CAD Software

I’m 100% new to CAD. I’d like to start learning before the Glowforge arrives. I’m trying to decide which software to invest my time learning. It seems to make a difference what types of projects you want to create. I’ll list a few, probably in the order that I’d like to make them.

  1. Woodworking joints
  2. Wood/acrylic models with moving parts
  3. Mixed media projects combining wood and leather/textiles

Just to look at what other people are using their software for, it seems like there is a big divide between Architectural CAD, CAD that is used for making gizmos, and CAD for animation. It also seems like CAD is a little too versatile, in that you can make any shape on any axis. Is there something that can be configured to work more with the type of dimensional materials the Glowforge can handle?

Poking around on the net, I read something really interesting. It was an article primarily about Architectural CAD, and it said that if you look at a project, you can tell which CAD software the designer was using. I guess certain kinds of shapes are easier in different kinds of CAD.

I like the idea of the free software, but I’m not opposed to paying for something if it works better. My time and speed of learning is more valuable than saving a few bucks. I guess money is relative so I would say I don’t mind spending hundreds, but thousands is a little more painful unless I’m sure of the usefulness of the software.

One other little problem… I’ve been looking at all the things that can be made, that I’d like to make, and I’m getting all sorts of ideas. I can already tell what will be my second CNC machine: something that can carve unless the Glowforge turns out to do good 3D etchings/carvings. Perhaps it would be a different CAD program altogether, but I would like to know efficient ways to design 3D carvings as well.

Does anyone with a background in CAD have any advice?

Btw, I’m in a MacOS environment, but I could be convinced to run windows or linux on a virtual machine.

Since you are starting from scratch, I’d suggest Inkscape for use with the Glowforge laser. Free, available for Mac, reasonably easy to learn, and lots of project files around for use with a laser.
For true 3D, I’m going to try Autodesk Fusion 360. Have been using Sketchup a bit, and it’s good, but Fusion 360 looks much more capable. Also free (up to a point) and runs on Mac.

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Welcome to the wonderful world of CAD! :smiley: To get the ball rolling, here’s what I can say:

I did architecture for my undergrad degree, and they immediately started us off in Rhino 3D. Not too hard to get the hang of, and with it you use the (free!) grasshopper plugin for some pretty awesome parametric modelling. Personally, grasshopper would be my main reason for going with Rhino.

For the stuff you mentioned, like joints and moving parts, I would recommend looking at Autodesk’s Inventor or Fusion 360. They’re targeted specifically for more product modelling. What’s nice about these is that they are ‘solid modeling’ software, so if you draw a box it reads it as a solid object. Rhino, on the other hand, is a surface modeling tool- so, a box would read as six planes.

If you’re looking to try and just get the hang of 3D modelling, I would definitely recommend SketchUp- very good for quick prototyping, and a real easy-to-use interface. Plus they have a free version :wink:

Without a doubt someone with way more knowledge than me will come along shortly and provide a lot more information, haha.

Here is a write-up a friend did a while back that you might find useful. It outlines the pros and cons of the various 3D CAD options commonly used by makers.

I know there are a few similarities to this thread on free software here but I will mention some items based on your question knowing that my experience and preferences are different from many others. my experience is limited to only free stuff I have found but if I were learning from scratch I would:
watch some videos on Tinkercad and get a feel for navigating a 3d view, learning the concept of “extruding” shapes, “Grouping” shapes, subtracting from “Boolean operations” shapes to create new objects. This will give you a feel for what it is like in a 3D modeling environment. (Tip: you can also import an image to create a 3D relief carving as you mentioned above)

After this, I would move into something like Sketchup. you mentioned working with wood and Sketchup I believe is great for setting dimensions of your wood part and defining measurements. it is also quick and easy to learn for beginners.

After this I would move up into some programs that are a bit more complex like Blender (free download) or Onshape (Browser based like Tinkercad) They have the ability to produce smoother more higher definition objects which are difficult to produce in easier programs. They often produce high polygon count objects which means that they can have thousands of edges and faces (Smoothness) but then if you import those objects into sketchup or tinkercad, the objects get messed up or program fails. I think this is where you mentioned that you can sometimes tell which program a designer used when you see low poly or boxy looking objects.

If you ever do go to windows 10 platform, I am really liking that 3D builder allows me to suck in higher poly models and work with them like tinkercad without any degeneration.

This last item for me is not so much CAD but it seems like an essential tool for laser cutting and has been mentioned also 2 or three times. 123D make will be great for you to slice up your creations into laser cut patterns.

I have heard good things about the CAD that others have mentioned above and I would certainly give those a try if you are ok spending a few dollars.

You are using a lasercutter. It works in 2D only. So if you are going to build part by part individually, then Inkscape is all you really need. It can do precision sizes and locations, and it is super quick and easy to learn how to use.

But… if you want to actually use CAD to full capability, designing all of the interlocking mechanisms and going full parametric… Certainly look at all of the options mentioned. I have not gone that deep yet myself, so cannot offer advice there, other than what I have: If you aren’t going to use the level of power they offer… do not put yourself through the learning curve in the first place.

I agree with @jacobturner – using 3D CAD modeling with a 2D cutter is overkill in the vast majority of cases.

YMMV, of course, but since you mentioned that you are new to CAD, but I’d recommend starting with Inkscape and working through its many tutorials, paying close attention to working with bitmaps in addition to its native vectors.

If you have a compelling need for 3D modeling, I recommend Sketchup for ease of use, and Tinkercad for a great grounding in combining positive and negative “primitives” to create complex solids.

Most importantly – have fun!

I love working in Solidworks, but I’m pretty spoiled in that I’ve had access to it through school or work for the past many years. I use it to plan out more complex laser cut projects (check out what I’m currently working on here though it is definitely overkill for simple 2D work. If you ever decide to get more into CAD/CAM work professionally, Solidworks is pretty widely used and a very employable skill!


Speaking as an enthusiastic amateur, I hate to disagree with such obviously intelligent people like @jacobturner and @dwardio but I think you will be well served by 3D modeling software, Why? Because I am always finding problems in my designs before cutting by putting stuff together in a virtual world first.

By what you listed I think you would love Sketchup, it is free to non-commercial users and works great for seeing how joints and assemblies will fit together. When you are done, you can lay everything flat and have your cut files.

You might want to look at Fusion 360 as well just to see what you like better.

Oh, I am right with you Mark. Working in a full 3d system is phenomenal for planning everything in advance. But seeing people talk about using a full CAD solution, only to have it used for 2D projects in stand-alone… that is overkill.

If you do plan out the full multi-piece project in CAD, and then bring out each individual piece one at a time to create, it is amazing. Getting to the point of being able to do that can be daunting, and chase people off prematurely.

I have just recently started using Solidworks myself. Lots to learn. But when I saw I could get it for only $20… couldn’t resist (student+veteran pricing if anyone is wondering)


For OS X, I like Vectorworks. I’ve used it professionally and I personally feel that it has a shallower learning curve than AutoCAD (which is also now available for OS X). Neither are inexpensive though unless you are a student.

I really like using onshape (
A very simplified pro/con looks like

It offers a significant fraction of the solidworks tool set, and will be very familiar to anyone used to solidworks.
It is entirely browser based, so no platform requirement and it even works on my iPhone(!).
They are offering a free plan that has some limits as to total document size and how they can be shared, but I have not hit the limits yet.

Very complex and perhaps overkill for laser cutter projects.
Browser based so a bit slower than a native application, and dependent upon an internet connection (that pesky cloud thing again).
No direct export to SVG but it will do DXF which can be converted to SVG (I have tried

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For the Windows platform, Cubify Design is worth taking a look at. Although it costs $199 US, it had the best features of the low cost CAD software I was trying out a few months ago. Plus they have a two-week trial demo for download, so no cost to give it a try.

Some of the features I like are the traditional modeling tools that are missing from some other inexpensive packages (lofts, rotations, etc.), and the ability to make assemblies out of multiple parts. And the ability to add constraints to the assembly so things like movement and weights can be assessed may be unique at this price point. Plus there are nice UI touches such as automatically showing the length of lines being drawn or the angle at an intersection. There is an introductory video on their site that demos building a bird house with a hinged roof which showcases some of the features.

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I spent a couple hours in Sketchup last night working on a design for a kitchen match bin/box holder. My vintage tin bin is too big for the locally accessible boxes. I thought this would be a practical item. Quick search gives no real “match” :wink: to what I want to make. I’m designing using 90° angles but would think a living hinge curve for the bottom trough would perfect and more usable. I’m posting in this thread because I want to share my take-a ways. It’s taking a lot of time since I don’t use Sketchup regularly. I must print out the keyboard shortcut list and memorize since I lose too much time mousing around for things like camera views. One other basic principle I have learned through the years that is being confirmed is that if you can think of an easier way to do something with the computer, chances are that a mature piece of software like Sketchup can do it either natively, with a paid version, or with some plug in. In addition to learning Sketchup, I also encounter just how important good design is. The metal match bin I have posted is just two pieces of metal, simple and functional. The joinery is solid. It’s neat how a mass produced item is designed to answer all these questions. So coming up with a design that works with the materials, within the capabilities and use constraints of the Glowforge, and functions the way you want it too is a big deal. I’ll keep at it. This leads me to think of how integral to the user-experience of the Glowforge a well-curated or stocked catalog and materials supply will be. Not much info available, but for many users, the materials supply and the catalog of designs will be essential to the experience. So I want to encourage anyone who is starting from scratch on this whole endeavor with little experience in design and making to use these months ahead to practice and keep at it. If you come up with a good design that also is an efficient use of materials and doesn’t take hours to work up, the Glow forge could start paying for itself fairly quickly. I’ll figure out where to appropriately post work in progress to share this experience. Definitely will do a card board mockup since I don’t have materials nor Glowforge.

Here’s a project I am working on in Sketchup. I haven’t used Sketchup before. Right now I am working on making the cut list and figuring out how to get that in a format the Glowforge will like. This took two weekends to make, all while watching football (so 6 hours or so). Sketchup is fairly easy to work with compared to other CAD software. The whole snap to grid, points, edges, etc. make it easy to quickly prototype something. But then doing details is the tough part.

Some things I found annoying is finding the center of a circle. It doesn’t seem to keep track of that and thus not snap to it. So instead I have to make intersecting guidelines to keep track of the center of a circle.

This is an insert for a board game called Puzzle Strike. It contains a whole bunch of poker chip sized cardboard chips that need to be organized. I am making two trays. Bottom trays hold all of the chips minus the character chips. The smaller tray that can be removed to hold the chips that are used in every game. The other tray for the rest of the chips (only 10 of 55 sets of them are used in one game)

The top tray holds the rest of the game components. The triangle is holding the character chips. The reason for that is the game has a rock-paper-scissors aspect to it. Offensive character generally beat economic characters that generally beat defensive character that generally beat offensive characters. Each point of the triangle will represent one of those styles. This allows for easy identification of the characters and also provides a neat aesthetic aspect when you open the box.

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Thanks for posting. Wow that’s some detail and planning. Following your example I’ll post the build in Laser made category and keep following up on it.

I will start a thread on this project. I need to figure out how to get it out of Sketchup into a format Glowforge will like though first. Otherwise I may have to redo it in some other software. I almost have the cut list figured out. I figure worst case scenario I redo the cut list in Inkscape. I will have all of the measurements so it should be quick.

Have you seen these tutorials?
This series is good.

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The easiest way to get images out of Sketchup and into Glowforge is to output as SVG. I’ve used this plugin successfully:

Also note that SU is missing some pretty basic functionality, but it can be added through plugins. The one you’re looking for is “centerpoint”:

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EIn case any of you are into OpenSCAD, I just found which looks like it’ll make several projects I am working on very easy!