What is 3D Modeling?

Creating an object in two dimensions is a snap: you can draw on a piece of paper. Creating a three dimensional object is inherently more challenging — think sculpture. But creating a digital 3D model need not be difficult: online, no-cost tools make it easier than ever before to transform your dreams into a 3-D representation on your screen.

How do I start?

With an idea! Typically, most modeling begins with a need that needs to be addressed or a bit of inspiration that needs physical form. Realize, too, that design is iterative: as you model, the idea may change or develop; or you may discover that you're not fully addressing (or have over-addressed) the original needs. As with most design efforts, it’s important to constantly “check-in” with the catalyst for the design as you work on it.

We recommend making a first “draft” of your model on paper. Even the most rudimentary design can increase in complexity when you begin using a tool on the computer to create it. Sometimes, the tool you choose may not have the features needed to reify your vision. Sketch it out, think of what you may need to build your design.

Another great way to start is to just play. Get into a tool, start dragging in polygons, manipulating scale, combining, subtracting, changing colors. You’d be surprised how effective a learning experience play can be.

The modeling tools we recommend below have lots of friendly resources to help you get started. Tinkercad has an especially fine tutorial that can help you get started really quickly. After completing the tutorial, you'll have already designed a hex wrench, dice, a key ring, and many other objects.

You can copy and modify existing designs that others have made. Tinkercad has a wonderful gallery of designs that can aid you in any step of your process. You’ll find a number of them embedded below. Do you need a hinge for your smartphone case? Find a hinge that someone else to learn how to make one!

3-D Printing, a common outcome of a 3-D modeling project, is a unique fabrication process and is unfamiliar to most. Looking at the designs of others that have been 3-D printed can help you become aware of what can be successfully printed.

Which tool might be right to use?


The Research and Design Studio staff recommend you begin your explorations of 3D modeling with a bit of free web software called Tinkercad.

After creating a free account, you will be able to make your own designs out of fundamental building blocks (spheres, squares, pyramids, etc.) using an easy editor. It’s basically as easy as building LEGO! You can also find thousands of existing designs in the Tinkercad forums, which you can modify, deconstruct, or download for printing.

Here is a quick introduction to Tinkercad:

Tinkercad scales wonderfully: more complex designs are also possible in its deceptively simple interface. And it’s available for use on virtually any computer.

AutoDesk123D Design

Autodesk123D Design is an app for both Windows and Mac computers. It’s the “elder sibling” to Tinkercad: both products are developed by the same company.

Autodesk123D Design is much more powerful than Tinkercad, but it’s still available at no cost. So why do we prefer Tinkercad to Autodesk 123D Design?


Tinkercad is friendly to newcomers — it has tools to get you started and it’s easy to adapt other designs. Autodesk123D Design has many more tools and they’re hidden under labyrinthine interfaces.

However, once you’ve mastered Tinkercad, discovered its limitations, or feel up to a challenge, give Autodesk123D a try!

It can sketch, fillet, chamfer, extrude, and modify in ways that Tinkercad simply can’t. You can delete faces, create patterns (which allow the easy repeating of features, such as cutouts). It has a proper Text tool, an orthographic view, a snap tool, a proper measure tool, and more import/export options.

Like Tinkercad, Autodesk123D has a great project gallery, which you can search. You can copy and edit most designs.

Autodesk123D has a great manual with easy-to-find solutions for your design requirements.

Great Autodesk123D video tutorials can be found here.

What can I do with my models?

You can do many things!

First and foremost: if you would like to see your designs in the physical world, you can use Burke's 3D Printers to print them out. For more information, please see our 3D printing page. You can use the 3D Printing Request Form to schedule the print.

3-D models are invaluable planning tools. For example, a recent renovation to Burke Library was planned with a 3-D model created in Tinkercad.

You can recreate a dorm room with furniture to experiment with different layouts. You can plan simple and complex machines.

3-D models are necessary precursors to 3-D printing. After being made “watertight” and converted into an appropriate file for a 3-D printer, your models can be printed on the Research and Design Studio 3-D printers. Online services such as Shapeways can also print your models at a reasonable rate. What might you print?

You may discover you need a hex wrench to fix your bike.

You may need to build a model for your Chemistry project.

You may like to create sculpture for your Art class.


Research & Instructional Design Staff

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