When we first start a project, we sketch out the design with pencil and paper. For some builds, this is all that’s needed. In other cases, we need a bit more precision in the plans, and this is when we reach for 3D design software. There’s a wide variety of software available for this task, from highly complex CAD systems for designing and even testing mechanical systems, to simple tools for building blocky shapes for 3D printing. Between these extremes lies a world of options.
SketchUp is fairly simple in its basic form – you can draw shapes and extrude them in to 3D objects, paint them, and build up your model. In addition to this, there’s a huge selection of extensions that add more functionality. Using these, you can tweak the tool by adding the specific features you need. This makes it easy to get started, and only bring the complexity in when you need it (and have mastered the basics).
You can export STL files for 3D printing with the basic online version (free), but for a wider range of CAD export file types, you will need to upgrade to the Shop version for $119 per year, which also adds unlimited storage, better support, and better tools for working with materials. The Pro version (a one‑off payment of $695) brings in an offline version.
3D modelling is quite a complex skill. SketchUp is easy to get started with, but unless this is something that you’ve worked with before, it will take a little practice before you’re able to create complex models. Fortunately, SketchUp has a good selection of videos to help you bring your design skills at www.sketchup.com/learn.
Alongside this learning material, there is a library of models that other users have shared that you can look at, edit, incorporate, or expand at will. You can see these at hsmag.cc/sJXmWX. With a good range of extensions, SketchUp is a free-to-use 3D design tool that is easy to use, and powerful enough for many hobbyist users, and has been popular, particularly with woodworkers and for more architectural designs.
If you are looking for physical design software, then SketchUp is worth checking out and because it’s web-based, there is nothing to download, so you can try it out straight away. Even with its extensions, it is still a little lacking when creating complex designs, but for beginner and intermediate users, it’s a great choice.
Trimble Inc free sketchup.com
Simple to use 3D software, with a good range of extensions