Free & paid 3D modeling tools, for 3D printing

Published on

May 7, 2016

Which CAD should I use?

I’ve been asked this question so many times I decided to make a blog post about it.

Free CAD tools – If you absolutely have no experience with 3D modeling or design, this should be your first stop. They have a slew of fully interactive tutorials that guide you every step of the way. TinkerCAD is the only child-friendly CAD tool that I know of. If you are serious about CAD, you will outgrow it very quickly, but it will give you an excellent basic understanding that you can then carry over to other CAD tools on this list. The downside (beyond the very low glass ceiling) is that due to it’s popularity in the education system, the website often slows down to a crawl during US school hours. TinkerCAD is free for hobby use. – This is like TinkerCAD for grown ups. Developed by a bunch of guys that left SolidWorks, this is a cloud-based in-browser CAD tool. It’s parametric (meaning that at any point you can go back and change most aspects of your design) and it’s very powerful. It’s rather new and still missing some important features, but it’s well worth getting into. They have excellent video tutorials. The free plan limits the number of projects you can save on their servers, but is otherwise fully functional. It’s even free for commercial use, which is a rare feature on this list.

Fusion 360 – Autodesk seem to love making (or buying) products that have wide overlaps and sometimes it’s very confusing. Fusion360 is one of their CAD tools, and it’s a very nice one. It’s a mix of cloud and local, where the application itself is on your computer but you must login to the cloud to use it. I personally find this very annoying. Fusion360 is free for hobby use and commercial use (up to $100k yearly earning!) and is gaining a lot of popularity in the community due to this.

OpenSCAD – OpenSCAD stands out because it’s not exactly what you’d expect from a CAD tool. In OpenSCAD you write code to create 3D objects. This has several pros and cons. Pro: It’s very easy to go back and change stuff. For example, lets say you made a whole range or parts and then found that you ran out of M5 bolts. Going back and changing all the holes to M4 is trivial, just change one value in the code and regenerate. Con: It takes forever to make anything. I’m a software developer by profession, and even for me it takes about 10x longer to make an objects in OpenSCAD compared to a “normal” CAD tool. OpenSCAD is OpenSource and free.

Sketchup – Let’s get this out of the way. Sketchup is used extensively in the 3D printing community, but it sucks. It really does. It was designed for architecture, for making 3D models that render nice and look good on screen. It’s was not designed for making solid objects or mechanical parts, and it’s really bad at it. It will happily generate broken STLs, with missing faces (holes), self intersections, etc. You will find that pretty much any complex object made in Sketchup needs repair before it can be printed. This is a pain, and with so many excellent & free tools out there, there isn’t any reason to use Sketchup. Sketchup free, but only for hobby use.

123D Design – Another of Autodesk’s CAD tools. I’m not a fan of 123D Design, it’s rather limited and tends to crash often. I don’t recommend it.

EDIT: The 123D app suite was discontinued. Read about it here:

FreeCAD – The only OpenSource CAD that I know of. It’s been around for a long time, it’s parametric and has a lot of features. Sadly, it’s absolutely terrible. The GUI is borderline unusable and it crashes a lot. I keep coming back to FreeCAD every year, and every year I’m brokenhearted. Avoid it for now.

Blender – Blender is.. crazy. It does everything. From 3D animations, characters, CAD, sculpting, you name it, it in there somewhere. OpenSource and free, it’s insanely powerful but also has a very steep learning curve. A lot of functions are only accessible via keyboard commands, so if you do dive into Blender make sure you start memorizing those right out of the gate.

Paid CAD tools

SolidWorks – The king of CAD, SolidWorks is a top of the line and feature packed parametric CAD tool, with a high price tag. If you are professional industrial designer (or studying to be one), you are probably using SolidWorks.

Rhino3D – My personal favorite of this list, Rhino3D has been around for a very long time. It’s mature and powerful, has an incredibly intuitive command line interface and in my honest opinion, it is the easiest to pickup for newcomers. With the amazing GrassHopper plugin it can become parametric and math driven. Well worth checking out, Rhino3D has a fully-functional 90 day trial period and large discounts for students.

Free digital sculpting tools

Sculptris – This started as a hobby project and was later bought by PixelLogic (who make ZBrush), probably so they can stop development and make sure it doesn’t compete with Zbrush. Unlike a CAD tool, sculpting software allows you to model organic and “messy” objects, using your mouse as if you are sculpting clay. Sculptris doesn’t have a lot of features, but you can actually get a lot done with it. This ring for example, was made entirely in Sculptris. It’s fun way to get into digital sculpting, and it’s free but it’s also limited and tends to crash a lot. A LOT.

Paid digital sculpting tools

ZBrush – The king of digital sculpting. To say that ZBrush has a lot of feature is the understatement of the year. It has features inside features. It also has the worst GUI that I’ve ever seen on a commercial application. An absolute nightmare of menus inside menus inside options inside panels. PixelLogic opted to create their own GUI and don’t use any of the operating system’s GUI elements. This means it doesn’t scale with your screen DPI settings. ZBrush is unusable on high resolution screens because the fonts are buttons are *tiny*. Boooo.

Mudbox – Another Autodesk app on this list, mudbox is rather new and seems to have a lot of features. I have no tried it so I can’t comment much about it. It has a monthly subscription payment model.