3D Pen Filament Types


Intro

There are 3 + 1 types of plastic that are used commonly for making 3D pen filaments. They have different looks and feels, different strength and flexibility profile, and different melting temperatures. (Generally speaking, the maximum temperature that a pen ca achieve is the main determinant of what plastics it can use.)

The most common types of plastics are

  • PLA or Polylactic Acid
  • ABS or Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene
  • FLEXY aka TPU or Thermoplastic PolyUrethane
  • PCL or PolyCaproLactone aka “low-temperature bioplastic”

The are less common filaments that also usually work in the temperature ranges of most pens: PET or PETG / PET-G or PolyEthylene Terephthalate Glycol-modified (these is what most non-biodegradable plastic bottles are made of, and there’s even a pen that can directly recycle used plastic bottles) and HIPS (High Impact PolyStyrene).

And there are special filaments reserved for the more “pro-grade” pens that can provide the high enough temperatures for working with them. Like Nylon and Polycarbonate (PC).

And since a picture is worth 1000 words:

(note that the “metal” and “carbon” filaments in the pic above are not actual metal or carbon – there are special mixes of PLA + extra ingredients or ABS + extra ingredients that give these looks)

…but a table is worth 1000 pictures  (below the table are the more in-depth descriptions).

3D Pen filament plastic types table

FilamentSuper power(s)Drawing temperatureAdhesion / BondingFlexibility & strengthVulnerabilitiesLook & feel  
PLA
(Polylactic acid)
- eco-friendly: created from plant-based products and biodegradable
- no bad smells when heated (smells like popcorn!)
190-240°C / 374-464°F- adheres very well to ABS
- adhered too well to paper (use semi-glossy if you want to peel it off)
- bonds to cloths (you can draw on clothes and wear them)
- hard and brittle
- most likely to snap when bent
- less strong than ABS
- degrades in moisture and sunlight
- vulnerable to over-heating
- generally glossy
- translucent options exist
- lots of special varieties exist (with-metal, wood-like, conductive etc.)
ABS
(Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene)
- strong and long lasting
- even has a decent flex
225-250°C / 437-472°F- bonds well
- easy to peel off materials such as paper (ideal for 3D pen stencils)
- hard
- impact resistant and tough
- has a decent flex to it
- degrades with prolonged exposure to sunlight- generally glossy
- no translucent options
- lots of special varieties exist (with-metal, wood-like, conductive etc.)
TPU/TPE aka FLEXY (Thermoplastic polyurethane)
- flexible
- very durable
225-260°C / 437-500°F- bonds a bit better than ABS, including to paper (bad for stencils)
- bonds well to glass
- bonds badly to metals
- flexible
- elastic
- degrades with prolonged exposure to sunlight- glossy
- elastic
PCL (Polycaprolactone - probably main ingredient in 3Doodler Start's proprietary bioloplymer too)
- low melting point (can be reshaped in hot water)
- great for small-kids-friendly low-temperature pens
~60°C/140°F- does not bond well to paper, so it's good for stencils- quite malleable, does not solidify immediately, so if you make a mistake you have a few moments to fix it- degrades with time in moist environment (some bacteria and molds can decompose it)- glossy to matte
- very plastic for a while after being drawn
PETG or Polyethylene terephthalate glycol-modified (also PET or filament from recycled-PET-bottles is similar but less strong and more opaque)
- extremely durable (almost unbreakable) and flexible
- one of the few usual filaments with decent transparency
- should (but try at your own risk!) work with most ABS-compatible pens
235-245°C / 455-473°F- similar to ABS- flexible and strong- very durable- usually transparent or semi-transparent
- opaque varieties exist
HIPS (High Impact Polystyrene)
- quite strong
- low warp (good for models that need to keep their shape without bending)
230-240°C / 446-464°F- similar to ABS- strong and non-deformable- durable- similar to ABS, less smooth, fewer color varieties
Nylon (PA - Polyamide)
- extremely durable
- flexible
- low friction (can be smooth)
255-275°C / 491-527°F- flexible and strong- very durable- translucent varieties exist
PC (Polycarbonate)
- very impact resisistant, shatter resistant and hard ("bullet proof glass" is made from this!)280-300°C / 536-572°F- very hard, but also very strong, not brittle at all- very durable- can be transparent
- can look like ice or glass

PLA filaments

PLA or Polylactic acid is called a bio-polymer because it’s made from plant based materials (mostly corn based) and it biodegrades easily. It’s a very popular material for 3D printing since it’s very easy to print with (flows easily, hardens fast), has one of the lowest printing temperatures (190-240°C / 374-464°F) that is still high enough to ensure the models keep their shape at room temperature, and on top of it it’s non-toxic and does not give off bad smells (when melted it smells somewhat like popcorn ).

It’s also a food safe plastic (but note that most 3D pen PLA filament are NOT labeled as food safe and they may contain non-food-safe additives and coloring so do not use regular 3D pen PLA filaments for printing food recipients unless the filament is explicitly labeled “food safe”).

It has a glossier / shinier look than other plastics like ABS, and it also comes in translucent varieties. For example, the roofs and windows of this awesome looking model are drawn with PLA filament while the rest is ABS:

There are lots of special options available, including semi transparent PLA (like the blue translucent one above), metal-like PLA, wood-like PLA, glow-in-the-dark PLA, conductive PLA etc.

It bonds well to cloth (so goof for drawing on clothes), to other plastics like ABS (so god for mixed drawings) and to paper (so not ideal for stencils unless you use glossy paper).

So far it sounds like the perfect 3D pen material, right? So why even bother with anything else? Well, it turns out that it has some drawbacks: it’s brittle, less strong than most other plastics, doesn’t work so well for “drawing up in the air”, an it (bio)degrades when exposed to sunlight and moisture… great for biodegradable food packaging, but not so great for 3D models that you want to last!

Read more about the strengths and weaknesses of PLA 3D pen filaments and when it’s the right choice for your models in our dedicated article on PLA 3D pen filaments.

Pros

  • eco-friendly (plant based and bio-degradable)
  • no bad fumes and non-toxic
  • translucent options available

Cons

  • degrades when exposed to moisture and sunlight
  • brittle

 


ABS filaments

ABS or Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene is one of the most common and versatile plastics. Chances are that your laptop / tablet or smartphone that you use to read this is at least partially made from ABS. Same for the lego bricks you’ve just stepped on. And most of the dashboard of your car!

It’s made from mostly petroleum based chemicals and it doesn’t easily biodegrade, but it can be easily recycled. When printing or drawing with it, it tends to give of some slightly unpleasant fumes, but nothing too unpleasant. It can give off toxic fumes when burnt (at over 400°C / 752°F – hint: your pen will never ever get nearly this hot!) or when dissolved in acid (so keep those 3D doodled masterpieces away from the acid bath you always keep at hand!) But really, this thing is safe: there’s so much ABS around you that if it was really dangerous we’d all be already dead .

For 3D drawing, ABS needs a slightly higher temperature (225-250°C / 437-472°F) than PLA, this is why you need to change the temperature setting on your pen. It offers one of the best creative experiences since you can “draw up in the air” with it after some practice, and the models also have some flexibility to them. It looks pretty glossy, thought it’s hart to tell apart PLA from ABS from afar, and it comes in all imaginable varieties (glow-in-the dark, wood-like, metal-like etc.) except transparent.

They also last, basically for-ever if you don’t keep them in direct sunlight or expose them to hot water.

Pros

  • relatively strong and long lasting
  • has some (limited) flexibility

Cons

  • degrades with prolonged exposure to sunlight
  • no translucent options
  • gives of some fumes / odour when drawing with it

Oh, and its chemical properties also open this up for some cool tricks (like using acetone to “polish” or to “chemically weld” ABS models after they’ve hardened) that you can read more about in our article dedicated to ABS plastic filaments.

 


FLEXY aka TPU/TPE (Thermoplastic polyurethane) filaments

The filaments usually labeled FLEXY are actually a type of TPU/TPE (Thermoplastic polyurethane) plastic. They work at temperatures similar with ABS, so any ABS-compatible pen should also work with FLEXY filaments.

What they bring is true flexibility and elasticity to 3D drawn models, unlocking a lot of extra creative potential! With these you can draw things like shoes or smartphone cases or bracelets… you know, things that are actually practical to use and wear,  not just toys that sit on a shelf somewhere.

Of course, this flexibility is not always what you need: lots of models actually need to be rigid or to support weight. But when you need it, this filament is awesome.

Pros

  • flexible and elastic
  • durable

Cons

  • less “special” filament options available so far
  • more expensive
  • also degrades with prolonged exposure to sunlight

 


PCL filaments

Polycaprolactone (PCL) is a non-toxic biodegradable polyester with a low melting point of around 60°C / 140°F. This makes it ideal for “kid friendly” low temperature 3D pens, and for DIY repair jobs that exploit the fact that it can be safely reshaped in hot water (hot enough to handle).

(Home-made bicycle light mounting, made from PCL – from Wikipedia)

It also takes longer to solidify, making it easy to correct your drawing mistakes if you’re clumsy like me. And despite being softer, it still offers great creative potential, allowing you to draw pretty complex and detailed models. It’s also great for stencils since it peels of easily from paper.

Pros

  • low melting point makes it kid-safe
  • biodegradable and non-toxic
  • does not bond to paper easily

Cons

  • somewhat soft even after hardening – not good choice for weight bearing structures in models
  • takes some time to harden, so it’s somewhat hard to doodle up in the air with it
  • not long lasting: melts in intense sunlight, degrades with prolonged exposure to sunlight and humidity

 


PETG / PET-G filament

PETG / PET-G or Polyethylene terephthalate glycol-modified, or it’s cousin PET, is what most non-biodegradabe plastic bottles are made of. For 3D printing or drawing you should use the “upgraded” glyco-modified variant PETG (sometimes also spelled PET-G).

This is a quite durable and strong plastic, and tends to bend or worst case tear, but not shatter. It’s stronger than ABS to both physical and chemical aggressions and prints at similar temperature. The drawing characteristics are a bit less pleasant than those of ABS – it’s a bit “stringier” and less smooth-flowing, but it works pretty great with some practice.

So if you want something stronger and more long-lasting than ABS that also has transparent / translucent options available, you should definitely look into PETG.

So areas where PETG shines because of good flexibility and strength (so less weight needed for same shock-absorbing capacity) are things like “bunpers” for drones:

Pros

  • stronger than ABS (more flexible, less brittle, resistant to chemicals)
  • lasts longer than ABS (also less degraded by intense sunlight)
  • transparent options available

Cons

  • some say it’s a bit more annoying to draw with – though to be honest, the objections are mainly for printingwhere things like inter-layer adhesion and other such properties matter more than for casual doodle-ing
  • less special color options available

 


HIPS filaments

HIPS or High Impact Polystyrene has properties very similar to ABS, inlcuding drawing temperature (so your ABS pens should support HIPS just fine). It’s just slightly more towards the rigid and brittle side, which most of the time is not what you want.

But it’s less deformable, so it keeps it original shape even under higher load, which makes it better for models with thin but weight bearing structures. Some say it works better for things like 3D drawn model airplanes since you can get the same structural strength with less weight if handled properly.

Our advice is to simply try it! You might like it more than ABS, depending on the types of models you like to draw.

Pros

  • relatively strong and long lasting
  • deforms less than ABS

Cons

  • degrades with prolonged exposure to sunlight
  • no translucent options

 


Nylon (PA) filaments

Nylon or PA (Polyamide) requires a higher printing temperature than most pens on the market can handle. It’s much stronger and durable than the plastics mentioned above, and it’s also low friction… which is great if you’re using a 3D printer to make gears and bearings, but proably useless for 3D doodling with a pen, since the end result will be far from smooth anyway.

But if you really need high strenghtendurance, some decent flexibility and transparent options on top, and if your pen can handle it… then Nylon is great! Also, if you’re making Nylon models on a 3D printer, you may want to Nylon-capabale 3D pen to tweak them.

Pros

  • long lasting
  • low friction
  • high strength
  • can be dyed – check this out

Cons

  • high drawing temperature

 


PC (Polycarbonate) filaments

If you really want to draw using the strongest materials out there, with the stuff bullet-proof glass is made from, PC is the way to go. It alwso requires the highest drawing temperature, with few pens getting close to it. It’s incredibly strong, and despite looking like glass, it’s waaay harder to break and shatter resistant.

Now, this may not sound like what anyone would need from a 3D pen filament… but there’s more:

Polycarbonate is also great if you want things with a realistic glassy / ice-like / crystal-like look. I mean, aren’t these gorgeous?

Pros

  • very high strength
  • long lasting
  • glass-like / ice-like appearance

Cons

  • high drawing temperature

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