductive prints not exciting enough for you? Okay then, how about magnetic prints? This exotic 3D printer filament, based in PLA or ABS and infused with powdered iron, features a grainy, gunmetal finish, and of course, it sticks to magnets!
One thing to note: Despite the name, this 3D printer filament is actually ferromagnetic, meaning that while it is attracted to magnetic fields, it has no fields of its own. In other words, the objects you print may stick to magnets, but they won’t actually be magnets.
When should I use magnetic 3D printer filament?
Use this type of 3D printer filament whenever you want your prints to stick to something magnetic. Ornaments (especially for the fridge) are the most obvious example, but why not incorporate some magnetism into toys or tools?
Remember those T-shirts from the 80s, the ones that would change color based on body temperature? Or how about mood rings? Well, this is the same deal, because color-changing 3D printer filaments also change color based on changes in heat.
Filaments from this category tend to change between two colors, for example from purple to pink, blue to green, or yellow to green.
As with other exotic 3D printer filaments, color-changing filament exists in blends of both PLA and ABS.
When should I use color-changing 3D printer filament?
With no special physical, tactile, or functional characteristics, this type of 3D printer filament is purely good for aesthetics. Use it whenever you would normally use PLA or ABS, but desire that extra visual flare. Good candidate projects include phone cases, wearables, toys, and containers.
We’ve given the following 3D printer filaments the label “professional” for two reasons:
First, compared to those already discussed, the remaining 3D printer filament types are less commonly seen in desktop 3D printing, being more popular among extreme hobbyists or more frequently appearing in industrial and commercial scenarios.
Second, many of the following filaments provide a function apart from simply being a print material, such as structural support or extruder cleaning.
That said, the following 3D printer filaments can still be extremely useful, or provide good alternatives to some of the above-mentioned filaments, depending on what you want to print.
When 3D printer filaments like PLA, ABS, PETG, and nylon are reinforced with carbon fiber, the result is an extremely stiff and rigid material with relatively little weight. Such compounds shine in structural applications that must withstand a wide variety of end-use environments.
The trade-off is the increased wear and tear on your printer’s nozzle, especially if it’s made of a soft metal like brass. Even as little as 500 grams of this exotic 3D printer filament will noticeably increase the diameter of a brass nozzle, so unless you enjoy frequently replacing your nozzle, consider using one made of (or coated with) a harder material.
When should I use carbon fiber 3D printer filament?
Thanks to its structural strength and low density, carbon fiber is a fantastic candidate for mechanical components. Looking to replace a part in your model car or plane? Give this 3D printer filament a try.
Polycarbonate ABS alloy (PC-ABS) is a tough thermoplastic, combining the strength and heat resistance of polycarbonate with the flexibility of ABS. Commonly found in automotive, electronics, and telecommunications applications, it is one of the most widely used industrial thermoplastics in the world.
When used as a 3D printer filament, the same benefits apply, but the trade-off is a slightly more complicated printing process. First, because PC-ABS is hygroscopic, it’s recommended to bake it before printing. Second, it requires a high printing temperature (of at least 260°C). Third, it tends to warp, so a high print bed temperature is also necessary (of at least 100°C).
In the commercial world, high impact polystyrene (HIPS) – a copolymer that combines the hardness of polystyrene and the elasticity of rubber – is commonly found in protective packaging and containers, like CD cases.
In the world of 3D printing, HIPS typically plays a different role. 3D printers can’t print onto thin air. Overhangs require some underlying structure, and this is where HIPS really shines. When paired with ABS in a dual extrusion printer, HIPS is an excellent support material. Simply fill any gaps in your design with this 3D printer filament, then melt it away by immersing the finished product in limonene, a colorless liquid hydrocarbon.
Avoid using HIPS with other 3D printer filaments, as they can be damaged by limonene, whereas ABS is left unscathed. HIPS and ABS print well together in any case, being of similar strength, stiffness, and requiring a comparable print temperature.
In fact, despite its primary use as a support material, HIPS is a decent 3D printer filament in its own right. It is stronger than both PLA or ABS, warps less than ABS, and it can be easily glued, sanded, and painted.
Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) is soluble in water, and that’s exactly what commercial applications take advantage of. Popular uses include packaging for dishwasher detergent “pods” or bags full of fishing bait. (Throw the bag in water and watch it dissolve, releasing the bait.)
The same principal applies in 3D printing, making PVA a great support material when paired with another 3D printer filament in a dual extrusion printer. The advantage of using PVA over HIPS is that it can be printed with more than just ABS. Common substitutes include PLA and nylon.
The trade-off is a 3D printer filament that is slightly more difficult to print with. One must also be careful when storing it, as even the moisture in the atmosphere can damage the filament prior to printing.
Want to print something in real brass, tin, or some other metal? Well, you can! Kind of… In reality you’ll be printing a mold using a wax 3D printer filament. But after a few extra steps, your design really can come to shiny, metally life.
The process is called “lost-wax” or “investment” casting, and it more-or-less works like this:
Wax 3D printer filament makes the first step easy, as one would normally have to carve the mold out of pure wax.
Dominating the wax 3D printer filament arena is MOLDLAY, by Kai Parthy CC Products. When using this or similar wax-like materials, keep in mind that they are much softer than most 3D printer filaments. Among other precautions, it may be necessary to modify your extruder and layer your print bed with an adhesive.
Sure, ABS is great, but it has its flaws. That’s why plastics manufacturers are always looking for alternatives. One such alternative is acrylonitrile styrene acrylate (ASA), originally developed to be more resistant to weather effects. Hence it’s primary use in the automotive industry.
In addition to being a 3D printer filament that is strong, rigid, and relatively easy to print with, ASA is also extremely resistant to chemical exposure, heat, and mostly importantly, changes in shape and color. Prints made of ABS have a tendency to erode or to yellow if left outdoors. Such is not the case with ASA. For anything from birdhouses to custom garden gnomes, look no further than this 3D printer filament.
Another minor benefit to using ASA over ABS is that it warps less during printing. But be careful with how you adjust your cooling fan; ASA can easily crack if things get a little too windy (during printing).
Polypropylene (PP) is tough, flexible, light, chemically resistant, and food safe, which might explain it’s broad range of applications, including engineering plastics, food packaging, textiles, and bank notes.
Unfortunately, as a 3D printer filament, PP is notoriously difficult to print with, presenting heavy warping and poor layer adhesion. If not for these issues, PP would likely contend with PLA for most popular 3D printer filament, given its strong mechanical and chemical properties.
Interestingly, since many household objects are made of PP, it’s actually possible to recycle old junk and turn it into new 3D printer filament.
Polyoxymethylene (POM), also referred as acetal and Delrin, is well known for its use as an engineering plastic, for example in parts which move or require high precision. Such parts include gears, bearings, camera focusing mechanisms, and zippers.
POM performs exceptionally well in these types of applications due to its strength, rigidity, resistance to wear, and most importantly, its low coefficient of friction. It’s thanks to this last property that POM makes such a great 3D printer filament. For most of the filaments in this list, there is a significant gap between what is made in industry and what you can make at home with your 3D printer. For POM, this gap is somewhat smaller; the slippery nature of this material means prints can be nearly as functional as mass-produced parts.
Make sure to use a print bed when printing with POM 3D printer filament, as the first layer doesn’t always want to stick.
Ever heard of polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA)? Maybe not. What about acrylic, or Plexiglas? That’s right, we’re talking about the same material that’s most often used as a lightweight, shatter-resistant alternative to glass.
Rigid, impact resistant, and transparent, use this 3D printer filament for anything that should diffuse light, whether that’s a replacement window pane or a colorful toy. Just don’t use it to make anything that should bend, as PMMA is not very flexible.
3D printing with PMMA 3D printer filament can be a little difficult. To prevent warping and to maximize clarity, extrusion must be consistent, which requires a high nozzle temperature. It might also help to enclose the print chamber in order to better regulate cooling.
Unlike the other filaments in this list, cleaning 3D printer filament is not used to print objects, but to clean 3D printer extruders. Its purpose is to remove any material in the hot end that might have been left over from previous prints. Though a good general practice, using cleaning 3D printer filament is especially useful when transitioning between materials that have different print temperatures or colors.
The general procedure involves manually feeding cleaning 3D printer filament into a heated print head to force out the old material, then cooling the hot end slightly and yanking the filament back out again. For more detailed instructions, take a look at the manufacturer’s information for the specific filament you’re using.
A few extra things to note:
Flexible polyester (FPE) is a generic label given to a 3D printer filament that combines rigid and soft polymers. Such filaments are comparable to PLA, but are softer and more flexible. The specific flexibility depends on the hard and soft polymers used, and on the ratio between them.
Two notable aspects of FPE include good layer-to-layer adhesion and a moderately high resistance to heat and a variety of chemical compounds. Given the wide range of FPE 3D printer filament that is available, perhaps the most useful way to differentiate between the wide range of FPE available is the Shore value (like 85A or 60D), where a higher number indicates less flexibility.
As evidenced by this article, plastic tends to dominate 3D printing as the primary print material. We’ve explored some other options already, and here’s one more to add to the list: ceramic. More specifically, clay ceramic.
Basically, ceramic (or pottery) is produced through the baking of a raw substance, clay being the most commonly used. Food-safe, recyclable, and water-tight, ceramic is a great material to use for cups, plates, statues, or figurines.
Unfortunately, printing a “green object” – the clay version of a design which must then be baked in a kiln, requires a special kind of 3D printer. Several of these printers exist on the market today, but if these devices fall outside your price range, consider instead one of the several online printing services. For more information on these services, or DIY ceramic printing, check out another one of our articles, Ceramic 3D Printing - The Essential Guide.
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