Intro To 3D Modelling, Lesson 1: Getting To Know Your Software

Do you have a product idea you want to create, or even send to a 3D printer like Ponoko the Makerbot? Do you love concept design, character art or just visualising your ideas in 3D space? In this Lifehacker Night School Series we’re going to take a look at how you can do all of that by learning the basics of 3D modelling.

Be sure to watch the video above for the full lesson. Text reference is included below.

In this series, we will explore the basics to get you off the ground and help you on your way to being able to 3D model just about anything, understanding the why as well as the how of what makes these tools work. Here are the topics we’re going to cover:

  • Software – What software to use, why, and how much it costs.
  • Interface/Toolbars – Now that we have the software, let’s look at the interface and start learning how to navigate through 3D space and understand how all the tool bars are set up.
  • Viewports/Construction Planes – After understanding the camera, it is critical to understand how the viewports work, which views do what and what construction planes do and why they are important.
  • Object Selection/Object Transposition – Once you have an object in your scene, one of the single most important abilities is selecting it. Without selecting your model, it is very hard to do anything to it. After it is selected, you might want to move it around, scale it, rotate it, etc. so we will talk about transposing your object.
  • Bringing It All Together – To conclude, I will talk over a sped up video of me modelling a simple scene using the tools we’ve learned and some we haven’t and show you how easy it is to use the tools all together to create whatever you want.


Let’s get started by talking about the software. There are a lot of 3D modelling software packages out there to choose from. The price range fluctuates between free and tens of thousands of dollars. What you want is something that is high quality, nimble, can be used to learn on and yet be able to offer room to grow. It should also be highly customisable and have a great support community.

I like Rhinoceros 3D made by McNeel and Associates; this software is affordable, accessible and fast. Windows users can download a trial and Mac users can download a demo. The trial is limited to 25 saves, but it is fully functioning and doesn’t expire. So have fun with it and don’t be afraid to just keep it open as it is really lightweight software for your computer to run.

Aside from being a really great way to start to learn 3D modelling, Rhinoceros 3D is excellent for importing all sorts of external file types (see the image to the right for a list).

You can download all sorts of free models from the internet. I recommend going over to Google Sketchup and downloading some models and see how easy it is. The SketchUp model extension (.SKP) is fourth from bottom on the above list. The models are opened fairly quicly and are a great resource if you want to hack something together. I use them all the time for internal presentations to save time.

Not only is the application small to install, the native 3DM files are as well. You can model your heart out without worrying too much about hard drive consumption consumption.

When I started learning how to 3D model, I began in AutoCAD and then worked over to Z-Brush. It was a long and arduous journey. When I picked up Rhino in 2003, I immediately saw how easy it was to learn and decided to stick with it. It is what I still use for nearly all of my modelling needs to this day.

If you find that Rhino isn’t a good fit for you, there are plenty of alternate software options out there. I recommend either Sketchup or Blender to start. They are both free to download and will get you on your way.

I use Rhinoceros as it is the most flexible and accessible package to use while offering the most room for growth. SketchUp is a great second choice, but doesn’t offer the range of robust surfacing tools that you need to make the more dynamic models.

That’s all for today. Come back tomorrow for the next lesson! We’ll be discussing how to use the interface.

This lesson was created by Gabriel Mathews of PolyPlane. You can follow him on Twitter @PolyPlane and on Facebook.

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