A Comprehensive Guide to 3D Printing Filaments

By | May 30, 2018

This is our comprehensive guide to 3D printing filaments. What is a filament? Well, it is simply the material you use to print your objects. It is typically on a spool and feeds into the extruder on your machine. Once you begin printing, the filament is heated up inside the hot end and extruded through the nozzle onto your build plate.

There are hundreds of kinds of filaments, and the list continues to grow each year. You can find anything from plastics to metallic, to a color-changing material.

I will do my best to give you a brief description of some of the most popular filaments. As well, I will give some recommendations of what each type is best used for. Add more filaments in the comments below that we don’t already have on this list. We will be sure to test them out and add them here.

Standard

These are your go-to filaments. Some of them will come with your new 3D printer, others you will want to use on a daily basis. They have a range of attributes from strength, to durability, to flexible or even transparent. They can be used by a range of experience levels and will come in just about every color you can imagine.

PLA – Polylactic Acid

PLA is the most common material used in 3D printing. It is the default option for many printers, and you will typically find a spool of PLA in the box when you first get a new 3D printer. It’s an inexpensive plastic that is made from renewable products (cornstarch-based plastic). PLA is one of the easiest filaments to use. It is a great option for all experience levels when it comes to 3D printing. Some benefits of PLA are that it’s an odorless filament when heated and printed, it holds its shape and rarely warps, and it does not require a heated bed to use. PLA is offered in a variety of colors in two sizes. It has good strength and durability but is a very stiff material, so please don’t try to bend it or it will break.

This filament is highly recommended beginners to avoid major headaches and get the hang of 3D printing.

PLA is good for hobbyist tinkering with their printer, creating prototypes, home goods, and simple toys.

Some notable subtypes:

  • Carbon Fiber PLA – lightweight and very strong
  • High-Speed PLA – produce quick-turn parts by maxing out your print speed
  • Glow in the Dark PLA – who doesn’t like toys that glow
Avg. Print Temp  180 – 220 °C 
Diameter  1.75, 3.0 mm 
Bed Adhesion  Blue painter tape 
Highlights  Easy to use 

ABS – Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene

The second most popular filament type for 3D printing, and by popular, I mean most widely used. It is a very durable plastic, slightly stronger and much more durable than PLA, and it can withstand impact. ABS also can take higher temperature the PLA; however, it is slightly more difficult to print with than PLA. Unfortunately, this filament will warp when cooled too quickly so it is recommended using a heated print bed and/or an enclosed printing area. You are able to post-process ABS in acetone, which will add an amazing glossy finish to your prints. Be sure you use this a well-ventilated area as it will put off some strong fumes will printing with it.

ABS is good for functional prototype parts and toys, anything that involves moving parts, phone and other electronic cases for its high impact tolerance.

Avg. Print Temp  210 – 265 °C 
Diameter  1.75, 3.0 mm 
Bed Adhesion  Kapton tape 
Highlights  High impact tolerance 

PC – Polycarbonate

Very similar to ABS, Polycarbonate filament is a strong and impact resistant material. It is so strong that it is used in the making of bulletproof glass, although I am not saying your 3D prints will stop bullets. It requires very high temperatures to melt and print with it, which makes it more difficult to use. If you can handle the heat, it is a great filament for its strength and durability. Another key characteristic is its ability to withstand temperatures. Polycarbonate will hold its form up to 110°C. This filament has a little room to flex too so don’t be afraid to give it a little bend if necessary.

Polycarbonate is good for parts that need to stay strong and durable, drone accessories, mechanical and automotive parts, various screens and lighting situations due to its transparent appearance.

Avg. Print Temp  270 – 310 °C 
Diameter  1.75, 3.0 mm 
Bed Adhesion  Gluestick 
Highlights  Impact resistant 

Nylon

This is the most cost-effective filament in terms of its strength, durability, versatility, and weight. Often used for mechanical and structural parts. You will typically see it used as the inlay, or base layer, for many composite 3D printers. A downfall is there are mostly branded materials, which can sometimes be made specifically for one type of printer or another. This filament prints white, but it will absorb color through post-processing in colored dyes. It is extremely sensitive to water so be sure you have a dry box to store it in. Pelican cases are a great option as storage. It may not be the most used filament, but it is definitely a contender for one of the best filaments available.

Nylon is good for tooling, inlays, functional and working prototypes, mechanical parts, and pretty much anything else.

Avg. Print Temp  240 – 275 °C 
Diameter  1.75, 3.0 mm 
Bed Adhesion  PVA glue 
Highlights  Cost-effective 

PET (PETG PETT) – Polyethylene Terephthalate

While most PET filaments will not be a true PET, but a slight modification, they still make great filaments for 3D printing.

PETG is one of the more common variations of PET. It’s known for the industrial strength of ABS and the ease of use of PLA. It is more flexible than PLA but much easier to print with than ABS. It is a great middle ground filament. You need to be careful with PETG as it absorbs moisture just like nylon. Be sure you have a dry box for storage and the filament is completely dry before printing with it.

PETT is another very popular variation of PET. Transparent in color slightly stronger than PETG, PETT is another great choice. It is almost identical to PETG except for the two things just mentioned.

PETG/PETT is good for mechanical parts, functional prototypes, electronic cases, and clear parts.

Avg. Print Temp  230 – 260 °C 
Diameter  1.75, 3.0 mm 
Bed Adhesion  Blue painters tape 
Highlights  Strength and impact tolerance  

ASA – Acrylonitrile Styrene Acrylate

Asa is very similar to ABS with one key distinction, it is UV resistant. This filament remains strong and keeps its original appearance after spending some time in the sun. ABS tends to crack and yellow during its sunbathing sessions. ASA is a great option for creating things that will spend the majority of their life outdoors. It is still a dense, durable, and strong material just like ABS. This is a temperature sensitive filament when it comes to cooling. Be sure you use this with a heated bed and enclosed print area to prevent cracks.

ASA is good for automotive parts, and camping/outdoor gear and decorations.

Avg. Print Temp  230 – 260 °C 
Diameter  1.75, 3.0 mm 
Bed Adhesion  Hairspray 
Highlights  Strength and impact tolerance  

Flexible

These filaments are materials that can be twisted, turned, and bent without breaking and still return to its original shape. You can find a range of stiffness for the flexible materials depending on your application of your final product. If you are able to master the art of printing with flexibles though you can really have some fun with the items you print.

TPU/TPE

These are two of the most common flexible filaments you will find. These materials are very rubber like and can bend or move however you want them to. It is a difficult material to use as it can lead to a lot of cogs if you don’t have the right equipment and aren’t sure how to print with this material. You need to print these flexible materials at much lower speeds to prevent clogging and stringing. This is one of the least common filaments and usually is only used for special projects or one-off prints.

TPU/TPE is good for: parts that need to be stretched, formed, or twisted – stoppers, belts, caps, cases, etc.

Avg. Print Temp  200 – 240 °C 
Diameter  1.75, 3.0 mm 
Bed Adhesion  Blue painters tape 
Highlights  Pliable 

Composites/Specialty

Now that we covered your standard filaments let’s take a dive into the world of specialty filaments. These filaments are not the most common and will mostly be used for special projects. But who knows, you may just find your new favorite filament in this bunch. There are a variety of different characteristics you will find in this category. Multiple finishes, post-processing techniques, super-hero strength, the list goes on. Now let’s dive into the different types.

Wood

The different brands of wood filaments will give you objects the look and feel of fiberboard, or real wood. While it may look like the real thing, don’t be mistaken, it’s actually just a PLA filled with wood fiber. This mixing of the materials is necessary to be able to 3D print the filament. You can’t really just stick a 2×4 on top of an extruder and expect anything to happen. Either way, this composite material gives you the majority of the characteristics of real wood. Your objects can be cut, painted, and even sanded to put your finishing touches on them. Maintaining your print temperature is a must with this filament. Get it cooking too hot and the wood fibers will begin to burn and give your printed object a darker look than you may have wanted.

Wood is good for: The objects have a great finished look to them so consider this for any objects you will want to display on a desk or shelving, bowls, figurines and small-scale models, or creating your own sculptures.

Avg. Print Temp  200 – 240 °C 
Diameter  1.75, 3.0 mm 
Bed Adhesion  Blue painters tape 
Highlights  Appearance 

Metal

Don’t like the look of plastic parts and you’re not a fan of a wooden appearance either? Then how about metal. This is another blended filament. The composite is a mix of PLA or ABS with a powdered metal. Often the metal will be brass, bronze, aluminum, steel, or copper. Typically, you will find a 50/50 mix of the plastic to metal ratio. Occasionally, you can find up to a 85/15 metal to plastic ratio. These filaments have the look, feel, and weight of a metallic object. If you are going for the shiny look, just a little post processing polish will do the trick. Metal filaments are rather abrasive and will wear down your nozzle rather quickly. Be sure you are ready to replace your nozzle if you are using this filament.

Metal filaments are good for jewelry, tools, toys, props, pretty much anything you would create with PLA or ABS.

Avg. Print Temp  200 – 240 °C 
Diameter  1.75, 3.0 mm 
Bed Adhesion  Glass 
Highlights  Metallic look and feel 

Color-changing

Remember when the cool kids use to wear those “mood rings”? Well, the same idea with this filament. It will change its physical characteristics, mainly color, based on its temperature. While some of the colors, the filament can change to may be somewhat limited, the filament is still a lot of fun to use. The base material is again PLA or ABS mixed with the color changing particles. These filaments will be very similar to printing with standard PLA or ABS filaments.

Avg. Print Temp  200 – 250 °C 
Diameter  1.75, 3.0 mm 
Bed Adhesion  Blue painters tape 
Highlights  Color-changing 

I hope this guide helps you better understand the world of 3D printing filaments. There are so many that it can get very confusing very quickly. No matter what your project is, I am sure there is a filament for it. Just be sure you understand your filament before trying to use it. You need to know the print temperatures, speeds, chemical properties, and characteristics as a start. If you do your research before, you will save yourself a lot of headaches, time, and wasted filament. With that said, don’t be afraid to experiment and learn on your own if you have the resources. Let us know what we left off and we will be sure to get it on our list.

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