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Computer-aided drafting applications are a mainstay of industry, mainly thanks to the way they streamline and accelerate design work, leaving engineers with a unified set of drawings in beautiful 3D. But in industry you’ll find one critical factor that your average Toolmonger doesn’t have: a nearly unlimited budget. For the home user, the price of most CAD software is sky-high. There are flawed workarounds thanks to retailers like JourneyEd (but it’s only for students) and free programs like Daz3D (which is for artists more than engineers).

So the question is, under what circumstances is CAD software a boon to the do-it-yourselfer? Cost seems to be the determining factor. Very few people have the money to afford the software (assuming they don’t have access to discounts), and even fewer have the equipment to really take advantage of CAD work. However, next time you’re lining to make just about anything, CAD software can take the sting out of the planning phase, giving you a perfect 3D representation of the finished product. For a chest of drawers, that’s probably overkill, but anything machined comes out all the better for the influence of CAD. What say you, folks?

Daz3D [Wikipedia]

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30 Responses to Hot or Not?: CAD Software

  1. Jon says:

    Hot. Then again, as an engineer, I’m probably biased. Most of my hobby projects spend more time in design than fabrication, but that’s just me. At work, I have access to CATIA and $100,000 worth of licenses. At home, though, SketchUp does enough of what I need it to to justify the cost 😉

  2. Blind says:

    There are enough hobby level CAD programs out there that they are still hot. Especially if you start looking into SPICE and circuit design type stuff. SwitcherCad being the one off of the top of my head that is pretty good and free.

  3. SketchUp is amazing and either free or relatively cheap. Unless you’re really gifted when it comes to mental 3D visualizing, it’s the best thing ever. I model any project before I build it and it almost always saves a headache or two. It always saves me from buying too much material.

    AutoCAD/CATIA/whatever is usually overkill unless you’re going to take it the next step and do automated machining, the piece is really complex, or dimensions are really sensitive.

  4. Flabby Boohoo says:

    Although not technically CAD software, I use Visio to design all my woodworking projects (and have been using it since the mid 90’s). Great tool that can do many other things beside 2-D scale drawings.

  5. bigalexe says:

    AutoCAD is the win for simple stuff that is outside of the range of Sketchup but can still be done in 3D. Once you hit the 3rd dimension on Non-Architectural projects I highly suggest migrating to Solidworks for its ease of use.

    However I still pickup a pencil, paper, and a TI-82 calculator for some real simple stuff. It’s so much quicker than the computer.

    In Summary for anything bigger than fixing a shelf, CAD software will save many trees and many $$$ if you know how to utilize it properly.

    Disclaimer: I am a drafting student able to use University resources in the way of software and hardware so the budget I just proposed is a bit high.

  6. There’s QCAD which has both an open source and commercial edition.

    Link for windows installer:

    If you’re willing to run Linux I’ve used gEDA to design circuit boards and gschem to do schematics. The biggest problem is finding the right parts libraries so you don’t have to build your own.

    Link for gEDA

  7. Ben Granucci says:

    Hot! I purchased a student license of VectorWorks back when I was in school, and upgraded it about a year ago to a professional license for a work project I was doing in my free time. For my work in Lighting Design, it is the most cost effective and easy way I know of to do designs. I use that for everything I need to draw, be it for work or home. It seems easiest to just keep using the CAD software that I am most used to. I learned AutoCAD back in school as well, but I used it far less and find it to be difficult now to use for things I can easily do in VW. Again, its all about using what you are used to.

  8. jeffrey immer says:

    sketchup is great, and unless you are really versed in CAD most cad programs are not for the layman. some of the programs you can buy at officemax or best buy with titles like 3D home architect or something along those lines are affordable and much easier to use, i personally love Chief Architect but at around a grand it’s not cheap for everyone, unless you make money using it, but after using the program for 10 years i have found it extremely powerful in 3d modeling and giving great rendered views but not great on the CAD side of house. but overall i think it’s hot, you can find cheap programs are powerful enough for most simple projects. oh and microsoft has a program called Visio that can do some lite CAD esque design

  9. BC says:

    CorelDRAW is a fairly powerful tool for 2D CAD, and it’s a helluva lot cheaper than AutoCAD. Bonus, most CO2 laser cutter/engravers work extremely well with it.

  10. DaveS says:


    Making CAD software work was what changed my career path from design to IT, and ever since I’ve been better at running the environment than I ever was at using the software.

  11. Billy says:

    Hot! Visio and/or SketchUp is all I’ve used for the last few years. I don’t start any big project at home without a design. CorelDraw is useful too at times.

  12. ToolGuyd says:

    CAD is great once you get passed the steep learning curve. Sketchup is free, and while it’s decent, it’s limited. I’m slowly finding learning Autodesk Inventor, and am finding it to be an incredibly powerful program.

    I sometimes still prefer my T square and triangles, though.

  13. aaron says:

    HOT, can there be any question?

    I use Sketchup for all my woodworking projects, and can not really imagine the process of designing a piece out of my imagination without something like it.

  14. JH says:

    Hot! Nowadays, all of my projects start as random sketches on paper. Then I migrate them to Solidworks. Then I go back to paper. And then make the finished parts in Solidworks. Seems like a winning combination to me.

  15. Toolaremia says:

    HOT! Though since I banished abusive operating systems from my home my choices are less expansive. (No Sketchup for me.)

    I used SweetHome3D to layout my garage and office. Cheap (free as in beer), Free (as in speech), simple, detailed. Easy to quickly create objects that resemble stacks of tires…

    I use RibbonSoft QCAD (qcad.org) for mechanical drawing. Free (beer) and Free (speech), though I bought a license I liked it so much. Doesn’t cost much and plenty good for my level of skill/need.

  16. Chris says:

    Hot, if you need it. As others have said, always start with paper and stay there if what you’re doing is fast and easy. CAD always takes longer than you think but the upside is the actual making should be plug-and-chug with fewer gotchas. Sometimes that’s a downside since most of us actually like spending time in the shop and time in front of a computer feels too much like work. Also, as others have said Sketchup seems to be the best free/cheap choice.

    I’m a freelance mechanical engineer. When I’m getting paid to do CAD I’m usually using Pro/E or Solidworks. For my home wood & metal shop or if someone hires me to design and build I selected Alibre Design (www.alibre.com). For about $1k I got a decent CAD package, as well as 3-D CAM and mechanical simulation. It’s clearly not as powerful as the big names but gives you tons of capability for relatively short money.

  17. Matti says:

    Another vote for SketchUp. I am currently in the process of switching offices, and I used it to make drawings for the furniture supplier for what it is that I want to have in my new space.

  18. @Toolaremia:

    Why can’t you run Sketchup?

    It runs under Windows, Mac, and Linux (under Wine).

    What are you running BEOS or something weird?

  19. Rick says:

    I’m kinda surprised you would even ask if it was hot or not. I think that is a question with a VERY obvious answer. As a woodworker, sketchup is an incredibly powerful tool, even with its limitations. There are so many plugins and add ons out there that it is insane to get anything other than the free version.

    BTW, here is my favorite sketchup site.

  20. Toolaremia says:

    You know Benjamen, I think you’ve mentioned that before. My old slow P4 didn’t have the nuts to run WINE worth a hoot, but just last weekend I built a ludicrous-speed Phenom II X4 quad system with a gone-to-plaid-speed video card. So I’m due to try again. Thanks for reminding me.

    WineHQ.org AppDB suggests it mostly works, but I may have trouble with, uh, saving… (Fingers still crossed for a native Linux port…)

  21. 1200tec says:

    +10 for Sketchup. I use it to make all my drafts before building. works great…

  22. nnx says:

    Hot absolutely.

    Also lets just stop pretending that not having a license has stopped anyone from using software. There are more than enough ways to circumvent the (usually) more that outrageous pricing of the CAD-Software Publishers.

    That said, I am quite happy with the Autodesk Inventor (2009) Software package. What I like most is the built in Database (Vault) which enables me to create a part once and use it in any project afterwards without effort. There are also tons of calculation and simulation tools, so i can know with a few clicks how much the project will cost (in materials term), how much will it weight, where should I watch for material stress and weakpoints, and so on.

    Of course I am kind of biased since I get the Autodesk software (legally) free through their student program.

  23. Kris says:

    I use both Visio and Sketchup. Visio to me is mostly for 2-D drawing like a flow chart – I also used it for drawing a map for my sister to include in her wedding invitations. But if my work did not buy it for me, I would not lay out the $$ for it (~$200 for Standard, $500+ for Professional).

    Sketchup is wonderful for anything 3-D and it’s priced right (FREE!). I would use this over Visio for drawings of almost any planned woodworking project.

    I found Sketchup be oh so simple to use for easy sketches but has a fairly high learning curve for more complex drawings. Nowhere near any commercial CAD program I know of though.

  24. johnnyp says:

    For the average Joe stick with graph paper and triangles. Long time CAD user and instructor. I think the only things these products do is facilitate reference , decimation of data and stream line the change process. We survived fine without electronic data , it has been about 20 yrs since CAD has been main streamed in industry and has done wonders in certain circumstances.
    For personal projects I usually do things the old fashioned way and generate isometric or
    perspective dwgs.Downloaded Sketch-up, it’s a free program!! Iam not trying to discourage anyone if you never used these before, go for it. Anybody ever hear of Calma, Medusa or CV

  25. MattW says:

    I use Solidworks at work and at home, at home mainly because I have that skillset already and it is a very good program. The cost is reasonable for a business but out of reach for all but the most dedicated hobbiest. I recently designed up some garage cabinets, and for the first time in my life, used SW to layout the cutting diagrams. That was a revelation, it definitely increased yield and improved setups by revealing cuts on different parts that were identical but not obviously so.

    I haven’t used Alibre, but it sounds like it is in the ballpark of mid-range CAD and currently on sale for $99. For that price, if you are considering a step up from Sketchup (I don’t have much experience with it, but it looks really good for free), you would be insane to not jump on it. I would bet a lot of us spend more on beer each month….


  26. TomP says:

    I’m an engineer, so CAD is always hot. Just bought two seats of schematic and printed circuit board design for work. This version allows me to view the boards in 3d so I can make sure they fit before buying anything!

    For a limited time, you can get Alibre for $99, normally $999. It’s not crippled, limited, etc. http://www.alibre.com/99/info.asp

    I downloaded the trial version, but don’t like the user interface. It’s not intuitive enough for me. So I’ll stick with Rhino3d, which has the best UI of any software I’ve used.

    (I’m not affiliated with Alibre, or any other CAD providers, in case you’re wondering.)

  27. MeasureOnceCutTwice says:

    I use AutoCad for work, so it’s also available for my own projects. That said, there’s all kinds of CAD available for different purposes.
    I completely redesigned the floorplan of the house I currently live in using MS Paint (Yes, I know – ack). But here’s why – I scanned in the sales literature floorplan (surprisingly to scale), and then opened it in Paint. I then started cutting and pasting walls, and had the scale on the sides of the floorplan to figure size. Easier and far faster than doing it from scratch in CAD, and ended up looking pretty good.

  28. Brau says:


    This whole auto-cad-cam thing is just getting going as far as I’m concerned. Just the way computers *used* to exist only in big corporations and universities, we are now seeing Cad appliances (tools) beginning to show up on the market aimed at the basement creator, the average joe. Also, the ability to throw off conventional geometric designs is going by the wayside; systems today can create free-flowing organic looking forms, meaning if you can dream it, you can produce it. There’s a creative revolution afoot as it finds it’s way into the mainstream.

  29. Sturgis says:

    We use Solidworks, at work, and that usually carries over to home fab projects as well. From past 3d cad programs use, this is by far the best on the market

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