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Notes about cheap and free CAD programs

Cheap and free 3D CAD

This increasingly out of date page contains notes on cheap and free 3D CAD software I and others have tried - and a few 2D packages are mentioned along the way. It was originally set up particularly for those designing bicycles, tricycles and other human powered vehicles, but should also be relevant for many other types of CAD work. I've kept it text-only for speed.

Just scroll down!

If you are designing bicycles or HPVs on CAD, check out the IHPVA Parts Library and please do contribute anything relevant which you draw.

In a previous life I worked as a mechanical engineer, using on SDRC IDEAS (briefly), Pro-ENGINEER (quite a bit) and AutoCAD (a lot on version 10 in the distant past, and briefly on 12). Pro-Engineer in particular was very nice to work on - unfortunately it costs rather a lot per seat :-(.

So, now a publisher and just using (mostly 3D) CAD as a hobby, I developed an interest in CAD software which is cheap, or, even better, free!

Got any views? Tried any of these - or others? E-mail me and I'll add your comments.

Please DO NOT bother emailing me to ask if I know where you can locate illegal copies of commercial CAD software. The whole point of this page is to help people who want to use CAD software legally - but want it cheap or free. There is plenty of good stuff listed here - use it!

Peter Eland

Update 06 Sept 2004 Added FelixCAD
Update 18 Dec 2003 Added ProDesktop Express discontinued note. I also have a stack of reader-contributed updates ready to add - will add these and revamp this page over Xmas I hope.
Update 02 May 2003 Added Cad4, updates throughout.
Update 03.12.02 Formatting etc updates.
Update 21.10.2002 Updates to ProDesktop section
Update 12.8.2002 Added comments from Brent Burton - thanks, other contributions welcomed
Update 10.8.2002 Added FreeCAD, new ProDesktop offer link, updated VariCAD again, added link to HPVA (bicycle) parts library. Also tweaked presentation and changed order of stuff.
Update 18.4.2002 Added notes re parts CDs from Pete Rhodes.
Update 2.4.2002 Updates throughout, including VariCAD new version for Linux, and updated Minos3D. Added MorayWin and Spatch.
Update 2.2002 Added Rhino 3D
Update 11.2001 Extended VariCAD notes, added pics and added ProDesktop notes

  • Varicad: Budget solid mechanical CAD from the Czech Republic. Unhelpful interface (improved in Version 8 and above, which I haven't yet used much -Ed) with seemingly hundreds of tool buttons, luckily equipped with tool-tips. But behind this its a very complete decent 3D modeller with 2D drawing generation. Very nice 3d display, pretty fast on quite complex assemblies even on limited hardware (works fine on my old P233 laptop). Excellent part and symbol libraries, including standard ball bearings, nuts, washers, bolts etc - all of which is most helpful for building assembly models. Seems a little behind the times when it comes to more advanced surface modelling - it's best at fairly simple shapes, can't do much in the way of 3D filleting or any even vaguely free-form curvy shapes. Not truly parametric, though objects created from primitives can have dimensions edited after. Also includes some useful tools for stress calculations on beams etc.

    This does seem the cheapest way to decent solid models including assemblies (at least until Pro-Desktop came along - see below), and is excellent value really. Download at www.varicad.com, where I paid by credit card no problem. Installed Linux (I used Mandrake) to take advantage of the MUCH cheaper Linux prices compared to Windows. You can also download a 30-day full-function free trial (Linux or Windows), after that it stops saving.

    Varicad currently exports 2D DXF and 3D IGES, which is a bit limiting, particularly for 3D. There's no renderer built in, and when I last looked none of the free ones has an IGES import filter. But a user, Martin Herren, has written a very useful file converter which turns VariCAD's output into a form readable by various free renderers, including AC3D and PovRay. The converter, 3DC, is at: http://www.on-the-web.ch/3dc/. You'll have to compile it yourself from source, though, and it's only available on Linux. I haven't tried it yet.

    VariCAD have recently (March 2002) released Version 8 for both Windows and Linux - this tidies up the interface considerably, but doesn't add a lot of features. They are apparently working now on new features including better import/export.

    Update August 2002 - Version 8.2 is out with versions for Windows and most major Linux distributions. Also, a cut-down viewer version is available for free download (also both Windows and Linux). Haven't yet investigated what's new in 8.2.

    Update Jan 2003 - version 9 is out for Windows - includes STEP import/export and some rendering capability. More later...

    Update May 2003 - Version 9 out for Linux too - versions for most major distros. Some definite useability improvements, but still no ability to render images at better than screen resolution. Also, nowadays both Linux and Windoes versions are USD 399, or for student non-commerical use at USD 99.

    Click here to see an (unfinished) VariCAD model for a telescope mount I'm making for my father. The parts library for bearings and bolts is a great time-saver, and the ability to work in a 'section' view is also a big plus.

  • ProDesktop from Parametric Technologies Corp (PTC), the same people who make my old favourite Pro-Engineer.

    17 December 2003: DISCONTINUED!. Unfortunately, as of end December 2003, the makers have decided to discontinue this free software. Existing users can update their installations to keep it working for another five years. But as I understand it, that's the end of free downloads. All the details are at: This press release page.

    As at November 2001 (still OK at May 2003), this is now an almost unbelievable free download - it's a full-featured parametric solid modeller, does assemblies, and has good import-export. The free version has rendering, scripting and a few fancy export formats I've never heard of disabled, but is otherwise the real deal. Fantastic help files/tutorials, and if you're into a career in CAD you could do worse than train yourself up on this - I'd imagine the transition to the full Pro-ENGINEER would be painless.

    It only runs on Windows and needs some reasonably fast hardware. Download the file first from the updated link below and check out the info available there. When you install and run the program it'll ask for an unlock code, and offer a 'get code' button. Click this and it'll fire up a web browser and take you to the PTC website, where you have to create an account by registering (no particularly nasty questions) and they then email you the unlock code. Worked fine for me.

    I can hardly believe they're giving this away - it's about all the CAD some companies would need - and of course great for the hobbyist. At the moment I'm still much faster on VariCAD, particularly with the parts libraries, and I think VariCAD does have the edge in pure speed of working. But get beyond simple shapes and Pro-Desktop starts winning.

    Update 10.8.2002: the link below still works fine but reader Sean Kerslake tells me: "You can get a legit free copy of the Special Edition version at: http://www.ptc.com/go/sdrcideas/offer_info.htm. Very little cut down from the commercial version and it includes rendering, surfacing and freeform surfacing. It does insert a banner on any print offs and files cannot be used with the commercial version." You don't have to be a student - it's free for all educational or personal use, so you're fine just so long as you don't use it commercially. "Intended to help designers and engineers re-tool their CAD skills"

    Brent Burton adds (August 2002) in comparison to TurboCAD (see below): "I installed ProDesktop and went through a tutorial. I was simply amazed at how easy it was to create their demo shape. In contrast to TurboCAD, ProDesktop allows you to "describe" the shapes of things whereas with TurboCAD one sculpts the shape. In other words, ProDesktop has a parametric feel where you can change fundamental metrics and any subsequent shelling (or hole creation, etc) are automatically redone. With TurboCAD one would have to restart the shape with the appropriate changes. This is quite a productivity boost."

    Update 21 Oct 2002: The original free ProDesktop Express URL seems to have been axed: but you can still get it by going to this page and clicking the appropriate link ('Learn and try' - then the download link). The Special Edition link as mentioned by Sean Kerslake below still works it seems.

    Steve Wetzel also adds re the Special Edition (27 September 2002): "Some more information for you regarding free Pro-Engineer free offer. I ordered it for $15 US, received the disk in the mail and installed it. To my surprise the install program does not seem to install the help files at all. In short, A threw away $15.00 because without help files, I do not think I will be able to grasp even the basics of the program. They also included a training disk (6 hours of training) but the example cad files included with it are true Pro-Engineer files and the Student addition cannot open them!". I suggested he download the ProDesktop Express and use those files. But soon he sent an update: "Still no word back from PTC on this issue. I did install the software on another computer running XP and the software works fine - the help files are HRML and the files are installed onto the first computer (WIN2000), but for some reason when you chose a help menu they are not loaded. I solved the problem by simply copying links for the help files to a Help folder under my start menu. It works well enough.

    Update May 2003: 'Steve' emailed to say "Great site you have and thanks for the reviews and links. I thought you'd like to know that the Pro/Egineer Special Edition offer has now expired." While the link at http://www.ptc.com/go/sdrcideas/offer_info.htm still seems to work, but I couldn't see an obvious download link any more. Meanwhile, ProE Express is still available from http://www.ptc.com/community/free_downloads.htm or the link above in the 21st Oct 2002 update.

  • Solid Edge Origin: Superb parametric solid modelling and 2D drafting. The free evaluation version gives you a part modeller which is limited in various 3D modelling functions, but nothing serious, and can still do very useful stuff. Unfortunately you can't save your work as anything except native Solid Edge files, so as far as I can tell it's impossible to actually use the parts you create for anything very useful - there's no way to combine them into assemblies. The 2D CAD facility is excellent too, but the free version disables saving for drawings generated from a 3D part. Not a problem if youre just after a good, fully parametric 2D system - which saves as dwg, iges and dxf even in the free version. Fantastic tutorials and interface design. Seems to have plenty of import filters. Only problem is that even the $495 upgrade doesnt do assemblies for that you need the full version! And that costs $5000. The $495 option simply enables full single-part functionality, including saving 2D drawings generated from 3D parts. Not time-limited. Go to the website http://www.solid-edge.com/origin/ and register, theyll send you a CD. Follow instructions! Windows only.

    Update May 2003: This offer seems to have expired. Looking at the site, they now offer a free 2D system, Solid Edge Layout. Get to the relevant page from http://www.solidedge.com/intl/default.htm. Not tried this yet myself.

  • IntelliCAD: long download, PDF user guide. Worth it though - it's essentially a window-enabled Autocad 10 complete with mesh surfaces etc, but a tweaked interface (though still compatable with Acad command line commands). Superb import/export, good help. Totally free, too! Download from http://www.cadopia.com/ and follow instructions. Windows only.

    Brent Burton adds (August 2002): "The LISP engine is largely compatible with AutoCAD's LISP, so *in theory* code can be shared; drawing files are also compatible (again, in theory). I've not used this program (nor AutoCAD) enough to say what works or doesn't. An interesting aside is that this program was developed by a consortium of CAD vendors to set a standard. To that end, some versions of it are not free, some are, and the source is also available. Non-gratis versions also have more features added to the core."

    Update May 2003 - after a quick rummage round the website I can't see a free download any more - just a 'demo' for which you have to register. Another one bites the dust?

  • Parts CDs from cadregister.com: US reader Pete Rhodes writes (18.4.2002): "Register (for free) at www.cadregister.com, and they'll send a 6 CD library of 2D and 3D DXF parts. I just got mine the other day, and it is a HUGE collection of standard parts and complex assemblies. I believe you can also grab the parts directly from their website, and insert into your drawing."

    Update May 2003 - website still seems to offer this...

  • Active Dimensions 3: Not really a CAD program, more a 3D modeller for graphics purposes etc. Snazzy interface with designer buttons isn't actually that easy to use though it would probably be good when you're used to it. Annoying non-resizeable screen. Not really much use.

  • CADVANCE: 2D Cad for Windows which seems to be fairly full-featured, but again interface is poor, and the help files are abysmal. It does seem to be totally free, though, and installs what seem to be a symbol library, though I couldnt see any easy way of seeing what was in it. There is apparently a 3D capability but I was frankly baffled and couldnt work out how to use it.

    Update May 2003: The website www.cadvance.com still offers Version 6.5 for free download, but I'm pretty sure that's the one I was unimpressed with above. Newer versions look much better but aren't really 'cheap or free' - demo CDs available of course but time-limited.

  • TurboCAD: Purely 2D system for Windows, but nice interface and professional-looking product. Various paid-for versions include a 3D solids one, which looks very impressive for $1000, including assemblies. This free version has pretty good 2D drawing facilities etc. Free, no time limit. Good help. Download trial at www.turbocad.com, and there are various demo files for the 3D Solid Modeler (the $1000 job) on http://www.turbocad.com/solidmodeler/

    Brent Burton addds (August 2002): "This is what I use for my projects. It has good support for solid modeling, is pretty flexible during drawing w.r.t. various coordinate systems, excellent rendering of drawings. IIRC the "pro" cost is $400; I bought an unopened older version on Ebay for $50, then upgraded to the latest for $99. So for $150 I got the complete "pro" version. The non-pro version is $100 and I forget the difference. 3D modeling is solid modeling versus surface modeling; IMO better support for volumetric calculations of materials (mass, volume) than other packages. http://www.turbocad.com/ is the software specific site; http://www.imsisoft.com/ is the company's site where you can download a 15-day trial of TurboCAD version 8".

    Update May 2003: Download link now http://www.imsisoft.com/free/ and go to TurboCAD LE - still free

  • Minos 3D: Idiosyncratic free solid modeller from lone French programmer: interface awkward. But free. Get yours at any of several mirror sites, home page is at http://perso.wanadoo.fr/rleboite/minos.htm. Kept crashing when I tried it, unfortunately. As at April 2002, he's decided to no longer continue development, though you can still download it.

    Update May 2003: Link above updated - still offers program and user manual download.

  • Rhino 3D: a principally NURBS-based solid modeller with a nice interface. I tried out the free beta some time ago, but didn't include it here before because I thought the full price disqualified it from 'free or cheap'. But Peter Oving from Grenoble, France, emailed me: "Date: Tue, 26 Feb 2002 10:35:39 +0000. I am currently working with the following software: Rhino3D. Easy to use, many possibilities, much cheaper then Solid Edge (commercial user $895, students and teachers $195). You can get a free trial version at: http://www.rhino3d.com/download.htm. It gives you 25 times the possibility to save your work."

    Update May 2003: Pricing and links still seem accurate. Also seems available for non-commercial use at USD 895.

  • MorayWin and Spatch: No experience of these two myself but Dutch reader Jeroen Beekhuis writes: "I use MorayWin (http://www.stmuc.com/moray/) as a Modeler, Spatch (http://www.geocities.com/getspatch/) as a modeler for the curvy shapes, and POV (http://www.povray.org/) as a render package. It is not intended for real engineering purposes, but it works well for early prototyping and giving other people an impression of your ideas before putting a lot of effort in realising them. An example of this is the picture I attached, I made it for the Cycle Vision 1999. The visuals are absolutely splendid and much more interesting than what most CAD packages can do. I find Moray easy to use, and it is not expensive. You can try it for free, and it will only nag if you don't register after 30 days. POV is free."

  • FreeCAD: Interesting motion simulation/dynamics package, runs on many platforms and is open source :-). See http://www.ar-cad.com. The blurb reads: 'freeCAD' is a basic 3D CAD with advanced Motion Simulation capabilities. It is suitable for anyone interested in learning 3D CAD and Motion Simulation for free before using more sophisticated packages. I used it briefly and although not much effort has gone into making it user-friendly it does work OK once you get the idea. Maybe as it says, best as an educational tool.

  • Cad4: A correspondent without a name writes: "I found this program which is a 2d and 3d CAD program. It will read and manipulate AutoCAD files. It is an 18 Mb download from www.Cad4.com, and for the size of the program and the price (free) it is actually a very powerful program.". Actually it doesn't look like it's free (except a demo) but at USD 300 or so the full price is pretty cheap as CAD goes. Judging by the website, though, it's intended as architectural CAD rather than a general-purpose tool. Any reader tried it?

  • FelixCAD Sept 04: Miles Hellon emails to recommend FelixCAD LT looks like 2D CAD for Windows. First million copies are for free apparently... and only 99 Euros afterwards so it says.

  • SketchUP Sept 04: Ian Duke emails to recommend SketchUP - a sketch-base 3D drawing/design tool. Looks like mainly biased towards architectural visualisation, not sure it's really CAD, but could be very useful for concept design. A review is here. A few hundred dollars so cheapish...

My workThe tandem trike which I builtS-327, the Russian trike I ownAckermann steering design spreadsheet - free downloadNotes about cheap and free CAD programsMisc stuff, including trailers and other bike stuff