I want to learn to model/use CAD software. Where do I start?

Couple questions. What do you think is the best software to learn modeling on? I like to think I can pick up on things pretty quickly, so I don’t want to start on the very very basic and limited programs that I will outgrow in a month. I’d rather just jump right into the deep end with something that requires a little more technical skill.

Also, are there any resources (articles, videos, tutorials) you’ve found to be helpful/useful when starting out?

I went through this a few years ago, teaching myself different modelling basics.  There are lots of different ways of thinking about 3D geometry, which results in lots of different kinds of modelling software.  Generally, the “best” approach depends on what kind of object you’re making.  That said, here are a few programs I like, and why.  I wouldn’t say any of these are the ideal starting platform–but suggestions for your desire to jump into the deep end:

Coming from more of a programming background, you should check out OpenSCAD.  It’s a very different experience from most modelling, in that you’re basically using a markup language to describe a 3D object in the terms of operations (union, intersection, difference, etc.) between different primitives.  For 3D printing, it has some real advantages, in that the modelling approach it uses – constructive solid geometry – generally results in “solid,” well-formed objects that can be 3D printed.  It’s also great in that it makes parametric design very easy.  That is, you could design a pencil box where the length of the box can be controlled by a single variable, but where all the other geometry changes in the result.  And it’s free, which is good because most CSG-style modelling software is very expensive.

If you just want to jump right into the deep end, though, both in cost and in complexity, my recommendations would be Rhino and ZBrush.

Rhino is a very traditional “NURBS” surface modeler, which means that the objects you create are modelled as individual surfaces, but not necessarily polygon surfaces.  They can be curved or more flowing than you would otherwise suggest.  With Rhino, as with most modelling software, you need to be careful to make sure that the model you are creating is physically possible before you try to print it.  What I mean is that Rhino will let you create an object that is nothing more than a single open surface–but that has no volume or substance, and so can’t be 3D printed.  Instead, you have to make sure that your surfaces all come together so that the object you are designing as a definite inside and outside, and thus a volume.  Rhino has tools to help you with this, but you can run into some sticky problems.

ZBrush is an altogether different kind of 3D modelling.  Rhino, and most other modelers, do a great job helping you create very precise “hard” objects with crisp lines and smooth surfaces.  But they don’t necessarily make it easy, at all, to work with more organic shapes or to interact with the model very intuitively.  ZBrush can be a (very) difficult program to learn, because the UI is bizarre, but it provides an incredible interface that lets you model 3D objects like you were working with clay or wax.  It’s a great way to do anything sculptural, and it’s a great deal of fun.   ZBrush is also great for using with the Form 1 because it has an extremely powerful tool for “shelling,” or hollowing out, even complicated geometry, such as from a 3D scan.

One last bit of advice–pick something you want to make in order to learn the tools.  I found it very easy to sit in front of ZBrush or Rhino and just “doodle,” creating lots of cool and interesting shapes.  But just doing that didn’t force me to think about how to use_ _the tools to express a design already in my head.  So I found it very helpful to find a picture of something I wanted to model and then try to make a 3D model that looked just like that.  It really forces you to understand the tool at a deeper level.

Wow! Awesome response Martin. If I could buy you a pint through the web, I would. From your recommendations, I’m probably going to go with Rhino first. It sounds like the technical knowledge being learned in that program would transfer over to a lot of other modeling programs. I already have some ideas as to what I’m going to work on first. Thanks again!

I think you should also look at Google Sketch Up. Huge community. Very pervasive, free, 3D modeler.

Definitely agree with Alan, though it’s worth noting that Google has sold SketchUp.  AutoCAD’s (free) 123d Design is also a great, free, place to get started.  My suggestions are better for the “jump in the deep end” approach, but SketchUp and 123d are great first steps.  I used to recommend TinkerCAD highlight, but sadly that’s shortly to go offline.


A recent comer to the 3D modeling using a browser is http://www.3dtin.com/ that might replace more or less TinkerCAD functionalities.

As for myself, I’ve jumped in deep water with Inventor as CAD modeling (but you could go for Solidworks or Pro-e). Most of these companies offer free student version (do you know anyone) and using true parametric modeling is great. Having your whole schematics refreshing when you just change the inputs numbers is powerful.


It depends on what you want to design. I usually break it into three areas: parametric, explicit, and surface. Of course, most professional CAD packages have the option to do all three; however typically you find designers fall into their niche. For example, I spend all day in parametric design, which involves creating sketches and performing operations on these sketches. (ie: dimension an outline and then extrude it, revolve it, sweep it, etc…)  This is the best system for product design, gadgets, fixtures, tools, etc… If this is your area of interest, I recommend shelling out a small sum of money to buy the educational version of Pro/Engineer (now called Creo), Solidworks, UGS NX, CATIA, AutoCAD (Inventor used to be a nice package to learn on). To my memory, the student version of Creo was about $150.  But, for example, if you wanted to model a nice Ferrari with all the curves, it would be tough to do in the parametric modeling world.

The second area is very similar to the first: implicit modeling. Implicit is different in that there’s no “feature tree”. If you’re not a CAD guy already, that doesn’t make sense anyways. What is means is you’re adding material and removing material to make what you want. But if you want to modify it, you’re just performing more operations to add and remove features. This technique is supposed to be more simple than parametric modeling (it takes less discipline, supposedly); however in my humble opinion, this makes things more complicated than less. The good news is software to do this is usually pretty cheap if not free. If this is interesting to you, check out Creo Elements or Google Sketchup.

The last type of modeling is what I consider surface modeling. And of course, surface modeling is complex to the point that there are even various sub-types of this type of CAD. This type of modeling creates models like action figures, landscapes, consumer products which don’t have a lot of flat surfaces. Yes, you can technically create the type of products typically modeled in parametric CAD using a surface modeling program, but that’s a little like using a hex editor to write a text document sometimes. A lot of surface modeling means making models which aren’t exact, which gets under my skin as an engineer. If you’re interested in this type of modeling, check out Blender or Rhino. Or if you want a more engineering type of surface design, the Creo/Solidworks/CATIA/UG with surface modeling would be better.

Hope it helps.

Im a big fan of Solidworks however Autodesk Inventor Fusion looks pretty good. Both are parametric as per David’s explanation above. Autodesk have a free version of Inventor Fusion for OSX in the App store.

I have no experience in CAD or 3D modelling but have to learn now I have committed to a Form1.  I can use 2D vector art with ease (Illustrator and Corel) so getting into 3D wasn’t too taxing.  I have to say I looked at several open source packages before deciding to work with Sketchup because it looked like the simplest product to start working with.  A month down the line I have to say I think it was the right decision (for me certainly) as I have found it has a great community out there and plugins for most requirements.

I may outgrow Sketchup, but for me at  this time I don’t see a need for shading and texture so as long as Sketchup can do what I need there is no desire to overload myself with products like  Blender etal.   I am currently prototyping parts for WWI model aircraft at 1/3 scale, which if successful I will sell commercially with some cast resin and  directly printed parts in the kit.   As we are all finding these printers have a very interesting future, I can think of many applications for model aircraft…  Decent pilots is one market I want to investigate!

I am not an expert in this area, but I do believe you should go for the most basic software package you need to meet your technical requirements.  Anything more is a waste of time to learn, and that means money is wasted as a result.

Attached are a few items that I have already drawn,  The Spandau gun will be printed in a series of parts as the barrel is 6" long at 1/3 scale so it’s a fair size item.  How the kit will look will be determined through test prints and hopefully some nudges in the right direction from experienced 3D modellers on the forum.  I have self taught myself a number of software packegae and I have to agree with Martin comment above about learn a package by drawing something you need.  It creates results and gives you confidence.  I found navigating the 3D environment to be the most challenging part of the process, but once I got into the discipline of the controls all was good.

I’ve got alot of experience with 3dsMax and a little bit of CAD.  Though 3dsMax may not be optimal for engineering applications, it’s a good balance of parametric and polygon modeling.  It might give you a good opportunity to discover whether you want push more heavily toward CAD style 2d drawings with a bunch of numbers & dimensions, or the other way toward carving a lump of clay in Z brush.

Creo has a free version as well (Creo Elements) and is what I prefer (background: a little bit of playing with Solidworks when I had access to a license, but no real CAD experience.)

I hated sketchup, as my main use for CAD is simple, precise mechanical models (brackets, etc.)  Sketchup is a bit more freeform and harder to define exact measurements.

I did not see Creo Elements when I had a hunt around the internet a few months ago.  I will be having a look at that software for sure.  Nice one Jonathan :slight_smile:

I am learning modelling as well, and I am actually interested in both parametric modelling and “artistic” sculpting. For parametric modelling, I got a student version of autodesk inventor, which is great, and quite easily understood (at least for me coming from a programming background). On the free side of things, autodesk inventor fusion is available for free in the app store, and while it doesn’t allow to change parameters later on, it’s a great piece of software. The 123d family is sweet too.

On the sculpting artistic side of things, I gravitated towards zbrush (which I bought). It is a weird piece of software, and it took quite a while to get used to the UI. While working with it, I realized how much simpler a bunch of things are in a “conventional” mesh oriented modeling tool, so I gravitated towards blender. I actually love it, and can recommend the youtube tutorials by jason welsh (username cannedmushrooms).

oh i also forgot the fantastic free sculptris software from pixologic. It’s like a sketch tool before going into zbrush, but it’s perfect on its own.

How about www.lynda.com, they have many many tutorials!

There are several affordable CAD apps available. Some times your choice might be restricted to a specific OS platform. In my workflow I often use SharkFX, although VIACad is also useful. It has some advanced NURBS surfacing, solids operations and so on. It is not free but it is affordable and can create output in STL format. 

I agree with David, it depends on what you want to build.  I’ve worked in 3D for years, started out in the film industry as a modeller, then moved into the toy industry, as a technical modeller, then taught 3D for 7 years.  In that time I’ve used every major 3D app, tested for Autodesk and Alias, and even helped develop parts of the Autodesk collection.

Your best bet is to post links to the sort of thing you want to model initially.  I say initially because the first thing any beginner needs to do is get their head around working in 3D on a 2D canvas (the screen), the then to loosen up and learn to not try to make everything perfect.  Basically, the same as sculpting with clay.

Then you can start to focus on learning tools.

I’d say start with something free, like Wings3D - or cheap like Silo.  Try out a demo of ZBrush, if you’ve used a traditional 3D package at all ZBrush will feel awkward at first but stick with it.

First off though, post links to the kind of things you are interested in creating, and we can go from there.  Feel free to PM me or ask more specific questions.  I dont have a Form 1 on order, but am here  alot, interested to order once the teething issues are resolved :slight_smile:

I’ve spent a fair amount of time going from package to package. I tried Blender 3D, then worked in Houdini FX for a while… Eventually I discovered that CAD was the way forward, and have been working in ViaCad most recently. For the sort of thing I create (not artistic, but more engineering type things), ViaCad is perfect, and I’m able to churn out parts that print great on the Form 1 in next to no time. Highly recommended, and at $99, it’s a bit of a bargain, too.


Ok, so i’m getting that if i want to design engineering things i need one program and if i want artsy things i need another program?

That’s my experience, but I hasten to add that I have very little experience in either. It just turned out that Blender was a lot easier for making organic-looking shapes, whereas ViaCad was better for making engineering-type shapes (higher precision & precise angles etc)