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

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.


  • If you’re just starting out with 3d modeling, blender would not be a good choice. It’s so unnecessarily over-complicated and you’ll most likely give up.

    I’m looking forward to some future, more advanced lessons.

  • I feel BAD that this video exists, and how misleading it is for a beginner artist.

    Ive been a 3d artist since 1998 in tv/film/games, and have both written and taught 3d courses. Rhino is hardly used in the industry compared to most other software.

    Its a shame, and I LOVE lifehacker, but this just feels like someone from Rhino has made a marketing video in the form of a tutorial. If you are trying to start a learning path for 3d… then please look elsewhere. There are lots of pay and free tutorials out there, and a lot of the actual software comes with training materials.

    Some helpful sites to get in depth, long term training would be digitaltutors, gnomon workshop, 3d total, cgnetworks…

    If you want something cheap, then you can’t beat free… and thats blender. However it’s not really used in professional studios (yes yes, I hear the blender crowd jumping up and down. Sorry guys). If you have to pay to use rhino, then its too expensive.

    The industry is mainly Maya > Max > SXI > lightwave > everything else. If you are on a mac and you are serious about doing 3d, then go Maya as max is not available. They are EXPENSIVE, but come with 30 day trials just like rhino. 3d max is widely used and easier to learn than Maya, but Maya is favored for high end film work. Maya is not that easy to start with though, but neither is switching 3d packages once you learn your habits.

    Another reason to choose a high end package like maya, max or lightwave is that there are more users, and therefore more support. I would be nowhere if it was not for the help of the 3d community.

    So if you want to devote your time to something serious, then start your education with your end goal in mind. Rhino?! Only if you want to do ONLY industrial design, or work by yourself at home. Now I’m sure that with time and money, ANY 3d package can be used to make amazing stuff (like rhino), but if you want high end results and seek to work in a professional studio, then choose a professional package to start with.

    Free = Blender – beginner/casual
    Professional = Max/Maya – professional career

    Gabriel, I do not know you, and it’s a really crappy thing for me to just rain on your parade. I have no right as I am not offering anything better. You’ve made a nicely produced video, and your speech is clear and easy to listen to… but rhino, sketchup…? You “download Sketchup models and hack them into your presentations”? No offense, but if you can’t model something that you have to get from a sketchup file, then you should not be making a video on how to model. If the series was titled “intro to rhino” or “Industrial design 3d with rhino” then no drama.

    And, because Ive made cheap shot complaints from behind the wall of internet anonymity at this poor dude that means well (and has made more effort to help than I)… then its only fair i offer up my website for criticisms and grammer Nazis. (‘er’ intended)
    (oh what have I done. I should have ignores this and just stayed on reddit)

    • Blender is anything but beginner. I find the program highly confusing. Casual level most probably.
      Of all the software that I have used in the past, 3Dmax is definitely the easiest and is widely used.
      Then again, I went completely off 3D and into visual effects. (After effects etc,)
      Ironically now I am finding myself using 3D progs again after so many years because
      of the newly released Element, by video copilot.

    • Well ?? Where would i look if iwere looking for a 3D artist to do a project for a presentation I need to produce which needs multi-disciplinary elements.. Is there an artist network somewhere where I could post for help? Here I am thinking about building this thing (that I need) myself.. So ran across this article on trapit

  • Agree again. anyone starting to learn should start with the program they will stay with. I started with blender before uni and i learnt enough to make some short videos. but when i hit uni it was all about Maya and my previous knowledge didn’t really help. Unfortunately there is no real easy way to start off in maya so it can be scary to newcomers, especially if your are trying to self teach.

  • I’m coming from the same place as daniel. I’ve been in the arch viz industry for 7 years, and would never suggest starting in a package like rhino unless you were doing an industrial design degree or concept architecture (grasshopper). Its just not a good starting point into 3d art.

    I will, however, go against daniel and suggest starting with sketchup and sculptris for beginner modeling, before starting to learn a more complete program like blender. They will definitely be an easier stepping stone to the bigger suites (maya/max).

    Ultimately, its better to guide a noobie to whichever industry he or she wants to aim for:

    maya – game/vfx
    max – arch viz

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