As 3D printing technology has developed, many materials have been tested in many different forms. There have been printers that use pellets, powders, liquid polymers, slurries, and even chocolate. Today, however, consumer printers predominately use plastic filaments. Why is that?
Well, plastic filament is not as messy as other options; it is easier to produce, store, and transport; and it is a cheap material that can produce strong and accurate parts. Melting thermoplastics (the family of plastics used in 3D printing) is also relatively easy, and does not require any special equipment such as lasers used in Selective Laser Sintering printers or other consumables like binding agents used in “ink-jet” 3D printers.
Plastic filaments are also recyclable. Scraps left over from printing and old prints can be melted down and “re-extruded” into new filament. Check out our discussion on the best 3D printer filament products available and also product reviews below.
Click here to see reviews and prices for the Best 3D Filaments on Amazon.com
What kind of Filaments are Available?
There are two main types of plastic filament available for 3D printing: PLA and ABS. They come in a rainbow of colors and can be mixed with other materials to give prints different properties, such as flexible PLA or glow in the dark plastics. There are even filaments mixed with wood and metals to produce wooden surface finishes or magnetic parts.
Other materials common on the market are nylon, HIPS (High Impact PolyStyrene), PETT, wax, and polyester. Many of these materials are plastics commonly used in other manufacturing techniques and so are common to find, but their prices are typically higher than those of PLA or ABS and tend to require a bit more prep or finishing work when printed.
3 mm Vs. 1.75 mm
When shopping for filament, you will notice that it comes in two sizes, 3 mm and 1.75 mm (3mm is actually 2.85 mm in most cases) Which one should you get?
Truth be told there is little difference between the two sizes. Once upon a time 1.75 mm filament was several times more expensive than 3 mm per pound, but today they are evenly priced.
Many users claim that 1.75 mm filament is easier to extrude and works better with direct drive extruders, and that with really small layers (.1 mm or less) it produces better results. In reality, it is the machine and how it is set that determines print quality, not the diameter of the plastic. If you are building your own printer get whatever extruder you think will work best with it, and then get the plastic that will fit the extruder.
Which Plastic is Best?
With so many plastics on the market, which one should you choose? Most printers can take several kinds of plastic, so don’t worry about being locked into one plastic. Some plastics require a little extra work than others, but provide tougher parts or a certain surface finish you may desire.
For most users, PLA is the way to go. It is strong, biodegradable (it is corn based), smells good (due to its corny origins), prints easily and well, and is more often than not the cheapest option. It does have some drawbacks; PLA has one of the lowest melting temperatures (most recommend printing at 185-210C) and parts will begin to deform at just 60 C (so don’t leave that PLA figure in the hot car on a sunny day). Printed parts are also fairly brittle. For those who want to print models, figures, or parts that won’t take a beating, PLA is the way to go.
ABS is the next big plastic in 3D printing. Most would recognize it as the plastic used in LEGO Bricks. It is stronger and has a higher melting temperature than PLA (ABS starts to deform around 100 C). It also dissolves in acetone, which can be used to produce a smooth surface finish after printing. ABS requires a heated bed for printing, or else parts will warp and fail. A few other minor drawbacks compared to PLA are a less-pleasant smell and a higher printing temperature (usually around 230 C) ABS can be used for all the same things as PLA, and in some places PLA cannot be used, such as the body of an extruder.
Nylon is one of the more difficult plastics to print. This is mostly due to its high printing temperature (around 250C) and the need to keep it dry. Nylon absorbs a lot of water from the ambient atmosphere and needs to be kept dry or else the water will vaporize while printing and ruin the print. When printed successfully though, nylon is even tougher and heat resistant than ABS. Nylon is best for parts that need to be tough.
Here is a handy chart for most plastics out there:
||180 – 220 C
||-Easy to print with-Smells good-Biodegradable-Available in many colors/mixtures
||-Deforms around 60 C-Brittle
||200 – 250 C (usually around 230 C)
||-Stronger and more heat resistant than PLA-Can be smoothed with acetone
||-Requires heated bed-smells worse than PLA
||248 – 275 C
||-Stronger and more heat resistant than ABS-Odorless-Lighter than PLa or ABS
||-Hydroscopic – absorbs water, not suitable for printing liquid containers (cups)
||210 – 225 C
||-Flexible and elastic-Comparable printing settings to ABS
||-Not water resistant-Does not work well with some extruders
||212 – 224 C
||-Strong and lightweight-FDA approved (can be used to make food-grade containers)
||190 – 230 C
||-Filaments can be dissolved easily, great for support materials-Low warping-Lightweight
||-Expensive-PVA deteriorates in water, must be stored in dry container
Review of the Best 3D Printer Filament
Hatchbox is the most returned result on Amazon for 3D Printing Materials. It is the top rated brand by consumers for good reason; it is cheap and prints well.
Hatchbox plastic comes exclusively in 1.75 mm filaments and in PLA, ABS, and HIPS. It is well priced and comes vacuum sealed and in excellent condition. When printed it does not produce excessive strings and the color comes out perfectly.
Click here to see reviews and prices for the Hatchbox Filament on Amazon.com
Taulman is the leading supplier of nylon and PETT type filaments. They offer several varients of these high strength filaments in many colors. While these materials are commonly more expensive than PLA or ABS, you can find Taulman filaments in both 1.75 and 3 mm sizes. Their price is roughly the same as some retailers charge for PLA or ABS and thus affordable.
Taulman offers several different types of the same plastics, and use their own brand names for some blends; so read carefully which type you are buying. Their BRIDGE filament is a nylon blend and T-glass is a transparent PET filament.
Click here to see reviews and prices for the Taulman Filament on Amazon.com
3rDment offers ABS, PLA, and PVA filaments exclusively in the 1.75 mm size.. They are a bit more expensive than Hatchbox, but the filament is excellent and works where other brands do not.
3rDment does not list each combination of size and color as individual products as other manufacturers do, so only three product pages are listed on Amazon, one for each type of plastic.
Click here to see reviews and prices for the 3rDment Filament on Amazon.com
NinjaFlex is the name brand for flexible filaments. It comes in several colors and in both 1.75 and 3 mm sizes. NinjaFlex starts at a higher price than most filaments (e.g. Hatchbox) and it goes up from there depending on color.
NinjaFlex is a specialty filament, which is why it is priced higher than regular plastics. Color is also limited due to the nature of the plastic they use. However, if you want to try printing with flexible filaments this is the brand to trust.
Click here to see reviews and prices for the NinjaFlex Filament on Amazon.com
Each type of plastic filament has its advantages and disadvantages. Let your extruder dictate which diameter you use. To determine the type of plastic, look at what you want to print. PLA and ABS work for most applications. Nylon is great for tougher applications that won’t get wet, whereas PETT is tough and water tight. If your print will have a lot of overhang, you may consider using HIPS or PVA to print the support material.
For most users, I would recommend PLA as the best 3D printer filament. It is the easiest to use and has the most variations available. PLA and ABS also tend to be the cheapest options available, and are tough enough for most parts the average person will print. Do not be afraid to experiment, though; most retailers will provide samples of different filaments for you to try out.