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  • Charlie Kocur

Beginner's Guide to Start 3D Modeling


3D designing isn’t just for experts.

An overwhelming thought for beginners in the 3D printer world is, “How do I start to design my own 3D models?”. 3D printing gives anyone the power to take digital 3D models and bring them in to the physical world. For many, this just means finding cool 3D models online (of which there are tens-of-thousands!) and then printing them. For others, this means designing and creating their own 3D models, and then printing those. While this seems challenging, it’s surprisingly easy to get yourself started with 3D modeling.

To get started in 3D modeling for 3D printing, I recommend a few simple phases:

Phase 1: Manipulate existing 3D models.

  • This gets you comfortable working in a 3D space and gives a feel for designing for the unique needs of 3D printing.

Phase 2: Use basic tools to create something new.

  • This uses many skills from Phase 1, but adds to your design abilities. Designing from a blank slate makes you think more about things from start to finish.

Phase 3: Create simple CAD projects.

  • Now that the basic idea of designing is well established, it’s time to move on to more complicated tools. Keep the designs simple, but use the skills learned to start your first couple of projects. A main focus will be on accuracy of design.

Phase 4: Keep pushing your skills.

  • Don’t rest on your laurels. This is where you’ll have to go out on your own to learn skills that apply to your goals. But there are a few tips I have to keep you motivated!


While this post isn’t meant to be an end-all be-all guide for 3D modeling, it is a blueprint for getting yourself started following the same general steps that I took. I started with no knowledge of 3D modeling, but now regularly create custom models for my needs.

A guideline, not a step-by-step.

I’m a hands-on learner, so I would especially recommend this path for others who like to dive right in and learn as they go. This entire post is a rough guideline and process for learning how to create 3D models. While I will be sharing the exact tools and methods I used, it’s meant to be one of many possible paths to learning. You do not need to use these exact tools, but the overall method I will lay out will hopefully introduce you to the concepts needed to get up and running on your own. Some people find different or better tools. Others may have a friend who can help them out. If you have some of these resources available, go for it! The most important thing is that you pick something that works for your learning style. Some people like a thorough, step by step tutorial; others, like myself, like a guideline to start exploring a little on their own.


 

Free software!

One other note before getting started. All of the tools that I use for my 3D design process and will mention here are completely free to use for hobbyists. Meaning you can try them out with no cost to see if you like them. They will require an account sign-up, so make sure to read their individual requirements and user agreements. I am in no way affiliated with any of the tools I’ll mention. They are genuinely what I use to get my work done. I recommend them because if I can learn how to use them, anyone can! In this article, I’ll be referencing two key tools. They are simple to find and set up. Here is a brief overview of what they are and where to get them.

Tinkercad: https://www.tinkercad.com/

Tinkercad is the simplest way I’ve found to work on 3D models. In fact, it’s so easy that I even recommend it for children. It’s a great way to get students or kids involved in 3D printing. Using a simple drag-and-drop interface, Tinkercad lets almost anyone edit most existing 3D models or start from scratch using pre-made shapes. Another cool feature about Tinkercad is that it runs completely in a web browser and has cloud saving features. It’s not just a beginner tool either! Even with experience in more advanced tools, I still use Tinkercad regularly. Because it’s so easy to use, Tinkercad is a useful thing to be familiar with for “quick and dirty” model editing or building your first prototype item quickly.


Fusion 360: https://www.autodesk.com/products/fusion-360/overview

Fuson360 is a professional-level 3D CAD software. If being used at a professional level, users have to pay for it. Hobbyists however, can get a 1 year free trial that can be extended each year. It has a little bit of a learning curve, but there are a lot of simple to follow tutorials on YouTube that can get you started once you’re ready to make the jump to a more professional tool. It’s excellent for 3D printing because it has an easy export feature. This lets you take a final model and easily generate a file that can be used with a 3D printer.


 

The Four Phases to Start 3D Design

Phase 1: Learn to Manipulate existing 3D models.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “crawl before you can walk”? This is the 3D modeling equivalent to that idea for me. Tinkercad is a very simple tool that I use fairly regularly, even for more advanced projects. The first thing I ever learned to do in it though, was to manipulate someone else’s 3D models. Tinkercad makes this extremely easy. This started out of necessity for me. I wanted to give a gift and thought that a 3D printed item would be perfect. Nothing quite what I wanted was available, so I took something I liked and edited it to make a perfect gift. This section will be the most tutorial-focused section of the post. I’ll provide some tips to get started in Tinkercad while remaining focused on the skills that need to be learned.


3D model manipulation skills to focus on.

I realized during the project however, that I did more than just get the job done. I learned some essential future 3D modeling skills.

  • Working in a 3D space: Working and manipulating a model within a 3D space is made easy by Tinkercad. Using the very basic controls, this got me familiar with the idea of rotating an object and utilizing an x, y, and z axis.

  • Designing for 3D printing: This was the most important factor in using a 3D modeling software. Even if you are familiar with 3D modeling, working on making items “printer friendly” is a skill that also needs to be learned. As I did a few different projects, I learned quickly. Items with tan extreme overhang would fail on the printer. Items with too much wasted space would take a very long time to print so I learned to minimize material needed.

This next section will give a simple process for editing existing models, and then will give a few suggestions on projects to try yourself!


The basic how-to for editing models in Tinkercad.

Tinkercad thrives on simplicity. Importing a model to edit is extremely easy to do. In order to edit and print a custom 3D model, the following steps are required:

  1. Import a 3D model.

  2. Use Tinkercad’s easy features to edit the model.

  3. Export the model for printing.

Yes, it really is that easy! But as usual, the devil is in the details.

Step 1: Import a 3D model.

Just find the 3D model file you’s like to edit in either .obj or .stl file types and download it to your PC. Then, start a new Tinkercad project and click the “Import” button. A dialogue will let you open the file from your computer or even drag and drop the file. Depending on how complicated the 3D model is, it may take a few minutes to load-in. It’s that simple!


Step 2: Use built-in features to edit the model.

Within Tinkercad, it’s easy to change the size and general shape of an item by clicking and dragging. The edits I’m going to discuss however, are a step beyond that. Using a couple simple features, it’s easy to cut parts off of or combine shapes together to create something new. This will be the focus of how I suggest editing others models as it will give the best end result. There are two key features I would suggest looking at first. Getting familiar with these will allow you to make some really effective but simple edits.


Feature 1: “Holes” & “Solids”

Holes vs. Solids: This is the core concept that got my mind running on all kinds of possibilities. Selecting a shape within Tinkercad, be it a simple default shape or an imported model, brings up two buttons.

  • Solid: usually on by default, this means exactly what it sounds like. That the selected shape is considered to be solid. It exists in the 3D space.

  • Hole: Holes are where things get interesting. Clicking on a 3D shape and then selecting the “hole” option means that the object is now considered to be negative space. It will show up as a transparent stripe pattern. We’ll discuss what this means more in the next feature called “group”.

Below are examples of the same exact simple cube shape, with "hole" (see-through cube on the left) or "solid" (solid cube on the right) applied.



Feature 2: “Group”

Group: This is key to any editing that you’d like to do within Tinkercad. This allows the user to take whatever it is they are working on, and combine it in to a single 3D model. It’s simple to use. Just highlight all of the shapes you want to combine (either by holding shift and clicking on them all, or by clicking and dragging over them all), then click “group”. For demonstration purposes, I took the cube in the above example and then added a sphere in to the work space. Without using the group feature, the work space now looks like this.


Here is where the concept of “holes” will become more clear.

  • When combining two “solids”, the shape will just end up being all shapes stuck together. For example, I added this ball shape to the below image and then combined them to make a single shape that’s a cube with a ball shape protruding from it.



  • If I select the ball, then set it to a “hole”, we now see that it cuts through the cube in the shape of the ball when we combine the shapes together!




Finding ways to use these features along with a combination of custom shapes and models found online, you can see where things get interesting fast!


 
Step 3: Finally, export and print!

Once you’ve got a model you like, simply export it and save it to your PC as the needed file type. Just click the export button, then select the file name. Note that Tinkercad gives things weird names by default, so I recommend changing the name of the file as soon as you save it to avoid confusion later. Next, open it up in your 3D printing slicer software of choice (I use Ultimaker Cura), and you will see your newly created 3D model ready to go!

Project ideas to edit exiting models.

Here’s a few simple ideas for taking existing 3D models and making them your own. These are all projects that I’ve done and hopefully they can inspire you too! I left the models un-grouped to show color differences between the two shapes. This better illustrates how easy it is to add a couple existing shapes together to make something totally new!

One-of-a-Kind Christmas Ornament

This was the original project I thought of using Tinkercad for that kicked me off on my design journey. It’s simple but can be a really unique gift idea. The nice thing is, this can be done with nearly any 3D printable model. We simply have to add a ring to put a hook on. Just import the model you like, and use the standard “Torus” shape to add a ring somewhere to it. The example in this image is an image from: https://www.myminifactory.com/object/3d-print-elephant-57373

Custom Can Koozie


Have you ever wanted to drink a Red Bull out of a Pokemon’s head? Now you can! All that you have to do is find a 3D model you like, and then delete a cylinder shape out of it that’s the same width as the can you’re using. Make sure to leave some space at the top so you can actually drink from the can!


Create Crazy Characters

By importing two or more models, you can easily create crazy combinations. One of my favorite projects I’ve done in this style is to create “Darth Dino”!


 

Phase 2: Use basic tools to make new shapes.

Now that we’re comfortable working in simple software, the next step I took is creating my own unique designs using combinations of the basic shapes. While it sounds similar to combining pre-existing models, there are a few additional key concepts to be made aware of. This is a slight step-up from using pre-made models because you have all of the control over what the model looks like! A lot of these skills will be focused on efficiency and making designs 3D printer friendly.

Phase 2 3D printing design skills to focus on.

  • Material Usage: As you create your own designs, it gives you more flexibility to focus on minimizing material in the print. Achieving a design while using little material is important for two reasons. First, it simply uses less material and in-turn, less money. Second, it can be MUCH faster. 3D printing can take a long time, so focusing on achieving a desired result with minimal material is a worth-while skill to learn.

  • Print Orientation: Now that there’s some 3D printing and design experience under your belt, it’s important to think about how a design will be printed. Not only do you have to consider minimizing overhangs (or using support to help), but it’s also important to align things the correct way for strength.

  • Focus on problem solving: This is where you can really start thinking like an engineer. Designing from scratch to a specific use really makes you think about the issue at hand.

Suggested projects for using simple tools to create new models.

Here’s a few ideas on the types of things you might be able to do when designing from nothing. These help focus you on starting from nothing and building a unique design from scratch.

Abstract Succulent Planter

With succulents being a pretty big trend, everyone is looking for an interesting planter to put one in. Why not tell a great story by saying it’s something you made? I’ve created a few versions of planters. They’re a great starting project because they can be a bit abstract and still be functional.


Custom Storage Trays

I like making small storage trays custom-built for the parts I have. They help keep me more organized and allow me to find things quickly. Because they’re made of basic shapes, they are an easy beginner project. I would recommend starting with a square that’s the total size of the tray (height and sides) you want. Then, use other shapes, usually squares, to “cut” in to the box and make the smaller storage sections.


Desktop Notebook Organizer

You might notice a theme in my suggested projects, organization. I use 3D printing for organization a lot because it’s so practical. one of my favorite custom projects is a notebook holder. It can be built by combining simple squares or you can add your own flair by using other basic shapes and flattening them to create the separators.


 

Phase 3: Create simple CAD projects.

This is where a little additional learning needs to come in to play. Once you’ve got some familiarity with desiging for 3D printing using simple tools, it’s time to step-up to the big leagues! I recommend Fusion360. This tool is free to use for hobbyists (on an annual trial license), and introduces users to CAD software using (somewhat) intuitive controls. I also recommend Fusion360 because there are a ton of resources online. I learned almost all of my skills in the software from Youtube.

Phase 3 3D printing design skills to focus on.

  • Improved Accuracy: The beauty of CAD tools is that they are extremely accurate. The measurements you put in to them will come out of your printer at the exact same size. This allows for you to design with more specifics in mind. Plan ahead, sketch things out, and take measurements. It’s a fun puzzle to make something just the right fit!

Beginner CAD projects.

This is a very tough section to give specific direction or examples in because once you’re diving in to CAD software, you’re at the point where there’s an almost infinite number of options! I would suggest picking a personal project you want to achieve, and then looking up tutorials on Youtube. The first ever thing I designed in Fusion360, embarassingly enough, was a fidget spinner. Yes, that brief fad toy was what I spent my time on! That said, it was actually a good way to learn to use the basics of Fusion360. Plus, it was the first time I ever combined a 3D printed part with something else to make a functional item. I printed the spinner shape, then installed skateboard bearings to make it spin! I used the tutorial on Youtube from the 3D Printing Nerd. He’s a great resource for beginners and this tutorial helped get me started on my own journey with Fusion360.

 

Phase 4: Keep pushing your skills.

The final stage of my process for learning to design was to push myself to learn new skills over time. I do this little by little and it’s always ongoing. I still have a long way to go to move beyond beginner status, but I make sure to include some type of new skill in each new project. I don’t have any specific skills to recommend you focus on because I think it’s important to take your own path for motivation reasons. It’s no fun to work on projects that you don’t have excitement for! That said, I do have some tips on trying to keep yourself both motivated and progressing. It’s how I try to continue to grow my skills.

How to stay motivated to learn 3D design.

I have three main concepts that I follow to keep myself motivated to continue learning.

First: Think about 3D printing to solve everyday problems.

As my skills grow, I learn to design more and more things to solve small problems around the house. While usually not a permanent, long-term fix, a quickly printed piece to fix a minor problem can be motivating. There’s problem solving and often the need to try and learn new skills to achieve a desired result. I simply search for YouTube videos about things I want to do with the software and there is usually a good tutorial that pops up for me to try out.

Second: Find design competitions.

Entering a design competition was not something I ever expected to do. Once I entered one though I found out that it’s a lot of fun, even for a total beginner! It challenges you to think about a problem and how to solve it. Then you have to actually develop a fix. It’s kind of like a big puzzle. I recommend checking out the Competitions page on MyMiniFactory.com. They get updated fairly regularly and are very casual. They offer fun challenges and simple rules to allow you to design to the best of your ability. Plus, there’s prizes! My favorite project I’ve ever made was a result of one of these competitions. It’s a miniature windmill that I designed for a competition that required designers to re-purpose an aluminum can.


Third: Have fun.

I’ve learned the most about my 3D design tools simply by playing around with them. I’ll find a style I like and then just mess around with what’s available, without a major goal in mind. One of my favorite exercises is to create ‘speed sculptures’. I’ll set aside an hour and divide it in to 15 minute chunks. Then I’ll just start building. I’ll try some new tools or shapes in Fusion360 and just build abstract looking things that I think look cool. I’ve actually had some of my best projects come out of these design exercises. I’ll take the abstract designs I like, and then implement them in a functional print. My favorite is a “dice tower” for tabletop games. They’re totally unecessary, but a fun addition to board game or dungeons and dragons night. Just drop dice in the top and they fall out the bottom, but mine does it with a little style!


 

Overview of how to learn 3D model design.

By taking this suggested process bit by bit, hopefully you too can learn how to design 3D models for 3D printing the same way I have. As a quick summary:

  • Phase 1: Manipulate existing 3D models.

  • Using simple tools to make small edits to existing 3D printable models is a great introduction to getting familiar with 3D design.


  • Phase 2: Use basic tools to create something new.

  • Now that you’re comfortable working in 3D space, try creating something new. Edit and combine basic shapes in to one new model that’s completely your own creation!


  • Phase 3: Create simple CAD projects.

  • Once you have a few basic designs under your belt and are comfortable working in 3D, it’s time to upgrade your tools! Getting started in CAD software like Fusion360 early will make sure that as your skills grow, you have a tool that can grow with you.


  • Phase 4: Keep pushing your skills.

  • Now it’s just a matter of finding projects you are interested in to keep motivated for learning. Use the base that has been built in the other phases as a starting point, and try to learn at least one new thing with each new project.



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