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Clear/Transparent PLA Filament – All You Need to Know

Picture of Melanie Griffin
by Melanie Griffin
Jul 3, 2019

Clear/Transparent PLA Filament – All You Need to Know

Clear/transparent PLA filaments combine their natural strengths for an easy, durable, and unique 3D printing experience.

Clear/Transparent PLA Filament The Basics

PLA is clear or transparent in its natural state.
PLA is clear or transparent in its natural state. Source: Rigid.ink

PLA (polylactic acid if you want to get scientific) is one of the most popular 3D printing filaments out there. One of its lesser-known attributes is its natural transparency – which you can harness to 3D print clear objects with the same ease as using any other color.

PLA is a naturally derived filament, which means it’s made from plants. It most commonly comes from cornstarch but can also be spun from tapioca roots, sugarcane, or other fibrous growths. It comes out naturally colorless and transparent, but it’s not 100% crystal clear. It will always have a faint yellowish tinge from its natural origins, and the exact tint and intensity of this will vary from company to company depending on their different finishing methods.

That being said, PLA is the easiest and most versatile clear/transparent filament to use. It’s great for objects of all sizes, so you’ll definitely find a place for it no matter what you 3D print.

Clear/Transparent PLA Filament Pros

PLA's biodegradability makes it great for low-use food containers.
PLA's biodegradability makes it great for low-use food containers. Source: Nature House

PLA is one of the most common 3D printing filaments because it’s so easy to work with, and a number of its best properties are enhanced when used in its clear/transparent version.

  • Natural transparency: PLA can be made in two ways: Condensation or polymerization. Both processes use metal catalysts and lactide to create larger molecules of PLA, and the heating and mixing bring out a natural non-colored transparency in the final filament. You can add color as finish before the filament is wound onto spools if you want, but using PLA in its natural transparency actually saves you a step. So if you’re looking for a filament that doesn’t have to go through additional processing to become transparent, PLA is for you.
  • Biodegradability: One of PLA’s major selling points works even better when you add its natural transparency into the mix. PLA is biodegradable, which means it decomposes with the help of bacteria and other living organisms to become part of the earth, rather than sitting on its surface for thousands of years like other plastics. If you skip the colorization process, you don’t even have to worry about any additives not breaking down with the PLA. Because of this, it’s perfect for low or single-use containers like water bottles, or more generally for 3D printing practice. That’s not to say you can’t get a finished product that looks awesome in its own right with clear/transparent PLA, but if you’re unsure of what a design will look like when it’s actually printed, PLA is great for a test print since it can be recycled if the results are unsatisfactory.
  • Rigidity: When cooling, PLA stays rigid without contracting and therefore holds the geometry of your designs better than other filaments. (This is called low thermal expansion.) There’s no shrinkage, and little to no warping, which means you get exactly what you put into your design. That’s especially useful for designs that are transparent. For example, if you have a section you want to be seen through an upper layer, you don’t have to compensate for any contraction with clear/transparent PLA.
  • Thermoplastic properties: This means PLA can be heated to its melting point and it liquefies instead of burning. Because of this, PLA can be cooled and reheated again with any significant degradation of its chemical properties. That’s one way PLA is so bio-friendly: If you have a design you don’t like, you can melt it down and turn it back into PLA filament to be reused.

Clear/Transparent PLA Filament Cons

PLA's natural processing leaves a yellowish tinge on its filament.
PLA's natural processing leaves a yellowish tinge on its filament. Source: Design Make Teach

Despite all its great characteristics, PLA does have a few downsides, some of which are specific to its clear/transparent form and some that are magnified by it.

  • Yellow tinge in natural form: Unfortunately, because of its origins, clear/transparent PLA is always going to have a slight yellow tint to it. This can become more or less pronounced depending on how a company processes their filament. A number of factors, such as specific heat and process timing, cause the yellow tinge to vary between producers. However, this doesn’t affect its ultimate clarity. Shop around to compare not only prices but also tint.
  • Not safe for continuous food use: Although PLA is not toxic in its solid form and is a great alternative to non-biodegradable plastic cups, plates, and silverware, it’s not suitable for making long-term permanent containers to store food or eat from. That’s because PLA’s awesome rigidity comes at a price of brittleness, which means it tends to get hairline cracks that let in bacteria and are impossible to clean. Plus, PLA has low temperature resistance, which means it has a relatively low melting point (180 to 220°C), and that means you won’t be able to put anything printed with PLA into the dishwasher to make sure all its nooks and crannies are sterilized.
  • Needs further processing for complete smoothness: When you start 3D printing with a clear/translucent PLA filament, you’ll soon notice that the small gaps between layers take away a significant layer of transparency. The quick way to remedy that is by using sandpaper to file down the layer ridges on your final object. This has to be done with extreme care and delicacy to make sure your object stays intact.

Clear/Transparent PLA Filament How to Work with It

Printing at a higher temperature helps you get a smoother and clearer experience with transparent PLA.
Printing at a higher temperature helps you get a smoother and clearer experience with transparent PLA. Source: Hackaday

PLA is not a particularly fussy filament, even with its few eccentricities. Whether you’re just starting out with 3D printing or are coming to it with a seasoned hand, you’ll find it equally easy to spin into your creations. Here are a couple of tips to use it to its optimum ability:

  • Set your extruder to the high end of the temperature range for your specific PLA: This is a delicate balance since PLA has a low melting point compared to other 3D printing filaments. But using temperature on the higher side of PLA’s tolerance helps trap less air in between the layers as they’re put down by the extruder, which pushes the layers more closely together, leaving less noticeable space between them.
  • Melt layers together: If you’re feeling brave, you can extend your play with extruder temperature by pushing it a few degrees above PLA’s top range. That will make the layers melt together without breaking down the form of the object. But, be warned: This is only for experienced 3D printers. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a mess at best and a fire at worst.
  • Print with large layer heights: This is another trick to keep your layers smoother than typical 3D printing practices to take the most advantage of your PLA’s clear/translucent properties. You will sacrifice the level of detail when you do this, but you’ll get fewer layer lines and thus greater transparency.

Clear/Transparent PLA Filament Awesome Projects

Dice are a great project to showcase what you can do with clear/transparent PLA.
Dice are a great project to showcase what you can do with clear/transparent PLA. Source: joealarson / Pinshape

You can use clear/transparent PLA filament for whatever you want to 3D print, but we’ve discovered a couple of projects that look especially cool or work especially well with it.

  • Dice: Since they’re basically a set of small boxes, dice are among the easiest 3D printing objects to design, and when you use clear/transparent PLA filament, you can make designs that are visible inside the cube. Dazzle your friends at game night and whenever you need a toss of chance!
  • Decorative machine parts: Because PLA tends to be brittle, it’s not great for parts that experience a lot of friction. However, clear/transparent PLA filament is great for outer casings or panels of objects that let you see into the machine’s inner workings. It’s great for educational models or just an easy way to add interest to a multi-part design.
  • Single-use food and drink containers: As we’ve mentioned, PLA is naturally derived so it’s non-toxic and safe to eat and drink from. It’s not advisable for long-term storage because of structural issues that stem from cleaning, but if you’re looking for cookout or picnic items that let you know exactly what you’re getting, clear/transparent PLA works great and is much more friendly for the environment than traditional plasticware.

Clear/Transparent PLA Filament Where to Find the Filament

MatterHackers makes a great spool of clear/transparent PLA.
MatterHackers makes a great spool of clear/transparent PLA. Source: MatterHackers

Pretty much any 3D printing retailer that offers PLA will have a natural or clear/transparent option, since that’s technically the easiest kind of PLA to produce. But that doesn’t mean they’re all created equal. Here are our favorites that we’ve picked for their price points, clarity, and/or overall quality:

  • Translucent Clear PRO Series PLA Filament (MatterHackers), $42.00
    MatterHackers’ PLA is on the more expensive side of the filament’s price range, but it’s worth it. It’s made in the United States and is specifically formulated for precision 3D printing.
  • Clear PLA Filament (Prusa), $20.99
    For a basic spool of workhorse clear/transparent PLA filament, you can’t beat Prusa’s prices. It won’t give you the finer nuances of higher priced materials, but for someone who’s just starting out or wants to experiment, it’s the perfect way to get in without spending too much or sacrificing basic quality.

So go see what clear/transparent PLA 3D printing filament can do for you!

Feature image source: Ultimaker / YouTube

License: The text of "Clear/Transparent PLA Filament – All You Need to Know" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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