3D Printer Filament Guide
First and foremost, PLA is easy to print with. It 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 of using PLA is that it doesn’t give off an offputting odor during printing (unlike ABS). It’s generally considered an odorless filament, but many have reported smelling sweet candy-like fumes depending on the type of PLA.
Another appealing aspect of PLA is that it’s available in a nearly endless abundance of colors and styles. As you’ll see in the exotics sections, many of these specialty filaments use PLA as the base material, such as those with conductive or glow-in-the-dark properties, or those infused with wood or metal.
Finally, as a biodegradable thermoplastic, PLA is more environmentally friendly than most types of 3D printer filament, being made from annually renewable resources such as corn starch or sugar cane.
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) typically 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, potentially hazardous fumes. Be sure to print with a heated bed and in a well-ventilated space (or with an enclosure).
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 fibers and food containers. While “raw” PET is rarely used in 3D printing, its variant PETG is an increasingly popular 3D printer filament.
The ‘G’ in PETG stands for “glycol-modified”, and the result is a filament that is clearer, less brittle, and most importantly, easier to print with than its base form. For this reason, PETG is often considered a good middle ground between ABS and PLA, the two most commonly used types of 3D printer filament, 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:
- PETG is hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture from the air. As this has a negative effect on the material, make sure to store the 3D printer filament in a cool, dry place.
- PETG is sticky when it’s being printed, making this 3D printer filament a poor choice for support structures, but good for layer adhesion. (Just be careful with the print bed!)
- Though not brittle, PETG scratches more easily than ABS.
Polyethylene coTrimethylene Terephthalate (PETT) is another PET variant. Slightly more rigid than PETG, this 3D printer filament is popular for being transparent.
Flexible Filament (TPU, TPE)
In reality, TPE is a broad class of copolymers (and polymer mixtures), but it is nonetheless used to label many commercially available types of 3D printer filament. Soft and stretchable, these filaments can withstand the kind of physical 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 heat (up to 150°C).
Nylon, a popular family of synthetic polymers used in many industrial applications, is the heavyweight champion of the professional 3D printing world. Compared to most other types of 3D printer filament, 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 keep the filament in prime condition, ensuring better quality prints.
In general, many grades of nylon exist, but among the most common for use as 3D printer filament are 618 and 645.
PC (Polycarbonate) Filament
Polycarbonate (PC), in addition to being one of 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 bulletproof glass, scuba masks, and electronic display screens.
Despite being featured in similar use cases, PC shouldn’t be confused with acrylic or plexiglass, which tend to 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 it eventually 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.
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 principle applies in 3D printing, making PVA a great support material when paired with another 3D printer filament in a dual extrusion 3D printer. The advantage of using PVA over HIPS is that it can be used to support more materials than just ABS.
The trade-off is a 3D printer filament that is slightly more difficult to handle. One must also be careful when storing it, as the moisture in the atmosphere can damage the filament prior to printing. Dry boxes and silica pouches are a must if you plan to keep a spool of PVA usable in the long run.