• Sarah C Awad and Dhemerae Ford

101s: Intro to 3D Modeling Software (Part 1)

So you want to start 3D modeling, but have become instantly overwhelmed by the number of diverse, free, and expensive software out there to use, and you have no idea where to get started.

Take this as your go-to beginners' guide to the landscape of 3D software. We hope to provide you with information that will not only guide you as you begin your journey, but also possibly spark some new inspiration!

Screenshot from ZBrush, our personal favorite

What do you want to make?

This is your starting point. Knowing the answer to this question will inform your entire modeling process-in other words, how you create your thing. You would probably build a flower, with its organic shapes and delicate textures, in a completely different way than a rigid, geometric Gundam robot. Measurements will also dictate your choice: Do you need accurate dimensions? Is the project something that must fit together, or fit someone a certain way?

Do you need to run stress simulations on your parts?

What about color?

Do you need to rig a figure and create animations?

Are you going to 3D print it, or will exist solely on the computer?

All of these questions need to be answered before diving into 3D modeling, for each program is specialized for specific applications.

Since we primarily model for 3D printing, we will focus more on the mesh generation side of modeling, rather than creating forms for animation or rendering. However, if rendering or animation is your prime interest, we will briefly touch on some of the industry standards we are aware of.

Types of 3D Modeling Software

A screaming face modeled through Digital Sculpting, by Sarah

Digital Sculpting

True to its name, Digital Sculpting is designed to mimic the experience of traditional clay sculpting, starting you out with a primitive (sphere, cube, pyramid, etc.) that you then work into through carving, pushing, and texturizing with digital brushes. Many of these programs will also allow you to be more liberal and painterly with color; you are able to blend, paint over, and mix colors at different transparencies for a more fluid, familiar application. Digital sculpting is often used in the film and video game industries to create characters for CG animations.

Note: Tablets often used with digital paint programs are great companions to this software.

Creating a monster or other fanciful creature? Or maybe an amorphous thing out of your head? Digital Sculpting is probably for you.

Software Spotlight:

Zbrush and its counterpart Sculptris

​The two most well known software packages under this umbrella are ZBrush and Sculptris. Zbrush, the industry darling, was used in the creation of Pacific Rim's Kaijus and the ants of Marvel's Ant Man.

Our personal favorite program to use, ZBrush's pliability and micromanagability through the use of textural and structural brushes allow its users to create amazingly detailed, and colorful models.

NOTE: Sculptris is a free program made by the creators of ZBrush (Pixologic) that functions similarly to its more expensive counterpart. We recommend you try Sculptris first, and get a feel for the user interface before diving straight into the overwhelming depths of ZBrush.


- Available for Windows and Mac based systems

- Color painting options

- Creating unique and organic shapes

- Newer updates make repairing models in a more micromanaged manner possible


- No Linux support

- Does not have a "real" measuring system (numbers are arbitrary)

- Creation of too much or unnecessary geometry can be easily done

- Allows creation of unprintable geometry, i.e. models that are not "watertight"

- Difficult learning curve due to un-updated GUI system

Screenshot from SolidWorks

Parametric Solids Modeling

Parametric Solids Modeling is based around a set of principles to create models in a more mathematical manner. This type of modeling exists as one of the earliest forms of CAD based software. Because the software utilizes mathematical relationships and measurements to create 3D form, solids modelers require informational completeness in the mechanical forms that are made; for example, some software require that a model be fully "defined" by sound measurements to be considered possible.

These programs also prohibit the creation of impossible forms, such as inverted normals. This vital aspect of this style makes Parametric Solids Modeling very popular with engineers and designers looking to construct or innovate mechanical forms that need to perform a specific function in reality. From a 3D printing standpoint, this aspect also tends to produce great models with no geometric errors.

Software Spotlight:

SolidWorks and its counterpart Inventor

Solidworks is the industry standard in the mechanical engineering field. Within the last few years, Solidworks has expanded its program to aid many specialized fields of engineering with expanded packages for Simulation, Electrical Design, Fluid Dynamics, Product Data Management, and Technical Communications. It is also able to simulate hundreds of material properties from tungsten steel to hardwoods. This is an ideal software package for creating mechanical components that serve a specific function. It's also great for product and package design.

Inventor is a free, web-based solids modeler from Autodesk that has an extremely intuitive GUI design system with drag and drop ready-made components, making modeling very easy.

Note: Inventor is great software for beginners, and is also good for children and adults alike who are just starting to get into 3D printing.


- Inventor is easily accessible on any operating system

- Exact measurements

- Will not create unprintable geometry or parts that are not physically sound

- Only creates necessary geometry

- Solidworks has excellent COE (computer-aided engineering) capabilities such as:

~ rendering

~ mechanical simulations

~ electrical simulations

~ fluid dynamic simulations.


- Solidworks is Windows only

- Inventor has limited functionality when creating complex forms

- Limited to no coloring abilities for 3D printing in color

- Textures are more difficult to create

- Certain features (such as filleting and patterning) can be taxing on computers using the software; be careful of freezing and overheating!

- Design Intent HEAVY software, meaning pre-planning/drafting is integral to using these software packages to their fullest; this can be a pro or con depending on your preferences

Screenshot of Rhino's interface

NURBS Modeling

The first half of the term, NURBS, is an acronym for non-uniform rational b-splines, which is a mathematical model most commonly used to create and represent curvature (of surfaces)-think bezier curves. NURBS work similarly to vector lines (made with the Pen tool) in Adobe Illustrator; the user repositions the lines, and the control points that are keyframed along them, to create mathematically sound curves and surfaces (Image A). Appearing in the form of a grid, the NURBS sit just above the 3D model, and through their movement, manipulate the shape (Image B). The modeling part of this term speaks for itself, referencing the action of moving about the parts of this grid, and affecting the physical model underneath.

Image A

Image B

NURBS is ideal for creating more nuanced and organic sculpts, and the amount of control the user has in manipulating the grid, from a physical or mathematical perspective, makes it great for engineers or those who want that high level of control.

Note: NURBS based programs can create amazingly intricate, mathematically based 3D forms quickly and easily, while using fewer computing resources needed for rendering.

Software Spotlight:

Maya and Rhino

While Maya is not solely a NURBS modeling program, both Maya and Rhino utilize NURBS heavily to create 3D form. Maya has been around a lot longer than Rhino, and is used more for animation and rigging, while Rhino is strictly a 3D design program, and is used most often in product design, fashion, and architecture.

Due to its history as a 3D animation program, Maya has more options for rendering than Rhino. Most people who use Rhino use a paid-for rendering plugin for their finished works.


- Compatible with both Mac and Windows OS

- NURBS based programs tend to be less taxing on your computer than other types of modeling software (when used correctly)

- Great for easily creating complex, mathematically based form and organic structures

- Powerful array tools; create pavés with ease!

- Very active software communities make for some great plugins and advice on modeling


- Linux not supported

- Steep learning curve

- No real "free" equivalent software

- Rhino is not great for rendering compared to other competitors

- Rhino's Mac and Windows versions are VASTLY different

- Rhino Mac version is paired down with limited community support

Sketchup, via their website

CAD Software

CAD means Computer Aided Design" (and Drafting, CADD) and was created to replace manual drafting; it is the original modeling software that started it all, and is widely used in architecture, MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing), and structural engineering fields. Because of its age, there are literally hundreds of 2D and 3D CAD programs out there, both free and paid-for. Each industry has its program preferences, since CAD software can be extremely varied and specific in its functions.

Note: Autodesk has the most varied selection of CAD software out on the market.

For the purposes of its review, we'll be discussing the two most common CAD software that we encounter.

Software Spotlight:

Sketchup and AutoCAD

Both Sketchup and AutoCAD have been around for awhile now and have a huge following. Frankly, we do not have a lot of experience with these software packages, aside from consulting on 3D models that have been made with them. Sketchup is easy to use and Google has a huge warehouse of free Sketchup models already made that you can download and use to your heart's content.

AutoCAD is the industry standard for architecture and is extremely powerful. It is also pretty easy to learn and its user interface is sensible, compared to some other modeling packages. If you are looking to design a building- or even a city- these two programs are going to be the perfect choice for you.

Pros: - Well-established programs, meaning tons of community feedback and literature

- Sketchup is free with a huge repository of free models to get you started

- Many free plugins

- Native units and scale factors used in architecture (great for large full-scale models and to-scale miniatures)


- Software is more specific to architecture and therefore are more suited to producing those types of models

- 3D models tend to require INTENSIVE repair work before they can be 3D printed

- Few 3D model checking abilities for printability

Seeing smoke coming out of your ears? No problem, this is a TON of information we tossed at you! We have a lot more to talk about, so this concludes Part I of this series.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we dive into more detail about actually acquiring the software and advice on getting started!

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