Mar 9, 2016 | By Kira

We’ve already covered the best sites to download free STL files to 3D print, but if you want to create a unique or purpose-built 3D printed object, there’s no better option than modeling it yourself. Whether you are an absolute beginner or a 3D design pro, you can easily create your own custom 3D printable models using 3D modeling software—and best of all, some of the most popular ones out there are absolutely free.

To help sort through them by type, accessibility, and technique, we’ve assembled a list of some of the best and most popular free 3D modeling programs for 3D printing:

Free 3D modeling software #1: TinkerCAD

  • Free CAD 3D modeling tool
  • Best for Beginners
  • Browser-based online app
  • Geometric 3D modeling
  • Made by Autodesk

For absolute 3D modeling beginners, Autodesk’s TinkerCAD is a great place to start. The browser-based 3D modeling software lets you create geometrical 3D shapes, save and share them online, and export them to .STL files when ready to 3D print. Though obviously a bit limited in terms of features (you won’t be 3D modeling a Michelangelo statue with this), TinkerCAD is excellent for, well, tinkering. And since shapes are the building blocks, users can gradually build up from simple to more complex or detailed forms. For inspiration, TinkerCAD offers some existing 3D shapes to start modeling with, as well as a gallery of finished 3D printable models.

Free 3D modeling software #2: 3DSlash

  • Free CAD 3D modeling software
  • Best for Beginners
  • Browser-based or available for Windows, Mac, Linux and Raspberry Pi
  • Geometric 3D modeling
  • Made by 3DSlash

Another great and free option for beginner 3D modelers is 3DSlash. Released just last year, 3DSlash was designed specifically for non-designers of all ages—including kids—to introduce 3D modeling concepts in a fun and game-like platform (in fact, 3DSlash is actually based on Minecraft.)

In 3DSlash, users use common tools, like hammers or chisels, to shape three-dimensional blocks. The three-step process is intuitive, colorful, and fun, and in the end, the 3D model can be shared online, or exported to .STL for 3D printing. 3DSlash V2.0 has recently been released, and the website features extensive 3D modeling video tutorials that are definitely worth checking out.

Free 3D modeling software #3: 123D Design

  • Free CAD 3D modeling app
  • Best for Beginners
  • Free download for PC, Mac and iPad
  • Geometric 3D modeling
  • Made by Autodesk

123D Design is another free 3D modeling software option by Autodesk. Though slightly more advanced than TinkerCAD, 123D Design is still a very simple and intuitive 3D modeling and editing tool. There is a pretty extensive library of pre-made 3D models that can be edited, as well as tools to create geometric 3D components from scratch. Like with TinkerCAD, finished 3D models in 123D Design can be exported to .STL for 3D printing, or uploaded directly Shapeways’ 3D printing service.

Free 3D modeling software #4: Sketchup

  • Free CAD 3D modeling software
  • Best for Intermediate 3D Designers
  • Free download for PC, Mac, or Linux
  • Line and curve-based 3D modeling
  • Made by Trimble

Moving into slightly more advanced free 3D modeling tools is Sketchup. Originally owned by Google, Trimble’s hugely popular Sketchup markets itself as the “friendly and forgiving” 3D modeling software. It starts with a simple interface yet integrates a huge range of functional add-ons and tools. Users start by drawing lines and shapes, which can then be pushed and pulled into a range of complex geometric 3D forms. Because of this line-based 3D modeling set up, Sketchup (and particularly its $695 Pro version) is popular amongst architects and engineers.

Just because Sketchup is used by professionals and even educators, doesn’t mean it’s not a safe place to start for beginners, too. After all, it’s totally free to experiment with, and the website offers 3D modeling video tutorials to get you started. While Sketchup is a 3D modeling favorite, an important note for makers is that you can only export 3D printable .STL files using in the paid version.

Free 3D modeling software #5: Blender

  • Free CAD 3D modeling software
  • Best for Advanced or Professional 3D Designers
  • Free download for PC, Mac, or Linux
  • 3D Digital sculpting tool
  • Open Source

Blender currently holds the title for being the most powerful and the most popular free 3D modeling software—but be warned, it’s not for beginners. Unlike geometric 3D modelers, Blender is a digital sculpting tool, making it ideal for creating more organic 3D shapes. The program also offers a dizzying array of tools, giving its users complete design freedom: beyond creating models for 3D printing, Blender can be used to create photorealistic video game graphics, animated films, visual effects and more. Basically, if you’re willing to put in the time to learn it (which is made easier by the vast amount of forum discussions and tutorials created by the open source community), Blender could be your 3D modeling choice for life.

Free 3D modeling software #6: 3DTin

3D model by Germá​n

  • Free CAD 3D modeling software
  • Best for Beginners
  • Browser-based online app
  • Geometric 3D modeling
  • Made by Lagoa

Getting back to basics, 3DTin is a free, browser-based 3D modeling tool that, like TinkerCAD and 3DSlash, was created for beginners and those with no previous 3D modeling experience. Users choose from a selection of geometric shapes and add or remove as needed to create their design. Once finished, they can add their 3D model to 3DTin’s extensive library of Creative Commons 3D models, a valuable resource for students and beginners. 3DTin also allows direct exporting of .STL files to i.Materialise, Thingiverse, or Sculpteo for easy 3D printing. Note that 3DTin requires the JavaScript API WebGL to run at its best.

Free 3D modeling software #7: Sculptris

  • Free CAD 3D modeling software
  • Best for Beginner to Intermediate 3D designers
  • Free download for Windows or Mac
  • 3D Digital sculpting tool
  • Made by Pixologic

Like Blender, Sculptris is a digital sculpting tool, which makes it ideal for 3D modeling organic shapes and textures just as you would with a physical chunk of clay. In ‘sculpt’ mode, users edit the mesh geometry of their 3D shape, and in ‘paint’ mode, they can use various brushes to create realistic textures on the surface. Sculptris was designed to offer beginners the chance to experiment, get their bearings, and grow into their newfound 3D modeling skills. While a great option as a standalone product, advanced users can also upgrade to ZBrush, Pixologic’s award-winning, professional 3D modeling software, which comes at the price of $795.

Free 3D modeling software #8: Meshmixer

  • Free CAD 3D modeling software
  • Best for Beginner to Intermediate 3D Designers
  • Free download for Windows, Mac or Linux
  • 3D triangle mesh modeling
  • Made by Autodesk

While all of the CAD modeling tools on this list support 3D modeling for 3D printing applications, Meshmixer is perhaps the most powerful in this regard, as it has features created specifically to facilitate the digital-to-physical experience. In particular, Meshmixer is extremely useful for correcting files created in other 3D modeling programs or imported from Autodesk’s 123D Gallery, allowing users to 3D print with confidence. Along with previewing, refining and correcting existing 3D models, Meshmixer is a powerful tool for creating organic 3D models from scratch using triangle meshes.

To further facilitate the 3D printing process, Meshmixer supports many desktop 3D printer models, or, users can choose to import their designs directly to Shapeways, Sculpteo, or i.materialise to be professionally 3D printed and delivered. Its latest iteration even has optimized tools for multimaterial 3D printing. In short, Meshmixer is a powerful and free 3D modeling tool for beginners and intermediate designers who want to successfully bring their creations into the real world via 3D printing.

Free 3D modeling software #9: FreeCAD

  • Free CAD 3D modeling software
  • Best for Intermediate to Advanced 3D Designers
  • Free download for Windows, Mac or Linux
  • Parametric modeling
  • Open Source

FreeCAD’s parametric modeling interface is ideal for engineers or more advanced product designers looking to make complex, functional, and real-life 3D printed objects. Unlike standard mesh modeling, parametric (or procedural) modeling is a more algorithmic method that allows the object to be quickly and efficiently edited by accessing the model history and changing its parameters. FreeCAD’s extensive range of professional-grade features also gives users nearly unlimited design freedom—albeit, it does come at the cost of a much steeper learning curve than most free 3D modeling tools. That being said, FreeCAD’s large community is quite welcoming to new or inexperienced designers looking for a powerful point of entry to functional 3D design.

Free 3D modeling software #10: OpenSCAD

  • Free CAD 3D modeling software
  • Best for Programmers
  • Free download for Windows, Mac or Linux
  • Parametric modeling

Like all of the 3D modeling software tools on this list, OpenSCAD is a reliable, free program for creating solid, 3D printable models. Unlike most others, however, OpenSCAD is a non-visual 3D modeling tool, making it ideal for coders rather than purely artistic types. Instead of visually molding, sculpting, pushing, and pulling 3D shapes on-screen, OpenSCAD works “like a 3D-compiler,” reading a script file written in programming language, and then rendering a 3D model from that script.

OpenSCAD’s parametric modeling allows for easy editing and precise control over the 3D model’s properties. The program also allows 3D models to be exported to .STL format for easy 3D printing. OpenSCAD may not be for everyone, but as one of the only non-visual 3D modeling tools, it fulfils an important role in the market.

Bonus: Onshape

  • (Limited) Free CAD 3D modeling software
  • Best for Beginner to Professional 3D designers
  • Browser-based online application; also available for iOS and Android
  • Parametric modeling

Onshape is still a relatively new 3D modeling program, and the free account does come with a few limitations. However, Onshape offers some very unique and professional-grade 3D modeling features, including real-time, team-based 3D design, making it a unique option for professional engineers to classroom students.

Onshape is a parasolid-based mechanical CAD 3D modeling program for creating complex parts and assemblies. The fully cloud-based platform can be accessed from a variety of devices, including iOS and Android smartphones, and allows multiple team members to simultaneously collaborate on the 3D design. Additional features include full CAD functionality, version control, and unlimited import and export for 3D printing. Additionally, both Materialise and Pinshape have joined Onshape as 3D printing partners via their respective apps.

The only limitations of the free account are that users are limited to 10 private documents and 5GB of storage. If that’s not enough, professionals can choose to upgrade for just $100/month.

These are just some of the most popular and reliable 3D modeling software tools available completely for free, however there are plenty of other free and paid options for all levels of 3D designers. It’s just a question of getting started, and finding which one works best for you.

Note that 3D modeling software is just the beginning: In order to successfully 3D print your design, you will also need STL viewing software, slicing software (to prepare the 3D model) and 3D printer host software. A few free options to get you started are Netfabb Basic, View STL, Cura, and Slic3r.

If you know of any other great free 3D modeling software, let us know in the comments, on Facebook or onTwitter. And, check out some of our other 3D printing and 3D printer roundups, including:



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kj wrote at 8/18/2016 11:15:03 AM:

Why isn't 3D Creationist here?

Vines wrote at 6/11/2016 6:40:37 AM:

I prefer sketch up..its easy to use.

yo mama wrote at 5/25/2016 2:15:27 AM:

you are the best of the best

Mark wrote at 4/10/2016 12:00:47 PM:

What about Androids-Ios SubDivFormer, the version 1.1.154 works best in that it saves in ply format & exports the subdivided model to ASCII Stl without any limitations that later versions has (incomplete exporting of models) For saving models on your Android use Cad Assistant to convert the ASCII Stl to Ply (e.g. from around 300mg to 30mg file size) I've made detailed models with it, better than I could using Truespace 3.2 - 4.3. - Truespace7.6 now available at Flat2D v.2

Omar @SketchUp wrote at 3/17/2016 9:23:37 PM:

In addition to the extension, you can export .STL for 3d printing in SketchUp Make for free using 3D warehouse: The cool thing about it is that the models are checked by the 3d printing algorithms of Materialise.

Tom wrote at 3/17/2016 7:49:31 PM:

i used designspark mechanical, and i have upgraded to the full seat of spaceclaim at work, designspark was used to manufacture our first generation machine and made the decision to upgrade t spaceclaim a very easy one. i still use designspark at home and love how easy and quickly models can be made in it. fusion 360 is a great package and definately needs a mention here. either way STL generation is fairly quick and easy with all of the packages listed above, but my recomendation as a professional CAD user, (current company turnover 1.2 million) would be designspark 100%, even solidworks as good as it is, just doesnt compete with the ease of use that designspark offers

steventaitinger wrote at 3/13/2016 3:22:09 PM:

You also missed which is better than many on this list.

Andreas wrote at 3/11/2016 1:33:01 PM:

I have to agree with the other comments, Designspark Mechanical is a very nice tool, with some strange limitations for the free version, but still very usable. I do like the Spaceclaim direct modelling approach and would love to get a full license at some point (used the trial version once) but it's too expensive for my hobby use. And if you mention OnShape, you should have written something about Fusion 360. VERY powerful tool you can use for free, with the bonus that it has a CAM module included to plan milling paths for your desktop CNC... (And i prefer the interface of F360 over OnShape)

MHK wrote at 3/11/2016 12:00:04 AM:

Two CAD packages that can be used free: Creo elements direct modelling: Autodesk Fusion 360: (free for hobbyists, enthousiasts, start-ups, students)

Lasse wrote at 3/10/2016 2:07:40 PM:

+1 For Fusion 360. I think it is one of the most complete "free" CAD package out there and there is fewer limitations compared with onshape. Also is has a very comprehensive CAM part.

Alex wrote at 3/10/2016 11:00:04 AM:

Why not Fusion 360 ?

Schneik80 wrote at 3/10/2016 6:10:11 AM:

Why no Fusion 360 mentioned here?

Mark wrote at 3/9/2016 11:12:27 PM:

Just a heads-up: exporting STL's from SketchUp is completely free using the SketchUp STL extension ! Mark @ SketchUp

Kevn wrote at 3/9/2016 5:52:40 PM:

DesignSpark Mechanical: fantastic package, we've used it extensively to prepare models. Solid modeler...a few limitations, one bizarre, one understandable. The bizarre: no mirroring in 3D! Workaround is to export to an STL, mirror elsewhere, then reimport. That's clunky, I know. Understandable: to IGES or STEP export unless you pay for an expensive plugin. Highly, highly recommend this program. Another option: Autodesk Fusion360. No idea why either of those were overlooked here.

Jory wrote at 3/9/2016 4:31:47 PM:

Any thoughts about the free version of DesignSpark Mechanical?

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