Free 3D Design Software Navigation
3D graphics and animation are such a common feature in the media we see and consume every day that it is difficult to imagine our lives without them. They are in the movies and TV programs we watch, on billboards and advertisements, in our games and apps, even in certain books and paintings. All of these 3D objects must come from somewhere, right?
The truth is that most 3D objects are created digitally, through a process known as 3D modeling. Certainly, it is possible to create 3D objects on paper and other flat surfaces, but the process is usually quite cumbersome, and the art has a limited shelf life. On the other hand, digital objects can be stored forever, so most people looking for a 3D model either buy a ready model online, build it themselves, or order a custom model. To make the choice simpler for people and companies, we want to examine the best programs and practices used in custom 3D modeling.
What is the Best Free 3D Design Software?
In the early days of 3DM (three-dimensional modeling), a limited variety of commercial programs was available, and they were anything but free. Programs like Sketchpad, 3DS Max, AutoCAD were groundbreaking, and allowed the Autodesk company (which you will hear mentioned again) to get an early grasp on the industry. Fortunately, with the proliferation of the internet and open-source software, free 3DM programs began to appear on the market, and there is a healthy selection of them available today.
No list of great 3DM software (paid or free) is complete without Blender. This software is open-source, and allows you to do a lot more with 3D than simply model. Simulation, motion tracking, animation, and video editing are just a few of the supported features beyond 3D modelling tools. All in all, Blender is a truly beloved product in the 2D/3D community.
- Near-endless options and tools
- Uses 3 different render engines
- Light size and very stable
- Support for 2D art
- Many guides and tutorials are available
- The user interface can be confusing for beginners
- Poor design in early versions
- Some add-ons and plugins stop working with every update
Sketchup is a program developed by the Trimble company, and is another very popular choice among artists and designers. It has both free and paid versions, with the free modeling software offer consisting of a 30-day trial with professional features and an alternative free version with limited features.
- One of the best free 3D modeling software for beginners
- Simple interface
- Uses powerful Vray rendering
- “Warehouse” feature offers countless user-made models
- No support for vector-based design
- Large file size
- Creating complex forms is very difficult
- Occasional crashes during high load
3. Houdini Apprentice
Houdini Apprentice is a special version of the modern Houdini software, which is best known for its VFX capabilities. While the base version of the program (geared towards enterprises) is not free, Apprentice is a non-commercial version available for free to hobbyists and students.
- Many physics-based elements available
- Geometric shapes can be easily created and duplicated
- Strong rendering capabilities
- Support for creating procedural assets
- Free version comes with watermarks
- LRendering is limited in scope in the demo
- Difficult to learn
- Buggy viewport system
4. Fusion 360
Fusion 360 is a professional tool built by the famous Autodesk company, which also designed 3DS Max and AutoCAD. Free versions of the app are available to hobbyists (1 year), teachers and students (3 years), and enterprises (30 days), with only a handful of features being reserved for the paid version.
- Multi-device support
- Lots of videos and educational materials available
- Support for numerous file types
- Great rendering and simulation quality
- Plenty of time-saving templates are available
- Some issues with imported meshes
- Curved surfaces can be tricky to build properly
- Occasional crashes and instability
TinkerCAD can be thought of as the younger, more unusual brother of Fusion 360. The familial reference is relevant here because, you guessed it, TinkerCAD was also created by Autodesk. However, unlike the other company 3DM products, the program can be run inside a web browser.
- Accessible on most mobile devices, including mobile
- Well-suited for 3D printing and modeling solid geometry
- Makes for a great teaching tool in schools
- Easy switch between different view types
- Not well-suited for high-poly objects
- Difficult to create complicated models
- Web version prone to freezing and connectivity issues
- Lack of variety in default shapes stifles variety and style
What 3D Modeling Software to Choose?
When it comes to free custom modeling software, most objectives can be complete with Blender. Nonetheless, the software is not perfect as we clearly established, and has a few blind spots in terms of features, as well as limited application in the world of professional 3D design.
The other programs we mentioned have their own shortcomings, the biggest of which include missing functionality and restrictions to the number of features you get or to the scale of your models and rendering. Even those with no restrictions have pay-to-use plugins and extensions which are essential for getting certain things done.
If you are considering working with 3D design professionally, it is recommended to get a paid version of one of the top 3D modelling programs suited for your purposes. Looking at the range of available software as a whole, paid versions give you significant advantages in power and functionality which are usually worth investing in.
Top 3D Modeling Techniques
3 major approaches to 3DM exist – Polygonal, curve-based, and sculpting-based. Polygonal modeling makes up the vast majority of all such work done nowadays. It is based on creating objects and characters out of an assortment (mesh) of tiny geometric shapes (polygons) connected together, with more polygons allowing for more detail.
Digital sculpting involves creating a digital flat shape, and manipulating it (like moving clay) to create a new object. Finally, curve modeling (also called NURBS) focuses on creating art from curves, surfaces, and vectors.
All 3 of the aforementioned strategies are fascinating in their own right, so we recommend reading the linked articles for a better understanding of them. In the meantime, let us focus on some smaller-scale, yet nonetheless important and respected practices in the 3DM industry:
In the world of 3D art, topology refers to the structure and flow of a model’s edges and vertices. Thus, when you see a digital character in a movie with a very grotesque and uneven face design, it is usually the result of bad topology. Retopology is a practice used to take art with bad topology and change it to good. When high-poly art undergoes topology, the polygon count is usually lowered to make the process easier or to make the art more compatible with animation.
Texturing (also called texture mapping) is the practice of taking a polygonal character or item, and giving them color and texture. Naturally, as these objects are virtual, there is no actual way to truly feel their texture. However, artists can bestow the appearance of having texture in the way that the colors fall, along with their hue, illumination, and shadows. You can think of the texturing process as akin to going through a coloring book, except for the fact that you have 3D elements to color instead of printed drawings.
As you might guess, layering is the practice of adding layers to a digital element. For example, if you want to show a 3D onion, you can just design the outer layer and use it in media. However, if the onion is to be cut in half, you can create 2 new models (halves of the onion) with one layer each, or add layers to the whole so that manipulations to the digital element will accurately depict its inner layers. Layering is rarely used in this manner, but has broad application in 3D printing, where it is absolutely mandatory for each layer of the printed object to be designed beforehand.
Compositing is best known as a VFX (visual effects) technique used in film and video production, but it has its uses in still media as well. This practice involves taking elements from one form of media and organically inserting them into another form of media. For example, if you have a 3D model of Bigfoot that you want to insert into a photo of you in the woods, you can do this with compositing in a suitable program. The end product will be a photo with all elements in 2D. On the other hand, you can also take 2D elements and insert them into 3D settings, though it will take more effort than for 3D elements.
Last but not least, rigging is an important process that makes 3D models compatible and useful in animation. Usually, rigging is applied to characters and animated creatures, as the rigging process involves building an inner skeleton in the model, with joints, bones, and other anatomic features that can be manipulated in space to simulate realistic body movements.
Custom 3D Modeling Services
Now that we’ve examined some of the best ways and means of creating custom 3D models that you can use, we should also mention the alternative. Rather than spending weeks or months learning how to make your first 3D object, you can always consider another option – hiring someone to do it for you.
There are thousands of art studios open around the world, and likely one in your vicinity, but there is great differentiation in the kind of work they do. Some are focused on making their own models and selling them, some only work with high-poly or low-poly art, some take bulk orders only, and others design exclusively for games, films, TV shows, etc. To get your custom model(s) made, you will need a design studio with a wide range of services.
3D-Ace is a design studio with over 26 years of experience in making custom models for games, commercials, product catalogs, you name it. Our broad experience of building art in different styles and industries makes us qualified to handle virtually all custom 3D modeling projects, so we could be just the studio for you. If you already have a project in mind or just want to know how our potential cooperation will look like, you can get in touch with us at any time. We look forward to hearing from you!