Designer’s Handbook: Free Design Tools!

Designer’s Handbook: Free Design Tools!

There are a million guides, tutorials, blogs and forums discussing the various tools available to designers of all skill levels who are creating objects to 3D print. Yes, literally a million! In this chapter of Pinshape‘s designer handbook, award winning designer James Novak, a.k.a. edditive, takes time out from his own PhD 3D printing research and blog to filter out some of the noise, and provide an up-to-date guide on the free design tools specifically useful to entry-level designers and 3D print enthusiasts. The topics covered will flow through a typical design process and includes:

  1. 3D Design and Visualisation
  2. 3D Scanning
  3. File Checking
  4. File Conversion

Click the above links to be taken straight to a certain topic.

The follow chart serves as an overview and quick reference guide to the topics explored in this post!
Click the below image to enlarge.




Often the first thing that people do after buying a 3D printer is jump onto a website like Pinshape and download a handful of items to begin printing and showing off to their friends. But what happens when you realise you have your own ideas for products, or you want to repair something around your home, or create a custom gift for someone? It’s at this point you’ll want to learn some CAD (computer-aided design) software.

Guest writer for Pinshape, Lydia Cline, recently published a handy guide on some of the best free 3D design software available for beginners – click here to read her guide. In this section we will elaborate on some of the tools discussed in Lydia’s article, along with some additional free software that will have you designing like a pro in no time, no matter whether you have a powerful computer or just a tablet! We will also note which software will allow you to create renders of your designs, which can be very useful to visualise what your final product will look like, and help share your ideas with others.

It’s important to note that the list of free tools is growing almost daily, so this guide will only cover some of the most well-known and reliable tools, and aim to cover a range of different methods for creating 3D files so that if one tool doesn’t work well for you, there’s completely different tools you can try. Some of us work better in 2D, rather than 3D, some prefer solids to meshes, and others like to freely sculpt instead of using mathematical geometry. There’s no ‘best’ tool, it simply depends on using the right tool for the job, or even combining multiple tools to get the result you want.


123D Design

Hardware: PC (Windows), Mac, iPad

Modelling Type: Solid

Rendering: Limited ability to apply colours and textures, you won’t get a realistic render from this software.

Best For: Dimensionally accurate parts, designed to fit with another object or represent a manufactured object. This is the sort of CAD tool familiar to Industrial Designers, allowing you to create dimensionally accurate parts with a simple interface that’s really quite easy to begin using. Parts are typically created by starting with simple geometric shapes, giving them dimensions, and building up the complexity as you go by either adding shapes together, or using shapes to cut away at your model. Just look at the products around you, be it a phone cover, pen or a train – you can almost always break it down into simple geometric shapes. This software can do a lot with this mindset. There is also a free library of objects you can access to help create your designs quickly and easily. If you become competent in this software and want to expand your skills, you’ll find many professional design programs like Inventor (also owned by Autodesk), Solidworks and Rhino feature similar tools and workflows so you’ll have a head-start.

123D Design's homepage pinshape


123D Sculpt+

Hardware: iPad, Android Tablet

Modelling Type: Mesh + colours/textures

Rendering: There are some excellent renders on the 123D website created in this software, and using a virtual paintbrush makes applying textures and colours very intuitive. You can also apply images to your models, whether it’s a logo or a complete texture for the skin of your creature!

Best For: Sculpting characters, creatures and organic forms. This is certainly one of the more intuitive CAD tools to pick-up and begin enjoying (great for kids), essentially replicating the act of taking a ball of clay and pushing and pulling it into shape. This makes it great for creating all sorts of organic shapes and creatures that you would see in your favourite games or movies, and introduces a similar workflow to professional software used in these industries (so if you really enjoy it, you can purchase something like Mudbox and you’ll already understand many of the tools). The only downside is that models are exported as .obj files, so you may need to import them into one of the tools listed in the ‘File Conversion’ section of this article to change them to .stl’s that are ready to be used on your home 3D printer.

123D sculpt pinshape



Hardware: PC (Windows, Linux, FreeBSD), Mac

Modelling Type: Mesh

Rendering: Of the free design softwares, Blender has by far the best rendering tools built in, allowing you to capture photo-realistic images and animations of your design. Of course getting these results takes a lot of work, regardless of whether you’re using free or high-end professional software. But at least the tools are here if you want to get your objects to really come to life.

Best For: Comprehensive design, rendering and animation of complex forms including characters and scenes. Although it’s free, Blender is a huge program and is not something you should expect to pick up and begin using immediately without spending some time going through tutorials. With some practice you will be able to push a mesh into almost any shape you want. However, it’s not great for creating highly accurate dimensioned products. With practice it leads nicely into professional software like Maya or 3DS Max which is used for animation, games design and high-end renders. As a mesh modeller, it’s important to take care in making your designs watertight before exporting to .stl’s suitable for 3D printing – you may like to read the section of this article called ‘File Checking’ for free software to check your files and repair any issues with your mesh.

blender tanya wiesner pinshape


Endless Forms

Hardware: Most internet browsers

Modelling Type: Mesh

Rendering: None.

Best For: Leaving your design to chance and exploring sculptural forms through the power of evolution. While this is not the sort of tool to create something accurate from your imagination, it can be fun to create random sculptural forms and continue evolving different shapes until you end up with something that you like and can download as a .stl to your computer. This was a research project at Cornell University and mimics the idea of evolution; start with a random shape, let the computer ‘evolve’ this into a number of offsprings (as shown below), choose the ones you like most, and continue to let the computer create random mutations of these offsprings as long as you like. It’s about as easy as 3D modelling gets!

Endless Forms design pinshape 3d software




Hardware: PC (Windows, Linux), Mac

Modelling Type: Solid parametric modelling (which means the actions you perform are recorded as a history and can be edited at any time, updating the entire model).

Rendering: Some basic rendering capabilities are possible by adding in an external supported rendering program.

Best For: Creating detailed engineering components and products. With parametric capabilities, it’s easy to modify dimensions and details created right at the beginning of your project and have the entire model update using those new dimensions. This is great if you are working with clients, or designing objects in a range of sizes. While this software will take some time and effort to learn, there’s a huge range of tools available including drawing documentation that you could give to a manufacturer. It operates similarly to the high-end professional software Solidworks, so could be a good stepping stone into professional Industrial Design or Engineering.

house freeCAD psicofil pinshape



Hardware: PC (Windows, Linux), Mac

Modelling Type: Solid

Rendering: No rendering capabilities

Best For: Those with a programming/coding mind, this is a very different type of 3D CAD tool to those traditionally used by designers. Rather than visually creating an object by sculpting or extruding shapes, 3D forms are generated through scripts, much like creating a website or computer program. Therefore you can readily edit the script and have the model update in real time, with each step of the model’s creation right there in front of you. However because you are limited to computer commands, it’s extremely difficult to create any complex forms and would not be recommended to try unless you have prior experience with coding.

openscad pinshape guide software 3d design



Hardware: PC (Windows), Mac

Modelling Type: Mesh + colours/textures

Rendering: While you can apply colours and textures to your model, you can’t save a high-resolution render from Sculptris as an image. You will need additional software.

Best For: Much like 123D Sculpt+, this software is best for sculpting characters, creatures and organic forms. However rather than being limited to a tablet, you can run this on a computer and make use of your graphics card to ensure a smooth workflow. It’s an excellent tool to get results without any tutorials, starting with a ball of clay that you can push and pull into shape. Once you’re happy with it, you can then paint on colours and textures to bring your creation to life. This free tool has been created as an introduction to the more professional ZBrush software, so there is plenty of room to expand your skills if you enjoy this type of 3D modelling. The downside for 3D printing is that the only file type you can import and export is .obj, so you will need a file converter (discussed later in this article) to change your designs into .stl’s to print at home.

Sculptris 3D design pinshape software


Sketchup Make

Hardware: PC (Windows), Mac

Modelling Type: Mesh (with some limited solid functionality)

Rendering: Numerous plug-ins and tools can generate photo-realistic images or more stylised artistic images depending on what you want to achieve.

Best For: A little bit of everything with a wealth of knowledge, tutorials and libraries to help you develop into quite an experienced CAD user – many Architects use the professional version of the software to develop concepts and images to present to clients. Even if you’re new to 3D printing you’ve probably heard of Sketchup (formerly Google Sketchup) at some point, it has been freely available for at least 10 years and is often taught in schools. While some of the worst .stl files I’ve seen have been modelled in Sketchup, this is largely due to a lack of knowledge from the user than any particular fault of the software. There are a host of plug-ins that will check and repair your files inside of Sketchup before exporting as .stl, and it’s strongly recommended that you use these if you intend to 3D print anything created in Sketchup since it is a mesh modeller and will not automatically stitch things together into the solids needed for 3D printing. Alternatively, run your .stl through one of the programs covered in the ‘File Checking’ section of this article.

sketchup make pinshape



Hardware: Most internet browsers

Modelling Type: Solid

Rendering: None. You can apply colours to different parts, but won’t get any sort of realistic images from this software, it’s really just focused on designing 3D models.

Best For: Creating 3D printable and accurate products without needing to download any software. Yes that’s right, this program runs in your internet browser, meaning you can access it anywhere, anytime you have an internet connection. Similar to 123D Design (and also owned by Autodesk), it’s quite easy to start creating your design using basic geometries, along with being able to import various 2D and 3D file types to help start your design process. This means you could use your favourite drawing programs to create the overall shape of your design, and then import this into TinkerCAD to start making it 3D. After reading around online, many people suggest that this is an easier program than 123D Design to begin learning, although 123D Design will offer some more advanced tools once you get up and running.

tinkercad pinshape guide 3D software



Just like 3D printing, 3D scanning seems to be a buzz word at the moment that captures peoples’ imagination. So what is it exactly? Well there are a range of different technologies out there, but in simple terms 3D scanning can use images (photogrammetry) or a laser to turn objects and environments in the real world into digitalized 3D versions of them. While popular in industries like medical, surveying, forensics and archaeology, it has not yet become as mainstream as 3D printing, but certainly seems poised to take off in the very near future with mobile phone companies including Microsoft and Google close to releasing 3D scanning capabilities into your smartphone.

Why should you care? Well for starters, 3D scanning means you can take any object, whether it’s a part from your car or a kitchen appliance, and create a perfect replica in 3D without having to learn any CAD software and painstakingly measure and recreate it by hand. So creating spare parts just became a whole lot easier! Take it a step further and you could build your own custom design around the 3D scanned object, knowing that when you 3D print it, the fit in real life will be as perfect as that on screen. Or you could create shoes that are designed to perfectly fit your feet, just like the company Feetz plans to do, or SOLS are already doing for custom orthotics. You can not only bring the digital world into reality through 3D printing, but reverse the process and turn the physical world into digital data. The sky really is the limit! Below is an example of how I used a 3D scan of my face to use as the base of my X-Men Cyclops Goggles, saving a lot of hassle measuring and testing the design.

xmen cyclops googles pinshape james novak

So maybe you’re now wondering how you can start 3D scanning without needing to spend thousands on a 3D scanner. Some free and easily accessible tools are emerging that will allow you to capture objects with varying levels of success, but just like with 3D printing, it’s important to remember that at this relatively early stage, no system is perfect. It will require quite a bit of experimentation and tweaking to get right. While there are a number of apps calling themselves 3D scanners on both iTunes and Google Play, none are yet worth mentioning except for 123D Catch which has the power of Autodesk behind it. It’s just too early in the app world to get any sort of reliable results. But this is definitely an exciting space to watch over the next couple of years, especially with Intel promoting their RealSense camera which will soon become the standard webcam on our computers, capable of 3D scanning amongst many other features.


123D Catch

Hardware: PC (Windows) + any camera, Phone/Tablet (Apple, Android, Windows)

Description: Once again Autodesk is leading the pack in the free 3D apps market, with 123D Catch requiring nothing more than a camera to capture every angle of an object. Then it uses the cloud to stitch all of these images together into a full colour 3D model and sends it back to you. “So I just have to take a bunch of photos? That’s it?!” While this might sound easy, you will want to watch some tutorials on how to best capture your object, including lighting and backgrounds, to get any sort of useful result from this tool. Luckily Autodesk seem to be putting in a lot of development work into improving 123D Catch, so even if it doesn’t work well for you straight away, stay tuned. There is also some good integration with the other 123D apps, meaning you should have no problems taking your scan into another program to begin designing.

123D catch beta pinshape



Xbox Kinect

Hardware: PC (Windows)

Description: Yes the popular Kinect game console accessory (both for the Xbox 360 and Xbox One) can be used as quite an effective 3D scanner. It’s not quite as simple as plug-n-play to set up, but with a bit of computer know-how, you will be up and scanning in no time. A tutorial such as this one for the Xbox 360 Kinect may be a useful starting point to explain how to get things set up and what software you will need. Depending on the scan software you use, you should end up with a .stl file of your scanned object ready to either 3D print or bring into one of the CAD programs to manipulate or design around.


Mobile Accessories

Hardware: Various mobile phones and tablets (not free)

Description: Since this article is focused on freely available tools for entry-level 3D printing and 3D scanning, I thought I’d lump some of the paid add-ons for mobile devices into a single category. They’re worth including because the accessories are cheaper than most 3D printers— a recent Kickstarter campaign is selling the Bevel 3D Camera for just $49! This means putting 3D scanning into your pocket is extremely affordable, and it’s worth being aware of these sorts of products to enhance your design capabilities. The 2 main products right now include the Structure Sensor (iPad) and iSense (iPad and iPhone), which connect to your device and give you accurate mobile 3D scanning capabilities. If you want a cheaper solution, crowd-funding websites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo are a great place to start. Over the next few years these devices are likely to become significantly cheaper, or be superseded by built-in technologies— meaning we will just need to download a mobile app and have perfect, reliable 3D scanning available at our fingertips. Can you imagine the Instagram of the future if we can capture all our selfies in 3D?

structer sensor 3d scanning pinshape



So you’ve downloaded a design from Pinshape or another file-sharing community, but don’t know whether the file has been created properly for 3D printing on your machine. Or maybe you’ve used some of the free CAD software discussed in this article but need to check that your design will print without errors? The good news for anyone with a 3D printer is that most of the software used to drive your printer will have at least some basic file-checking capabilities, and alert you if a model has any errors. Often this is a visual cue, such as the use of red surfaces in ‘Up!’ software, or the see-through missing surfaces obvious in ‘SoliPrint’ shown below (the model shown is a rabbit with only an outside mesh and a missing base, i.e. it is not solid).

bunny pinshape file checking issues guide



But what if your software doesn’t pick up these errors for you, or prints keep failing but you’re not sure why? Well there are additional tools out there beyond your printing software that you can freely access to both check and repair .stl files. The most common thing you will want to know is whether or not the model you are going to print is ‘watertight’ (also known as ‘manifold’), meaning that there aren’t any tiny gaps in the mesh that if you hypothetically filled with water, would leak. 3D printable files must be completely solid, and not all 3D CAD tools that are used to create objects can do this well.

While there is a huge list of programs you could potentially use to check/repair/modify your file, below we will look at tools designed specifically for this purpose, as opposed to other CAD software that may have some functionality working with .stl files built in, but is primarily designed for other functions.



Hardware: PC (Windows, Linux), Mac, Tablets (iPad and Android), Phones (iPhone and Android)

Overview: A large variety of tools are available in MeshLab to both edit and repair a .stl file. It has the simplest method for quickly checking the quality of the file, and can show both the Boundary Edges and Non Manifold Edges within the Render menu, as shown below. This will highlight and count the number of issues in your mesh, which you can then begin repairing using a number of tools under the Filters menu. While the interface is not as easy to navigate as Meshmixer, there are a greater range of tools to fine-tune your mesh if you have the time to learn all the options.

MeshLab file checking pinshape



Hardware: PC (Windows), Mac

Overview: In a recent blog article called 10 Steps to STL File Modification: A Beginner’s Guide we ran through some basic tools in Meshmixer for customising your .stl files, both removing some features of a model, and then adding your own custom text. But Meshmixer can also be used to check a .stl file for errors like missing surfaces (using the Analysis>Inspector tool), and even generate support material for overhangs or re-orient the model in the direction you’d like to print it. You can also modify the resolution of the mesh to reduce the .stl file size, which can be an issue for some 3D printers or when sending your files to a 3D printing bureau like i.materialise or Shapeways. For fixing and modifying .stl files, this is currently my favourite software for being both extremely easy to use, yet powerful enough to repair or modify almost any 3D printable file.

meshmixer file repairing pinshape


Netfabb Basic

Hardware: PC (Windows, Linux), Mac

Overview: Netfabb offers a powerful range of tools to work with .stl files for both professional and home users, and is responsible for the automated file checking and repair of files uploaded to Shapeways (read more below). However there is a free version called Netfabb Basic, which will allow you to check your 3D files for errors (notice the big warning triangle in the image below!) and repair them using some simple automated tools. Like Meshmixer, there are also some basic tools to edit the file such as cutting the part into pieces (great if you have a small 3D printer and need to cut a large file into pieces). However, if you want the full range of tools you will need to pay to upgrade to the pro version.

Netfabb basic 3d file repair


Printing Bureaus/ 3D Printing Services

Hardware: Internet browser

Overview: If you’ve done even a small amount of research online into 3D printing you will undoubtedly have heard of i.Materialise and Shapeways, the two largest 3D printing bureaus in the world. While arguably the best feature of these websites is the large variety of materials you can access, one of the behind-the-scenes features of uploading a file to such a website is that their software will automatically check for errors in the file, and even attempt to repair the problem. While this means that you won’t actually have the repaired file on your computer, it does mean that you can purchase a 3D print with the comfort of knowing there are no issues with the file. Sometimes it’s worth it just to save the headache of figuring out the issues with a complex .stl file!

file checking shapeways pinshape


Willit 3D Print?

Hardware: Internet browser

Overview: While there are only a few 3D printers in the online database to simulate your print, ‘Willit 3D Print’ is a free, easy-to-use website allowing you to check some of the qualities of your 3D file. This includes the potential roughness of surface finishes, areas that will need support material, whether there are any errors, an estimate of the time to print and cost of material, CO2 emissions, along with the opportunity to save the file to .stl using your modified settings. Best of all it runs in your internet browser so no download cluttering up your computer desktop. You can even run it on a tablet or phone!

will it 3d print screenshot



Along with checking if a file is watertight and suitable for 3D printing, you may need to convert your file into a .stl file ready to 3D print on your home printer. This is the standard file format that all 3D print software reads before slicing the file into layers and sending it to the printer. Thankfully almost all of the CAD software discussed in this article will allow you to move between file types, and with 3D printing being such a popular tool, you should very easily be able to export your design as a .stl.

However, one of the common outputs from sculpting software (like 123D Sculpt+ or Sculptris) is an .obj file – it is quite similar to a .stl, but allows for colour information to be included into the 3D mesh. Most of our home 3D print software will not open an .obj file, so conversion is necessary. A free tool like Meshmixer discussed in the ‘File Checking’ section will open an .obj and allow you to export it as a .stl with the click of a button – easy! Below you can see an example of the .obj file shown in the Sculptris summary of this article opened in Meshmixer, with the Export button on the bottom left menu.

Meshmixer sculptris export

If you really don’t want to download another piece of software to convert your files, there are online file converters like 3D Transform or that will allow you to upload a 3D file to their website, emailing you the .stl once converted. However, ideally you want to control this yourself so you can tweak the settings.

A final note on exporting to .stl from any CAD software, including Meshmixer: if given the option, use the ‘Binary’ type .stl file rather than the ‘ASCII’ format. The short answer to why is that the ‘Binary’ format results in a much smaller file size without loss of detail, which is important when sending files to your printer, or uploading them to a community like Pinshape for others to download. If the objects you are designing are physically large in dimension, it’s even more important to keep your digital file size quite small with 3D print bureaus like Shapeways capping their uploads to 64MB and i.Materialise at 100MB. Your home 3D printer may also have a limit like this.



Now you might be thinking “Woah! Information overload!” But the reality is that the tools discussed in this article only scratch the surface of what is actually out there for designers and makers of all levels. We’ve focused in on some of the best ones if you are just starting out or have a limited budget, and tried to show a range of different tools that you can try so that you can find the best fit for your needs.

At the end of the day we all just want to turn the things in our imagination into physical reality, and it’s exciting to have access to 3D printing technology that can really make this possible.

If you find all these digital tools challenging, my advice is to stick with it. If it was easy to be a designer, everyone would be one! Mastering CAD software is a long journey that requires patience and lots of time in front of the screen.

The good news is that the software is now extremely accessible, and developers like Autodesk are investing a lot of resources into targeting entry-level users, contrasting the model of only a few years ago where you basically needed a university degree in order to use 3D software. So keep your eyes out for more exciting and engaging ways to create 3D models, and of course, make sure you share your exciting creations with your friends at Pinshape!

Questions? Comments? Leave them below! 

 Thank-you James for taking time to write this detailed guide on 3D tools for designers! We hope the community enjoyed this read and most of all, we hope you learned lots. If you made it to the end of this very long post, congratulations on boosting your 3D printing knowledge!


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