Replacing Sketchup

I finally gave up on Windows.  Oh, I’m no anti-Windows bigot (at least not anymore): I am very productive on the platform we all love to hate.  The problem was that the laptop forgot its license key, and due to poor record-keeping, so did everyone else.  To make a long story short, I downloaded Ubuntu and have been happily (mostly) working away ever since.

The one capability that hasn’t come over so easily is 3D drafting.  SketchUp supports only Windows and Mac.  Now, I find SketchUp an incredibly powerful and expressive tool for 3D drafting.  I recommend it to anyone who wants to get started in 3D.  So, it was with some trepidation that I set off in search of a replacement.

I started at Shapeways, since that is a service I use to print the 3D parts that I design.  They suggested Blender and FreeCAD.  I downloaded them both, as well as OpenSCAD, which I found through  A bunch of people on the model-railroad-hobbyist forum were raving over Blender, and so, I started there.

Well, I don’t know what they were raving about.  Blender would be a great tool if you wanted to create (and animate) characters.  It seems built for manipulating free-form meshes, and has a dizzying array of tools for tweaking a model like clay.

The trouble was, even after hours of video tutorials, I still couldn’t really control what I was doing the way I can with SketchUp.  Our models are mostly not free-form, but rather strictly dimensioned.  Scanning ahead through the tutorials, I couldn’t see any that were going in the right direction at all.

So, I tried FreeCAD.  This looks more promising – made by mechanical engineers, for mechanical engineers.  I have a feeling I have only scraped the surface of its capabilities, but after watching a few hours of tutorials, I now have about the same level of knowledge that I had when I undertook to design my passenger car.

FreeCAD has quite a different model for constructing drawings than SketchUp.  It is less convenient, but perhaps more powerful.  In SketchUp, once you have drawn something, it is set; you can undo, or add to or remove  from the model, but you can’t change what’s already done.

In FreeCAD, on the other hand, you can change the parameters of seemingly every element in the model after they have been drawn.  In the roundhouse drawing above, for example, I changed the distance from the centre of the pit to the front wall after drawing the part, and the model modified itself accordingly.

For a while FreeCAD was crashing all the time, and so, I tried out OpenSCAD.  The “S” stands for “Script.”  The way you interact with the drawing in OpenSCAD is through a command line interface.  I’m sure that’s useful to someone, but can you imagine trying to create a model of, say, a steam locomotive through commands like “cube([1.0,2,0,2.0,4.0]);”  I can’t imagine this, and so, I figured out how to upgrade FreeCAD to v0.16, and it seems much more stable now.

I’m hopeful that this free software will enable me to be productive, and thankful to the small cadre of Germans who have created it.  One thing for sure is that learning two 3D CAD programs in a weekend is good exercise for the old brain.

9 thoughts on “Replacing Sketchup

  1. Hi,

    I’m in a similar boat with regard to CAD and it is the only reason I still have any computers with windows. I’m just too ignorant to make any CAD program work well enough with Mint 17.3. That said, I know Sketchup can be run successfully in Mint because a friend of mine did just that last month. If you want I can put you in touch with him, pending, of course, the results of your FreeCAD experiment. I never got anything out of using it, but see above. If you’re interested in a 2D program for your laptop , I’ve had some success with Draftsight in Mint 17.3. On windows it is the main program I use and I’ll likely be buying a copy of it in the near future. On Mint the mouse can go bonkers at times and I’ve had to resort to using both the mouse and touch pad at the same time to zoom and draw a line or snap to a small detail. Also if you use your mouse on a windows machine and then go back to a Linux one it doesn’t work properly or at all when in the program. I’m pretty sure these are all things you could figure out in short order which is why the programs are mentioned.

    A Hutchinson

    1. Thanks Andrew. Getting SketchUp to work in Mint is nothing short of astonishing! I’m going to continue with FreeCAD for a bit more before I go tackling the troubleshooting required to get things working like that.

      As someone once said, I don’t want a CAD program, I want a drawing!

  2. Rene:

    You may want to give OnShape (web-based) and/or AutoCAD Fusion 360 (Mac/Windows) a look as they are free to use by hobbyists – you will be required to self-declare as such to qualify.


    1. Thanks, Vince.

      Sadly the Windows requirement is what got me off SketchUp in the first place. However, I just tried out OnShape while scarfing down my lunch, and it’s pretty cool. It seems easier to learn and use than FreeCAD, and I love the idea of built in version control and sharing. The one thing I liked in FreeCAD was the parametric drawing, and OnShape carries that forward. I’ll have to give it a solid shakedown.

      Thanks again!

    1. You bet I will, Ken.

      I wasted an hour last night drawing a driver for the locomotive project, and so far it’s been pretty good. It was a waste, though as technically I don’t need to draw the drivers because I’m planning on getting them from Apogee Vapeur.

      Parametric CAD takes a little getting used to when you grew up with AutoCAD, CorelDraw and SketchUp.


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