The best 3D modeling software unlocks your creativity, helping you bring your eye-catching and imaginative designs to life.
Like the best VFX software, 3D modeling tools have never been more accessible or powerful. Design apps that once required specialists, tailored computers, and million-dollar budgets can now be run on almost any computer with a decent GPU or video editing prowess - whether you’re mocking-up a prototype or 3D printing.
And, for creatives on a budget, today’s best free 3D modeling software and best rendering software competes with premium alternatives to deliver professional, industry-standard graphics and visual effects.
With accessibility at an all-time high, the top modeling and rendering software can now be found across a massively diverse range of industries - we’ve even rounded up the best architecture software, best interior design software, and best landscape design software.
But with so many different tools, each seemingly designed for different specialities, it can feel overwhelming - especially if you’re just looking for the easiest 3D modeling software for beginners. So, to help you make an informed choice, we’ve tested and reviewed a range of 3D design apps.
If you’re just starting out as a visual artist, or a veteran designer looking for new software that fits your creative flow, we’ve selected the very best 3D modeling software tools and apps to make your ideas a reality.
What is the best 3D modeling software?
Autodesk 3DS Max is our top pick for best 3D modeling software. And our emphasis here is on modeling, with 3DS Max especially popular with game developers, interior designers, and architects who need professional modeling, texturing, and meshing tools.
Standard features include skeletons and inverse kinematics, cloth simulation, skinning and character controls for bipedal motion. If the software doesn’t support the exact function or rendering mode you need, an extensive plugin system allows third-party modules to add this to 3DS Max. Some of these plugins are free, but we found the best ones are paid.
For modeling purposes, 3DS Max supports conventional polygon construction, NURBS and also patch surfaces. Images can be generated using a very wide range of rendering systems, including Renderman created by Pixar and mental ray.
However, while we think 3DS Max is a feature-rich modeling tool and one of the best rendering software tools available, packed with pro-level functionality, it’s not for everyone. Although it’s perfectly capable of animations, experienced animators, for example, may be better served with Maya, from the same developer.
We also ran into issues when using too many plugins, so they interact in somewhat unpredictable ways. Complex plugins that stress the PC can make 3DS Max unstable on occasion. Which leads to the final issue for some users: Autodesk 3DS Max is Windows-only.
Blender is the best free 3D modeling software for animation and animators. It’s an open-source 3D creation tool supported by a dedicated community of developers and users, and totally free for personal and commercial use.
The top free 3D animator used to be the domain of hobbyists wanting to create animated space battles or giant robot films. Now, it’s evolved to the point where many production companies use it to create effects elements for big-budget movies.
Most other tools in our best 3D design software round-up focus on the modeling or rendering parts of the 3D process. Blender is different, providing the entire pipeline from modeling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering, compositing and motion tracking to video editing.
It even has a 2D animation pipeline, if you need to combine 2D elements with 3D models. The pipelining aspect of this tool is perfect for team collaboration, where artists can work on their part of a scene, and then watch it come together with elements created by others.
As the source code for this software is open source, a large developer community has extended the functionality in Blender to rival premium alternatives. However, Blender’s independence and reliance on community support does mean it won’t always have regular updates and bug fixes.
Still, development continues apace to keep Blender the best free 3D modeling software. One of the latest features is real-time rendering using the EEVEE engine, bridging the gap between what was previously possible in real-time and those effects that required exclusively offline processing.
Best of all, the design app is available across Windows, Mac, and Linux. We also thought Blender was the best Adobe After Effects alternative for animation.
Autodesk Maya is our choice for best 3D modeling software for animation (it was actually one of the first commercial 3D rendering systems to introduce hair and fur). An industry-standard that’s used in countless big-budget productions, like Stranger Things, this is one of the best rendering software choices, l is rich with pro-level tools for modeling, texturing, rendering, and more.
Because it’s considered one of the best 3D character modeling software, it’s often the software of choice for artists and animators. Maya features seriously powerful tools for character creation and movement, and the simulation of natural elements such as water, fire, sandstorms and explosions.
Maya’s latest release now includes Bifrost procedural effects, enabling complex elements to be constructed using dynamic solvers. Once a scene has been created and effects defined, photoreal rendering is available using the Arnold RenderView system for stunningly real results.
However, that means Maya is a hugely advanced tool. And its interface is far less user-friendly than Autodesk 3DS Max. So, this isn’t the best 3D modeling software for beginners, but for professionals who want to craft professional results.
Like Blender, it's available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. We found Maya is the software equivalent of the magician's hat from which almost anything can be pulled.
ZBrush is a creative take on modeling objects in 3D: like Adobe Substance 3D Modeler, currently in beta, it uses a brush system to enable designers and artists to sculpt digital clay in real-time. Because of this 'virtual claymation' approach, ZBrush proved to be one of the best 3D modeling software for 3D printing.
Objects created by ZBrush tend to have a hand-formed feel. The object construction system lends itself to creating new and interesting shapes, rather than painstakingly recreating existing objects in a 3D space.
The system can be used with pressure-sensitive pens and graphics tablets to help with the organic nature of a modeling method popular with concept artists, filmmakers, and game developers.
We found another artist-friendly feature is a non-linear production path. This lets you revert a design to a previous iteration, make a change, then roll forward again. This flexibility allows for mistakes, changes of mind, or design evolution to be part of the process.
The unconventional modeling and sculpting method does mean the learning curve to mastering ZBrush is steep. But the results are impressive, especially when used to craft 3D printed objects.
SketchUp is one of the best 3D modeling software for beginners, with an easy-to-use interface, and premium features for seasoned artists, architects, and designers.
In our hands-on review, we called it one of the best rendering software tools “for those who need exact precision and don’t require the use of templates or ready-made objects.” It’s a top choice, especially for architects, but it’s best if you’re comfortable building 3D objects from scratch.
While we noted that it’s not really built for interior design or landscape design purposes, we praised the tool for offering “ absolute complete freedom, with the ability to create anything from a high rise building right down to a stool.”
You’ll find four versions of the 3D design app, each offering a better toolset for more professional uses: SketchUp Free lets home users craft 3D objects right in their browser, while SketchUp Go is the new subscription service for iPad and web. SketchUp Pro is the primary commercial offering, while SketchUp Studio is most advanced package.
After following a handful of straightforward tutorials, artists can begin crafting complex solid geometric shapes. At SketchUp’s lower end, we found the free version was best for rapidly prototyping concepts, while the feature-rich versions will let you visualize entire buildings.
The tool attracts a large, dedicated community following - with vast user-generated object library and pre-constructed elements to use in your own designs.
Read our full SketchUp review
Rhino is a design tool that’s perfect for graphic artists working with curved surfaces.
When the tool first appeared, even the best 3D modeling software could only handle basic geometry and a few offered splines. Almost none of them could handle NURBS. That’s essential when you’re accurately modeling, for instance, the body of a vehicle or aircraft, or the curves of a human face. In this field, where NURB surfaces matter, Rhino is the best.
Available for both the Mac and PC, Rhino can sculpt objects, adapt LIDAR scans, work with meshes from other systems and even render scenes using raytracing.
Like 3DS Max, this also has a plugin solution and a sophisticated developer platform for those wanting to create new ones. Alongside the plugins is a scripting language, enabling complex detailing or modification processes to be automated.
But even if you’re not a software developer you can create enhanced functionality through Grasshopper, a tool for making form generation algorithms without writing code.
Overall, this product is superb for prototyping mechanical parts or creating concept designs and then having them turned into physical items using 3D printing.
Our only reservations about it are that for someone coming from a more conventional modeling environment this learning curve can be a steep one. Although once you’ve mastered it, Rhino is extraordinarily powerful 3D design software.
What is 3D modeling?
We asked Penny Holton, Senior Lecturer in Animation at Teesside University for her definition of 3D modelling:
3D modeling is a vital part of the computer graphics process. It is the creation of objects in 3D space.
There are now a number of ways to create 3D models and the techniques can be split broadly into two areas. Hard surface modeling where you use 3D polygon shapes and vertices to form an object, and digital sculpting where you work with virtual clay.
Hard surface is good for modeling things like buildings and cars, where digital sculpting is better for organic structures such as characters and animals.
3D models can be created for a variety of applications from product design, engineering, and architecture to movies, games, and commercial advertising.
What sort of computer do you need to run 3D modeling software?
Like video editing software and VFX software, 3D design apps are intensive, so it's best to use a computer with above-average specs across the board: better processor, better GPU, more RAM.
If you just want to have a go, then you should be able to get Blender working on a slightly above average PC (or laptop), such as an Intel Core i5 with a decent graphics card and at least 8GB of RAM.
As soon as you start to want to create and render detailed computer-generated imagery and visual effects, you will need a more powerful machine.
How to choose the best 3D modeling software for you
When choosing which software is best for 3D modeling and rendering, consider your use and needs, your skill level, your budget, and what fits your creative workflow.
Like the canvas vs the cel, artists and animators need different spaces to create, so factor in how you’ll use the software. The best 3D design apps and tools are powerful at everything from modeling and sculpting to motion graphics, but typically excel in particular areas.
Take your skill-level into account. Some 3D modeling and rendering software can be advanced or overwhelming to beginners, so if you’re new to CG graphics and visualizations, start with a tool with a gentler learning curve.
Budget will be a factor - especially for creatives who demand that professional polish. Top-end software, like Autodesk 3DS Max and Maya, deliver industry-standard results at industry-standard prices. If your needs (or your budget) are less extensive, for example, building a quick mock-up or visualization, tools like Blender and SketchUp Free offer affordable alternatives.
Finally, be subjective. Choose the software that feels comfortable for you, and matches your flow
How we test the best 3D modeling software
When we test which 3D modeling software is best, we’re looking for outstanding examples of what matters to users.
We expect to see the best rendering software exhibit a strong user experience and an interface that’s intuitive and navigable. Even more advanced or complex 3D software still needs to be accessible, despite steeper learning curves.
We test the performance of each tool, ensuring an optimal creation process and a finished product that’s of high quality. Since every 3D modeling software is different, we also evaluate how well the program meets the needs of its intended user-base with its appropriately equipped toolkit.
When a service is promoted as free, it needs to be genuinely free. No hidden charges, secret subscriptions, or credit card details. Any limitations to free versions, or upgrade costs, must be clearly signposted for the user.
During our test and review of the best 3D modeling software, after signing up to each service, we used a handful of files to see how the software could be used for the editing and development of 3D objects and characters. The aim was to push each software platform to see whether it could simply and easily not just edit a range of content types but also do so faithfully and consistently without recurring errors.