3D modeling is all around you. There are 3D models in the films and TV shows you watch, in the video games you play, and even in the blueprints for 3D printing. It’s all around us.
But 3D modeling isn’t easy, and 3D modeling software can be prohibitively expensive. If you know where you look, however, you can find full-featured 3D modeling software available that won’t cost you a dime.
The type of 3D modeling software you need depends on what you’re trying to do, as certain 3D modeling tools work best with certain types of design. Here’s a short overview of what’s out there:
- Blender: Artistic modeling, but also technical design
- FreeCAD: Engineering and technical design, popular with 3D print designers
- Wings 3D: Good all-around tool for artistic and technical design
- MeshMixer: Artistic modeling, 3D printing
- Tinkercad: Lightweight, entry-level 3D design
- Sculptris: Artistic modeling
- Unity with ProBuilder: Game development with 3D modeling plugin
Let’s take a look at the best free 3D modeling software you can lay your hands on, and which one’s right for you.
Blender features in a phenomenal number of free 3D modeling software guides. Why? Because it ticks so many boxes for a free piece of software. The range of tools outstrips most (if not all) other free competitors, and a healthy number of paid alternatives, too.
To really get to grips with Blender, I would advise finding an online tutorial series and following it. At least until you learn how to navigate Blender and switch between its many tools. And the tools are plentiful: 3D modeling, 3D editing, physical rendering, animation tools, compositing, texturing, material editing—even an integrated basic game engine for quick testing.
Furthermore, the Blender community is prolific and encouraging. If you don’t know something, ask. Chances are someone will have had the same issue, and the question will be long-since answered or resolved in one of the many fantastic Blender tutorials. Blender is donationware. This means it is free and always will be, but the developer does accept donations to keep development moving forward.
We move from one of the undisputed best free 3D artistic modeling tools to one with a solid engineering focus. FreeCAD gives users chance to mimic the powerful CAD software suites to develop their own designs, completely free of charge (most CAD suites costs thousands to license).
FreeCAD uses the concept of “work benches.” The work bench is a set of predefined tools you use to work on different stages of your project. Furthermore, FreeCAD uses parametric modeling, meaning you can easily modify your model by heading through its design history and editing key parameters. Better still, you can use the FreeCAD open source library with other programs, as well as import new modules to extend the FreeCAD functionality without requiring any more software.
For many, it is an excellent, stress-free way of learning advanced CAD drawing without worrying about an expensive license. FreeCAD can directly compete with some of its paid-alternatives, too.
3. Wings 3D
Wings 3D is a powerful open source subdivision 3D modeler that is perfect for beginners. Wings 3D features a wide range of essential and useful 3D modeling tools but also allows for precise modeling with fine detail (it supports AutoUV for model texturing, too). However, Wings 3D offers no animation support. In that, it is purely for model design rather than a full studio.
Wings 3D is a good tool for beginners because it uses traditional polygonal 3D modeling techniques. Almost anything you learn about geometric meshes will translate to other 3D modeling software. Another plus point is the relatively simply interface (especially compared to some other tools), even if it feels somewhat outdated.
Autodesk’s Meshmixer is one of the most popular triangular mesh modeling tools available for free. As an Autodesk product, Meshmixer bulges with useful features for manipulating and managing wire mesh designs, including hollowing, remeshing, print bed orientation, and drag-and-drop mesh mixing.
The drag-and-drop mesh mixing tool allows you to combine existing meshes into a single design with minimum fuss. It doesn’t take long before you’re combining extremely random objects to build fantastical or grotesque models that should never see the light of day. Usefully, Meshmixer doesn’t punish users without prior 3D design or meshing skills, while the interface is fairly easy to navigate.
Tinkercad is another Autodesk development that brings 3D modeling and design to everyone. Rather than a piece of software, Tinkercad is a free online 3D design and 3D printing tool for anyone to enjoy. (Check out our beginners guide to 3D printing for more information!)
You’ll quickly understand what this means once you give it a try. The Tinkercad interface is extremely basic, and your hand is gently guided toward your design destination with minimal fuss.
That said, Tinkercad allows for competent 3D model design. You won’t find the same range of tools Blender or FreeCAD, but Tinkercad is a perfect entry point for absolute beginners.
To use Tinkercad: Head to the Tinkercad website, create an account, and off you go.
Sculptris is another excellent free 3D sculpting tool that appeals to all levels of modeling abilities, professional modelers included. Sculptris developer Pixologic is well known and respected for its ZBrush sculpting and modeling suite. In a way, Sculptris is like a free trial for the fully-featured ZBrush suite.
Sculptris still features a huge number of modeling tools, and it is relatively easy to sculpt and texture a model. Beginners will find Sculptris quite forgiving, as well as noting that the layout and overall design is simple to learn. Pixologic includes a decent amount of tooltips and other hints within the program to keep you on track, too. Adding to those tooltips is a passionate community with a wealth of tutorials to help guide and inspire you.
Our final pick is slightly different. Unity is a free game development tool used to produce some massive titles (e.g. Kerbal Space Program, Hearthstone, Wasteland 2 & 3, Temple Run, Rust, Cities: Skylines). The beauty of the Unity platform is almost universal accessibility. It’s so approachable, we wrote a beginner’s guide to Unity.
Unity also now owns the once-premium tool, ProBuilder, unlocking its extensive toolset for any user. ProBuilder “is a unique hybrid of 3D modeling and level design tools, optimized for building simply geometry but capable of detailed editing and UV unwrapping as needed.”
The ProBuilder Unity plugin is unlike any other 3D modeling tool on this list. You can follow tutorials to learn how to build a huge variety of 3D objects, too. And being a game development platform, you can import these designs into the main engine and walk around them, close-up.
Go Forth and Start Creating 3D Models
The world of 3D modeling awaits you. You now know about tools for creative sculpting, technical sculpting, game development, for absolute beginners, and more. There are other 3D modeling tools available, but we feel that these are the best out there right now.