3D printing has exploded in popularity in recent years, with printers becoming affordable enough for hobbyists and educators. But experienced makers know that high-quality prints depend not just on the printer, but on choosing the right filament. And when it comes to tried and true filaments for fused deposition modeling (FDM) printing, PLA reigns supreme.
PLA (polylactic acid) is the number one material for desktop 3D printing. Known for its ease of printing, PLA produces durable and high-resolution parts with a smooth surface finish. Whether you’re an expert looking to achieve the perfect print quality or a beginner still learning the ropes, PLA is a can’t-beat plastic filament.
But not all PLA is created equal. The quality, properties, and printability can vary tremendously between different brands and types. That’s why it’s so important to understand the PLA options available and choose the right filament for your specific needs.
In this in-depth guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about getting the most out of PLA:
- The top PLA filament brands that consistently deliver quality prints
- Key criteria for selecting the right PLA for your projects
- Frequently asked questions about PLA’s properties and performance
Equipped with this practical PLA know-how, your 3D printing success is assured. So let’s get started!
The Best of the Best: Top 5 PLA Filament Brands
When you need filament you can trust for impressive prints every time, you can’t go wrong with these top PLA picks:
1. Hatchbox PLA Filament
Hatchbox is one of the most popular budget-friendly PLA options widely available. While it may not offer the utmost consistency or deliver advanced properties, Hatchbox PLA simply works. It produces quality prints across a huge range of colors with good layer adhesion and reliability.
You can expect smooth printing performance with relatively few snags or jams. The filament tolerance is +/- 0.05mm for consistent flow. Available colors include vivid primaries, neutral tones, and glow-in-the-dark or wood-finished specialties.
The main downside is some variability between different spools and batches. But for the affordable price-per-spool, Hatchbox is a beginner-friendly PLA option ideal for prototyping and education.
2. eSUN PLA PRO Filament
Serious makers and professionals who need consistency turn to eSUN PLA Pro for impressive print quality every time. As the name suggests, eSUN built its reputation on engineering-grade PLA filament with extremely tight production standards.
Prints show precise dimensions, sharp corners, and smooth surfaces thanks to eSUN’s diameter tolerance of just +/- 0.02mm. The filament has very low ovality (imperfections) so it flows smoothly without under- or over-extrusion.
Choose from a huge array of rich colors, from basics like white and black to eye-catching fluorescent hues. Specialty finishes like silk, matte, and wood are also available. At a higher cost than basic PLA, you’re paying for eSUN’s strict quality control – and flawless printing.
3. OVERTURE PLA Filament
Overture focuses on crafting reliable, high-performance PLA filament that makes printing a breeze. The consistency and precision of Overture PLA enhance prints by minimizing imperfections and maximizing accuracy.
Strict dimensional tolerances of +/- 0.02mm ensure the filament diameter stays precise throughout the spool. This prevents slipping or grinding in the extruder. Overture PLA also has very low moisture absorption to prevent popping and crackling during printing.
With a smooth texture and wide range of rich colors, Overture PLA delivers quality while requiring less tuning or tweaking between prints. Responsive customer service helps troubleshoot any issues. It’s slightly pricier than basic PLA but provides consistency print after print.
4. MatterHackers PRO PLA
As the name suggests, MatterHackers PRO PLA is engineered for optimal printing performance. Clean, quality manufacturing makes this filament shine. PRO PLA goes through strict testing and refinement on a range of desktop printers for broad compatibility.
Precise diameter tolerance around +/- 0.02mm prevents uneven extrusion and slippage that can ruin print quality. PRO PLA’s tight wound spools also prevent tangles or snags. MatterHackers uses its own Cool Technology to prevent heat creep and softening in the extruder. This allows fast, clean printing without jams.
With bold, vivid colors and a sleek finish, PRO PLA delivers professional results. The higher cost reflects the care taken perfecting a PLA ideal for clean, detailed printing across printer models.
5. ColorFabb PLA/PHA Filament
Sustainability-focused makers should check out ColorFabb PLA/PHA, which blends PLA with other plant-based plastics. PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) adds flexibility and durability, making this filament strong as well as eco-friendly.
The PLA content comes from renewable sugarcane while the PHA comes from non-toxic corn-based fermentation. The production process emits minimal greenhouse gases compared to traditional plastic.
The PLA/PHA blend allows printing of flexible models like bendable lamps or durable snap-fit parts. A wide color palette incorporates lush translucent tones. At the higher end of PLA pricing, you’re paying for quality and sustainability.
How to Choose the Right PLA Filament
Now that you know the top PLA contenders, let’s go over the key factors to weigh when choosing filament:
Consider the Print Quality and Finish
Top priority is finding a PLA that can produce models with a smooth surface, good resolution, and precision. Layer adhesion should be consistent without splitting or cracking.
Glossy, matte, silk, metallic – think about which finish will suit your project. Advanced filaments can mimic woodgrain, leather, marble, and more. The right PLA accentuates the aesthetics of your design.
Diameter Tolerance Matters
PLA filament diameter should adhere to a tight dimensional tolerance, ideally +/- 0.02mm or better. Wider tolerances can lead to uneven flow and gaps in prints.
Measurements should remain consistent throughout the spool without deviation. Inconsistency causes under- or over-extrusion, visible layer shifts, and weaker prints.
Match Temperature Requirements
Most PLAs print between 190°C and 230°C for the nozzle and 45°C to 60°C for the print bed. Higher temperatures allow faster printing but can also cause oozing and warping.
Lower temperature PLA (around 190°C) is great for beginners. It’s more forgiving to print without as much potential for jams or elephant’s foot.
Research Brand Reputation and Reviews
Look at feedback and reviews on forums to learn about others’ real-world experiences with a given PLA brand. A few negative reviews are normal – but consistent issues with quality or printing should raise red flags.
Stick to known, trusted filament manufacturers. For more obscure or cheap brands, vet their reputation before buying to avoid headaches.
Consider Special Properties
Do you need flexibility, strength, dissolvability, or other special properties from your PLA?
PLA/TPU blends add flexibility and durability. PLA with carbon fiber, wood, or metal fillers increase stiffness and temperature resistance. Glow-in-the-dark, color changing, and dissolvable PLA create novel effects.
Special materials cost more but produce specific effects not possible with basic PLA. Weigh your project needs against the added expense.
PLA Filament FAQs Answered
Let’s wrap up with answers to some common questions about PLA:
Does PLA come in different colors?
Yes, PLA is available in virtually any color imaginable – from basic hues like red and blue to translucent, fluorescent, swirled, and more. Special finishes can appear metallic, pearlescent, and woodgrain.
Does PLA have fumes when printing?
PLA does not emit significant fumes or odors during printing. It has a mildly sweet, benign smell. This makes it ideal for indoor use and educational settings.
Is PLA biodegradable?
PLA is biodegradable under specific conditions – high moisture, temperatures over 60°C, and the right microbes. It will slowly degrade in industrial compost but does not readily break down in backyard compost or landfills.
Is PLA safe for food containers?
Untreated, unpigmented PLA is food-safe and usable for food containers. But colored or chemically treated PLA filament may not be safe depending on the additives. Check the manufacturer.
Is PLA flexible?
On its own, PLA is quite rigid and brittle with little flexibility. Special flexible/tough PLA blends are available for models requiring bending, flexing or impact resistance.
Does PLA shrink when cooling?
Yes, PLA will shrink slightly as it cools after printing due to the thermal contraction properties. Allowing prints to cool gradually and using a heated bed minimizes shrinkage and detachment.
Can PLA be smoothed post-print?
Yes, PLA can be chemically “vapor smoothed” using a solvent like ethyl acetate to melt the surface and reduce visible layer lines. This gives a glossy finish but proper ventilation is critical.
Is PLA stronger than ABS?
No. ABS has higher tensile and impact strength thanks to its increased thermal resistance. But PLA has greater stiffness and creates sharper, more detailed prints.
Does PLA adhere well to glass print beds?
On its own, PLA does not stick as well to bare glass. Using a glue, tape, or ABS/acetone slurry improves adhesion. Heated print beds also help since PLA softens at 60°C.
How moisture-sensitive is PLA?
PLA can absorb ambient humidity over time which leads to reduced quality and popping/crackling when printing. Store PLA filament in a sealed bag with desiccant when not printing.
Key Takeaways for PLA 3D Printing Success
Choosing the right PLA filament is a make-or-break decision for getting the most out of your 3D printer. Optimal PLA:
- Produces professional, high-resolution prints with good layer bonding and surface finish
- Adheres to tight diameter tolerances for smooth, consistent extrusion
- Comes from a reputable brand that follows strict quality control
- Meets your specific needs whether that’s flexibility, strength, glossy finish, etc.
With a quality PLA matched to both your printer and print design, you’ll achieve the gorgeous results that make 3D printing so rewarding. The filament you choose is one of the biggest factors in print success.
Now go forth and print – let us know how your PLA performs!