In recent weeks, I’ve had quite a few conversations around 3D software in education which brought to light the very real challenge that new 3D modelers face; choosing a software to begin learning how to 3D model. With an ever growing list of new software that is marketed towards the novice modeler there is a lot to choose from, yet jumping into a new software can be daunting.
Tinkercad is the first free software I’m demoing and reviewing. My attempt is to evaluate it, and others (as best I can) from the eyes of a beginner. I’m hoping that I can identify the pit falls a new user will stumble over so I can help to clarify. And as with professional 3D modeling software, its best to choose a software based on the type of items you plan to model so I will give the user a general sense of what types of models you can create with Tinkercad.
Interface & Learning
A nice immediate discovery with Tinkercad is that its browser-based so no need to worry about computer compatibility or program size. I’ll be curious to see how it continues to perform with larger, more complex models.
Tinkercad, visually, is an exciting software. It has a clean, light interface and its not overwhelming with buttons or tools. The general layout feels very much like an Autodesk program; a program based on a traditional solid modeling engine like Solidworks or Fusion 360. This feels like an engineering software rather than a design software, also quite Autodesk-esque.
The brief tutorials, I feel, are key to allowing a new user to jump right in and feel they are engaging with the modeling software. The order they have chosen to teach navigation and then modeling functions seems ideal, though not fully explained.* In addition, it doesn’t seem that they walk the user through the interface navigation buttons along the left side of the interface, therefore I’ll explain them at the end of this post.**
The Base Modeling Engine
Tinkercad is, at its roots, is a solid modeling software. Its best used to create more geometric forms. A model is created by combining primitive, pre-existing 3D shapes (or “geometry”) which are either joined together as solids or used to cut holes. You can easily build clean, fairly intricate parts with a little patience and planning. This software would be good for jewelry, structures, housewares, toys or anything that can be made using existing blocks and geometric shapes. However, you won’t be able to create many organic or irregular shapes like you can with other sculpting based software which I will review later.
The library of primitives is pretty extensive without being overwhelming. Once you get comfortable doing some basic modeling, check out the Featured Shape Generators menu which can create some unusual but useful irregular shapes with a lot of parametric controls (meaning you can use a slider to control features of the shape like diameter, height, number of instances/copies, etc.) The Community Shape Generators unlock a lot more advanced primitive shapes to use when modeling and are definitely worth scrolling through, though warning, they take a bit to load.
The one major drawback of this software, which may be a common thread among free softwares, aimed at beginners, is the lack of ability to create truly unique shapes using curves or sketches. Everything you model must start from a pre-existing primitive shape so you are limited to what you can piece together rather than create from scratch. For example, if you are making a pendant and you have a logo that you created for your company, you have only one font option (plus a few more in the Shape Generators section.) This is definitely not an immediate problem and is what prevents Tinkercad from being a heavier, more complex software to learn, it just shortens the overall life-span of the software as any new user will quickly grow out of this software once they are generally comfortable navigating 3D space and have mastered their understanding of basic modeling.
Once you’ve created a model, it’s easily set up for prototyping so you can export and upload your model (.stl file format) into any of the numerous online 3D printing services, such a Shapeways.com, I.Materialise or Sculpteo.
Overall, this seems to be a solid and fairly easy to learn modeling software with a few drawbacks, as listed above. I definitely recommend jumping right into the tutorials and completing them as they really are seemingly the fastest way to learn how to navigate in 3D space, especially if this is your first time using a 3D modeling software.
Additional Tips & Technical Guidance
Below are the call-outs I mentioned above as well as additional highlighted software features:
* For navigating and moving around the interface, right-click hold-drag rotates the workplane however they don’t mention that holding shift at the same time “pans” the workplane from side to side.
** Explanation for left menu navigation buttons.
Keeping with navigational buttons which would warrant an explanation, there is a tool worth mentioning called Align (L). When you select TWO pieces of geometry and click Align, a bounding box appears around each item, taking the form of black lines and points or “vertices”. If you click on one point and then click on another point, it aligns the objects so they have a mutual side. It’s a bit clumsy as a tool, and takes a little time to get used to though will have moments where it is incredibly helpful.
Be sure to check out the Edit Grid menu button in the lower right corner of the interface. The default increments are millimeters (another way you know Tinkercad was made by engineers.)