Photo by Aaron Burson / Unsplash

When it comes to digital fabrication methods like 3D printing or CNC, there’s an endless amount of printing materials to choose from, and with all those different materials, there’s even more opportunities to create amazing and original projects.

If you’re just getting started in the world of digital fabrication, this post will guide you through some of the essential materials used in digital fabrication.  Whether you’re new to using wood, paper, plastic, or metal, you’ll see what materials best fit your own creative designs.

1. Wood

Photo by Aaron Burson / Unsplash

First off, we’ll take a look at wood: wood is a really versatile and accessible material for anyone starting out in digital fabrication. It comes in a long list of variations, and each type of wood is going to react differently with digifab machinery. Since there are so many variations, we’re going to organize wood into 3 sub-categories:

  • Hard wood (ie: balsa wood, oak, maple, cherry, walnut)
  • Soft wood (ie: cedar, fir, hemlock, pine, spruce)
  • Engineered wood products (wood composites) 

Hard and soft wood is differentiated by the leaf structure of the tree it came from. Hard woods have broad leaves, while soft woods have needles. 

As a beginner in digital fabrication, engineered wood can be a solid material to work with for your initial projects. Engineered wood is extremely stable and easy to find. Plywood is also one of the most common types of engineered wood, you can find an extensive guide to it here.

Image of wooden airplane.

Not sure about what kind you’ll need? Take at look at what specific types are used for what. For example, hard maple is used to make cutting boards to bowling alley floors, while cherry wood is often used for furniture and cabinetry.

Outside of more functional reasons, you can also consider your own aesthetic and financial decisions too. You might personally like the green hue of poplar wood, or you might want to work with birch since it’s less expensive compared to other hardwoods.


  • Hard woods have a beautiful, natural texture to them so you can have a polished end product by just applying some clear finish
  • Hard woods are perfect for long-lasting, high-quality furniture pieces
  • Engineered wood is a budget-friendly material to work with 


  • Hard wood varieties may not be able to push through the router bit at the same speeds as others and may need more than one pass to get desired end product
  • Soft woods can easily get dents and scratches as you’re working on a piece
  • You may need access to a wood shop to be able to customize your materials

2. Paper

Photo by Judith Browne / Unsplash

Paper and paper products are materials you’ll most likely have instant access to. This material is great if you want to create mock ups for bigger projects, and you also don’t need access to heavy-duty printing machines to get started on your own projects.

We’ll go over a handful of paper materials you can try out now.

Card stock is mainly used for greeting cards, business cards, etc. It comes in varying bond weights, from 40 lbs – 110 lbs, the higher the weight, the thicker the paper. 

Chipboard is commonly used to make architectural models and is basically thicker card stock. This material is strong and inexpensive and runs smoothly in a laser cutting machine. 

Chipboard is a great material for constructing architectural mock-ups .

Cardboard is one the best materials to use to create mock-ups for laser and CNC printing with some specialized tools. Using cardboard in a laser cutter gives you really precise details and prints in no time.


  • Don’t need access to expensive, complicated machinery to work with paper
  • Can work with a variety of colors and bond weights
  • Repurpose paper into a variety of mediums, ie: material for mock up work, create your own stencils, paper models


  • Depending on what kind of paper you use and how you structure your printed objects, your end product may not be as long-lasting and durable compared to other materials

4. Plastic

Photo by Iker Urteaga / Unsplash

When you first start working with plastics, you might run into a problem where there’ll be multiple labels for the same thing. Here are some common variations of plastic you’ll come across:

Acrylic (also known as acrylite or plexiglass) comes in a range of colors and thicknesses, surface treatments (mirrored, opaque, clear, milky, metallics), and can even come in pre-made designs. 

It’s also important to know that acrylic comes in two varieties, cast and extruded. They may look identical, but they have completely different reactions when using the same printing machines. To differentiate the two, take a look at the chart above.


  • Can work with a wide range of plastic variations to fit project needs
  • Generally easy to cut 
  • Plastic parts can be used for both functional, final pieces or general design tests


  • Using the wrong kind of plastics can severely damage printing equipment and become a lab hazard 

Need to work with closed chamber 3D printer for certain plastics (ABS, ASA) due to harmful emissions when printing

Like plastics, there are a large number of variations for metal materials, so we’ll go over some of the essential generalizations about metals. All the different kinds of metals will be broken down by different alloys (combination of metals). These alloys will each have their own properties for workability based on the metal’s intended use. 

5. Metal

Metals can be broken into two groups: ferrous and non-ferrous 

If you want to find out more about working with metals, take a look at these resources:

All3DP’s Metal 3D Printer Guide

Protolab’s Balancing CNC Machining and 3D Printing for Metal Parts 

3DHubs’ Selecting the right CNC material

Photo by Callum Wale / Unsplash


  • Most non-ferrous metals can be used with the same machines and tools used for wood-cutting with
  • Steel materials typically last longer than plastic ones


  • Some machines and tools may not work on all metals, verify what metals you’re working with
  • May need to find separate, specialized printing services, services cutting wood and plastic rarely cut metal 
  • Need larger equipment to cut metals

Now that we’ve gone over some of the key materials in digital fabrication, what kind of materials are you excited to work on for your next printing project?

This content is from Session 3 of the course Introduction to Digital Fabrication and Technical Design. Sign up below:

Introduction to Digital Fabrication and Technical Design

Introduction to Digital Fabrication and Technical Design

Kadenze Academy