3D Printer Filament - Buying Guide

by TerriRexson

Buy 3D printer filament for RepRap, MakerBot and other 3D printers. ABS plastic filament and PLA.

Do you need filament for your 3D printer? There are lots of cool colors to choose from including glow in the dark filament!

This guide will take you through the options and help you work out what kind of filament you need for the printer and object you have in mind.

We've got a SumPod 3D printer kit. It's not quite ready yet! I'll be updating this page with our experiences as soon as I can. For now it captures my research into buying 3D printer filament so we can stock up ready to build some cool 3D stuff.

3D Printer Filament

3D Printer Filament is the material used by an increasing number of 3D printers for home use including: MakerBot, RepRap, Cube and Sumpod. 

The plastic filament comes in strands wound around a spool and comes in a variety of colors, including glow in the dark!

Many 3D printers are are to use either ABS filament or PLA filament so you need to pick the right material for your purposes. There's not a huge difference in price between the two materials with 1lb of filament costing somewhere around $20 (getting cheaper with larger quantities.)

ABS filament was the most widely used with early printers but now PLA filament is becoming increasingly popular. If your printer supports both types of filament then you will probably want to experiment with the two types and use different materials for different projects. 

PLA 3D Printer Filament

Polylactic Acid

PLA is a bioplastic made from plant starch (corn, wheat, sugarcane) which is attractive from an environmental perspective. (Note that recycling is an issue for PLA.)

Properties of PLA:

  • Smells nice when heated for printing
  • Non-toxic
  • PLA printed objects are less smooth than ABS
  • PLA is less likely to warp than ABS during the printing process, you might actually need a fan to cool it down faster to keep the shape. 
  • PLA is available in clear and opaque colors 

ABS Printer Filament

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene

ABS is the plastic that Lego is made from. ABS is made from petroleum. ABS can be recycled (industrially.)

Properties of ABS:

  • Some ABS smells nasty when heated!
  • You should not breathe the fumes from ABS
  • ABS plastic has more give to it than PLA - it's more flexible
  • Objects printed with ABS have a smooth finish
  • ABS solidifies quickly, you may need a heated bed to stop it warping during printing
  • ABS filament is available in opaque colors (not clear)

Clear PLA Filament

3D Printer Filament: ABS Plastic

3D Printer Filament: PLA Plastic

How Much 3D Printer Filament Do I Need?

3D Printer Filament is sold on spools and measured by weight in pounds or kilograms. It's typical to buy 1lb to 5lb of filament for home use. I've seen mention that 1lb of filament corresponds to 30 cubic inches (ABS) or 24 cubic inches (PLA.) 

Obviously it will depend on whether your object is solid or hollow or an intricate design with lots of gaps. You can use a (free) 3D printer program like ReplicatorG to estimate the printed volume of your model. 

An object with a volume of 1 cubic inch should cost under a dollar in 3D printing filament.  

I'll report on our experience once our SumPod is up and running. 

3mm vs 1.75mm 3D Printer Filament?

3mm 3D printer filament is common because it's the more typical filament size in industry. 1.75mm filament takes less pressure to extrude and is becoming more common for home use. 

You need to make sure that you have a matching print extruder for the size of filament you buy. Note that the filament diameter does not affect the resolution of the printed object (resolution depends in the size of the hole in the extruder tip.)

At the moment 3mm filament is often cheaper so that can be an important factor. (It's cheaper to make components that use 1.75mm filament.)

View: 1.75mm 3D Printer Filament

View: 3mm 3D Printer Filament

Glow in the Dark 3D Printer Filament

Yes, you can get glow in the dark 3D printer filament. Very cool! Now you can print your own glow in the dark stars and planets, light pulls, Halloween models and lots more. We'll be having lots of fun with printing glow in the dark objects. 

Further Reading on 3D Printer Filament

Filament Question (RepRap forum.)
Good experience-based information on PLA and ABS filament.

Updated: 03/14/2012, TerriRexson
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