Most of the extremely muscular 3D modeling software that we see advertised also comes with an equally muscular price tag. We’re here to give you 5 recommendations for the best free 3D modeling software kits available online.
While digital 3D modeling has been a standard-fare practice for architects and designers for decades (and before that, on paper), advances in computing power and hardware have kickstarted a huge amount of interest in the craft. While this type of software used to require extensive training and learning in order to be used properly, many developers are striving to make it more user-friendly, now that technology such as 3D printing is becoming more widely available to average consumers.
On top of that, a huge amount of our entertainment world is built upon digital creations, and more specifically, 3D digital creations. It’s both fun and challenging to let the creative process roam free in software that allows us to generate art and designs above and beyond the 2D plane. We see the world in three dimensions, and it’s only an expectation that we’d like to create in the same way, applying a sense of relative distance to certain planes and shapes in a design project in order to bring it closer to reality.
3D modeling software is used by artists and professionals alike, and often serves as a sort of digital “bridge” between the art and business worlds, allowing for crossover and collaboration that’s used in hundreds of professional aspects. Architects, mechanics, sculptors, game developers, and more all know their way around 3D modeling programs, and the same features in each are what allow people in these fields of work to excel at their jobs.
Typically, you get what you pay for with software like this. Just as other digital media editing programs can often cost hundreds of dollars (or must be bought on a renewing “license”) so too can 3D modeling software run you an arm and a leg. For this reason, it’s usually professionals and very prolific, serious hobby artists who end up needing the very best software.
If that’s not you, however, and you’re looking for software that will allow you to dip your toes into the realm of 3D modeling, we have several recommendations that can help to introduce you to the tricks of the trade, and the tools that you’ll be using if you continue to pursue it. Interested in animation? These can get you started, allowing you to learn the skills that you’ll need to advance in this growing industry. Maybe you’re just a fan of 3D art and want to apply your own creative skill set to it. That’s possible too!
No matter your area of interest, from architecture to animation, learning how to get around in 3D modeling software is almost essential for success. In addition to our recommended free software, I’ll conclude this little list with some examples of the professional-quality software that professionals in the industry regularly depend on.
Like all free software, what you get is what you pay for. If you’re using a free or trial program, you shouldn’t have any expectation that you’ll get the full range of tools and features that are available in the expensive, full software suites. It’s not realistic or sensible for developers to commit the time, energy, and expertise to creating free programs that normally cost hundreds of dollars.
That said, if you’re a newbie to 3D modeling, you may be startled by how much you can get without shelling out vast sums of money. In the interest of not having to sell a kidney to get started with 3D modeling, I highly recommend you start out with these free software packages if only to dip your toes into a growing industry.
More often than other free software, I see Blender being embraced by design artists as a go-to, reliable source for 3D modeling tools. It’s free and open-source, meaning that it won’t cost you a penny and that as long as it remains a popular option for designers, it will remain updated and functional. The developers’ blog will let you know about recent additions made to the software.
Used by pretty much every corner of the 3D design industry, there isn’t a “free” option that I’d currently recommend higher than Blender.
Brought to us by Pixologic, Sculptris is a strongly-developed software kit that’s intended for 3D modeling beginners. This isn’t to say that professionals and experienced designers won’t find anything useful in it, but it’s presented in a way that encourages new users to learn the ropes. It has fairly strong built-in tutorials, and it will quickly become obvious that a professional development team’s talent went into making it.
This is because Pixologic is also the developer of Zbrush, a paid 3D modeling software kit that we’ll talk about below. For now, Sculptris is great, free download to get you started, and it’s much more beginner-friendly than Blender.
Here’s where we start getting deeper into the pool when some prior knowledge is going to be required if you want to work productively in the software. Like many CAD programs, OpenSCAD is going to need some programming and coding knowledge on your part. It is free, and it’s an extremely versatile tool for not having an attached price tag, but it’s far from beginner-friendly.
Intended for designers working with physical objects, such as mechanical parts or architectural designs, animators will likely want to look elsewhere.
Back to basics! If an open-source software that’s meant for serious designers is still a bit too serious for you, I’d recommend TinkerCAD. Made with new, freshly interested folks in mind, it still focuses on the same building resources as other CAD programs; you’ll be making solid objects that can be shaped and made in manufacturing capacities, such as 3D printers.
You don’t need to have any programming knowledge to work in TinkerCAD, though it is helpful to know. All in all, it’s a free, easy-to-use program that is far less muscular than OpenSCAD but remains easier to approach.
As with TinkerCAD, this 3D modeling software doesn’t come with all of the design tools that you might expect from more exhaustive programs. It’s meant for people who are either new to 3D modeling, or who only have a modest amount of experience.
Still, Sketchup can be a good place to go if you’re interested in legitimate architectural design as a profession since the tools it offers are great for training, and architecture was the original purpose for which Sketchup was designed. The basic version is free, but the paid version will get you access to a great deal more tools and features within the software.
AutoDesk Fusion 360
Technically, the only “free” thing about AutoDesk Fusion 360 is the trial portion of the software, but once you’ve had some experience with other 3D modeling programs, I definitely recommend that you give this part of the AutoDesk family a try.
It’s definitely not for everyone, but it will give you a good taste of professional-quality design software that’s intended for collaboration. When you’re working on a team with other designers (more often than not, in the profession), having knowledge of the entire design process, and how to work together with other creatives is immensely useful. This software will introduce you to that world, but the full version still carries the sticker shock of a full-fledged AutoDesk program.
A bit of a primer, before we delve into some of these massive 3D modeling software suites: design programs are expensive. This is fairly common knowledge for designs students and artists, but if you’re not acquainted with the price tags associated with this type of software, prepare yourself for a little bit of sticker shock.
That said, you won’t find better programs than these professional-oriented software packages. They are the best-of-the-best, and while it may take some experience to come to realize this yourself, those in the industry can add their testimony to the case that these are only worth your money if you’re extremely serious about 3D modeling. If you’re starting to think careers, you should also start thinking about how you’re going to learn your way around the industry-standard software.
In short, Maya is where digital dreams come true. Some of the best and brightest 3D modeling masters in the industry work with Maya, and if you’ve seen a CGI-rich film in the past decade, you can bet that you’ve seen something created with this expansive software kit.
Like many other professional-grade 3D modeling programs, I wouldn’t recommend delving headfirst into Maya without any prior experience. The paid version will cost you a pretty penny, though there is a free trial that you can take advantage of! Additionally, if you’re a student, you may qualify for three free years of Maya licensure.
Like Maya, ZBrush has become industry-standard software, used in everything from filmmaking to architecture. Also like Maya, it’s extremely expensive but will give you almost all of the tools that you’ll require as a professional designer.
Game designers and animators will get the most use out of Zbrush. Like Sculptris mentioned above, it’s a 3D modeling program that designs through “sculpture,” allowing you to create shapes in preparation for texture mapping and detailing.
The opposite end of the spectrum from the artistic sculptor is the product designer, and like most CAD type programs, AutoDesk Inventor excels at creating mechanical objects and architectural designs. Mathematical prowess and coding are practically an entry fee with a program this strong, and like other professional-grade modeling software, it’s going to cost you.
However, when it comes to designing physical objects, the AutoDesk family has few competitors.
The above recommendations certainly aren’t an exhaustive list; there are dozens of other 3D modeling software suites available for you to research, but if you’re bouncing back between “free” and paid 3d modeling software, searching for a place to get started, we hope that the above guide will give you a definite direction to pursue.