Only the best 3D modelling software will empower you to elevate your CG skills and create show-stopping art. Expertise in the most popular tools could also get you a job in the ever-evolving, ultra-competitive industry. Thankfully, 3D modelling software is more accessible than ever and, due to free software like Blender being used in more professional pipelines throughout the industry, learning to use it needn't cost a fortune. So, there's never been a better time to try it out.
To assist you, we've put together this useful guide, which outlines the best 3D modelling software for a range of specific needs. If you're an experienced modeller looking for a workflow refresh or you're new to the world of 3D, whether you've got zero money or an infinite budget, we've found something for you. We've also highlighted what each of our chosen software does best, so you can choose which is a fit for your approach and style.
If you've got a tight deadline, using pre-made assets can be an efficient and effective way to boost your productivity. For some brilliant options, check out our guides to the best free textures and free 3D models. It's also important to ensure your computer has one of the best graphics cards available so you can get the most out of your 3D tools.
The best 3D modelling software: paid-for options
Autodesk Maya will bag the top spot in most artists' ranking of the best 3D modelling software. The industry standard for an array of CG disciplines, Maya offers artists an unrivalled set of features and tools. This powerful app isn't for beginners, however, its toolset is complex and takes time to master. When we tested it in our Maya review, we found Autodesk had implemented a host of quality-of-life features. And now, with Maya 2022, there's even more to be excited about.
Maya is ideal for modelling, texturing, lighting and rendering – its vast features include tools for particles, hair, solid body physics, cloth, fluid simulations and character animation. It's worth deciding if Maya's extensive functionality is too much for your needs though, as this power comes with a price tag to match. For those who have the time, skill and patience to master it, Maya has some of the best 3D tools available right now and is a sound investment.
Need some help getting started with Maya? Our pick of excellent Maya tutorials could help.
ZBrush is a standalone sculpting and modelling app that is most useful for the creation of organic forms – although when we tried out the latest version for our ZBrush review, we found its hard-surface capabilities much improved. It works in a non-standard fashion, with a workflow and user interface that can be pretty difficult for newcomers to get the hang of, so it's worth practising every day if you want to become proficient.
ZBrush isn’t just for sculpting and modelling though, it can also be used to create UV maps and paint textures, enabling seasoned artists to craft entire figures, with clothing and props, ready for rendering. This software is a popular choice for artists wanting to 3D print toys and action figures with tools specifically designed for 3D printing.
SideFX's Houdini is responsible for creating a range of 3D imagery across the CG industry. Its node-based procedural approach offers artists unprecedented power, flexibility and control. This nodal workflow isn’t for everyone, but Houdini also has some more traditional tools which allow you to directly interact with the polygons on screen. When testing, we found that its problem-solving capabilities were leagues ahead of other 3D software, with the ability to rewire feeling incredibly natural, a big plus point for the software. You can see more reasons we rate this software so highly in our Houdini review.
Like Maya, Houdini's power and non-standard workflow can be tricky to get the hang of. Thankfully, SideFX offers Houdini Apprentice, a free version of Houdini FX, which can be used by students, artists and hobbyists on personal non-commercial projects. The free version gives you access to virtually all of the features from the award-winning Houdini FX, meaning you can really develop your skills. There's the full-featured Houdini Indie too, which provides an affordable commercial option for smaller studios.
Maxon’s Cinema 4D has been around for a long time and is highly regarded in the worlds of motion graphics, visualisation and illustration. It boasts a vivid community of creatives with a huge online library of tutorials – not to mention the training site Cineversity, to which you get free membership when you buy the app or pay for the annual Maxon service agreement (MSA). Cinema 4D’s parametric modelling toolset is generally very good, and you can increase its functionality with a range of reasonably priced plugins. There's also volumetric modelling, which is perfect if you don't have the time or skillset to create smooth solid forms.
Perpetual licenses aren't cheap, but you can always start with Prime and upgrade over time. Alternatively, there's a trial version that gives you 14 days to try Cinema 4D out for free and a free education version for students and teachers.
Autodesk's 3ds Max is a 3D computer graphics program for PC only. It's used primarily in the production of TV and feature films or for architectural and product visualisation. Like its sister software Maya, 3ds Max boasts a robust toolset for 3D modelling, as well as fluid simulations, hair and fur, plus character rigging and animation.
3ds Max uses both direct manipulation and procedural modelling techniques, with a huge library of different modifiers that makes the modelling process easier for new or intermediate artists. This software offers a vast professional toolset and, unsurprisingly, comes with a professional price tag. However, students can get the software for free and a trial version is also available for 30 days if you want to try it out before you buy.
Over the years Modo (opens in new tab) has grown from a basic subdivision surface modeller into a fully-featured digital content creation app. The toolset is well thought out and implemented, making it very user-friendly, add to that an impressive rendering system, and it’s easy to see why Modo has continued to grow in popularity. We comprehensively tested Modo (see our Modo 12 review), and liked its toolset and UI, but found it a little limited in its capabilities. Since then, Foundry has had a series of updates and is taking advantage of modern graphics cards to make it way more powerful.
With modelling at its core, Modo is one of the best apps available for the creation of polygonal forms, using both direct tools and procedural techniques. The addition of the best-in-breed MeshFusion Boolean system simply extends its modelling repertoire. Modo may lack the high-end dynamics and simulation tools you find in a program like Maya, but it holds its own when it comes to creating stunning artwork, producing as good a 3D render as any other package currently available.
LightWave (opens in new tab) was once the go-to app for sci-fi TV shows, but after a failed attempt to produce a modernised version, NewTek’s app lay fallow for several years. However it’s recently enjoyed something of a renaissance, and an updated version was introduced at the start of 2020.
Lightwave operates as two apps, Modeler – for building assets – and Layout for texturing, lighting, animation and rendering. A lot of the underlying toolset is quite old (although it’s had a lot of new features added in the last few years) but that doesn’t stop it from being a solid digital content creation suite, with lots of features and a fast interactive PBR renderer.
So ignore LightWave’s reputation: it’s a great 3D modelling app for learning the basics. You can try it for yourself with the 30-day free trial, while students can pick up a copy for just $195.
The best free 3D modelling software
A licence to use the best 3D modelling software doesn't always come cheap. Luckily, there's a whole host of powerful software available for free these days, as well as some companies that generously offer free versions of their paid-for tools.
To help you find the right one for you, we've selected the very best free 3D modelling software around for you to download today. So if you're a 3D artist, we recommend bookmarking this page now.
If you're looking for free 3D modelling software, it doesn’t get any better than Blender (opens in new tab), the free modelling, texturing, animation and rendering app. This open-source program has been around for a while now, and in that time it's acquired an army of artists, teachers and enthusiasts that are behind its continued development.
Blender boasts a highly impressive 3D modelling and sculpting toolset and is considered a completely viable alternative to paid modelling programs. In recent years it's become increasingly prevalent in the pipelines of major studios. Blender was once notorious for its non-standard way of working, but a lot of these issues have been solved, so it will feel more familiar if you're moving from another app.
Blender is a brilliant starting point to see if 3D art is for you, and we have a host of fantastic Blender tutorials to help you get started.
02. Daz Studio
Previously retailing at $249, 3D software Daz 3D (opens in new tab) is currently available to download completely free of charge. It’s a 3D figure customisation, posing and animation tool that enables artists of all skill levels to create digital art using virtual people, animals, props, vehicles, accessories and environments.
SketchUp Free (opens in new tab) advertises itself as "the simplest free 3D modelling software on the web — no strings attached", and it's certainly very easy to use. Its core 3D modeller runs right in your web browser and offers 10GB of storage, plus there are user-generated and manufacturer-produced 3D models available for free to import into your projects. All this plus a free app to view your 3D models on mobile adds up to a great package at zero cost. Oh, and don't forget to check out our selection of the best SketchUp textures.
If you've got a Daz 3D Studio account, you may as well download the free modelling app, Hexagon (opens in new tab). Developed by Eovia back in around 2001, it was acquired by Daz in 2006 and has been – very sporadically – updated ever since. Hexagon is simple subdivision surface modeller, and while Daz promotes it as a way of building clothes and props for its figure, you can use Hexagon to make anything you like.
If you don't have an account, you can buy Hexagon for £19.95 here (opens in new tab).
05. Fusion 360 (education version)
Autodesk’s cloud-based modelling app Fusion 360 (opens in new tab) is a professional piece of software for the CAD/CAM crowd but can be used to create any solid form, from teapots to tanks. Ordinarily, it costs £438 per year, but there’s a free education version for Windows and Mac that you can use for non-commercial projects. The app features all sorts of modelling techniques, including freeform sculpting, polygon manipulation and parametric modelling.
06. Houdini Apprentice
As we mentioned above, Houdini is a 3D animation and visual effects tool used widely throughout the media industry for film, broadcast, entertainment and visualisation. Its cheapest version costs just a little under $2,000, but SideFX also offers an ‘Apprentice’ version for free. Houdini Apprentice (opens in new tab) allows you to access all of the features of the full version in order to develop your skills and work on personal projects. Just remember that this version is purely for non-commercial use and learning purposes.
A pure modelling app, Wings 3D (opens in new tab) is an open-source project available for Windows, macOS and Linux, which has been in development since 2001. Like all subdivision modellers, it enables you to build an underlying form made of polygons and then generate a smoothed shape by subdividing the mesh.
It’s pretty basic as modellers go, and the interface is a bit unusual, but it’s fairly user-friendly and an ideal way to get a feel for poly modelling, and to see if 3D art might be for you.
08. Rocket 3F
Rocket 3F (opens in new tab) is a Windows-only polygonal modeller that promotes itself as fast, fun and friendly. Its professional-looking interface is fully customisable and it boasts an extensive modelling toolset that wouldn’t look out of place in apps costing hundreds of pounds. Indeed, with sculpting, retopology tools and non-linear subdivision edge creasing, it’s a very well equipped program.
The free version doesn’t allow you to change the UI or assign your own hotkeys – for that you need to buy the €99 Pro version – but whether you’re making models for illustration, VFX or games, Rocket 3F is a great tool.