3D printing is an increasingly popular technology that enables you to design objects on your PC and print them in your home. It is a shining example of information technology democratizing the creative process. The best 3D modeling tools give you the chance to create things with the disruptive technology that you would otherwise be forced to pay a premium for.
In this article, we’ll be looking at some of the most accessible 3D modeling tools, both in terms of price and usability. Loyal Cloudwards.net readers will find there is overlap with our article on the best 3D graphics software, so check that out, too, if you want to know more about 3D in general.
Also, if you need an easy place to store your designs, check out our best cloud storage article.
There’s no limit to what you can do with 3D printing. Well, there is, but we’ll come to that later. You can create furniture, ornamental items and functional machines. People are printing drones and even firearms. Models for gaming or decorating your apartment can be printed or tableware can be made to your specifications.
The limitations are likely to depend on the quality of your printer and the material you use.
The quality of printing is expected to improve with time and the costs should come down. As the technology develops we could end up routinely printing our household items and furniture. That is good news for everyone, except, perhaps, your local furniture store.
You can download models to print from the web, but creating them yourself is much more fun. If you want to sit on a chair you designed, there’s nothing to stopping you, just remember to make sure it is strong enough to support you.
How it Works
As with 3D graphics tools, we are building objects constructed of points in 3D space called vertices. These vertices can be linked to create an edge. Edges that form a loop make a plane, and planes make up the surfaces of objects.
Many features common to 3D graphics tools aren’t needed when you’re focused on printing. Animation is out. Rendering just needs to show you what’s what, there is no need for fancy lighting or bump maps.
High polygon counts are going to be beyond the capabilities of most 3D printers and you are going to want to focus on individual objects rather than large scenes.
There is some crossover between these tools and 3D graphics software, though, which we looked at in an earlier article. The difference with 3D modeling is that there are many constraints on what you can do. The things you can create on the screen are not always possible in the real world.
Printing can be slow and it isn’t free. The materials cost money. To ensure that things print correctly, you’ll want to limit the complexity of what you create. That said, what we want are simple, clear tools that allow us to model in a way that reflects real world constraints.
What You Can Print
3D printers vary in their capabilities but simpler objects are generally better. Some printers might have trouble with small details or elaborate curves.
You’ll also have to factor in gravity and strength. A multi-story building supported by a single column of blocks you made in Minecraft wouldn’t work in real life and will probably topple at a small scale too, so you need to think about more than how it looks on the screen.
There is trial and error with 3D printers as each can be different. Printing materials can make a big difference, too. There are many metals, plastics and others to choose from and they vary in rigidity, strength, appearance and cost. Some are suitable for moving parts, some are not.
Your choice of material will also determine the level of detail you can work in. Wall thickness refers to the minimum distance between the surfaces of parts of the model and will typically be between 1-3 millimeters, but can be lower if you’re lucky enough to work with gold, silver or titanium.
The Cost of 3D Printing
In terms of material cost, the cheaper materials such as polylactic acid filament or ABS filament are available for around $25 per kilogram. Nylon and polycarbonate filament will cost closer to $100 per kilogram and expensive metals will cost you an arm and a leg.
There will usually be wasted material when printing, often a lot, and you can’t recycle the waste or your creations.
The printers themselves range from a couple of hundred dollars to around $1,500 for consumer models. If you are really serious, it is possible to spend upwards of $10,000. Those models allow you to print parts with dimensions of 1 meter or more. Cheaper models typically print in dimensions under 30 centimeters.
If you don’t have a printer, you can still create models as there are services that allow you send them 3D object files and do the printing for you. Services, such as Sculpteo, accept files in many different formats and will ship your models anywhere in the world.
You can even make money without having a printer. There are websites where you can sell your 3D designs, as well as services that will print models from your designs and sell them on your behalf. Services like CGTrader and Shapeways are worth looking at if you’re hoping to make a few extra bucks with your skills.
The Best 3D Printing Tools
A 3D tool needs to be exported to the STL format used by printers to be printed. Converting STL files to and from other formats will be useful, as well as adjusting models to fix print issues. Fixes include detecting when a model has non-manifold edges or other features that can be displayed on a computer, but don’t work in reality. The ability to simplify geometry is also a plus.
Being able to measure 3D objects is also handy, as you can ensure the objects you create are to the scale you need or even recreate objects you already have so they can be modified in your design tool. Real world measurements are useful for furniture or tool designers, too.
In addition to using software to design your models, you can use services and other tools to ensure that they can print. MakePrintable, for example, will analyze your models to check that they work and can print correctly.
There are also tools like MeshLab, which can convert objects between formats and export to STL after fixing your mesh to make sure it is printable.
For this article, we want our tools to be free or have a free trial. Inexpensive is better, because there’s no need to spend a fortune here. We’re looking for power, as well as programs that can help us get our ideas on the screen easily and avoid making anything our printer can’t handle.
Wings 3D is a free and open source tool available for Windows, Mac and Linux. Using it is straightforward. You can add objects by right clicking and picking from a menu of primitives, which includes the usual set of regular 3D polygons. It also has extras, such as a spiral and the torus knot, which might prove challenging for most printers.
Manipulating objects is simple. You can switch between four modes, which allow you to control whole objects, faces, edges or vertices. They all have uses and allow you to manipulate models in different ways. You can extrude, bevel and weld. There is also a virtual mirror to keep models symmetrical.
The display can be switched between a perspective viewpoint or an orthographic projection, which is handy if you’re working from a blueprint. Engineers and designers used to working like that will appreciate the feature.
Using Wings 3D
The Wings 3D UI is plain, but straightforward. On-screen text explains the effect of pressing mouse buttons and keys during the current operation. That makes it easy to explore as you go and means you don’t have to remember everything while getting to know your way around.
Its lack of complexity makes it easy to get to grips with. Working with the core 3D manipulation functions is easier when there is little to distract you. The on-screen buttons are intuitive and convey their functions well.
Wings 3D is simple, but it does the job. It has been in development for 17 years and its focus on the basics of modeling has resulted in an excellent and easy to use tool. It’s not bloated compared to others, which makes it a great fit for those looking to create simple, printable objects.
The focus on simple, low-polygon geometry is a perfect fit for 3D printing. Wings 3D lacks a few bells and whistles, but they are less relevant when you’re focused on printing. We have looked at it before in our round-up of the best 3D graphics tools.
It also exports to the required .stl format. Its models are based on a closed mesh and will not let you produce a non-manifold model, provided you avoid using the “hole” function. That should keep your valuable printer free from unpleasant accidents.
You don’t get much free starter content with Wings 3D, but there are downloads available online. The tool is simple enough that you will soon be able to fill your blank starting area with all manner of weird and wonderful creations.
Learning to Use Wings 3D
The included documentation is basic and the online manual has quite a few gaps. Fortunately, what’s there is clear and, keeping with the straightforward feel of Wings 3D, tells you what you need to know. You are told how to build a 3D object using a range of simple manipulation techniques.
Outside of the documentation, you can find plenty of guidance online. There is no shortage of videos on YouTube explaining how to build and craft different types of models.
Wings 3D is simple and straightforward, but capable. Rather than having hundreds of functions, it lets you easily perform the actions you need to build and modify a 3D object. We recommend it to anyone looking to explore the world of 3D printing.
- Straightforward & easy to use
- Simple models that print well
- Few bells & whistles
- Limited documentation
Blender is another tool that has been around since the cows came home. It began as a closed source project in 1998, but was released as open source after a $100,000 crowdfunding campaign.
Blender is free and has a loyal community making objects for it as well as offering help and support. The website Blend Swap, for example, has a dedicated section for 3D printable objects and allows users to share their work under a Creative Commons license.
The UI is a veritable bonanza of buttons and expandable sections, many of which you might never touch. Those who like to play around and explore will find plenty of toys, but the complexity might deter people who want to quickly learn basic 3D operations.
Confusingly, some menus have the same label despite having different contents. There are several “view” menus scattered around the default layout, for example. Despite those ambiguities, the UI stays readable and can be customized to your heart’s content.
Learning to Use Blender
Fortunately, there are online tutorials for everything Blender-related and several deal with setting up and streamlining the tool for 3D printing. Here’s one we found, though the plugin mentioned isn’t included in the latest version. We recommend removing the windows you don’t need to keep things as free of clutter as possible.
Once you learn the core operations, Blender is great fun to use and lets you pull and push objects around with increasing confidence. While you can manipulate edges, faces and vertices, as with other programs, you can also use the sculpt tools to manipulate the object in a more intuitive way that feels more like learning an artistic skill than a technical one.
Though the software lacks a built-in tutorial, there is a detailed online manual to complement the many YouTube tutorials available.
What Can Blender Do?
Looking at what other people have created with Blender, it is clear the sky’s the limit when it comes to what you can create with it.
Blender features a tool for every occasion, many of which will be overkill if you’re just making furniture. If you want to keep things bare-bones, it probably isn’t right for you. It is great if you want to do crossover work, though, such as creating a good-looking render of something you are printing or using printable models in an animation.
Using Blender’s advanced tools may lead to a model that won’t print. The remesh tool will come in handy if that happens. You can use it to simplify your model or remove holes that may have formed.
The software isn’t perfect. It does have the odd missing link in the documentation and we found links in the tool pointing at pages with no content. Those are minor quibbles, though, as the community is active and should be able to help if you request it.
Blender is one of the most advanced tools we’re looking at and has much to offer for 3D printing, as well as game development and animation. If you need to do more than print, it is probably the best choice for its range of capabilities. We regard it as one of the best free tools available. Download it for Windows, Mac or Linux.
- Great community
- Crowded UI
- Overkill for 3D printing
Inspired by the way kids create complex objects in Minecraft, 3D Slash is a labor of love for creator Sylvain Huet. Based on stone sculpture, it is an easy-to-use tool that is an ideal fit for 3D printing.
You begin with a large cube and the hammer tool selected. Clicking on the cube removes blocks from it, allowing you to sculpt it. You can change the size of the cube removed and work at finer levels of detail if you want. There are also tools to restore cubes, as well as build and remove larger sections. It is a different approach from the other tools, but works well.
Using 3D Slash: Creative Destruction
3D Slash is great fun to use. Chipping at your block doesn’t just remove a chunk, it makes bits of splintered rock fly everywhere. There’s even a satisfying “dink” sound to make you feel like you’re chiseling on a real sculpture.
The sound of smashing rock that accompanies the drill will satisfy anyone with a penchant for virtual destruction and makes 3D Slash a decent stress reliever in addition to a useful tool. Kids will love it, at least, as much as your ostensibly adult writer.
There are painting tools that let you color one block at a time or slosh it over whole areas at once, too, and they all have their own effects. The animation and sound effects might sound trivial, but they make using 3D Slash tactile and bring a strong sense of connection to your work.
You aren’t limited to starting with a cube, though. You can generate 3D text to work with and chip at. A cool feature allows you to import a 2D image, which is then converted into block form. Like much of 3D Slash, it works much better than you’d expect.
A simple sketch we drew converted easily into two colors, with the active color becoming the blocks. A screenshot of a news website imported into 3D Slash also worked well, giving us a 3D rendition of the headlines and, though the pictures where blurry, it was recognizable as a newspaper.
You can even import 3D objects from other tools. We had limited success trying to import our high-polygon head from Sculptris, though. It worked, but 3D Slash converted it into a huge number of blocks around the size of a Minecraft biome. This feature is worth exploring, but you will need to play around to see what works.
3D Slash Free Version
Though a free version of 3D Slash is available, it has some major limitations. You can only use eight colors, for example, though that doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re printing with a single-color material.
The free version also requires registration which led us through a couple of baffling screens that weren’t clear and will leave kids, and possibly their teachers, scratching their heads.
Annoyingly, you can’t save your work in the free version, though it does keep a single project open between sessions. You’ll need to pay a couple of dollars if you want to save projects or print them via an .stl file. That won’t break the bank at $2 per month, but the free version contains plenty to keep you busy.
Fun and easy to use, 3D Slash is a perfect tool for teachers with a 3D printer in the classroom who want to get kids creating things to use with it. Adults wanting to play around with a simple, but enjoyable, piece of software shouldn’t turn their noses up at it, either.
3D Slash’s approach is a powerful and quick way to make 3D models. It’s a wonderfully idiosyncratic tool with bags of personality and we recommend taking a look at it.
3D Slash is available for Windows, Mac, Linux and BlackBerry.
- Great Fun
- Free version has limitations
- Blocky output
Sculptris, by Pixologic is a stablemate of the more advanced, and more expensive, ZBrush. While ZBrush targets more experienced users, Sculptris aims to give beginners an entry into the world of 3D modeling.
After being perturbed by the hideous demon gazing at us during the install, we opened the .pdf manual to find what looked like a nude murder victim. Once we got over the shock, we found an excellent 47-page manual that serves as a great guide to Sculptris and 3D modeling as a whole.
Bigger than a bare-bones tutorial, the manual is short enough for beginners to work through over a few hours, but long enough to explain everything in detail. We’d rate it as the best of the tools we looked at in terms of documentation.
While most tools begin with a splash screen of options followed by a blank grid obliging you to trawl through options and buttons to get started, Sculptris presents you with a large sphere in the center of the screen and guidance text to the right. A few buttons and tools sit unobtrusively on the top left.
The layout is readable, stylish and offers plenty to work with without being crowded or intimidating. There are no complicated menus to navigate.
Clicking on the sphere adds volume around wherever you click, allowing you to begin crafting an object with complex geometry. Right clicking rotates your model.
Input is mirrored, so the initial setup makes it easy to add eyes, a nose and a mouth to your sphere and soon get something resembling a face. Okay, our initial efforts looked like Lieutenant Worf’s ugly sister, but it is remarkable how easy it is to produce something fairly complex.
Sculptris adjusts the complexity of your object as you work on it, adding polygons as necessary, so the angular feel of many 3D tools isn’t as much of a thing here. Using it feels more like molding clay.
The many operations you can perform on your model are quite dynamic. The model doesn’t just change one vertex or corner at a time, but everything around where you click adjusts as you make changes. It feels more organic than the pure vertex-based manipulation we found elsewhere.
There are size and strength bars for each tool and a couple of other options, but they are clear and easy to figure out. You rarely find yourself needing to look up what something does in the manual.
Crucially, the gap between intent and action is small. If you want to manipulate your model in a certain way, you can usually do so. It might take some experimentation, and some use of the undo feature, but you can translate your ideas to the screen.
It takes a while to figure out the different tools, but there aren’t that many and they can be figured out with a few mouse clicks.
Printing with Sculptris
While its workflow is ideal for creating 3D models for printing, one big problem with Sculptris is that it doesn’t export to the .stl format out of the box. Its .obj format can be converted to .stl by other tools and services, though, so this isn’t a deal breaker, but it will add an additional step to your workflow if you’re doing your own printing.
When it comes to making a boxy piece of furniture with sides of specific length, or anything else that has straight edges, Sculptris isn’t the best tool. For anything organic, though, it is a revelation. While skill and practice will surely bring rewards, the tools are intuitive enough for anyone with artistic ability to start getting results right away.
It includes a few starter objects to play around with, including a head and humanoid figure. There are many materials to use, which look good and will help you recreate the look of whatever material you use to print.
Simple to use and geared toward education, Sculptris is a fantastic tool for learning and object creation. If you want something simple, it is slicker and friendlier than Wings 3D, though the organic-looking output may be more challenging for your printer.
Sculptris is free and available for Windows and Mac.
- Good manual
- Good for creating organic models
- Easy to use
- Not as good for geometric, technical models
SketchUp is focused on building larger scenes, such as room layouts or outdoor plans, rather than individual models.
It comes in a pro version for $695, which has a free trial, and a free browser-based version, which is what we’re looking at. The browser version has limited export options, but does let you export to the .stl format.
The first thing we saw after registration was a pop-up telling us there was a problem with our browser’s storage support. That’s not the best way to start, but we carried on. The initial tour had us click through a few screens of labeled arrows pointing at the buttons, then make an obligatory agreement to terms of service.
After that, we found ourselves at an unusual starting point. Rather than a cube or sphere, SketchUp presented us with a faceless, bearded man. This is a clever idea. SketchUp is perfect for building real-world objects and the aforementioned gentleman provides an at-a-glance guide to scale.
The UI looks nice, but isn’t intuitive. We were able to draw a square easily enough with the drawing tools, but selecting the fill tool and clicking inside our shape did nothing. We had to resort to the manual.
Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be one. Video tutorials are the order of the day here. Luckily, we discovered the useful instructor window, which gives you a list of the operations that can be completed using your selected tool.
It makes figuring things out much easier. The online version has to load each page, which makes it feel a bit clunky, but it is still a good way to learn.
Once we figured out the basics, we found a lot to like about SketchUp. For example, rectangles and other 2D shapes can easily be drawn in the 3D space provided. They can then be pulled and stretched into 3D shapes.
It is easy to sketch a few rectangles, then pull them into a set of skyscrapers, a building or walls for a room. Setting up a room or outdoor area doesn’t take long to do.
You also have many measurement tools at your disposal, so if you need precision this is a great tool to use. The bearded gentleman standing in the workspace proves a great reference for size and indicates the strength of SketchUp – creating real-world objects – which makes it ideal for 3D printing.
Panning and zooming around is simple. Rotating the view with the middle mouse button is nice and smooth, but movement with the walk tool feels clumsy. Switching to the pan tool gave us much better results.
There are many textures that can be applied to object surfaces to make them look right without having to add in lots of 3D detail. As a nice touch, there is a category of textures dedicated to 3D printing materials, so you can make things look how they will after they’re printed.
It is a good, quick tool for designing and planning that is well-suited to 3D printing, though its focus on bigger objects isn’t ideal unless you have access to a large, expensive printer.
- Great for designing furniture or room layouts
- Quick to work with
- A few rough edges in the web version
- Takes getting used to
Though 3D printing is a young field, there are already many great software options for 3D modelers. While these tools do reward skill they are not as hard to use as you may think. There is nothing standing between you and getting your ideas on the screen and out of your printer.
When doing research for this article, we were surprised by how many tools were available beyond those we knew. Many of them are free and open source, with thriving communities working to improve them.
The tools we looked at are different from one another and offer a range of approaches. 3D Slash is simple, but there is a powerful tool under its charming exterior. We recommend it for adults interested in making simple block-based sculptures and as a teaching tool for kids.
The Right Tool for the Job
Wings 3D is simple and straightforward for building geometry. It is easy to use and perfect for building models suitable for 3D printing.
Sculptris is intuitive, artistic and makes creating complex models as easy as can be. We recommend it for those looking to make more organic models, such as faces or creatures.
Blender contains a wealth of tools while not being overly challenging. It is a versatile and powerful piece of software with a lot to offer and the most complex offering here.
SketchUp is a great tool for quickly mocking up large scenes and designing functional objects. It also has great features for modelers.
Though the tools here are capable of producing professional-level output, we wouldn’t feel uncomfortable putting any in the hands of a beginner. For those experienced with one of them, they are distinct enough that trying another will give you a new way of looking at things and, perhaps, a useful alternative tool.