3D Printer filament – Everything you need to know

Are you ready to turn that reel of plastic 'string' into beautiful 3D objects? Good - well let's check out the different types of filament you can use

Rolls of 3D printer filament

The world of 3D printer filament is constantly evolving with new colors and materials being added to an ever-expanding range. Improvements are also being made to existing popular filaments such as PLA with many makers now preferring to print with the slightly more versatile (and slightly more expensive) PLA+ Filaments infused with wood particles, metals, glitter, and the like, and even flexible filaments are the norm. So where on earth do you start? Right here, that’s where. With a look at these Frequently asked questions revolving around the world of 3D Printer filaments that you may even want to pair with one of our Best 3D printers for beginners.

If it’s resin printing you are interested in rather than FDM, then check out our Everything you need to know about Resin 3D printing right here

3D Printer filament types

While there are many different types of filament you can print with on your 3D printer, the main ones are undoubtedly PLA and ABS. There are then variations such as PLA+ to throw in the mix. Here is a list of the common ones you might come across.

  • PLA
  • ABS
  • ASA
  • PETG
  • Nylon
  • Polycarbonate
  • HIPS
  • PVA
  • TPU/TPE
  • PMMA
  • CopperFill

PLA is by far the easiest to print with and to be honest I have found PLA+ a dream to work with, even though you have to tweak your temperatures up a little. ABS is a little more awkward, requiring a heated bed and a more constant temperature. This is why you will often see makers printing with ABS with their printer in an enclosure of some kind (often of their own making), allowing them to regulate the temperate around the printer.

PETG is a middle ground between ABS and PLA, offering extra strength and removing the brittleness that comes inherently with PLA. TPU meanwhile is a flexible plastic that opens up a different world of possible prints such as phone cases and the like.

Where to buy 3D printer filament locally

This often asked question depends largely on where you live. Even in big cities, you are going to struggle to find a bricks-and-mortar store to just walk into and pick filament up off the shelf. generally, you are going to end up buying your filament from the likes of Amazon or one of the especially 3D printing stores such as Jake3D, DAS, or countless others. The key is to always have enough in stock for what you need to do as you probably aren’t going to be able to dash out to restock and complete what you are doing.

How to make 3D printer filament

Okay, so you can make your own but this is serious maker territory and far beyond our scope here at PC Guide. The process involves staking plastic, melting it, reforming it, and extruding it at the correct diameter for 4D printers. It’s very involved and will mean you are building your own Printer filament factory. Let us know how you get on!

How to change 3D printer filament

The answer here will depend on why you want to change out your 3D printer filament. Have you had a failed print and need to perform some maintenance to get up and running again (as I did last night after a 13-hour print failed towards the end of its run. Grr!).

If you just want to change out a roll for a new one and nothing has gone wrong then your printer software will offer the option to unload filament in its settings. If something has gone wrong however then tracing back to the cause of the issue will be helpful in letting you know how to go forward. In my case, my new extruder appears to have been too tight and has gradually ground away at the incoming filament until it has snapped and now no longer pushed any more filament down my Bowden Tube. This is actually a massive pain in the backside to fix up. I had to dismantle my extruder and hot end, remove the PTFE tubing and grab hold of the tiny bit of filament showing with pliers and pull it all through before reattaching everything. None of that was particularly complex but it was fiddly and time-consuming.

Most issues can be solved easier than that, it just depends on your standing with the 3D printer gods at the time.

How to recycle 3D Printer filament

We all need to do better when it comes to reducing our plastic waste, so getting into a hobby that specifically involves melting plastics is clearly not the best way to go about that. There are ways, however. PLA and ABS can be recycled, but not easily. You generally can’t just chuck them into a recycling bin. PETG can be recycled, but again only at specialized centers. The easiest way to cut down on your waste and help out at least a bit is to only print what you need and also to look into buying already recycled filament.

Recycled filaments are commercially available, and purchasing them means you’ll be reducing your environmental footprint while increasing sustainability. Filamentive and Tridea are examples of sellers who stock recycled filaments. 3DBrooklyn has a filament made from potato chip bags while 3Dom Filaments has a beer filament made from the byproducts of the beer-making process.

How to remove the filament from a 3D printer

So your print has gone wrong (like mine did towards the end of a 13-hour print overnight. Grr!) If you are lucky things will be obvious but that is not always the case. Much like when the photocopier jams and you know there is still a bit of paper in there but you’ll be damned if you can find it, tracking down a tiny morsel of 1.75mm filament causing you issues can be a right pain in the backside.

The first thing to do is try and work out what went wrong and work backward from there. In my case, my extruder had stopped pushing filament through my Bowden tube which had eventually back up and snapped the PLA+ I was using leaving a length of filament the length of my PTFE tube.

The only way to get it out was to disassemble my extruder, my hotend, remove the PTFE tube and get a pair of pliers and pull out the length completely. It was easy enough but also annoying, time-consuming and fiddly at the same time. Ah, that’s why we love this hobby!

If things haven’t gone wrong and you just want to take out your filament normally, your printer software will generally contain an option to unload the filament from your machine.

How much can you print with 1kg of filament?

Well, the answer to this is literally how long is a 1kg piece of (plastic string). Using maths (I know, let’s not) we can work out that the average length of PLA filament on a 1KG spool is approximately 335m (assuming a thickness of 1.75mm. That means it would take Usain Bolt just under 30 seconds to sprint the length of it if you were to unwind it end to end. So now we know how much it weighs, how long it is and how fast you need to be to get from one end to another, but how much can you actually print?

With 3D printing being a pretty much direct transfer you can expect (less a bit of wastage) to get 1KG of objects out of a spool, which seems obvious enough. The amount of objects you can print though not only depends on the size of what you want to print but also the weight of them. You can use less material by altering the infill (basically how strong you want the walls to be printed internally) which means your roll will last longer.

Your slicer software will generally tell you how much a model will take up and there are plugins for Octaprint that keep track of your usage and alert you when you don’t have enough material to complete a print.

How long is a 1KG roll of 3D Printer filament

We worked out above that a 1KG roll of PLA generally gives us about 335 meters of 1.75mm filament end to end. to work this out with crazy science stuff we need a few initial calculations.

The weight of the spool itself – generally 248g

The density of the material – let’s use PLA which has a density of1.24g/cm^3. Using this figure, and the weight (1kg) and diameter (1.75mm) gives us a total length of 335m

If you are using 2.85mm filament this drops to 126.4m

General material densities are:

PLA (1,24 g/cm³)
ABS (1,04 g/cm³)
ASA (1,07 g/cm³)
PETG (1,27 g/cm³)
Nylon (1,08 g/cm³)
Polycarbonate (1,20 g/cm³)
HIPS (1,07 g/cm³)
PVA (1,19 g/cm³)
TPU/TPE (1,20 g/cm³)
PMMA (1,18 g/cm³)
CopperFill (3,90 g/cm³)

What is 3D printer filament made of?

The main two types of 3D printer filament you are going to come across are acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA)., with the latter being the easier of the two to print with on most home setups. They are also the cheapest with standard rolls costing as little as $20 for 1KG.

Other types you might come across for printing on many basic printers are TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) which is a flexible filament (useful for printing things like phone cases and the like) and PETG.

PET is the most common plastic used in the world yet not really used in 3D printing which modifies it with a G which stands for glycol-modified – which makes it less brittle, a little clearer, and easier to print with. PETG is a good middle ground between the ease of use and PLA and the stronger, but more difficult to print with ABS.

How To Store 3D Printer Filament

When storing 3D printer filament, it is important to do this correctly. If you store the print filament incorrectly, this can cause it to become faulty. This is something you will want to avoid. For the majority of people that carry out 3D printing, storing the filament can be troublesome.

3D printer filament is temperamental. Given this you have to be careful when storing it. The most important thing to remember is that air should not be able to reach the filament. If it does, this will cause a whole host of problems because the moisture in the air will react to the filament.

The best way to store this filament is in vacuum bags. The vacuum bags will remove all the air and moisture. This means that the filament will remain protected and cannot be damaged by the air. It will help to preserve it when it is not in use, and you will not have to worry about checking on the filament again until you are ready to use it.

Vacuum bags are fairly inexpensive to purchase, and they will be able to hold around 3 to 4 filaments. To help with any excess water, you can place silica gel bags into the bag to catch any excess moisture too.

Alternatively, you can use storage boxes to store the filaments in. However, the boxes will need to be stored in a dark and cool place and are more likely to trap in air and moisture, which can affect the filament. If the box is well sealed, again you can use silica gel bags or a dehumidifier to help remove any moisture from the air.

The most important thing to consider is storing them in a place with as little moisture as possible.

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Been around consoles and computers since his parents bought him a Mattel Intellivision. Spent over a decade as editor of popular print-based video games and computer magazines, including a market-leading PlayStation title. Has written tech content for GamePro, Official Australian Playstation Magazine, PlayStation Pro, Amiga Action, Mega Action, ST Action, GQ, Loaded, and the Daily Mirror. Twitter: @iampaulmcnally

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