How To Get Started with 3D Modeling for 3D Printing

By Wesley Fenlon

Want to print awesome things on a MakerBot? Design awesome video game characters? Either way, 3D modeling is your answer.

There’s one thing--and only one thing--the Transformers films are truly remarkable for: staggeringly detailed computer effects shots from the incomparable artists at Industrial Light & Magic. In Dark of the Moon, Shockwave’s worm-like metal pet Driller consists of 70,051 separate parts, a good 20,000 more than Revenge of the Fallen’s Devastator. It took ILM 288 render hours per frame to animate the Driller eating its way through a CG Chicago skyscraper, and the visual effects files themselves took an hour just to load on the development house’s most powerful desktops.

No one does 3D modeling and animation like ILM--they’ve proven that time and again by bringing characters like Optimus Prime and Davy Jones to life. To climb to that level of talent, most of us have to start small, building our own simple 3D models and learning the ins and outs of shaping and texturing meshes. Getting into 3D modeling can be intimidating thanks to the complexities (and costs) of software like Autodesk’s $3500 3D Studio Max, but it’s easier than ever thanks to free options like Google Sketchup and Blender.

Interested in throwing yourself into 3D animation? Want to know how to design those cool objects we print in the MakerBot every week? Here’s how to jump headfirst into 3D modeling without spending hundreds of dollars on overwhelming software.


Getting started with 3D modeling is a bit like diving into video editing for the first time: Final Cut Pro is the expensive application of choice for most professionals, but other options like iMovie give beginners a way in that doesn’t cost $300. In the 3D modeling world, Blender is the most likely analogue: the open source software leaves a small footprint with a tiny 20 megabyte installer. On first glance, Blender’s obscure menu layout can be tricky to figure out. Thankfully, a huge community exists around the open source project. Tutorial videos and walkthroughs cover the basic interface and basic modeling on up to actual animation. Despite being a free tool, Blender can produce some excellent animations:


If you're not sure how much time and money you want to dedicate to 3D modeling, starting with Blender is a no-brainer. If you're a student serious about tackling the industry professionally or enjoy Blender and want to use a more powerful piece of software, Maya is the next step. Non-students can opt into a free Maya trial, but students can register with the Autodesk community and download Maya and other Autodesk software for free. Maya is absolutely a professional product: ILM used Maya to model and animate Transformers.

The software offers built-in tools to simplify complex modeling tasks like hair, fluids and cloth. Maya's tools promote designing models with polygonal meshes and and NURBS and creating smooth animation with muscle and skin motion. Anyone skilled in Maya should be well prepared for professional 3D modeling. If you can't get your hands on the free student version, dig into the 30 day free trial and decide if it's worth the investment.

Modeling Mega Man: not a task for beginners, but a goal to aspire to.

Blender and Maya cover the type of creation and animation we typically associate with 3D modeling. As MakerBot fans know, there's a whole other mess of 3D creation out there for rapid prototyping manufacturing. Most of the time we call it 3D printing: the process of forming three dimensional objects out of plastics using a machine like the MakerBot. This kind of creation isn't quite as complicated as building 3D models of Transformers with 70,000 unique parts, which thankfully keeps CAD software prices down and makes the creation process more approachable. You won't have to worry about texturing or lighting or animation when you're building models for printing.

Google SketchUp

You can't beat free. Like Blender, Google's SketchUp CAD software is freely available to any and all who care to use it. CAD drawing is more approachable than the kind of 3D modeling Blender and Maya are designed for--SketchUp promotes the creation of model furniture and architecture rather than detailed characters. There's still plenty to learn with Google SketchUp if you've never done any 3D design before--even manipulating the camera, drawing on a 2D plane and extruding shapes into 3D will be a bit confusing at first.

SketchUp is far simpler than Blender or Maya, but great for basic structural modeling and planning.

Google's series of over 50 training videos will sharpen your mind and skills into shape. The real challenge is meshing your imagination--whatever it is you want to create for a 3D printer--with your skills and the program's abilities. To print your creation, you'll probably need to export a STL file for the MakerBot or other 3D printer. SketchUp doesn't support the file format by default, but a free plugin solves that problem.

Doing a little architectural design is an easy way to learn the ropes along with the tutorials. Drawing 2D lines is quickly intuitive in SketchUp--they'll snap to an axis and snap together to help you create parallel equidistant lines. A set of connected lines can quickly form up into a 3D shape. SketchUp also provides an arc tool and freehand drawing. Once you get the knack of rectangles, triangles, and straight lines, those tools can help you build something a little more creative.


Tinkercad is without a doubt the easiest and simplest program on this list. In fact, it's not even a fully fledged piece of software--it's a web app, run in a browser, that uses webGL for some seriously cool 3D modeling. From the moment you register at Tinkercad for free and open up the beta app, which launched in April 2011, you can tell it's different from the average 3D modeling software--the zoom is silky smooth, the interface is dead simple, and 3D objects take on a pleasant wooden texture that evokes the building blocks of our childhoods.

Modeling in Tinkercad involves only two tools: an add tool for drawing 3D objects and a subtract tool for cutting holes in them. Extrusion and size fields determine volume. By right-clicking a surface, you can use the add tool to build on top of it or the subtract tool to carve a chunk out of your model. When we first used Tinkercad, it only offered cylinders and rectangular prisms for modeling, but the application is already expanding. There are now tools for multi-sided pyramids and cones.

Tinkercad allows you to save projects and export an STL for printing. The downside, of course, is Tinkercad's simplicity. Basic rectangular prisms and cylinders can only take you so far. If you're trying to print intricate models with complex curves, turn to Blender or Maya. But if you're looking to build objects with basic geometric parts, cut you teeth on Tinkercad and look at some projects on Thingiverse to get an idea of what the software is capable of. Tinkercad is young beta software being developed by an ex-Google programmer and a game designer who previously worked on Crysis. It's already the most accessible way to get into rapid prototyping; keep your eye on this one if you ever plan to dive into 3D printing in the future.

Images via CG Channel, Autodesk