Convert PDF to 3D SolidWorks Model

Updated May 12, 2022
PDF icon, SolidWorks logo, Scan2CAD logo

About SolidWorks

SolidWorks is a powerful 2D and 3D CAD program that has seen extensive use with digital drafters all around the globe. In 2016, Dassault Systèmes reported 2.3 million active users in more than 230,000 companies and 80 different countries and that number has just continued to grow.

A lot of its popularity comes from its intuitively easy interface and program workflow. It employs a “top-down” approach in design – the user starts with a 2D sketch oriented on a starting plane and then proceeds to sculpt a 3D model out of the initial 2D geometry. The program’s list of 2D and 3D sketch tools is extensive, with CAD standards such as lines, splines, arcs, and circles and all the typical 3D modeling tools as well.

Thinking and designing in 2D first before working on the 3D model helps drafters think about precise measurements and proportions more easily and more thoroughly. Ideally, users will have editable CAD files to work with when converting 2D into 3D but most drafters will understand the frustration of how, at times, all you have to work with as reference are client-sent PDF files.

PDF files are created for the compact sharing of documents and drawings. It’s a file format that mostly only Adobe programs can readily edit. As such, PDF files are not easily editable in-program within SolidWorks and that difficulty only gets worse when you consider how a lot of PDF files contain raster images rather than vector information. So what are our options and how do we proceed?

Let’s take a look at how PDF to 3D SolidWorks model processes work and what our best course of action can be.

SolidWorks interface

The basic SolidWorks work interface Source

Supported File Formats on SolidWorks

SolidWorks can handle importing most of the common image file formats as follows:

2D Paths

– AI (Adobe Illustrator)

– DWG (Drawing)

– DXF (Drawing Interchange/Exchange Format)

3D Mesh



3D Solids

– .x_t (Parasolid)




CAD and Vector

– ASM (Pro/E Assembly)

– ASM (Solid Edge Assembly)

– IAM ( Inventor Assembly)

– IPT (Inventor Part)

– PRT (Pro/E Part)

– PRT (Unigraphics)


– PSM (Solid Edge Part)

Sketch Picture

– BMP (Bitmap)

– GIF (Graphic Interchange Format)

– JPG, JPEG (Joint Photographic Experts Group)

– PNG (Portable Network Graphics)

– PSD (Adobe Photoshop Document)

– TIF, TIFF (Tagged Image File Format)

– WMF (Windows Metafile)

Special Files

– CATIA Graphics



– Point Cloud Files

– Rhino Files


As extensive as the list may be, PDF is not one of the native file types that SolidWorks can handle. There are, however, some workarounds which we’ll get into shortly.

Clarity is the number one factor in considering reference images to use. This determines how accurate our final product will be and how easily we are able to achieve our end goals. A 3D model made from pixelated, askew, poorly-scaled 2D reference files will most certainly be subpar for most professional settings. So the first step is making sure we have the best possible starting point with the best possible version of the reference image.

Once you have a clear image, the most straight-forward way of converting it into editable SolidWorks elements is to simply trace over it. For simpler images, SolidWorks even has an automatic tracing function that aims to trace over the sold lines of the image. Do note that this may not be the most ideal solution since the automatic tracing leaves some to be desired when it comes to clean, accurate output. So if you do want to use Solidworks’ automatic tracing, keep in mind that it’s only suitable for simple line images with plenty of room for inaccuracies.

With more complex technical drawings, users will typically use Solidworks’ 2D CAD tools to trace over the lines in the image, similar to how manual drafters would replicate drawings by using tracing paper and manual drafting tools.

Although this method is accurate and is limited only by the user’s comprehension of the original image, it is not the fastest method and certainly not the easiest to do. Luckily, there are various third-party programs such as Scan2CAD that specialize in raster-to-vector conversion and can do so with much better results that any CAD program’s automatic tracing functions. These programs can convert your raster PDF’s into readily editable vector files that you can plop into SolidWorks and work with without having to do a lick of digital trace-over.

Raster vs. Vector

We’ve been covering a lot of ground on how importing images into SolidWorks works so far and a lot has been mentioned about raster and vector images. Let’s take a quick refresher on what the differences between the two image types are.

Raster images, also known as bitmap images, consist of clustered colored pixels that form a coherent image. Most of the more well-known image file types are raster formats such as .jpeg, .png, and even .gif. Raster images are static, uneditable image types with quality that depends on the file size and number of pixels in the image.

Vector images, on the other hand, are made of formulas and data that are then digitally converted into images. A vector image of an arc, for instance, is actually a file containing data that dictates the arc’s radius, line length, color, thickness, etc. Editability is this file type’s strong suit since it isn’t constrained by pixel number or quality and can be readily opened and changed by any vector-editing program.

PDF files are tricky to work with since they can contain both raster and vector information. It’s easy to understand why we would prefer vector PDFs to raster PDFs but what do we do when the file has both? We’ll cover what to do in that situation and more in this article.

Workarounds When Using SolidWorks

SolidWorks autotrace feature

SolidWorks auto-trace Source

When all is said and done, uploading a PDF image to trace and model in SolidWorks is a straight-forward and simple process. It might require some workarounds since the program can’t natively handle PDF files, but the process as a whole is easy to understand. Here’s how to go about it:

  1. Take a screenshot to use as a SolidWorks reference.

The first thing you’ll want to do is get a workable file format out of the PDF you want to use as a reference image. Both modern Macs and PCs have built-in screenshot tools you’ll want to take advantage of. Even if your machine doesn’t have that, there are plenty of free screen capture programs you can download and use.

Take a screenshot of the part of the PDF you want to use as a SolidWorks reference and save it in a file format that the software can handle. From this point on, you won’t have to worry about the PDF anymore and just use the saved screenshot as your image reference.

  1. On SolidWorks, figure out the plane you want to be sketching in.

If the image is a top-down view, choose the Top plane. If it’s a sideways view, choose either the Right or Left planes. Alternatively, choose the Front plane if it’s a front view. Next, click on the plane on the left side of the screen and create a sketch.

  1. Import the reference image into SolidWorks

Under SolidWork’s Tool menu, choose Sketch Tools and then click on Sketch Picture. On the dialog box that pops up, browse for your reference image (saved screenshot) and open it up on your chosen plane.

  1. Resize and crop the reference photo before you commence sketching

It’s always best to do this at the beginning so you don’t have to go through the trouble of correcting your sketch size later on. But if you feel that the image requires additional modifications, you can do that at this stage.

  1. Trace over the outline of the design/drawing in the imported image.

From here on out, it’s just a matter of tracing over the image with SolidWorks’ sketch tools. Next, use the corresponding trace to create a 3D model. It’s a simple process but becomes tedious if the reference image in question is large enough or complex enough as a reference drawing.

How to Convert a PDF to SolidWorks Using Scan2CAD

If you ever find yourself in need of a conversion program for PDF files, a quick Google search will net you with pages upon pages of results for online conversion tools. Unfortunately, with almost all of these results, the quality of the output you’re getting is just downright subpar. If you’re lucky enough to find one that produces something decent, you’ll probably be dealing with watermarks or partial conversions. Another issue to consider is the sheer amount of privacy risks you’re taking with uploading or emailing your PDF documents for conversion.

If you’re dealing with a low-risk, one-time conversion, this might be good enough for you. But for anything more, your best option would have to be specialized desktop programs such as Scan2CAD. 

About Scan2CAD

Programs like Scan2CAD will usually require a purchase or subscription. But if you’re dealing with repeated PDF conversions for work, the program will eventually pay for itself. Scan2CAD specifically even has a 14-day free trial period for you to try and see if the program is worth the payment. There simply isn’t a better solution if you’re looking for a reliable, consistent, quality conversion program.

Step-by-Step Guide

Now, Let’s get into the step-by-step process of using Scan2CAD to convert your PDFs into usable file formats for SolidWorks.

Step 1: Import PDF File into Scan2CAD

Open up the reference PDF file you want to use on Scan2CAD. A dialog box will open that will display both the raster and vector elements in the document. Unfortunately, if the document has both elements and you need both the raster and vector elements as references, you’ll have to convert and save both individually.

Step 2: Clean Image (Applies to Raster PDFs Only)

For raster data: Using the Clean image option, turn the raster image monochromatic and clean it up until you’re satisfied.

For vector data: Skip to the latter part of step 3 below.

Step 3: Convert Raster PDF to Vector Format

Proceed to convert the raster image into vector data. Next, save it as a usable vector file that you can then edit on SolidWorks.

For vector data: Simply open up the vector data and then save it as a workable file type.

We have plenty of information on these processes in the form of tutorials and articles if you want to learn more about how to use Scan2CAD to convert raster images and PDFs to vector formats for subsequent use on various CAD software. The articles cover software such as Revit, Vectorworks, CATIA, AutoCAD, and SketchUp, just to mention a few. You can also check out our YouTube videos for more.

Step 4: Import Vector File into SolidWorks

Open up the now workable vector file and use that as an editable reference on SolidWorks.

Here’s a quick video to detail that process:

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