Types Of 3D Printer Filament – Common and Exotic

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Image of rolls of various 3D printer filaments

I recently purchased a Bibo2 Touch 3D printer and it came with a large roll of standard white PLA (polylactic acid) filament. This filament is perfectly fine for printing a multitude of objects. In fact, some consumer printers such as the MakerBot Replicator Mini+ will only print with PLA.

While PLA filament is all well and good, I wanted to explore more material options as I ramp up my home 3D printing operation.

There are dozens of filament materials that can be used in fused deposition 3D printing processes. In this post, I characterize some common and more exotic types of 3D printer filament.

PLA Filament

The most common filament material is PLA (Polylactic Acid) and is used in common products like bottles, shrink wrap, packaging material and tea bags. When you purchase a 3D printer, it will most likely come with at least one spool of PLA filament. This material is easy to work with and derived from plant-based materials like cornstarch. Being plant-based, PLA is biodegradable making for ‘guilt-free’ disposal.

PLA is also a great material for classroom 3D printers. It has a low melting point and minimal warpage while it cools so a heated build plate is not required adding extra level of safety for younger print masters. In addition to its low melting point, During printing PLA gives off a syrup-like odor and ventilation is not needed which minimizes the “infrastructure” required for the printer environment.

During cooling, PLA stays flexible for a short time and doesn’t crack or warp allowing printing larger objects. PLA, however, is not a great material for printing objects that will be subjected to the elements since it’s biodegradable.

This common filament is available in almost every color imaginable; red, blue, green, black, white, turquoise and gold are some examples. You can even get PLA in florescent colors! Printed objects can be further colored with acrylic paint adding some flexibility to your creative endeavors. Objects printed from PLA will be strong but brittle and thus more likely to snap rather than bend under stress.

The material will also absorb moisture and swell so storing the filament role in a sealed bag is recommended.

Prices for a 1 kilogram roll of standard PLA typically range from $20 – $40.

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ABS Filament

The next most common 3D printer material is ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) and is found in products such as TV’s, computers, cell phones and Lego (TM) building blocks. ABS is derived from petroleum products so it’s not as environmentally friendly as PLA.

Objects printed from ABS will be tough and somewhat flexible making them less susceptible to fracture under stress and desirable for applications involving wear & tear. ABS is a bit more difficult to print with than PLA and ABS also cools slower than PLA which makes for a rougher surface finish. To avoid warping during the printing process, utilize a raft (a support platform printed under the base of the object) and keep the build plate level.

The material is sensitive to changes to the printing environment. To keep the printed object from cooling too rapidly and cracking, objects should be printed on a heated build plate or in temperature controlled build chamber. Kapton tape should also be used to help adhere the object to the build plate during printing.

As with PLA, you can get ABS in a number of different colors and decorate objects with acrylic paint. To smooth out rough surfaces, printed objects can be sanded or chemically treated with acetone (a.k.a. finger nail polish remover). ABS filament will also absorb moisture and swell and should stored in a sealed container or bag.

Prices for a 1 kilogram roll are similar to PLA and range from about $20 – $25.

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Metal Infused PLA

Metal infused PLA filament is popular for ornamental and jewelry printing applications. You can find PLA filament infused with brass, copper, stainless steel, tungsten and bronze. The amount of metal powder infused into the filament varies by manufacturer and specific product type. Percent infusion ranges from as low as 10% to more than 80% but 30-40% metal powder is more common.

Components printed with typical 30-40% infused metal will have the look of metal but, other than being heavier than regular PLA-printed components, will not have the mechanical properties of metal. In fact, due to the metal fill, the component may actually have slightly worse material properties than regular PLA prints.

Printing with materials having very high percentages of metal will yield components with mechanical properties of the metal but requires additional post printing operations.

For example, Virtual Foundry offers high content metal infused PLA filament that can be used in consumer 3D printers but also needs a $50 filament heater and an $11000 high temp sintering furnace.

Image of 3D printed statuette out of brass infused PLA material
Statuette out of brass infused PLA material

The metal infused components can be polished, tumbled, wire brushed and even oxidized to provide unique appearance to your printed part.

The metal within the filament material is abrasive and will wear down brass extruder nozzles which are commonly provided with most consumer 3D printers. If you are planning to print with metal infused PLA materials, consider upgrading your nozzles to stainless steel, hardened steel or brass with a ruby-lined extruder orifice.

Printing parameters are generally the same as with regular PLA though you will want to slow down your print speed and feed the filament from above to prevent breaking the more brittle metal infused filament. You will also want to use extruder nozzles with a slightly larger 0.5 or 0.6 mm orifice to accommodate the metal fill.

Prices for metal infused filament are comparable to PLA and ABS filament though higher metal content will increase the price.


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Stone Infused Filament

Image of vases printed from stone filled printer material
Vases from stone filled PLA material

I find stone filled PLA filament to be quite interesting. With 50% powdered stone, this material will create objects that are about 35% heavier than regular PLA objects.

The printed parts will also have a matte finish with unique natural stone gradient coloration. Material filled with concrete, granite, pottery clay and terracotta are available.

Like metal infused material, this filament is also abrasive to brass nozzles so upgraded nozzles are recommended for printing with stone filled materials.

Recommended printing and build plate temperatures of 200- 240 degrees C and 60 degrees C, respectively, are recommended.

0.5 kg rolls run about $45.

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Other Filled PLA Materials

Carbon fiber reinforced PLA can be used to make parts that are lightweight and strong making them suitable for structural applications. This material prints pretty much like regular PLA but as with other infused materials is abrasive to extruder nozzles so the recommendations made above for upgraded nozzles also applies to carbon fiber infused materials.

Wood infused printer materials produce objects with the look, feel and even smell of real wood. Infused with up to 40% wood particles, this material is easy to print on consumer printers with recommended nozzle temperatures of 200-240 degrees C. to prevent clogging, nozzles with orifice diameters of 0.5 mm are recommended.

Flexible filament material is available from a number of manufactures. One popular manufacturer is NinjaTek with their Cheetah and NinjaFlex material offerings. Touting shore hardnesses of 95A and 85A, respectively, and elongation well over 600% these materials are designed to withstand quite a bit of wear and tear. As the owner of a dual extruder printer, I plan on fabricating a dual material component with a hinge element from one of the flexible materials offered.

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The listing I have provided is just a sample of the multitude of 3D printer materials available for the home user. With such a wide array of material offerings, the creative possibilities are endless.

What will you create?

If you have used some materials I’ve summarized please provide your insights in the comments section below. I think we would all benefit by learning from your experiences.


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