Choosing 3D Printing Filaments Guide
Comparing Different Printing Materials, Uses, Pros, and Cons
When 3D printing, your prints’ quality depends 50% on the quality of your machine and about 50% on your 3D printer filament type. I’ve written extensively on the best 3D printers to buy and how to choose the right printer for the job. In this article, I’ll tackle the other 50% that impacts your printing success: choosing the right 3D printing materials.
Important Considerations When Buying 3D Printing Materials- Buying Guide
Besides the household names- PLA, ABS, and PETG- the market now has a wide range of fancy materials you can try, including transparent, glow-in-the-dark, and conductive 3D printing filaments.
I’ll explain the different 3D printer filament types in a moment. For now, let me take you through a few critical tips on how to choose the right 3D filament for you.
1. Filament Diameter- 1.75mm or 3.0mm?
The first hurdle when comparing the different types of filaments available is deciding on the ideal diameter for your needs. The most popular filaments in the market today are 1.75mm or 3.00mm in diameter. Your choice between these two diameters mainly depends on your printer’s nozzle size and the operating temperatures. Most printers are fitted with a 0.44mm nozzle, although you can replace this with a larger-sized nozzle.
Generally, the 1.75mm filament is the daily driver for most makers because it heats and melts fast, and it’s more flexible. This versatility allows you to print at higher speeds without compromising the quality of your prints.
Of course, the 3.0mm has its place too. For instance, if you’re using a larger-sized extruder nozzle, say a 2.0mm, I imagine the 1.75mm will open all sorts of headaches, including imprecise prints.
All in all, 1.75mm filaments are the most popular and what most people use. That’s to say that this size will be easily available when you need a refill.
2. Filament Tolerance and Roundness
After deciding on the ideal filament diameter for your prints, you also need to consider its tolerance and roundness.
Filament tolerance is also known as dimensional accuracy. It refers to the variation in the diameter of the filament. For instance, the Hatchbox PLA 3D printer 1.75mm filament has a tolerance of +/- 0.03mm. This means that the diameter of the filament may vary by 0.03mm across the spool. Most printers today have spring-loaded extruders that accommodate filament diameter variations of up to +/-0.1mm. However, I’d advise you to go with a filament with +/-.03 tolerance or below. It will save you loads of headaches.
On the other hand, filament roundness is a percentage of ‘how round’ the filament is. Ideally, you want a consistently round filament to produce visually high-quality prints and prevent extruder failure. It’s hard to find 100% round filaments- at least not now. But filaments with at least 95% roundness are relatively easier to work with.
3. Filament Moisture
Most 3D printer filaments are hygroscopic, meaning that they absorb moisture from the environment. Moisture is the number one enemy for most filaments. It will not only affect the quality and clarity of your printed objects, but it might also cause damage to the hot-end.
Of course, some filaments are worse than others on this issue. All in all, knowledge of the hygroscopic properties of different filament types will help you understand how best to handle and store each material.
Generally, PLA, Nylon, PVA, and ABS filaments absorb moisture the most and shouldn’t be stored in ambient air longer. Conversely, PETG, CPE, and HG100 have significantly higher moisture tolerance levels.
4. Filament Impurities
There are lots of reasons why you want to approach insanely cheap filaments with caution. Chemical contamination is the biggest fear for me and the number one reason I spend more on a reputable brand’s products.
Don’t get me wrong. Not all cheap 3D printer filaments are inferior in quality. But materials in the low-cost range are often fraught with impurity issues, which eventually manifest on your prints. At worst, using low-quality filaments can cause blockage on the extruder, leading to filament and time wastage.
Popular 3D Printer Filament Type and Uses
Polylactic Acid (PLA) is the most popular FDM desktop printing material, so it’s widely available than other filament types. The most significant advantage of PLA is its low printing temperature coupled with the fact that it doesn’t warp easily. These features make it considerably easier to use even with a non-heating bed. Another benefit of PLA is that it’s available in a lot of cool colors.
The biggest problem with PLA parts is that they lose their structural integrity over time. If the part stays loaded for a lengthy time (say over a year), the plastic may deform in a process called creeping.
- Easy to use
- Low printing temperature (1800-2300 C)
- Environmentally-friendly (biodegradable)
- Available in lots of colors
- Heated bed not necessary
- Lower elongation before breaking
- Loaded prints lose shape over time
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene or ABS is considered a better option to PLA where structural strength is critical. ABS has a comparably higher ductility, which means that its products will withstand higher pressures before bending, deforming, and breaking. This makes it the best 3D printer filament type for printing parts subject to continuous loads, such as gears, screws, and LEGO building blocks.
- Nice blend of flexibility and strength
- Great wear and impact resistance
- Higher glass transition temperature (perfect for higher temp applications)
- Medium-level ease of use
- Emits fumes during printing (use in a well-ventilated area)
- Heavy warping (excellent temperature control of the build volume necessary)
You may want to add PVA (Polyvinyl Alcohol) to your 3D printing materials very soon, especially if you print with PLA a lot. PVA is popular in the 3D printing space because of its ultra-sensitivity to moisture. This ability to dissolve readily when dipped in water makes it a superb choice for the support structure. Dissolvable supports come in handy when your prints have intricate design details, such as cavities that make it impossible to remove same-material support. Such filaments also prove useful when you want to remove the support without leaving ugly marks behind.
Note that PVA is only used with dual-extrusion FDM printers. Secondly, PVA should be used with PLA because the two print at around the same temperature. You’ll need a different support material when printing with other filament types, such as Nylon, ABS, PTEG, and TPE.
- Fairly easy to print with
- Readily dissolvable in water
- It doesn’t require special solvents
- Dissolves relatively fast (1-3 hours)
- Ultra-sensitive to moisture
- Best used with PLA only
- Quite expensive
- Emits toxic fumes
- Fragile material
PETG has become increasingly popular recently. I would say it’s actually more popular than ABS now, and it’s widely available too. PETG (short for Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol) tends to combine the best aspects of PLA and ABS. In other words, PETG is generally stronger and has a higher temperature tolerance than PLA. Also, it handles outdoor usage better, and it’s easier to achieve transparent prints. Compared to ABS, PETG is significantly easier to use, especially because it’s less prone to warping and shrinking.
The versatility of PETG makes it an excellent option for a variety of applications: bottles, guards, glazing, medical braces, electronics, and covers.
- Allows modification
- Easy to use
- Highly durable
- Relatively environmentally-friendly
- Emits fewer fumes than ABS
- Multiple color options available
- Surface scratches easily
- Tends to stick on the nozzle (can be overcome using a plated nozzle)
In any 3D printer filament buying guide, Nylon is King. This printing material leads the pack where the filament needs to be extremely tough and resistant to heat, impacts, shock, and abrasions.
Nylon is technically known as Polyamide and is known for being physically tough, flexible, and durable. That’s why it’s the go-to material when looking for the best industrial 3D printer filaments. I should also mention that nylon is more resistant to chemicals than PLA and ABS.
One of the biggest downsides of nylon filament is that it tends to be quite stiff. But it can be filled with carbon fiber and glass fillings to remediate this issue.
- Extremely strong
- Incredible abrasion, impact, and mechanical resistance
- Excellent dimensional stability
- Very durable
- Typically pricey
- High printing temperatures (nozzle and print bed)
- Sensitive to moisture
6. 3D Printer Metal Filaments
Metal 3D printing filament is a funky printing material that has got most makers curious. 3D printer metal filaments are a combination of PLA and a fine metal powder, such as bronze, copper, aluminum, stainless steel, and brass. They are used when you want your printed objects to have a metallic sheen.
When printing with metal filament, keep in mind that the percentage of metal filling in the filament will vary between brands. 3D metal filament pricing can be deceiving too. Before paying for what looks like a good deal, double-check the filament amount you’re paying for. Importantly, note that some of these metallic 3D filaments only have metallic coloring infused into the material. As such, they don’t have the same benefits as true metal 3D filaments.
- Have superior aesthetics
- They are substantially heavy
- No need for a high-temperature extruder
- Not prone to shrinking and warping
- Pricier than standard filaments
- Although rigid, the prints are brittle
- Requires a wear-resistant nozzle
7. Marble Filament
Marble 3D printer filament is regular PLA printing material infused with fine marble powder. In some cases, the PLA base material is simply mixed with colors to make it look like real marble (or close to it). When using 3D printing marble PLA filament, most people fear that the small black grains may cause extrusion issues, but this rarely happens.
Marble PLA is one of the best 3D printing filaments for display pieces, for instance, sculptures. It’s fairly easy to use, and it’s compatible with most desktop 3D filament printers.
- Biodegradable (made from renewable resources)
- Easy to use
- Compatible with almost all 3D printers
- Not as abrasive
- Visually appealing prints
- Not as durable as PLA prints
- Prone to stringing
8. Wood Filament
Wood filament for 3D printing technology was developed in 2012. It offers makers a way of printing objects with near-real wood aesthetics and feel. Similar to metallic and marble printing materials, 3D wood filaments are also PLA-based. However, these are infused with powdered wood derivatives- commonly wood fiber.
Wood 3D wood printing filaments typically comprise a blend of 70% PLA and 30% wood fiber. This ratio may vary slightly between manufacturers, though.
There are different authentic 3d wood filaments available, including birch, coconut, pine, bamboo, and cedar. These usually offer unique prints with a wood-like finish and feel. Others are not made with natural wood fibers, though, so they don’t share the same wood-like texture and smell. Check before buying.
- Mimics wood’s smooth finish well
- Easy to print with
- Real wood fiber filaments have an authentic wood smell and texture
- No need for expensive wear-resistant nozzles
- Prone to oozing or stringing
- 0.5mm+ nozzles recommended
- Smaller nozzles can clog easily
9. Clear 3D Printing Filament
Transparent 3D printing is considered by many as the holy grail of 3D printing. The best transparent PLA filaments are used for many applications from medical devices and medical models. This printing material is also used for printing prototypes for consumer products, such as kitchen products, cosmetics packaging, and food and beverage containers.
Manufacturers use condensation and polymerization processes to convert pure PLA into transparent 3D printer filament. Although it’s significantly different from PLA, printing in clear PLA is just as easy. However, it pays to print transparent materials at the top-end temperature recommendations. I would also recommend going with thicker prints and slower printing speeds. This will help in minimizing the distinction between the layers and improving the smoothness.
- Prints like PLA
- Attractive glass-like prints
- Requires speed and temperature adjustments
10. Glow-in-the-dark 3D Printing Filaments
Glow-in-the-dark prints are becoming quite interesting among makers who want to explore the depths of 3D printing. As the name suggests, these filaments glow in the dark, making them great for creating displays, toys, and decorations.
These filaments are made by infusing PLA and ABS with compounds that glow in the dark, such as strontium aluminate. Glow-in-the-dark 3D printing filaments work by absorbing UV light and radiating it as visible light.
In my experience, glow-in-the-dark printing materials work just like their base filaments. However, the additives tend to make them more abrasive. This makes it necessary to replace the brass nozzle on your printer with a hardened model (steel or ruby).
- Adds creativity to 3D printing
- Available in a wide range of colors
- Very customizable
- Prints are less prone to warping and shrinking
- Glow reduces gradually
- Relatively complex to use compared to standard filaments
- They are abrasive (you’ll need to use hardened nozzles)
11. Multi-Color Filament
Rainbow filaments take the boredom out of single-color filaments by including multiple colors and hues in a single filament. Multi-color filaments also eliminate the hassle of swapping out different filament spools when using a single-extruder 3D printer.
Overall, multi-color filaments print just like PLA filaments, and there are no significant adjustments to make. But it’s vital to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines if you want an easier time.
The biggest disadvantage of printing with multi-color 3D filament is that the color change is usually gradual. Also, it’s not easy to customize the distance between the color changes. This makes it practically impossible to print a model with precise color changes in specific areas. But if that’s not an issue for your prints, you’ll find multi-color filament printing interesting and relatively easy.
- Relatively straightforward
- Rainbow filaments make multi-color prints a reality
- Eliminates the need for a dual-extruder printer
- Color changes are gradual
- Distance between the colors isn’t always exact on the spool
Final Words: Where to Buy the Best 3D Printing Filament
Whether you’re a beginner or a pro looking for inspiration, I hope you now understand the differences, pros, and cons of the different 3D printing materials in the market. If you’re looking to buy a filament refill for your 3D printing process, I’ve identified some of the best 3D printer filament sellers on Amazon that you may want to consider.