Five Things You Should Know About 3D Printing Metal Composites!

Five Things You Should Know About 3D Printing Metal Composites!

If you have an FDM printer, chances are you can 3D print with composite material. However, there are a few things you should know before you load up the steel or carbon fiber spool. We’ve brought in materials experts Proto-pasta with some tips and tricks to get you started! 

Maybe you’ve already heard you can 3D print with Carbon Fiber and Metal on your personal 3D printer or maybe you’re hearing it now for the first time?  

In either case, you’re probably thinking, really, but what’s the catch?  Some fear it will damage their printer.  Others decide it’s too expensive or complicated.  Sure, these materials aren’t quite as straight-forward as PLA printing, but they are something special.  You can make beautiful metal and carbon fiber parts with aesthetic and function that transcends Everyday PLA with only a few special considerations and a little extra care!

image00Print by Enza3D; Design by Flowalistic


Before you get started with 3D printing metal filaments, you should ask yourself a few questions:

  • Are you comfortable with the function, maintenance, and adjustment of your printer?  
  • Is your printer serviceable?
  • Are you able and willing to remove and/or replace your nozzle?  
  • Are you prepared to disassemble and reassemble your extruder?  You can do a first layer adjustment with one hand behind your back, right?

If you answered yes to all of these, we’re good to move forward! 

Keep it simple and start small.  Short filament samples are becoming more widely available. Better yet, find a friend with both some filament to share and the know-how to make it print well.  You can start without any special nozzles.  All you need is a few meters to get a first print.  Here are some considerations for your first prints with metal filament.


Getting Started –  Tips for Your First Metal Prints

1. Start with a PLA composite: Start with what you know.  Choose a PLA Composite and start with your standard PLA setup.  Often times you’ll get a decent result without any further fuss.

Screen Shot 2016-09-23 at 10.12.06 AMPhoto by marcthemaker; Design by creativetools 

2. Push out previous filament by hand: Let’s melt some plastic.  I like to preheat my printer and push out the previous filament by hand until I see the new filament. I find pulling the previous filament out often creates an obstruction. Be patient.  If you have to force the filament, something’s not right.  Check your filament diameter.  Composite filaments are typically more brittle than standard ones in filament form so be careful not to push too hard.  You should be able to see the new material coming out and verify flow of the new material.

3. Oil your filament: Sometimes composite filaments don’t flow as easily as their un-filled counterparts. Applying a thin film of vegetable oil to the surface of the filament can greatly improve flow.  With finicky machines and hardware, a bit of oil can be the difference between failure and success.  While you’ve got the oil out, apply some to the outside of your nozzle too. This works well when the nozzle is hot, so take care to use a thick towel to avoid burning yourself.

4. Level your bed: A level build surface with a good paper thickness gap is always critical.  If you’ve been working with oil, make sure your surface is clean and free of oil. An unheated platform with clean blue tape should be all you need. If you want tips on bed leveling, check out this step by step guide.


If you’re a visual learner, here’s a great video by Tom’s Guide on bed leveling:

5. Ready, set, print!  Your platform to nozzle distance should be enough to see consistent flow. You should have no filament clicking or slipping, no missing cross section, and no filament extruding above the nozzle tip.  A good first layer is always critical for a good print, so adjust gap, speed, and/or temperature for a better result if needed.  The oil should help flow so you should be able to print slowly with a relatively large first layer distance.  If the distance gets too small or the filament gets too heat soaked, material may stop flowing.  The trick is keeping the material moving enough while getting your first layer to stick.

Screen Shot 2016-09-23 at 10.11.45 AMPhoto by Proto-pasta; Original design by Makerbot 

So you made it through your first few prints and you’re ready for more, so let’s prepare you and your printer for some longer prints.  Let’s talk about nozzles, minimizing wear, and increasing success rate with spool mounting and continuous oiling.

3D Printing Metal Filament – Pro Tips for After You’ve Started

1.Get a replaceable nozzle: Were you worried we wouldn’t talk about nozzles? Nozzles are the talk of the town! Nozzles can wear in two ways, either a flattening of the tip (which also changes first layer distance) or opening up of the bore (increasing extrusion diameter). To minimize failed prints, avoid over-extrusion, minimize cross-section, and choose a larger nozzle whenever possible. It’s also a good idea to have replacement nozzles on hand.  OEM nozzles are often brass and can suffice, but will likely require more frequent replacement than hard nickel plated brass ones, for example.  I prefer plated nozzles for brass-like thermal performance with less wear.  Avoid Stainless Steel nozzles, as the poor heat transfer seems to create more frequent clogging.


image01Get a plated brass wear resistant nozzle from Proto-pasta 

  1. Mount your filament carefully:  When working with more brittle filament, placement, bends, and unspooling force can make a difference.  Look for large inner core diameter spools for the most useable filament.  Mount overhead with a gradual bend to the print head if you can.  I prefer direct drive but bowden can work as long as there is a gradual bend with enough room in the tube for the filament to move easily. Also, make sure not trying to force the filament faster than it can extrude.


  1. Keep your filament oiled: It was easy to apply a little oil by hand on a sample, but you’ll want something a bit more sophisticated to oil your spool.  I fold a paper towel, dab vegetable oil on it, wrap it around my filament between the spool and extruder, and tape it closed.


Here’s a video by Bernacules Nerdgasm on his technique for keeping your filament oiled!


  1. Don’t skimp on material: Composite filament has a tendency to be quite brittle so if you don’t print with enough material then your prints will be prone to breaking. You want these special parts to look perfect, be strong, and have enough material especially if you intend to finish parts by sanding or polishing.


It’s easy to lose your way when delving into the details of composite printing, but you can always go back to PLA 3D printing basics.  Always start with quality material and a good first layer adjustment.  A layer fan allows faster printing with better surface quality, but adjusting temperature, build rate, and flow usually does the trick.  You can do it!  So what will you print?


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