School Supplies: What You Need To Get Started 3D Modeling

Starting any new hobby can get pricey- and as a serial hobbyist/project-starter, I know. Just ask the dozens of skeins of unused yarn in my drawer, or the slowly-crumbling pile of polymer clay on the shelf in my office.

I’ve got good news for you. Getting started with 3D printing doesn’t have to cost a fortune, so put the hammer down and back away from the piggy bank. Actually, you can pretty much do it for free.

Until my late teens, I thought all software and programs either came pre-loaded on your computer (hello, iTunes and iMovie) or could be purchased at Target for $20-50 (because that’s where I bought the Sims 1 and 2, plus expansion packs, and those were the only things I ever, ever used on my computer in 2006). Imagine my distress when I learned this was not the case. Solidworks, a popular 3D modeling program, is FOUR THOUSAND DOLLARS. Rhino is a little less spendy at a cool $1000 (less for Mac).

Guess what, though? You don’t have to buy any of this stuff. We’re using FREE STUFF ONLY.


I use a program called Fusion 360, made by a company called Autodesk. I love it because, 1. it’s free for students, hobbyists (that’s you), and startups (that’s me), 2. it’s powerful, but fairly user-friendly and intuitive, especially for people new to digital design, 3. it stores all your files and whatnot in the cloud and 4. it plays well with a program called Meshmixer (also free), which describes itself as a “swiss army knife” for 3D printing. Meshmixer can do a bunch of stuff, like push or pull a surface around like clay, analyze a model’s thickness, get a model ready for printing with layouts, support material, etc… I haven’t run into much that I can’t do, modeling-wise, between these two programs. Plus, I’ve only been reduced to tears a small handful of times while using them, which I can’t say for the other modeling software I’ve tried to use.

There are a lot of other free programs out there- SketchUp, for example, or Blender (notoriously hard to use, but very powerful), or Autodesk 123D Design, or Sculptris. TinkerCAD, another Autodesk product, is great for bare basics- however, it seems more geared towards kids, and as Beyonce says, I’m a grown woman. Lots of adults do use it, though- so if you poke around and like it, and feel it can fulfill your modeling needs, go for it.

Personally, I’d recommend just jumping in with Fusion 360, even though it’s a little more challenging. Every program has its own workflow and own set of peculiarities- and personally, I find it less frustrating just to learn with a more powerful program from the beginning, rather than learning the ropes on something like TinkerCAD, then having to relearn some basics when you make the transition to something more advanced like Fusion.

All that is a long way of saying that I’m going to be conducting tutorials with Fusion and Meshmixer, so… go download it (download the free trial, and then, once you’re in the program, just register for free use as a hobbyist. Very easy and VERY free).


Well, you’re going to need a computer. There’s really no way around that.

Another big reason I love Fusion is that it’s cross platform, so whether you’re a Mac or a PC, you’ll be able to run it successfully.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that 3D modeling is a complicated operation for your computer, especially if you start working with more complex models. Your graphics card, RAM, and CPU will be the most significant determinants of how well your computer handles the operations. That being said, I’ve been able to model and process some very complicated and huge files on a MacBook Pro from mid-2012, which, in computer years, might as well be a stone wall and a chisel, so don’t stress too much at the outset if you don’t have the most current whatever. Just download the software and give it a try.

Now, I do have a single purchase I suggest you make to get started, despite my earlier FREE STUFF ONLY pronouncement.

Go buy a mouse.

It doesn’t have to be fancy or have flames painted on the side- we’re not playing League of Legends or Starcraft. It just has to be a good, basic mouse- I have this one. I actually have two, ostensibly one for the office and one for home, but I keep accidentally bringing them BOTH home or leaving them BOTH behind, so my system is collapsing. But I digress.

I was very resistant to buying a mouse, because as a lifelong Mac user, I still barely understand how right-click works. In fact, I refused to make the switch at first, insisting on using a combination of my trackpad and my Wacom tablet.

I don’t recommend it.

So I got the mouse. It makes it a lot easier to zoom around in the modeling space, access the tools, etc. Just all the stuff that makes the program work, basically. You can see that my mouse now has a place of honor amongst my essentials, as illustrated in the photo above. It’s literally my right hand man (PS I apologize that my laptop appears to be either tearstained or streaked with sweat- I don’t know which is worse/more embarrassing, so let’s go with the most realistic scenario, which is both).

So that’s it. $11.49 and a couple of free program downloads are enough to get you started. Now, we just need to build those skillz.



Designer, magpie, maximalist.


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