Wed. Nov 29th, 2023

Are you looking to learn 3D modeling or sharpen your existing skills? Good news! There’s lots of free 3D modeling software available on which you can practice, hone your skills, and even produce some seriously polished projects.

The best free 3D modeling suite

Blender might just be the most recognizable name in 3D modeling and for good reason. This fully-featured 3D modeling suite is available completely free of charge and has been used extensively in video games, film and TV productions, and of course open-source and community projects.

Blender is available for Windows (as both a standard and portable application, macOS (in both Intel and Apple Silicon native versions), Linux, and even Valve’s Steam storefront. The app has gained popularity among artists, budding game designers and modders, and even among PC enthusiasts as a manner of benchmarking GPU performance.

Included are a full set of modeling and sculpting tools you’d expect from a pricey industry-standard software suite. You can animate and rig your models, ideal for integrating into motion pictures or exporting to game engines for use as characters. There are camera-tracking and object-tracking features that make it great for visual effects in film too.

An open-source path-traced renderer called Cycles allows for impressive, photo-realistic renders that can take advantage of NVIDIA, AMD, Intel, and Apple Silicon GPUs. You can blend 2D drawings into 3D spaces for interesting effects, and you can even turn Blender into a video editor if you want (though we’d recommend DaVinci Resolve if you’re looking for a free and powerful non-linear editor).

For artists who know what they’re doing, Blender is highly customizable with support for Python scripting and a UI that can be tailored to your needs. To reach that level, Blender has a huge array of support materials in the form of manuals, references, tutorials, and an active community. You can also download demo files to help understand Blender’s potential and pick apart complex scenes.

A simple yet basic free option for products, buildings, and more

SketchUp Free running in a browser window

SketchUp was initially released in 1999 by a small company called @Last Software, after which it was acquired by Google in 2006. Eventually, Google moved the project on to Trimble Inc. in 2012, and they’ve been updating and releasing it ever since.

Most remember SketchUp from its Google days, where it enjoyed integration with Google Maps and could be used to create building models. The good news is that the app is still simple to learn, making it an attractive starting place for anyone who wants to get started with 3D modeling right in their browser.

The free plan includes access to the web app and mobile viewer, with limited access to the 3D Warehouse for downloading additional pre-built 3D assets, and 10GB of cloud storage. SketchUp for iPad and desktop SketchUp Pro versions are locked behind $119/year and $349/year subscriptions.

SketchUp promises that “all you need is your idea and room to draw” to start creating 3D models. The app is suitable for modeling architecture, interior design, product design, and industrial engineering but with applications in arts like films and video games too.

The app is probably easier to start with than an app like Blender, but it may leave you wanting more and having to upgrade at a later date to fully realize the potential. The web-based environment has the benefit of making it easy to get started, but arguably offers a less robust and reliable base of operations compared to a dedicated desktop app.

For designing CAD models for free from 2D sketches

As the name may suggest, FreeCAD is a free tool designed for creating models for use in computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM). The open-source application is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux to anyone interested in creating models designed for use in the “real world”.

FreeCAD is aimed at users who want to create models for product design, mechanical engineering, architecture, 3D printing, and more. Hobbyists and enthusiasts alike will find plenty to sink their teeth into here, with FreeCAD suitable for creating objects that can be sent to 3D printers and CNC machines.

Sketching is a fundamental part of the FreeCAD workflow, with 3D models created from 2D sketches, and vice versa. This allows you to turn finished 3D models into 2D images for use as schematics or in user manuals. There’s a lot to FreeCAD if you know what you’re doing, though the learning curve can be quite steep as the app seems intimidating at first.

More advanced users will appreciate a broad range of support for a large variety of file formats. The app can be heavily customized using Python so that you can create custom workstations and create time-saving workflows of your own. Fortunately there’s a huge amount of documentation available on the FreeCAD Wiki if you have the time to learn.

For 3D modeling beginners interested in CAD, electronics, and basic coding

Tinkercad is a free web-based 3D modeling tool from Autodesk, a company responsible for industry-standard design software. The app is primarily aimed at students, with introductions to three areas: 3D modeling, electronic circuits, and bringing designs to life with code blocks.

Though classrooms appear to be the primary focus, Tinkercad is available to anyone free of charge. It can be used to export models for 3D printing, evidence of which you can spot over at the Projects archive.

In terms of modeling Tinkercad employs shade-based building blocks, which are then modified and adjusted to create designs (you can also import your own shapes). Elements are then combined to create simple or more adventurous models and designs. The app introduces common design practices like shape alignment, duplication, and using real-world measurements to ensure accuracy in 3D prints.

There’s a good range of documentation available including tutorials, lesson plans for educators, and a help center through which you can look up topics. You can also download Tinkercad as a dedicated iPad app.

An alternative to Blender for polygon modeling

Wings 3D is an open-source 3D modeling application that’s available for Windows, macOS, and Linux. The free app has been around since 2001 and has amassed its share of fans over the years. It’s a polygon modeling application that’s designed for creating static models, with no support for animation within the application.

If you feel like Blender is a little too cluttered and packed with features you won’t use, Wings 3D could be worth a shot. It has a broad selection of tools for modeling, a configurable interface, and it has support for texturing within the app. UV maps are possible using AutoUV, great for cutting and unfolding texture images onto your model’s surface.

As an open-source app, there’s good support for common 3D formats like .OBJ for exporting to other software. You can take a look at what’s possible with Wings 3D over at the gallery page, get a leg up with some of the tutorials and documentation on the support page, or jump right into the active community forum.

A low-polygon 3D model editor for web and desktop

Blockbench is a free and open-source 3D modeling application for Windows, macOS, Linux, and the web. Unlike Blender or Wings 3D, Blockbench specializes in low polygon models. This makes it perfect for creating simple, blocky models like those you’d see in games like Minecraft and A Short Hike.

Blockbench is in use by the creators of Minecraft, Mojang Studios. You can use Blockbench in your browser to start creating models straight away, without the need to register or surrender your email address. Alternatively, you can download the application for offline use.

You can use Minecraft-esque cuboids or standard mesh modeling within Blockbench. The app supports texturing with the ability to paint directly on your model or use UV maps so that you can design textures in other apps and import and place them in Blockbench. There’s also support for model animation.

Blockbench can use a variety of formats and export to other apps like Blender, Maya, and Sketchfab or game engines like Unity and Unreal. There’s also a plugin store that you can use to expand on your experience. Learn how to use Blockbench with the plentiful documentation available on the Blockbench Wiki, and take a look at the gallery to see what others have created.

Fusion 360 is a CAD tool from Autodesk that you can download for free for Personal Use. The free version has limited CAM functionality and cannot be used for 3D printing, so it’s only good for learning the ropes before you decide whether or not the $70 monthly subscription is worth it. That said, it’s an industry-standard tool that may be worth having some experience with.

Dust3D is a modeling tool like Blockbench that also focuses on low-polygon modeling. It’s ideal for creating models for use in video games or for printing, and it’s available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.

Meshmixer is a tool from Autodesk that is designed for CAD purposes for Windows. It’s free to download and use, but it has been neglected in terms of updates. Autodesk claims that it has no plans to retire Meshmixer.

Daz 3D isn’t a 3D modeling tool, but it does let you customize existing models. The app is free to download but to use it you’ll need to download 3D models. There are plenty of freebies available, though if you have a particular use in mind you’ll likely be tempted to purchase from the store.

If you’re looking for more free creative tools be sure to check out our roundup of best free Photoshop alternatives as well as our cheaper Photoshop alternatives for those who are happy to pay for the right app.

We’ve mentioned it already, but for video editing you simply can’t beat DaVinci Resolve in terms of a free package.

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By John P.

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