3D Printing Filaments

Getting your hands on a 3D printer opens the door to a universe of possibilities. Be it something functional like prosthetics or recreational like tabletop gaming minis – there’s one common need tying it all together: 3D printer filament.

Table of Contents

3D printer filament is the raw material that keeps you printing. There’s an abundance of choices available to you, but what are the different types of 3D printer filament and when should you use them?

Below, we cover all of the everyday 3D printer filaments, such as PLA and PETG, plus the tougher engineering-grade materials and the fancy stuff that lets you get creative (frequently referred to as “exotics”). In addition to the likes of nylon, polycarbonate, carbon fiber reinforced, and polypropylene, there are also special blends with unusual properties like electrical conductivity and luminescence.

PLA

Polylactic acid, also known as PLA, is a thermoplastic monomer derived from renewable, organic sources such as corn starch or sugar cane. Using biomass resources makes PLA production different from most plastics, which are produced using fossil fuels through the distillation and polymerization of petroleum.

Despite the raw material differences, PLA can be produced using the same equipment as petrochemical plastics, making PLA manufacturing processes relatively cost efficient. PLA is the second most produced bioplastic (after thermoplastic starch) and has similar characteristics to polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE), or polystyrene (PS), as well as being biodegradeable.

PLA: FILAMENT PROPERTIES: 

Strength: Medium | Flexibility: Low | Durability: Medium | Difficulty to use: Low
Print temperature: 180 – 230 °C
Print bed temperature: 20 – 70 °C (but not needed)
Shrinkage/warping: Minimal
Soluble: No
Food safety: Refer to manufacturer guidelines

MORE INFORMATION

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 a heated print bed isn’t required (although it definitely helps). Another benefit of using PLA is it doesn’t emit an off putting 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 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.

PLA is, to a point, more environmentally friendly than many 3D printer filaments. It will biodegrade under certain commercially attainable conditions. You’re not going to be able to compost it at home, which makes us reluctant to tout the material as being “green” in any meaningful way, but you could spin an argument for it being better than some.

WHERE IS PLA FILAMENT USED?

In this case, a better question might be “when shouldn’t I use PLA?” Compared to other types of 3D printer filament, PLA is brittle, so avoid using it when making items that might be bent, twisted, or repeatedly dropped, such as phone cases, high-wear toys, or tool handles.

You should also avoid using it with items that need to withstand higher temperatures, as PLA tends to deform around temperatures of 60 °C or higher. For all other applications, PLA makes for a good overall choice in 3D printer filament.

Common prints include models, low-wear toys, prototype parts, and containers.

Shop for PLA on Amazon.co.uk

PETG (PET, PETT)

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is one of the most commonly used plastics 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.

PETG: FILAMENT PROPERTIES

Strength: High | Flexibility: Medium | Durability: High | Difficulty to use: Low
Print temperature: 220 – 250 °C
Print bed temperature: 50 – 75 °C (but not needed)
Shrinkage/warping: Minimal
Soluble: No
Food safety: Refer to manufacturer guidelines

More information

The “G” in PETG stands for “glycol.” As a material for 3D printing, it’s naturally 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, two other commonly used 3D printer filament varieties — it’s more flexible and durable than PLA and easier to print than ABS.

Polyethylene Trimethylene Terephthalate (PETT) is another PET variant. Slightly more rigid than PETG, this 3D printer filament is popular for its transparency.

Three things 3D printer enthusiasts should keep in mind when using PETG:

  • PETG is “hygroscopic”, meaning it absorbs moisture from the air. This has a negative effect on the printability of the material, so make sure to store the 3D printer filament in a cool, dry place and, if necessary, dry it before use.
  • PETG is sticky when printed, making this 3D printer filament a poor choice for support structures but good for layer adhesion.
    Though not brittle,
  • PETG scratches more easily than ABS.

WHERE IS PETG (PET, PETT) FILAMENT USED?

PETG is a good all-rounder but stands out from many other types of 3D printer filament due to its flexibility, strength, and resistance to high temperature and impact. This makes it an ideal 3D printer filament to use for functional objects which might experience sustained or sudden stress, such as mechanical parts, printer parts, and protective components.

Shop for PETG on Amazon.co.uk

Other Filaments (not used by Moose 3D)

ABS

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) is less popular than PLA for everyday 3D printing. However, in terms of material properties, ABS is actually moderately superior to PLA, despite being more difficult to print – it’s prone to warping without a hot print bed and bed adhesive.

Commonly used in injection molding, ABS is found in many manufactured household and consumer goods, including LEGO bricks and bicycle helmets.

ABS: FILAMENT PROPERTIES

Strength: High | Flexibility: Medium | Durability: High
Difficulty to use: Medium
Print temperature: 210 – 250 °C
Print bed temperature: 80 – 110 °C
Shrinkage/warping: Considerable
Soluble: In esters, ketones, and acetone
Food safety: Not food safe

More information

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 a well-ventilated space (or with an enclosure).

WHERE IS ABS FILAMENT USED?

ABS is tough and can withstand high stress and temperature. It’s also moderately flexible, though there are certainly better options for that further down this list. Together these properties make ABS a good general-purpose 3D printer filament, but where it really shines is with items that are frequently handled, dropped, or heated. Examples include phone cases, high-wear toys, tool handles, automotive trim components, and electrical enclosures.

Shop for PETG on Amazon.co.uk

TPE, TPU, TPC (Flexible)

As the name implies, thermoplastic elastomers (TPE) are essentially plastics with rubber-like qualities, making them extremely flexible and durable. As such, TPE is commonly used to produce automotive parts, household appliances, and medical supplies.

TPE, TPU, TPC: FILAMENT PROPERTIES

Strength: Medium | Flexibility: Very High | Durability: Very High
Difficulty to use: Medium (TPE, TPC); Low (TPU)
Print temperature: 210 – 230 °C
Print bed temperature: 30 – 60 °C (but not needed)
Shrinkage/warping: Minimal
Soluble: No
Food safety: Not food safe

More information

In reality, TPE is a broad class of co-polymers (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 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).

WHERE IS TPE FILAMENT USED?

Use TPE or TPU when creating objects that need to take a lot of wear. If your 3D printed part bends, stretches, or compresses, these 3D printer filaments should be up to the task. Example prints might include toys, phone cases, or wearables (like wristbands). TPC can be used for similar applications but does especially well in harsher environments, like the outdoors, or anywhere it will be exposed to high heat, like in a car.

Shop for TPE on Amazon.co.uk

Nylon (PA)

Nylon, also known as Polyamide (PA), is a popular family of synthetic polymers used in many industrial applications and is a go-to material in powder-fusion 3D printing. As a filament for 3D printing, it excels where strength, flexibility, and durability are key requirements.

NYLON (PA): FILAMENT PROPERTIES

Strength: Very High | Flexibility: High | Durability: High
Difficulty to use: Medium
Print temperature: 240 – 260 °C
Print bed temperature: 70 – 100 °C
Shrinkage/warping: Considerable
Soluble: No
Food safety: Refer to manufacturer guidelines

More information

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.

WHERE IS NYLON (PA) FILAMENT USED?

Taking advantage of nylon’s strength, flexibility, and durability, this type of 3D printer filament can be used to create tools, functional prototypes, or mechanical parts (like hinges, buckles, or gears).

Shop for Nylon on Amazon.co.uk

PC (Polycarbonate)

Polycarbonate (PC), in addition to being one of the strongest 3D printer filaments presented in this list, is extremely durable and resistant to both physical impact and heat — being able to withstand temperatures of up to 110 °C. It’s also naturally transparent, which explains its use in commercial items such as bulletproof glass, scuba masks, and electronic display screens.

PC (Polycarbonate): FILAMENT PROPERTIES

Strength: Very High | Flexibility: Medium | Durability: Very High
Difficulty to use: Medium
Print temperature: 270 – 310 °C
Print bed temperature: 90 – 110 °C
Shrinkage/warping: Considerable
Soluble: No
Food safety: Not food safe

More information

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 and will absorb water from the air, so remember to store it in a cool, dry place to ensure better-quality prints.

WHERE IS PC (Polycarbonate) FILAMENT USED?

Due to its physical properties, PC is an ideal 3D printer filament for parts that need to retain their strength, toughness, and shape in high-temperature environments such as electrical, mechanical, or automotive components. You can also leverage its optical clarity for lighting projects, screens, and other applications that call for transparency.

Shop for PC on Amazon.co.uk

Wood-Filled

Interested in printing objects that look and feel like wood? Well, you can! Of course, it’s not really wood – that wouldn’t make for a very good 3D printer filament. Wood 3D printer filament is typically a PLA infused with wood fiber.

More information

There are many wood-PLA 3D printer filaments available today. These include the more standard wood varieties, such as Pine, Birch, Cedar, Ebony, and Willow, but the range also extends to less common types, like Bamboo, Cherry, Coconut, Cork, and Olive.

As with other types of 3D printer filament, there is a trade-off with using wood. In this case, the aesthetic and tactile appeal comes at the cost of reduced flexibility and strength.

Be careful with the temperature at which you print wood, as too much heat can result in an almost burnt or caramelized appearance. On the other hand, the base appearance of your wooden creations can be greatly improved with a little post-print processing! Wood-filled filament can also accelerate the degradation of your 3D printer’s nozzle a little, as the wood fibers it’s comprised of are abrasive and will tear away at softer materials like brass.

WHERE IS WOOD-FILLED FILAMENT USED?

Wood is popular with items that are appreciated less for their functional capabilities and more for their natural appearance. Consider using wood-filled 3D printer filament when printing objects displayed on a desk, table, or shelf. Examples include bowls, figurines, and awards. One really creative application of wood as a 3D printer filament is creating scale models, such as those used in architecture.

Shop for Wood-Filled Filament on Amazon.co.uk

Metal-Filled

Maybe you’re looking for a different type of aesthetic in your prints – something a little bulkier and shinier. Well, for that, you can use metal. Like wood-filled 3D printer filament, metal-filled filament isn’t fully made from metal. It’s actually a mix of metal powder and either PLA or ABS. But that doesn’t stop the results from having the look and feel of metal.

Even the weight is metal-like, as blends tend to be several times denser than pure PLA or ABS.

More information

Bronze, brass, copper, aluminum, and stainless steel are just a few of the varieties of metal 3D printer filaments commercially available. If there’s a specific look you’re interested in, don’t be afraid to polish, weather, or tarnish your metal items after printing – a little post-processing can go a long way.

Mind that you’ll need to replace your nozzle a little more often when printing with metal. Like filaments containing fibers, the metal grains are somewhat abrasive and result in increased nozzle wear. That abrasion adds up especially quickly when passing through relatively soft materials like brass.

The most common 3D printer filament blends tend to be around 50% metal powder and 50% PLA or ABS, but blends also exist up to 85% metal. For more information on these filaments and how to use them, take a look at our Complete Guide to Metal 3D Printing.

WHERE IS METAL-FILLED FILAMENT USED?

Metal can be used to print for aesthetics and functionality. For example, figurines, models, toys, and tokens can all look great when 3D printed in metal, and as long as they don’t have to deal with too much stress, metal 3D printer filament can be used to create practical parts, like tools, grates, or finishing components.

Shop for Metal-Filled Filament on Amazon.co.uk

Environmentally-Friendly

Environmentally-friendly 3D printer filaments make up a unique category, as their most valuable characteristic does not lie in their physical nature. As most hobbyists can attest, print failures and material waste are inevitable aspects of 3D printing. That means having to throw away a ton of plastic.

Though most PLA is industrially biodegradable, it’s not typically accepted by composting or recycling programs, resulting in more plastic being directed to landfill. Filaments considered “environmentally friendly” (though it’s wise to consider this a relative measure) seek to negate the environmental impact that plastic waste has on our planet through various approaches.

Environmentally-friendly 3D printer filaments make up a unique category, as their most valuable characteristic does not lie in their physical nature. As most hobbyists can attest, print failures and material waste are inevitable aspects of 3D printing. That means having to throw away a ton of plastic.

Though most PLA is industrially biodegradable, it’s not typically accepted by composting or recycling programs, resulting in more plastic being directed to landfill. Filaments considered “environmentally friendly” (though it’s wise to consider this a relative measure) seek to negate the environmental impact that plastic waste has on our planet through various approaches.

More information

There are essentially two methods that 3D printer filament manufacturers employ to make materials more environmentally friendly: material sourcing and packaging.

Material sourcing has two subsets, the most common being recycled materials wherein filament is produced by recycling clean manufacturing waste. The other method is sourcing problematic materials, such as natural waste or sometimes nuisance materials like algae to replace typical source materials.

The other method is straightforward to understand. Manufacturers make products a little less harmful by using biodegradable packaging materials like cardboard or offsetting the environmental impact of production. Polymaker’s PolyTerra for example, claims they will plant a tree to offset carbon for every spool purchased.

WHERE IS ENVIRONMENTALLY-FRIENDLY FILAMENT USED?

Despite their primary reason for existing being to reduce the environmental impact of 3D printing material, filaments considered environmentally friendly are often of sound quality and still produce parts with desirable material properties. Better yet, there’s no limit on the type of material that can be environmentally friendly — so your options vary as much as filament in general. It should be noted that recycled materials do tend to have higher diameter tolerances.

We strive to provide value to the reader with the shopping links we feature, offering a curated list of trusted shops. If you purchase using the shopping links on our site we earn an affiliate commission.