View Full Version : OT: ...Sort of..Learning CAD Software

02-15-2012, 01:29 PM
I have never used any sort of CAD software and now have a burning desire to learn about it.

Where do I start? When I do an internet search, it quickly becomes sensory overload and is of no help where to start.

First off, I use a Mac, however, I'm a man and I can change......................if I have to (computer platforms that is) :)

Should I learn Google Sketchup to learn on or what say ye? I don't want to spend a lot of time learning some specialized software only to find I should have used something else. Eventually I would like to try CNC work or possibly 3D scanning and printing.

Thanks, Dennis

02-15-2012, 02:04 PM
I bought Alibre a few months back and really like it and found it easy to learn. I don't know if they suport macs though.

02-15-2012, 02:19 PM
Alibre doesn't support Macs, but if it they are the way to go, I can always get a PC.

02-15-2012, 02:20 PM
Hi Dennis,
First off I have to ask you why you want to learn CAD? Do you have a use for learning it? The reason I ask is because all of them have a learning curve, some much steeper than others.
The basic type of CAD is 2d, which means you would just be making drawings like engineering type drawings of parts to be made. The second type is 3d or modeling programs. Here the part is created by certain processes of extruding lines into shapes and adding and subtracting other solids or parts. What I'm explaining here is just the tip of the iceberg.
Probably the best way to learn CAD would be to take classes at your local vocational school. I'm not saying you couldn't learn it on your own as many people have I'm just saying it can become overwhelming.

02-15-2012, 02:34 PM
I'm not really sure how to answer why I want to learn CAD. I guess an analogy is that when I bought my Ipad, I figured it was just a gadget, but now, holy moly!!!!!!!!!! I had no idea how useful a tool it would be, I use it constantly, I have many books and manuals on it, almost all my work related information and it is an incredible tool for editing, faster than using a computer. I figure learning CAD may be the same.

I have no idea what I really want from learning it other than I have an interest in CNC and 3D scanning and printing. I may not go anywhere with it. On the other hand it may lead to an entirely new hobby or vocation.

Thanks, Dennis

02-15-2012, 02:36 PM
I say get your feet wet with sketchup and see if the interest continues. Tony

Michael Hall
02-15-2012, 02:41 PM
Either PC or Mac, here you go:


And if your interest continues in CNC try CamBam your CAM software.


02-15-2012, 02:46 PM
I would recommend taking a night class as it will not only simplify the learning curve, but also give you access to a variety of professional software for free. 3d modeling, or even 2d drafting is a lot like anything else in life - you can learn cheap, easy, or fast...pick two. To me I think spending on a single class is cheap (and all three are then possible) but depending upon your situation it may not be. Regardless, I have always found that using a professional tool is vastly easier than using a lesser quality one. If you can find a class, I would highly recommend Solidworks as being one of (if not the) easiest program to learn and one of the most capable.

I think an important consideration should be, what do you want to do? If you intend on ever making money in the trade, moving up to using any CAM software (for CNC), or are seriously interested in developing professional quality skills I would recommend a class and learning professional software/techniques. If all you want to do is keep costs low, learn something new, make a print or two, and maybe build a homemade CNC Sketchup is free and free is good.

02-15-2012, 02:52 PM
I understand that these are not really affordable options for the average Joe, but I've used Solidworks, ProE, and AutoCAD. If I were to suggest one software to learn it would be Solidworks. It is very intuitive, visual, and reliable. I use it for almost every design to visualize how it will look and get all the dimensions just right.

Are you a student or do you know any students? You can get that version for pretty cheap. It has limited functionality and watermarks all drawings, but still works great. They might even have a trial version to play with.

Can't comment on any of the free software as I have not used any of them.

02-15-2012, 07:53 PM
The first thing you need to decide is whether you want to do 2D or 3D. There are two entirely different thought processes required.

You also want a program that is intuitive. Some drafting programs have a very steep and long learning curve.

Do you have any experience with traditional drafting? Do you want to do 2D or 3D?

Based upon your answers I can provide some guidance.

Paul Alciatore
02-15-2012, 09:13 PM
I have used a number of CAD programs on both PCs and Macs and I can tell you that some are fairly easy to learn and others are definitely more difficult. And there are a lot of inbetweens.

First, you mention Google's Sketch Up. I am not sure if it is really a CAD program or just a drawing program that allows precision and dimensions. I am presently in the process of learning and getting my fingers accustomed to it. I do like it and I would place it somewhere in the middle of all the CAD and drawing programs I have used in terms of the difficulty of learning how to use it. I, personally, like it; at least so far. It is definitely a 3D program. You could do a 2D sketch with it, but it really is 3D from the ground up. I would recommend it if you definitely want 3D capability. Oh, and Google has a series of instructional videos on U-Tube that are very good for learning to use it. The basic version is free so all you can loose is time.

As for 2D programs, my favorite is FastCAD. It claims to be 3D as well as 2D, but it really is 2D at it's core. But I can make a 2D sketch/drawing in FastCAD faster than any other program I have used. This may be at least partially due to my long term use of it. But one of the best features of this program is the ease of learning it. I was literally making a drawing the first day after my first version arrived in the mail. It is hands down the easiest to learn CAD program I have ever used. Today you can download it from the web and use it instantly. Actually, you can download a fully functional copy for free and use it for 14 to 28 days for free. And the support is super. They have a BB similar to this one where the chief programmer, Mike Riddle, monitors the comments/discussion on a daily basis. He if very responsive to users complaints and suggestions. So if you want a 2D program that is easy to use, I would definitely recommend FastCAD or it's companion program by the same company, EasyCAD.


As for programs I do not like, top of that list is AutoCAD. AutoCAD has many classes, how to books, cheat sheets, and other learning devices. This is not an advantage because they are really, REALLY needed to learn it. It has a VERY steep learning curve. Yes, it will do almost anything and yes, it is the "industry standard", whatever that means, but it is absolutely the LAST CAD program I would ever recommend.

Those are the two I would recommend for starters, FastCAD for 2D and/or Sketch Up for 3D.

All the usual disclaimers apply. I have no relationship to these or any other CAD company except as customer/user.

02-15-2012, 09:29 PM
I presume that it is possible to design in 2d using a 3d capable program but not the other way around.

I want to experiment with CNC and eventually 3D printing or rendering. If one software program won't do both then so be it, but I would really like to only buy one program.

I have no idea if all CAD programs use the same language and commands, hence my questions. I would like to use something basic to learn with, but if the learning curve will be the same as if i buy SolidWorks or Alibre then I might as well jump in both, feet so to speak, and learn the more capable software.

Thanks, Dennis

02-15-2012, 09:53 PM
Here's one I just downloaded the otherday.Will run on Windows or Mac,free version for individuals -


02-15-2012, 09:59 PM
I often wonder what those that still use 2d exclusive programs actually do with them. To answer your question, youre basically correct. Most of the 2d programs have a very limited 3d capability, but typically they will make you want to never use 3d again. 3d programs OTOH typically have the features of both, because you generally do not create 2d prints in a good 3d program, the program creates them for you based upon the 3d model you created with very little corrective input necessary. This is actually one of many ways that companies help maintain drawing quality and improve productivity today - they minimize the human input necessary, which on prints that are 10+ D size sheets is very necessary and saves a ton of time.

Regarding programs using similar "languages," it can be a bit of a toss up at times, but typically if you know the capabilities of one and have some generally good modeling habits (yes, there are bad ones), changing from one to another is simply a matter of learning the new program's quirks and button locations.

Something I see you mentioned earlier is that youre using a Mac. Personally, I have never seen a professional quality program on a Mac OS, but I do use them all the time on my Mac while running Windows via Bootcamp.

Harvey Melvin Richards
02-16-2012, 10:44 AM
Personally, I have never seen a professional quality program on a Mac OS

Autodesk now makes AutoCAD (http://usa.autodesk.com/adsk/servlet/pc/index?id=17326753&siteID=123112) for the Mac OS.

02-16-2012, 03:08 PM
I just started taking an AutoCad course through a vocational school,and although there is a considerable amount of reading and rehashing about computer operation,the AutoCad portion,so far, has not been that hard to learn. The school gives a student version, which is the full version of AutoCad 2011. The program is useful for 3 years except that there is a watermark on anything that is printed. I know that the mind boggling part is yet to come once the 3D part begins.

02-16-2012, 03:09 PM
Since I've had about 20 years of AutoCad experience, I'll have to agree that the learning curve is steep! The upside is that once you learn the basics, and develop a personal style of drawing, you'll find yourself using it all the time! Quicker to make a quick layout in 2d than it is to trig out the solution to geometric problems.

Now for the best part:
You can get most all of AutoCad's functionality free! There is Draftsight, which has a version for windows, mac, and linux. I am running both windows and linux versions and both are very good, with the windows version having a slight edge as it's more developed and out of beta. This is completely free, and not some crippled version. It works much the same as AutoCad, with most of the same commands and customizability. On the downside it doesn't run LISP. (It does run ruby scripting language). It handles all the AutoCad dwg and dxf formats from v12 thru 2010.

Also, there is Progecad 2009 which is a great autocad clone, pc only, and lighter on resources than drafsight. It is for personal use only, and watermarks prints as such. I run this on an old xp laptop, 1.5ghz pentium m, and 512 ram. Files are interchangeable between AutoCad, Progecad, and Draftsight.

A realistic expectation might be that you could learn enough to do some very basic layout and drafting tasks after about a week or two of 2-3 hrs/day practice. IF, you are determined! It helps if you've done some manual drafting. I actually "grew up" on the board, and transitioned to CAD in my job beginning in 1979.

Don't let the learning curve keep you from at least giving it a try.



02-16-2012, 06:17 PM
Nobody is born knowing how to do CAD drawing of any kind. No matter what you use you need to put in a considerable amount of time and you need to do that on a regular basis. If you try to stretch it out, a little here and a little there you will get nowhere. Each thing you do builds on what you just learned and everything you learned before. You have to keep at it or you will forget things and that will make it seem impossible.

I draw stuff regularly even if I have no need just to keep current and refresh my memory.

Weston Bye
02-16-2012, 07:45 PM
I often wonder what those that still use 2d exclusive programs actually do with them...

See my column in Digital Machinist. All my line drawings are done with an ancient DOS version of AutoSketch V2. It still runs flawlessly on most PC systems up to but not including Win7. Like Paul Alciatore, I am very fast with this because I've been using it for a long time, like about 27 years. Somebody mentioned fast, easy and cheap. This program was just that. No bells, whistles or whiz bangs.

loose nut
02-17-2012, 11:43 AM
Everyone starting out in CAD has to ask themselves a couple of basic questions before they start.

1. do you need 3D or just 2D for what you want to do, this is important.

2. if 2D there are quit a few good free programs to chose from.

3. If 3D is needed then what kind of application. Are you just going to draw individual parts. If so then Autocad or an equivalent 2D/3D type program will do the job BUT if you are designing multi-part mechanisms then you definitely would want something like Autodesk Inventor or Solidworks. Alibre or Sketch Up would be possible choices since there are free or cheap version.

Everyone will have a different view of each program. Many do not like Alibre but others do. I personally do not like the interface of Solidworks, I find it kind of cartoon like and not very intuitive but others love it. I really like Inventor. It is as much personal choice of what meets you needs and works best for you. Download the trial versions and give them a try.

Cost is the most limiting factor for most, it forces most of us to use the free and low cost programs which usually have limitations or quality issues.

02-17-2012, 01:22 PM
Thanks for all the replies. It seems like I am trying to combine two different camps here.

I downloaded DraftSight and will start learning that first. While cost is a factor, I think I will probably wind up getting SolidWorks or Alibre for 3D work.

Next question......

When working in these programs, is it sufficient to use a standard mouse or should I find some sort of tablet like a Wacom or ??????

Thanks Again

Black Forest
02-17-2012, 01:45 PM
I use Alibre for my designing needs. I use a 3D connexion SpacePilot Promouse along with a normal mouse. I have a mouse in my left hand and another one in my right hand. Saves a lot of time. I mostly use the keyboard for numerical input.

You can try Alibre for free and then buy the enty level program pretty cheap. Upgrade to the Pro and then Expert as you require more features. I use Expert and really like it.

loose nut
02-17-2012, 03:10 PM
You can get special graphics mouse hardware but unless you are really into IT! stick with a good quality mouse or better still a laser mouse (better resolution).

One thing that really gives you a big increase in your performance is a dual monitor system. One as a drawing window and the other has your tool bars, browser bar etc. You can run each monitor a a different resolution, high res for drawing and a lower res for tool bars etc. Getting the clutter out of the way in your drawing window makes a nice improvement in getting the work done.

02-17-2012, 03:31 PM
Thanks for all the replies. It seems like I am trying to combine two different camps here.

I downloaded DraftSight and will start learning that first. While cost is a factor, I think I will probably wind up getting SolidWorks or Alibre for 3D work.

Another one to consider: http://ashlar.com/

For assemblies, it's hard to beat SolidWorks.

For a single part, or simple assemblies, Ashlar Cobalt is incredible.

The old adage holds true (for all of us here, no doubt): "What the best CAD program in the world?" --- The one you're most familiar with, of course. :)

Black Forest
02-17-2012, 03:52 PM
LooseNut have you tried a 3D connexion mouse? I am lost without mine. It is useful for other applications also not just CAD. The joy is in using the joystick/knob for moving, rotating, zooming, etc. A normal mouse is just plain clumsy compared to a 3D mouse. Just curious if you any of you all ever tried one.

02-17-2012, 04:13 PM
I've been where you are. I just wanted to learn CAD just because. I had a copy of Solidworks and a good buddy who is an engineer who was willing to help me learn. Here's what I found out. CAD programs are designed for people who use CAD programs for a living. They don't seem to be designed to be easy to use, or intuitive. Most of the people using them have been schooled to use them, then continually use them everyday. From my perspective, this made them tough for a casual user. I could do all the tutorials, get help from my bud, and draw some simple things. Then I may not need or have time to use it for a month, then I forgot most of what I learned and it would take forever to remember how to do even simple things. I eventually came to the conclusion that for me to learn it well enough for it to be useful to me, it was going to have to be a considerable hobby requiring lots of time. Time I decided I'd rather spend on other hobbies. If you're wiling to maybe take some night classes at a local college or tech school, then devote some serious time to using it and staying familiar with it, you can be proficient.

For me, Sketch up is way more useful. Is intuitive enough to use casually, and it will sketch 99% of things I need to sketch. Not just parts or assemblies. I've also used it to draw detailed models of wood projects to see how they'd look completed and I've used it to draw room lay outs to get an idea of where I should place things. It's dead easy to input the dimensions of your shop, then construct all your large floor tools then just rearrange them on your screen. I love that.

02-17-2012, 04:36 PM
I looked for cheap or free CAD programs and most of them were junk. I found Turbocad Deluxe version 18 bundled with a very good tutorial for about $300. The tutorial allowed me to become effective drawing mechanical parts and assemblies in only a few weeks. All CAD programs are complicated and take a good tutorial or a training class to become effective.

loose nut
02-17-2012, 06:38 PM
If you want a good 2D program then try Solidedge 2D it's free (there is a paid version too, haven't looked at the difference) and a professional grade program.

loose nut
02-17-2012, 06:41 PM
LooseNut have you tried a 3D connexion mouse? I am lost without mine. It is useful for other applications also not just CAD. The joy is in using the joystick/knob for moving, rotating, zooming, etc. A normal mouse is just plain clumsy compared to a 3D mouse. Just curious if you any of you all ever tried one.

No I haven't and I wasn't suggesting that the OP shouldn't get one but it might be a good idea that a beginner should stick to what comes with he computer too start, to see if he is going to continue with CAD before making a big investment in equipment.

02-18-2012, 01:44 AM
Autodesk now makes AutoCAD (http://usa.autodesk.com/adsk/servlet/pc/index?id=17326753&siteID=123112) for the Mac OS.

Thanks Harvey, I did not realize they were doing so.

To contribute a bit further to the hardware discussion since I do not see anyone that has mentioned it, to me the biggest hardware consideration isnt an improved mouse (I use a standard laser mouse), multiple or even larger monitors (I personally use 2, 30" screens), its simply having a decently fast computer that can handle the software. While I am sure that the less expensive/less feature'ful software can, many of the better programs simply cannot be run on a slower machine. Heck, even on the custom, really high end machine I have at work I have plenty of issues running ProE some days simply due to all of the "features" (affectionately referred to as b.s.) that is crammed into the software.

Before you spend any money on software, I would not only recommend checking the minimum operating spec, but also inquiring as to a suggested one via the internet or other third party source. I tend not to trust the sales reps on this, as many of them are true sharks.

Black Forest
02-18-2012, 03:31 AM
I never said the 3D mouse was the biggest consideration. I only said it is a big help and makes using the CAD program much easier and faster. If you have never personally tried one hands on then you are not entitled to make a comment as to their usefulness. Simple.

Also making definative statements about things only to find out that you haven't heard about this or that certainly makes me question what else you haven't heard about but you are commenting as an expert.

To the OP. Try Alibre it will be painless to upgrade and is easy to learn. I learned how to use it and I am a casual user.

02-18-2012, 04:22 AM
Input devices are extremely a matter of personal preference. What one person loves another cannot stand. Do NOT spend a lot of money on anything if you can't try it out for a while first or can't take it back.

02-18-2012, 08:02 AM
BF, which of the 3D connexion mice do you use?

I have always been a bit intrigued by those, but have never even seen one in person. I tend towards Evans view, I would generally really prefer to try stuff like that out before I lay out money, if I can. Those things look pretty cool really and I could see how it could speed up your cad work, I think. I looks like it would be really nice when doing assemblies for all of the spacial manipulations you tend to do.

John Stevenson
02-18-2012, 08:10 AM
Input devices are extremely a matter of personal preference. What one person loves another cannot stand. Do NOT spend a lot of money on anything if you can't try it out for a while first or can't take it back.

Brilliant advise.
Some years ago one of the old RCM members was saying to try a Logitech trackball and you would never go back, he even sent me a brand new one, the one with the ball on the left hand side.

His advise was stick with it for at least 3 weeks and I'd never go back.
Well in all fairness I stuck with it and hated the damn thing. Mentioned it to small son who tried it and said it was brilliant but then again he always does that to me :D so I gave it him.

A while later I was in PC World and looking at mice etc and there were three different models of Logiteck trackballs, the one with the ball on the left, the one with a central ball and one with 17,834 buttons.

I tried the central ball one and it just clicked with me first time in the shop so I bought it. It really speeded things up for me.

Small son tried it and couldn't get on with it :rolleyes:

Black Forest
02-18-2012, 08:27 AM
I have the SpacePilot Pro. It has the programable keys.