2018’s Best Free CAD Software (2D/3D CAD Programs)
CAD software is an important tool for professional architects, engineers, animators, and graphic designers. With the proliferation of open-source projects, free CAD software is in many cases no less sophisticated than its commercial counterparts. But given the many differences between the CAD programs, it can be difficult to choose the right one.
This selection is divided into three sections: The best free CAD software for beginners, intermediate users, and advanced users.
THE BEST FREE CAD SOFTWARE FOR BEGINNERS
3D Builder is a dedicated free CAD software app for 3D modeling and printing that is available for desktop PCs and other Microsoft platforms (Windows Mobile, Xbox One, and Windows Hololense). Similar to Autodesk’s Gallery, users can download the 3D models created by others to modify and 3D print them.
Using the touchscreen interface with gestures, editing and tweaking 3D files is quite an immersive experience. The integration into the Windows phone has another perk: The free CAD software as mobile app also enables the user to scan objects and convert them into 3D files using the device’s camera. Simply take a series of photos of the object from several angles, and images are stitched together to recreate the object as a 3D model.
Best free CAD software for: Occasional 3D Modeling
Looking for something different than your run of the mill free CAD software? Conventional tools like extrusion, revolution or sweeps are not part of the 3D Slash. Instead, this 3D CAD software is centered around the cuboid, a solid block that can be subdivided into smaller blocks of identical size. Just think of Minecraft, and you’ll get the idea. Users create their 3D designs by working the cuboid with an array of tools that will not be familiar with most other 3D CAD software: hammer, trowel, chisel, pulpwood, and drill. Thus, you use the hammer tool to remove individual cubes, while the trowel adds cubes and so forth.
3D designing with these tools is easy, even for beginners. With only a little training you can achieve impressive results, like a lightsaber (see our tutorial below). Also, you can import, and modify existing 3D designs. For your convenience, this free CAD software ties in with a range of online printing services, and model repositories. Or you can simply export your 3D design to STL, and print it on your 3D desktop printer.
The playful, hands-on approach will be especially gratifying for hobbyists who occasionally want to create their 3D designs without having to master the mysterious lore of conventional free CAD software.
Best free CAD software for: Hobbyists with an eye on quick results
In a time when we expect software to anticipate intuitively our actions, the concept of writing 3D objects as code in OpenSCAD exerts a strange fascination. To many who would like to learn OpenSCAD, this 3D CAD software remains steeped in mystery, because of its seemingly arcane and idiosyncratic approach to 3D modeling.
BlocksCAD is a 3D modeling software that was developed to ease kids into using OpenSCAD. Meaning with this program anyone should be able to work with OpenSCAD. The commands denoting objects, transformations etc. are represented by colorful blocks that are stacked together like LEGO-bricks. Once you are satisfied with your work, you render the 3D model to inspect it. The finished design can be saved as OpenSCAD or STL format.
Don’t get us wrong, it is still not a trivial matter to model with BlocksCAD. To create a flower pot, for example, you create two cylinder of different diameters and then link them with a subtract transformation. So the program still expects you combine the code blocks in a sensible way. However, with this program you can be sure to create valid OpenSCAD code, because BlocksCAD knows which code blocks are compatible with each other. Along the way, you can easily gain a grasp on OpenSCAD, as you can display the bare code and understand how the changes in your blocks affect the 3D model and the code.
Best 3D CAD software for: Kids who want to start 3D modeling – and everyone else who can’t wrap his head around OpenSCAD.
LibreCAD is an open source free CAD software. It contains basic tools you will need to model and modify your designs. Since LibreCAD displays only 2D views, it has a slim file size of only 30 MB. But not to worry, it can display isometric views. Though the free CAD program satisfies common drawing needs, the functionality will not overwhelm you, unlike other free CAD software. LibreCAD’s UI is uncluttered, and overall the free CAD software is suitable for beginners.
Best free CAD software for: Beginners to intermediate users interested in technical designs
With a tool-set hat is reminiscent of Minecraft, MagicaVoxel is an easy-to-use, free CAD software. The smallest unit within the program is the eponymous voxel, a block that is used to create stunningly sophisticated designs.
Users will easily find their way around the clearly arranged user interface. To the left, are rows of color palettes used to paint voxels in the absence of traditional textures. Palettes can be custom defined or loaded into the free CAD software. Next to it, a small range of render settings ensures quite memorable results. The viewport is found at the center. To ease the 3D modeling workflow, brushes and patterns consist of voxels are predefined.
Working with the tools in MagicaVoxel takes some getting used to, as you choose between modes that affect only the surface of a mesh, select layers or penetrate the volume of a mesh. The consequences of these techniques are as far reaching as many sophisticated tools in traditional 3D CAD programs. As users who have taken to them no longer depend on assembling complex designs voxel by voxel, but can sketch them out quickly and efficiently.
With games like Monument Valley and Minecraft voxel designs have become very popular. Free CAD software like MagicaVoxel is a brilliant choice for creating 3D voxel art for use in games or illustrations.
Best Free CAD Software for: Beginners to intermediate users interested in 3D voxel art
An alternative approach to traditional 3D modeling is 3D sculpting. Whereas some commercial options on the market have pretty steep learning curves, the free CAD software SculptGL will go easy on you. It includes only the basic tools necessary and allows you to give you a sense of the sculpting workflow. What is more, you can have all that in the comfort of your web browser.
As in more advanced sculpting tools, the main concept is that you don’t try to create a high-resolution mesh right from the start. Instead, you build up levels of details step by step. The groundwork is always to define the silhouette (arms, heads, limbs) in very broad brushes. From there you can switch to smaller brushes, and sculpt large details, pronounced muscles, fingers, and the like. Only then should you add intricate details like wrinkles or scars using finer brushes.
This being a free CAD software, the number, and complexity of objects are limited to the minimum. For anyone just curious about 3D sculpting, SculptGL is a great opportunity. If you want to level up, you should give Sculptris a try.
Best free CAD software for: Beginners who want to dabble in 3D sculpting
Now owned by Autodesk, TinkerCAD is a free 3D CAD software that runs in your browser. Using basic modeling operations, TinkerCAD allows you to join these primitive shapes complex objects. But there is more to TinkerCAD, the functionality extends to joining, and subtracting shapes. After mastering these basic techniques, even newbies to CAD software can produce impressive results like Raspberry Pi cases in no time.
If you are looking for a tool to get your feet wet, you will love TinkerCAD’s intuitive approach to common concepts, and tools in the free CAD software. It also can be used for laser cutting.
Best free CAD software for: Beginners trying to grasp the basic concepts of 3D modeling
Written in Erlang, Wings 3D major strength lies in its advanced subdivision. The intuitive user interface will make anyone a 3D modeler in no time. In addition to standard tools like move, scale, extrude etc., the free CAD software features advanced tools such as sweep, plane cut, bend, shear, and inset. The other big selling point is its AutoUV facility, that allows you to export an unfolded image of your model’s surface for painting and texturing.
Wings 3D’s range of features is exactly right for beginners who don’t want to get overwhelmed, and yet get a thorough foundation in 3D modeling.
Best free CAD software for: Beginners who getting started with 3D modeling
THE BEST FREE CAD SOFTWARE FOR INTERMEDIATE USERS
Antimony is the sort of free CAD software you should give a try, in case you are in need of a fresh perspective on parametric 3D modeling. It’s basically the love-child of a 3D designer and a programmer.
In Antimony, every mesh is broken down into the smallest logical components, primitive shapes and transformations (boolean and other) that allow you to generate complex objects by joining or subtracting them. Unlike other similar CAD programs like OpenSCAD, that tend to frighten away beginners with long code documents, The workflow of this free CAD software is much more intuitive. The user connects nodes that define shapes and transformations in graphs.
The nifty modeling workflow is suitable for most seasoned designers. In case the built-in shapes don’t cover all your needs, it is possible to define custom shapes. However, this is not down everybody’s alley, as Antimony represents shapes with a prefix string syntax. The free CAD software was conceived of and is maintained by Matt Keeter, an engineer with the 3D printer manufacturer Formlabs.
Take note that as of summer 2017, Antimony was in beta mode and is not recommended for critical work. We look forward to seeing major software publishers picking up the innovative ideas of this free CAD software in their products.
Best Free CAD software for: Intermediate users interested in innovative parametric 3D modeling
BabaCAD is another interesting free CAD software with some truly amazing features. The CAD program runs fast, even on older computers. But more importantly, the UI is very user-friendly, designers are treated to a clearly structured menu system that allows finding the many advanced tools swiftly. More advanced users can take advantage of the command window to quickly enter and modify properties and commands of their 3D models. In many respects, this free CAD software is almost on par with commercial alternatives. As it includes useful features like organizing and grouping objects in layers and blocks. Drawings can be dimensioned in a breeze with smart quick dimensioning. Also, object snap is an indispensable tool for assembling complex drawings.
Beyond any doubt, the most fascinating feature of BabaCAD is its LISP compatibility. LISP scripts enable users to create extensions of the program to their needs and exchange. For decades a unique selling point of AutoCAD, BabaCAD became the first free CAD software to implement this feature. Many of these scripts are available for free online. In conclusion, even ambitious CAD designers are bound to find BabaCAD’s LISP compatibility useful.
Free CAD software for: Intermediate to advanced users that value a high degree of control over their software