A quick guide to consumer 3D printer filaments: ABS vs. PLA

If you’re planning to start a new life as a maverick 3D printing boffin, you will have to familiarise yourself with the tools. Central to any 3D print creation is filament – the material that runs through your nozzle and forms the object on the building platform below.

For most consumer-level, desktop 3D printers the most popular filaments are ABS or PLA. Which one you choose will depend on what you want to make, what colour you want it to be and how bad you want your garage to smell.

This cut-out-and-keep guide will give you all the basics on these two most popular materials.

ABS 3D print filament


Unpronounceable Full Name: Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene

Basis: Petroleum

Strengths: Durable, tough, heat resistant, (kind of) flexible, shock resistant, cheap(er).

Weaknesses: Toxic, potentially flammable, non-biodegradable, can deteriorate in long-term direct sun-light, stinks.

Use it for: Protective clothing, car parts and other machine parts, pipes, drains, appliances, musical instruments, toys.

Do not use it for: Anything food-related.

Storage: ABS should be kept in a sealed container to prevent moisture absorption. If filament has too much moisture, dry it off with hot air before use or else you risk it bubbling and spraying from the nozzle.

Smell: Mildly toxic. If you are planning to print ABS at home ensure you do so in a well-ventilated area as the fumes can be pretty ugly.

Appearance: Comes with a matte finish. It’s good for smooth objects, as it can be easily sanded to get rid of jagged edges and bumps.

Reparability: A broken or smashed ABS object can be glued together effectively with ABS glue

Eco-friendliness: It doesn’t biodegrade but, if devices such as the FilaMaker prove successful, it may be recyclable.

Usage requirements: ABS needs a heated building platform on which to print, as a cool base will cause the item to warp or break.


PLA Filament


Unpronounceable Full Name: Polylactic Acid or Polyclactide

Basis: Corn starch, sugar cane, tapioca roots and potato starch.

Strengths: Biodegradable, non-toxic in its basic form, tough, smells sweet, easy to work with, safe.

Weaknesses: Brittle when cool, cools slowly, can be toxic when coloured due to pigment.

Use it for: Medical sutures and medical implants (it degrades in the body over time), food packaging, disposable food utensils, disposable clothes, hygiene-related products.

Do not use it for: Anything that will be put in a high temperature or under heavy strain.

Storage: PLA should be kept in a sealed container to prevent moisture absorption. If it attracts moisture then it cannot be dried using hot air like ABS.

Smell: Pretty pleasant actually. It has been compared to pancakes and maple syrup.

Appearance: It can’t be sanded down as easily as ABS so results might be rough. As long as you use a primer, however, you should be able to sand the object somewhat.

Reparability: If your PLA item smashes or breaks, you’ll need some pretty stiff Super Glue to put it together again. Obviously Super Glue comes with its own problems, so reparability has to be rated low.

Usage requirements: It prints at a cooler temperature than ABS – the extruder can be anything between 160 and 220 degrees.

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