Contemporary artisans don’t rely solely on their craft and drawing skills to design amazing pieces. CAD tools such as SketchUp, Solid Works, or Alibre help them get a better understanding of all the intricacies that make up a piece of furniture. Needless to say, this minimizes errors and saves time in the workshop.
If you’re just starting out, choosing the best woodworking software can be a bit overwhelming. There’s a steep learning curve involved. Therefore, it helps if you can organize some free training. But this just scratches the surface of what makes great woodworking software. Keep reading to find out more.
Best Woodworking Software Reviews
1. SketchUp Pro
SketchUp Pro needs little introduction as it has become one of the most popular CAD tools for designers, engineers, and woodworkers. This review focuses on the Pro version, but keep in mind that there are also Free, Shop, and Education versions, too. However, the Pro has everything you need for serious design.
One of the tool’s main benefits is ease of use. The UI is well-laid-out, and you get to tweak the toolbar to your preferences, plus the icons are quite large to help with navigation. This tool works like a charm for 2D, and 3D design, and the Pro plan allows you to export 2D documentation.
The thing that’s special about SketchUp Pro is the Trimble’s 3D Warehouse. It works as a comprehensive pool of 3D renderings and designs, as well as other shared files. Speaking of sharing, SketchUp has one of the biggest online communities, which makes it easy to find tips and tricks and explainer videos.
In addition, the Pro version comes with lighting effects, textures, and animations, which are invaluable when you present drafts. There are also plug-ins for advanced rendering, with the developer offering a free extension to generate a cut list.
Overall, this program is great for those who want to learn 3D design, quickly and easily, but it doesn’t lack 2D tools and options. Either way, SketchUp makes it simple for you to edit the project. There are the measurement, layer, and style toolbars, and you can quickly switch tools and functions for a streamlined workflow.
SketchUp Pro also offers great file compatibility. It works with image files, AutoCAD DXF and DWF, PDF, and STL files for 3D-printing. You also get to take advantage of the smartphone app for quick model viewing and management on the go.
The main highlights are ease of use and versatility. If you’re a novice, SketchUp’s UI won’t make you feel overwhelmed. Those who have some experience will cherish intuitive solutions and the vast pool of resources that come with the software. What’s more, it’s available at a reasonable price which should fit a hobbyist budget.
Given the price and everything you get, it’s really hard to find any negative points about SketchUp Pro, even if the software doesn’t feature a wizard, and you can’t access the command line. But these are only minor downsides for the woodworking industry.
Alibre CAD software offers programs for businesses and hobbyists alike (in fact, some consider the hobbyist version the best entry-level CAD tool available). The review focuses on Alibre Atom 3D since it’s best tailored for woodworking and integrates with CNC machines.
This CAD program is more geared towards aspiring woodworkers. That said, it does feature tools that can work great for small commercial shops. As indicated, you get to export your designs to a CNC machine, and Alibre is also compatible with printers and laser cutters.
When it comes to making a cut list, the Alibre method isn’t as simple as some other apps. However, you should be able to connect the dots with some practice, and there are always third-party tools to help create precision-engineered models and to see how the design moves and fits.
Based on the 3D drawing, Atom 3D creates 2D drawings that you can export as STEP, DWG, STL, 3D, and 2D PDF, and more. As for the files this software reads, you can import Solidworks, SAT, STEP, DXF, and DWG. At this point, it pays to take a closer look at the interface.
Tailored for enthusiasts, Alibre’s layout and menus are not that easy to navigate. Some icons are quite small. They lack labels, and, as I said, you might find the navigation cumbersome. This affects the learning curve, especially if you’re a novice, but the company does offer free training. Plus, you can contact an Alibre engineer if you get stuck.
On a further positive note, you get full ownership of the license, rather than a yearly subscription. The software works offline, and you can save the files locally. More importantly, this program integrates smart editing, and the changes you make to one element are reflected in the entire design.
In the world of subscription-based software, getting full ownership of the license is a breath of fresh air. Another great thing is the integration with various physical tools, laser cutters, CNC machines, etc. Alibre Atom 3D has a good library of extensions, but the online community is a bit limited.
With Alibre, you can expect a steep learning curve, mostly because of the cumbersome UI. The free training videos are really helpful to master the basics; then you’ll need to move to third-party resources to make sense of the advanced stuff; although, this tends to be a common issue with CAD software.
3. Fusion 360
This CAD program comes from Autodesk, which is among the leaders in 3D engineering and design software. Needless to say, Fusion 360 offers features to match the company’s reputation. In addition, you get to choose between three different pricing plans: per month, year, or three years.
To begin, Fusion 360 provides a comprehensive set of tools. These include modeling tools, surface-creating environments, and tools to design and incorporate metal parts. The program is more geared towards professionals. Therefore, it comes with simulation environments to stress-test your models.
On top of that, you get a separate suite to create drawings, animations, and other renderings. Fusion 360 supports T-Spline, Mesh, Solid, and Surface geometry, which can help you prototype and create printable documentation. The hardware requirements are 4GB of RAM, 64-bit CPU, and, at least, 512MB of GDDR RAM. That said, you need to take these requirements with a pinch of salt.
It would be best to consider double the RAM specs, especially if you wish to design complex 3D models. However, Autodesk has a solution for this; Fusion 360 connects to a proprietary Cloud and utilizes the so-called resource multiplier.
Put simply – the program offloads some of the computing to the Cloud to provide for smoother rendering experience. And you can resume with your design while the Cloud renders or analyzes some of the elements. This might be overkill for novice woodworkers, but it saves a lot of time.
Given the specs, you might think Fusion 360 is hard to master, but this isn’t the case at all. There are self-paced free video courses, Fusion 360 has an excellent YouTube channel, and you also get access to webinars and events. What’s more, there’s a vibrant community of users that you can check out on the official website.
Fusion 360 has one of the best UI’s around, designed to make your learning curve less daunting. Because of this, novice woodworkers shouldn’t shy away from this software. Rendering and design tools are on par with the competition, but testing and simulation really make Fusion 360 stand out.
Some users complain that the software becomes a bit sluggish when you start creating more complex designs. However, this usually results from the lack of hardware computing resources, not poor software design. Compared to other professional apps, Fusion 360 is reasonably priced, but it’s in the upper price range on this list.
From academic institutions to home studios, SolidWorks is probably the most widely-used CAT software. The thing that makes it so common is a good balance between price, user-friendly interface, and 3D capabilities. But there’s so much more on offer.
SolidWorks, considered an intermediate CAD program, comes from Dassault Systèmes. This means it’s well-suited to novices as the learning curve isn’t that steep. But you should expect more than a few hours with tutorials and training videos since there are a lot of tools and functions available.
As mentioned, SolidWorks is really good at 3D rendering, and you can also create 2D plans. There’s an option to change opacity and add hatchings to make certain design elements more legible. You get access to an extensive materials library that includes different wood, metal, and glass.
Another great feature is that you can design custom material and incorporate it into your library. SolidWorks offers decent photorealistic rendering and lighting to help you visualize a project or present it to a client. If it does work best on smaller objects, such as furniture and decorative pieces.
To help you with the design, the program lets you align elements to an area with snap tools. These can also be turned off for greater precision. Both 3D and 2D renders work in layers, so there’s no need to change everything to fine-tune minute design elements. And, of course, you can create 2D drawings from 3D elements and vice versa.
In addition, it’s fairly easy to generate a cut list in SolidWorks, and you even get customization options. The software comes with Factor of Safety Wizard, which analyzes your design for structural flaws that might make it unsafe. SolidWorks is also compatible with SketchUp and AutoCAD files, and you have the option to work with PDFs.
Due to its popularity, SolidWorks has one of the most active online communities. There are a lot of free tutorials and training videos, and you can also download free 3D models for practice and reference. The UI is simple to navigate, and there are different ways to customize the toolbars.
Compared to other Dassault Systèmes’ CAD software such as CATIA, SolidWorks has somewhat inferior rendering capabilities. That said, you need to know that CATIA is primarily designed for aeronautical engineering, not furniture design. The renders you get with SolidWorks will be more than enough to make your clients happy.
DraftSight is another piece of software from Dassault Systèmes, the developer behind SolidWorks and CATIA. This program is among the best for 2D drafts and renders – and this review focuses on those software versions. However, there are two more iterations that offer 3D capabilities.
If you decide 2D is the way to go, DraftSight Standard and Professional are an excellent choice. First of all, the yearly subscription plans come at a bargain, and the lack of 3D is the only compromise you need to make. But what features do you actually get?
In 2019, the software has undergone a major facelift, and it now has an improved UI. The menus are well-laid-out, featuring large icons which makes the learning curve a breeze. It’s safe to assume that DraftSight borrows some UI cues from Adobe, and you get the main toolbar on the right-hand side of the screen (it’s usually on the left).
With DraftSight Standard, you get a basic set of design tools, if the latest release does include elements such as arcs, polylines, blocks, and many more. In addition, there’s a dimension tool that offers a few customizations, plus you can underlay PDFs for reference.
DraftSight Professional takes things up a notch and could be a better solution for woodworkers. For starters, there’s a library of pins, bolts, and nuts to incorporate into your design. This version also allows for API customization, and the software includes an image tracer to easily convert JPG, BMP, and PNG to DWG.
Another thing that goes in favor of the Professional is the G-Code Generator. This feature allows you to quickly convert your drafts to G-Code and upload it to your CNC machine. Plus, it’s easy to generate a cut list that you can even export to Excel.
Fair price and intuitive UI are DraftSight’s major assets. This program has a decent user community, and it won’t be hard to find a tutorial or free training to start you off. The 2D versions aren’t demanding on your computer, so you save money on hardware upgrades as well.
The thing is, 2D works fine, but you might find it insufficient after a while. Of course, there’s always the option to upgrade, but this means there’ll be more learning to do. DraftSight also works with a limited number of file types, but it shouldn’t be too much of a concern for the woodworking industry.
Most woodworking tools allow you to render 2D and 3D designs, but that’s only a part of the story. The option to generate cut lists can be a real lifesaver in the workshop. Then there’s the learning curve and training options. All this makes a piece of woodworking software more desirable.
Right off the bat, CAD software isn’t something you can learn in a couple of weeks. That said, you might be able to create basic designs and renders in two weeks, but mastering the software takes time and practice. But don’t let this scare you.
In all frankness, aspiring woodworkers only need basic CAD tools and features to start designing. To be exact, you need to learn about modeling, setting the measurement right, and applying a specific set of software tools. Start with simple pieces of furniture such as shelves or small tables and work your way up from there.
This approach allows you to get a feel for the software tools and actions required to render out a design. But you shouldn’t do this on your own. Take the time to find the right tutorial or training videos to pick up tips and tricks. It saves you time and trouble in the long run.
Is Training Available? Free or paid?
The simple answer is yes, training is available, and chances are you’ll find free tutorials. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. The first thing to consider is your niche. A lot of CAD tutorials and training are aimed at engineers, architects, or graphic designers.
Don’t get me wrong, these can help, but you’re likely to spend a lot of time skipping through explanations you don’t need. In other words, find CAD training that’s tailored for furniture design or woodworking. For example, SketchUp offers free training videos on its website, which is more than enough to start you off.
As mentioned above, the tutorials are more inclined towards architects and designers, but you get a clear understanding of what it takes to draft a good model. If that doesn’t suffice, YouTube offers a wealth of knowledge on how to apply CAD tools in the woodworking industry.
In addition, it’s advisable to check out the available tutorials and training before you actually buy a piece of software. Pick out two or three favorites and look up the training options. Chances are you’ll write some off because they don’t exactly fit your needs.
2D vs. 3D
It all started with 2D drafts, which migrated into computerized tools, and, as of recently, 3D modeling is the way to go. As indicated, most CAD software allows for 2D and 3D renders, but sometimes you need to pay extra to get the 3D feature.
It’s worth noting that 3D rendering is an entirely different ballgame, as there are many more parameters to consider. For that reason, the learning curve might be steeper. But if you need to present a model to your client or want something that looks cool on your website, you should learn 3D.
More importantly, a 3D render gives you a detailed preview of how all the elements fit together. You’ll be able to see all the joints, hinges, inserts, and get a better understanding of the materials. With this in mind, you shouldn’t write off 2D just yet.
With perspective techniques, you can create 3D-like renders using 2D software, which is much less demanding on your computer. If you want a 3D program, make sure to check the hardware requirements, then increase that by 20 to 30% to get the idea of the machine you need.
The good news is that CAD software has recently dropped in price, which makes the purchase viable, even if you’re just a woodworking enthusiast. Software developers usually offer different pricing plans or subscriptions, which are easy to upgrade, if need be. The important thing is to check the features that come with each plan.
To use the SketchUp example again, the company offers personal, professional, as well as education plans. Each option differs, and if you want to get 2D documentation, you’ll need to opt for the Pro. The situation is pretty similar with other CAD software, and you usually get a yearly subscription, rather than full ownership.
As for the actual prices, they start at around $100 and can rise to more than $4,000. The rule of thumb is the more features you need, the more expensive the software. You might want a tool that connects directly to your CNC machine, which often comes at a premium.
Finally, you need to factor in the overheads. This means upgrades to your computer to run the software, maintenance, software updates, and how many people are going to use the tool. The latter applies if you want to set up a business.
Generate Cut Lists Based on Drawing
A cut list is one of the most important features when you get serious about woodworking. It gives you detailed measurements, descriptions, and part numbers. You also get a cutting diagram, and some cut lists are optimized for CNC machines.
The trick is you might not get a cut list with the basic features. Going back to SketchUp, there’s an extension you need to download and install separately to generate a cut list. The good news is that it’s free and even gives you efficiency estimates.
On the other hand, SolidWorks has the cut list feature built-in. The list is easy to generate, and it shows you the diagram as well as the table of items with descriptions and measurements. There’s also third-party software you can use, some of which are free with the basic package.
Finally, some of the most important things are file compatibility and optimization options. Put simply – the software needs to accurately read your drawing and provide the most efficient list to minimize waste of materials and time.
Why use CAD for woodworking?
There are many reasons to use CAD for woodworking. First and foremost, these tools aim to streamline your workflow and help you become a better artisan. Once you get the hang of it, it’s much easier to spot an error and make quick changes on a computer.
You can also plan out your project down to the smallest peg and see how it all fits together. This will allow you to create more intricate designs and have a clear idea about how to assemble them. Finally, a CAD tool is a must if you want to make a small business out of your woodworking hobby.
Should I use 2D or 3D CAD?
Both 2D and 3D CAD tools work great for woodworking, but there are pros and cons for each option. The definitive answer boils down to your needs are requirements. For example, novice woodworkers might find 2D CAD tools better because they’re usually less expensive, somewhat easier to master, and not demanding on your computer.
However, if you want to take your skills to the next level and start attracting clients, 3D software would be a better option. Ideally, the app should be able to generate 3D models from a 2D drawing and vice versa.
How long does it take to learn CAD?
If you’ve never used a similar tool before or have no engineering experience, it will take some time before you feel comfortable using CAD. You can learn the basic tools and functions in two or three weeks, enabling you to produce a simple drawing/draft. This means you’d need to dedicate at least an hour of learning every day to make progress.
But don’t be intimidated by this. Half the fun comes from the learning process itself, and, in a way, it never stops. As you become more confident, you’ll want to make more complex designs. Plus, it’s easy to get hooked to CAD tools tutorials.
When all is said and done, SketchUp Pro comes out as the best woodworking software you can get today. This program has an optimal combination of price, features, and learning curve. What’s more, entire YouTube channels are dedicated to using this software for woodworking.
However, if you’re looking for a program that’s less demanding on your computer, you won’t go wrong with SolidWorks or DraftSight. But remember, you might need to upgrade to DraftSight 3D at some point. But there’s nothing stopping you from giving two or three programs a try because they usually offer the first month for free.