Best Free Resources to Get Started With 3D Printing

While many people understand the concept of 3D printing, few people know the process of 3D design and printing well enough to try it out and take the step towards creating physical objects from scratch – be it a personal design or a replacement part for a device. But there are plenty of free resources to experiment with before diving deep.

To help you get started, here’s a breakdown of some of the most important resources to consider when getting started with 3D printing – no experience or expense required. By using the tools described here once or twice, you will have a better understanding of 3D printing terminology, how 3D structures are created, and where 3D prints can be made.

This is a guest post from 3D Hubs .

Not sure what to print? Viewing the 3D Model Library

While creating your own models using 3D modeling or CAD design tools is the best way to create designs that suit your specific needs, you don’t have to start 3D printing today. The easiest way to get started with 3D printing is to browse through the thousands of existing designs available online. Here are some of the best websites that offer 3D printable models to get you started:

  • Thingiverse : With nearly half a million 3D models available for free to print, Thingiverse is the largest online repository of 3D printable content (free).
  • YouMagine : While not as big as Thingiverse, the YouMagine community more than makes up for its smaller size with a steady stream of high quality 3D printed content (free).
  • Cults3D : While the Thingiverse and YouMagine platforms allow anyone to upload their designs, the Cults3D team prefers to curate collections of the best uploaded models, many of which are professional designers (free + paid).

Other great resources for finding downloadable 3D models or creating step-by-step 3D printing projects can be found at Pinshape , 3DShook , Sketchfab , Turbosquid, or Wevolver .

3D design tools to create your own models

Of course, the magic of 3D printing is that you can create something from scratch that didn’t exist before. While 3D design tools have a reputation for being difficult to learn and expensive, there are also many free or low-cost offerings that are surprisingly effective and easy to use. Below are some of the most powerful programs to get you started on your path to 3D modeling.

Creating 3D models for beginners

These tools are very simple and intuitive to use, but they are actually incredibly effective if you learn how to use all of their features.

  • Autodesk 123D Suite : A suite of 3D modeling tools designed for new users who can create, explore and produce their 3D models (Windows / Mac / iOS | Free)
  • TinkerCAD : An easy-to-use online app to learn the basics of 3D modeling (online | free)
  • SketchUp : A simple tool focused on drawing applications, including architecture, interior design, and engineering. (Windows / Mac | Free)
  • Sculptris : A digital sculpting app designed to help beginners learn the basics of working with virtual clay. (Windows / Mac | Free)

Creation of 3D models for advanced users

Naturally, those learning the basics of 3D modeling usually end up looking for more flexible options that give them more control over their craft. While a huge number of tools are available for advanced 3D modeling, the following are popular with advanced users and have been chosen for their balance of ease of use, price and relevance in the professional fields of design, engineering, and digital sculpting.

  • Autodesk Fusion 360 : A powerful design tool that combines vector CAD and freeform modeling via the cloud. (Online | Free)
  • Blender : Free open source 3D imaging package that supports the entire 3D pipeline, including animation. (Online | Free)
  • OnShape : A cloud-based parametric CAD collaboration tool similar to standard CAD engineering software. (Online | Free)

While each 3D design tool serves a different purpose for different types of users, it might be worth taking a look at some of them and trying each one for a few days to see if they are clicking a button or not. Additional 3D modeling tools include Maya and 3ds Max (more animation oriented),Modo , openSCAD, and Rhino .

3D scanning

Although there are professional quality 3D scanner models, most of them are used for industrial purposes. However, thanks to modern technology for smartphones, similar effects can be achieved with just a mobile device and a steady hand. These applications extrapolate the shape of an object by analyzing multiple photographs, which means that the resulting 3D model is not necessarily highly accurate. But it’s still a good way to capture organic shapes or just get the rough shape of an object.

Here are some of the best 3D scanning apps of 2016 that have shown remarkable results:

  • 123D Catch : 123D Catch is a free app that lets you create 3D scans of almost any object. (iOS / Android / Windows Phone | Free)
  • Trnio : Trnio lets you convert existing photos to 3D models right on your iPhone. (iOS | Free)

Depending on how you plan to use 3D scanning, it might be worth considering some additional options that better suit your needs. For example, you wouldn’t use photography techniques to create an accurate car part, but you could easily create a 3D model of a toy using simple photographs.

So, you have a 3D file and you want to print it. Now what?

There are a few more steps you are likely to run into when trying to print a 3D model, depending on whether you are doing it yourself or handing it over to a professional. If you downloaded the model from something like Thingiverse , then these steps have probably already been followed.

However, the peculiarity of 3D models is that they are simply numeric representations of an object made up of polygons, like in a video game. Polygons by themselves have no thickness (like origami – but paper is infinitely thin), so a 3D object only makes sense for printers if the shape is completely enclosed or “waterproof”, thus simulating a solid object. This is why you need to make sure your 3D model is printer friendly.


In order to prepare 3D models for printing, it is sometimes necessary to “clean” them to avoid mistakes. MeshLab , MeshMixer, and netfabb are popular tools that can be used to edit, heal, validate, and simulate the 3D printing process before fully fixing it . This process can vary widely from project to project, but essentially you just need to check your model for random errors such as holes and gaps. The aforementioned applications detect such errors even before you go to the printer. And most CAD and scanner software applications have built-in solutions to automate this process.


After digitally cleaning the 3D model and preparing for the 3D printing process, some printers require it to be converted to another data type. At this point, a program called a slicer is used to slice your 3D model. Slic3r , KISSlicer, and Cura are reliably used by both novice and expert alike. If you use a 3D printing service and don’t do it yourself, the service provider will most likely take care of it for you.

Now let’s get this 3D print

Depending on where you live, you can even use a 3D printer at your local public library or other public institution for a very low cost. Likewise, there are more Makerpaces around the world with access to digital production tools at competitive prices. Some public libraries even have 3D printers. A quick Google search should reveal these properties in your area.

3D Hubs allows you to search for 3D printers in your area and directly download the file to this 3D printer from a website with the ability to print on a variety of materials. It’s a simple process with the added benefit of connecting with a local 3D printing expert.

And if you want to be a little freer , you can always order 3D printing online from services such as Shapeways or 3D Hubs HD . These services offer a wide variety of materials and use industrial printers that print at a higher resolution than smaller desktop 3D printers.

Where to go from here?

If this is your first time 3D printing, pat yourself on the back; you’ve just created an object that would otherwise require weeks of communication, unnecessary shipping costs, material waste, and other inevitable by-products of mass production.

Now that you know how to create a 3D file from scratch to 3D printing, you will never see the world around you the same way. Don’t be alarmed if you suddenly find yourself going shopping and saying, “I can print this!”


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