My Quest for the Perfect 3D Modeling Software for Makers - Part 1 - SketchUp & 123D Design

I’m just getting into 3D modeling and I’m searching for the perfect software. I do relatively small maker type enclosures and product designs. My requirements are: free or inexpensive, easy to use, precise and inspiring. I’m starting with the free options to see how far I can get. I’m going off of this Wikipedia list and recommendations from friends, but please feel free to make recommendations in the comments. Hopefully this post saves you some time as you go about researching your 3D modeling software options.
















Program Price Pros Cons
SketchUp
Make: Free for non-commercial
Pro: $590 for commercial
Make vs Pro Comparison
Great for drawing straight lines and exact measurements. Extensible with community plugins. Guide lines, protractor, rulers are very helpful when doing detailed work.
Nearly impossible to create perfectly smooth lines and rounded corners.
Feels very dated. I wasn’t inspired to create beautiful models with it.

I built this extender with SketchUp and it worked out well because it is made up of a lot of straight lines and I was happy with SketchUp. The extenders fit perfectly together.

But then I tried to build a wedding ring – an extruded circle with rounded corners. This is where SketchUp failed me. By default you can’t round the corners of a curved face.

And the edge of the circle isn’t a nice smooth round surface. Maybe there’s a way to tweak that, but I want my modeling software to create smooth textures by default. I tried the “Smooth option”, but it didn’t work right away so I gave up.

There is a rounded corner extension here, but while I appreciate the effort didn’t work for my ring. I did some rounded corners with it as shown below, but it was very difficult to get it perfect.

SketchUp is great for exact measurements, but lacks with curved beautiful drawings. I want both….so the search continues.















Program Price Pros Cons
Autodesk 123D Design
Non-commercial Use: Free
Premium: $10/month

Great for fast prototyping and rough sketches.
Right click orbits you around the model.

Nearly impossible to change dimensions of objects. You can scale by a factor, but you end up doing math as you are modeling to get exact measurements.
I quickly outgrew this app because I need exact measurements and I need to be able to print something and then go back and quickly tweak anything by a fraction of a millimeter.
No default tool when you select an object. You always have to select and object and then select a tool. Lots of clicking.
Menus are all flyouts and are finicky. After selecting an object, I have to move my mouse from my object to the top of the screen to hover over a menu, then hover over the tool I want, then click the tool, then go back to my object. Too much back and forth. You must learn the keyboard shortcuts.
Doesn’t allow you to use the ruler and the scale tool at the same time, so you have to measure, then switch tools, then measure, then switch, etc. Just to change dimensions

It took me about an hour to create this Chi lego piece, but it wasn’t to scale. Since 123D Design doesn’t easily let you adjust objects to exact dimensions the thought of having to scale this down to size is daunting – I actually won’t even try. You’ll see why below.

Here’s what I would have to do if I wanted to change the bottom cylinder to exactly 5.34mm diameter on the interior wall.

Get the measurements by hitting the “I” key on the keyboard and see that it is 19.915mm.

Then hit Esc key.

Then open my calculator. 19.915 – 5.34 = 14.575.

So I need to reduce my cylinder by 14.575mm.

I then select the inner ring

I enter –14.575, hit enter and it doesn’t move. Frustrating and I don’t know why it didn’t move. No message. I then try to scale the whole cylinder.

I need to know the thickness of the cylinder wall, so I select the measure tool, select the interior wall and the exterior wall and see that it’s 1mm

I want the interior wall to be 5.34mm plus the thickness of the wall that’s 6.34. So, 19.915 (diameter) – 6.34 – 13.575.

I need to reduce my shape by 13.575mm.

I select the shape, then select the Scale tool and try to resize by pulling the arrow.

While I’m scaling it the software doesn’t tell me the size, just a factor. So now I need to figure out what factor of 19.915 I need to set it to.

This is where I give up. Yes, I could figure that out, but I refuse to. There’s no way this will scale to real world precise modeling.

My ring on the other hand, was super easy to create and I was happy with the print and even posted it to Thingiverse.

I’m going to keep searching for the perfect mix of inexpensive, precise, beautiful and inspiring.

Suggestions more than welcome.

Jon