Best free CAD for beginners?

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I wanted to open a discussion about CAD software and peoples experiences with it to help people new to CAD make a choice what software would be best for them.

For people unfamiliar with CAD here is a quick explanation.
It’s a software that lets you create a design in 2D or 3D and can be used for a number of different tasks. For example for 3d printing, laser cutting, CNC, creating a model of a wood or metal project you want to create.

I am looking specifically for free CAD software that’s easy to learn and beginner friendly.
Here are some I have found:

What are peoples experiences with these? And which one do you prefer and recommend for beginners?

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I should note that both ZBrushCore and Blender are not really CAD programs. While they provide the ability to create 3D geometry, they take a mesh-based approach, rather than one based constructive solid geometry. When it comes to 3D printing this is fine, but when it comes to other CAM-based operations this is usually insufficient. I wouldn’t recommend either of these for designing actual parts with reliable dimensions.

Out of the actual CAD options, I have experience with FreeCAD and Fusion 360. The former is, as it says, free, but that does come with an often awkward approach and learning curve. Fusion 360 is commercial, but is personally what I’ve settled on. It provides a comprehensive suite of functionality with a much nicer learning curve than FreeCAD.

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Apart from the ones in the list, there is also OpenSCAD. The learning curve is very step, but as everything is coded, it’s easier to create patterns and make changes once everything is created.
This works really well for some engraving patterns :smiley:

Btw, I only used cad programs as a hobbyist for 3d printing.

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I was going to mention OpenSCAD, thanks for jumping in!

Previous CAD discussion (and identifying members willing to share their knowledge):


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It might help if you give an idea of the sort of thing you want to make, using which machine – or a specific project to guide suggestions as the question is very broad: a bit like ‘what’s the best woodworking tool?’

I’m wondering if by ‘beginner’ you mean occasional user for simple projects? As there are routes for this such as laser-cut box makers and tonnes of parametric Thingiverse models (OpenSCAD based IIRC) that avoid the learning curve of full CAD + CAM software…

For laser cutting Inkscape is the go-to, and is fantastic

Call me cynical but I would describe Fusion 360 as ‘currently offering a free to use version for non-commercial use’ which is liable to change without warning

FreeCAD is evolving at pace, is hugely powerful, but demands an investment of time to get used to its sometimes quirky brilliance…but it will always be free

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I completely understand your point.

For a bit of context for others, Fusion 360 has undergone a few license changes and even tries to hide the hobbyist license on their site. It is not libre software and Autodesk continues to experiment with restrictions on the free product. At the moment, >10 active documents, >3 axis tool paths, rapids faster than feedrate, and some file formats are all locked away.

On the other side of the equation, Fusion 360 is incredibly feature rich. Autodesk is pouring a lot of resources into continually improving it as well. There’s also so much content available when you search for “how do I do x in Fusion 360”. If the job shop YouTube channels are to be believed, it has become the absolute standard for smallish shops for CAM.

I believe in Free Software. Despite having access to Illustrator, I start every project in Inkscape. I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of writing Inkscape extensions to get stuff done. Unfortunately I’ve
checked out a bunch of libre CAM options but didn’t find one to settle on.

I think a few of us have experiences that mirror Ara’s; we tried other options but reluctantly settled on Fusion.

Interested if other folks who have joined the conversation before have found better workflows. @palmada @Jonathan

Also tagging folks who mentioned CAD in their introductions: @morgoberts @mjadczak @Marylis_Ramos Do you use any hobbyist tools outside of work?

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As an absolute beginner in 3D design, this was my learning path:

  1. I started with TinkerCAD and loved being able to make 3d models really quickly.
  2. I soon got the sense that TinkerCAD is not really powerful enough for my 3D ambitions
  3. I therefore started learning Fusion360 - the learning curve was really steep, but I found some great tutorials.
  4. I too got uncomfortable with their licencing model - I definitely don’t want to invest a huge amount of time learning “free” software only to have it taken away from me later
  5. I switched to FreeCAD and found that I went through the same learning journey as Fusion (in other words, neither harder or easier to learn)

Of course, I am just a beginner, and more experienced users may be able to point to freeCAD deficiencies not found in Fusion. For now, freeCAD’s “free” model and an active user community win for me.

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Lots of good points in this thread… I am just a hobbyist but like Fusion 360 because it is so feature rich and ubiquitous, and they (currently) give full licenses to education (I have a part time job at a university). So it works well for me anyways… but I know others don’t have all the bells and whistles!

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The CAM workflow in FreeCAD seems a bit challenging. We have simplified workflow that stores speeds, feed rates, step overs, step downs in the tool library itself for VCarve and Fusion. This allows new users to understand a few differences between tools and then just pick one. It’s also a productivity boon to start with reasonable defaults and then tweak them per operation. It’s likely I don’t understand it but it looks like you have to reinsert a tool into the job each time you want to change those properties (and give it a useful name). I haven’t found any documentation yet to suggest defaults can be stored in the tool library. Between different materials, roughing/finishing, multiple interfaces for different properties, it seems like a lot to juggle.

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I started with Fusion 360 but became uncomfortable with the constant changes to the licensing, so have moved to FreeCAD which was not as bad as I feared! Have managed to do fairly well with it and it’s now my go to.

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I think I’m mostly in a similar boat, in that I’ve mostly settled into using Fusion since it’s powerful enough and familiar and the hobby licence restrictions don’t really impede me very much. Mind, I’ve primarily used it for 3D printing, and so have not used the CAM side of it very much. I learned to use SolidWorks in school (which I consider similar at least conceptually), and had an education licence for Fusion while at university, so at this point it’s all fairly familiar, and I also very much enjoy the timeline concept Fusion has.

I think if Autodesk took away the completely free licence, but offered some reasonably-priced individual licence instead (say, £10 pm as opposed to the ~£50 of the full version) I’d be happy to pay them - I like their software! As nice as it would be to have a Blender-level equivalent to Fusion’s 3DS Max, I suspect that CAD and especially CAM is a much more niche area with far fewer enthusiasts (and corporations) willing to contribute to such a project to a similar degree. I think the fact that you need some potentially pricey hardware for CAM to be relevant to you at all also contributes to lower pressure for free (and/or libre) alternatives.

In terms of other tools, I’ve tried tinkering a little with OpenSCAD, given I’m a programmer, but for some reason my brain finds it much easier to follow the Fusion-like approach of sketching things out and building up the geometry from that when going from an idea or physical object to CAD model. To be fair, I’ve not really given FreeCAD a go - sounds like it might be worth a look.

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My experience largely reflects what’s been said. I have had to make 3D drawings in freecad to get something machined professionally and it was a real PITA. I’ve now used Fusion360 and found almost everything easier. I’d prefer to use a libre software but in the end I have limited time to dedicate to learning FreeCAD fully so Fusion wins out. In the future if I need to design parts for work I am more likely to ask for a Fusion license than to try and get away with FreeCAD.

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I am the same and you can do it in FreeCAD, it’s just I find the sketching a bit less intuitive and the overall layout of the tools clunky. So something that feels straightforward in Fusion suddenly feels more convoluted in FreeCAD, even if it is the same operation.

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All the info above is really relevant.
I think the tool you choose and workflows you adopt can only be known once you understand what it is you want to achieve and how much of a budget you have to help you along the way.
I have in the past used Tinkercad, MicroStation and have settled on Fusion 360. I must add that at work I have access to all of these and also Solidworks and Inventor but Fusion has become my tool of choice due to the sophistication of the software and what it can achieve and also the user base that supports it and drives development.

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Thank you everyone for your input.

That’s a really good collection of experiences and tips for people!

It looks like Fusion360 or FreeCAD are very popular once people gained some experience.

I feel like for anyone completely new to CAD it would be very overwhelming to start off with either one of those.

I tried myself on both SketchUp and TinkerCAD and I think they are both great and have a good and simple layout that works well.

I think TinkerCAD has the edge on SketchUp with their built in tutorials that are so easy to follow and really good for anyone to get started by themselves.

The main reason I am asking is to help people that want to get into 3D printing and start designing their own projects.

@dermot, yes, I am thinking of people that want to do the occasional design and would like to get into designing and being able to use our machines such as CNC, 3D printer, and laser cutter.

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I used to use SketchUp for my landscape design work, and designing parts for CNC occasionally, so have many hours experience on it…but for 3d printing it’s full of traps and I personally wouldn’t use it nowadays for producing objects in the real world (but I stopped garden design in 2014 so it might be better now…but I still see it as horrible for those purposes)

Yeah, SketchUp is great for interior or outdoor designing rather then small objects…

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I do agree that Fusion is very much geared for those with some amount of engineering know how. My experience with CAD has been for reference design for professional machinists to make parts of, or for woodwork designs. Never used it for 3D printing parts!

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For people who want to do more than simply download stl files from Thingiverse, but haven’t mastered 3D design software, there is an intermediate step - parametric and wizard-based generators:

E.g.

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On the 3D printed miniatures front, https://desktophero3d.com/ may be a little less polished than hero forge but I believe you can download STLs for free!