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FreeCAD: Learn The Basics In 1 Hour

FreeCAD application icon on pink background

If you are an architect, mechanical engineer, or robotics/mechatronics engineer, you may need to learn FreeCAD 3D computer-aided design (CAD) modeling program. FreeCAD is one of the most commonly used CAD software used in architectural & BIM, designing mechanical engineering parts, and robot simulations and it is supported by Linux, Windows, and Mac OS.

To help you start with using FreeCAD, Scan2CAD has compiled a comprehensive guide to help you learn FreeCAD basics in just 1 hour. After going through this guide, you should be able to perform most of the basic tasks in the various FreeCAD workbenches. In this guide, we shall use FreeCAD 0.18.

Orientation

After installing the FreeCAD software, you shall need to understand the FreeCAD interface before starting to draw or model. That way, you shall know where to get the specific tools for performing certain tasks or where to look for certain things as you draw/model.

At the start, the interface may seem complicated, but with the help of this guide, we hope you shall be able to grasp most of the basic features of the interface. With practice, the features shall stick and you shall find it easier with time.

If you are familiar with other CAD software, you shall realize that the main buttons of ‘File’, ‘Edit’, ‘View’, ‘Tools’, ‘Windows’, and ‘Help’ will be found where you expect them to be. The only new button is probably the ‘Macro’ button, which we shall look at later in this guide.

When you open FreeCAD, you will be presented with the FreeCAD start center that looks like the screenshot below. The start center is a welcome screen and it has three tabs namely document, help, and activity. 

FreeCAD 0.18 start center

FreeCAD 0.18 start center

To get started, close the start center by clicking the ‘X’ button at the bottom next to the word ‘start page’.

Then click the file button at the top and select new or simply use the FreeCAD keyboard shortcut of CTRL + N to start a new project. You will be presented with a black window that looks like the below screenshot. 

We shall start by identifying the various features of this (above) FreeCAD interface.

Main features of the FreeCAD interface

Main features of the FreeCAD interface

The most important features to take note of include the Standard Menu (1) that contains the 9 buttons of ‘File’, ‘Edit’, ‘View’, ‘Tools’, ‘Macro’,  ‘Part’, ‘Measure’, ‘Windows’, and ‘Help’, the Toolbar (3) below the standard menu, the Workbench Selector (2), Combo View (4) area that include the tree view under model and tasks view, Property Editor (5) area, Report View (6) area, Status Bar, Python Console (7) and Main View (8) area.

FreeCAD Workbenches

FreeCAD groups toolbar buttons, menus, and other interface controls that are specific for certain specialties into different sets called workbenches. If you want to do some architectural modeling, you should use the ‘Arch’ workbench while if you want to draw and model some mechanical parts you can use the ‘Part’ workbench.

FreeCAD 0.18 workbench selector

FreeCAD 0.18 workbench selector

You can look at it as one workshop that has separate workbenches (tables) with specific tools for different specialists.

FreeCAD workbenches

FreeCAD workbenches

In this guide, we shall start with the ‘Part’ and ‘Part Design’ workbenches which are the most commonly used for designing components.

Building a 3D object in FreeCAD

To build a 3D object, you would need to use the Sketcher and Part Design Workbenches. 

We shall start by using the Sketcher workbench to draw a 2D part. For this guide, we shall draw a square. We shall set the size of the sides by defining the length constraints.

We shall then open the Part Design workbench and use the 2D sketch drawn using the Sketcher workbench.  The steps followed as below:

  1. Go to the workbench selector and scroll down to the sketcher workbench and click on it
  2. Choose the sketch orientation plane you want to use, either XY, XZ, or YZ. 
  3. Choose if you want an inverted orientation, and an offset from the base plane.
  4. For this guide, we shall use the default plane and options.
  5. Click OK and start constructing your sketch.
  6. In the toolbar, select the square tool. It is important to note that the combo view will switch to the task panel in the Combo view.
  7. Move your cursor towards the origin of the sketch, when the coincident constraint  icon appears, click and move your cursor to draw your square. You can edit the dimensions of the sides of the square to the desired length in the task panel.
  8. Press ESC on the keyboard to exit the selected square tool.
  9. Press the ‘Close’ button, the   Leave sketch icon on the toolbar, or press the ESC key on your keyboard twice to exit the Sketch editing.
  10. Then go to the workbench selector and select Part Design workbench.
  11. Select the sketch in the tree view and press ‘PartDesign Body’.
  12. Select XY-plane and press ‘OK’.
  13. Highlight the sketch and press ‘Pad’ .
  14. Set your desired length and direction in the task panel under the pad parameters. 
  15. Click OK.

When completed, you should have a solid box similar to the one shown below:

Properties of the box visible in the property section

Properties of the box visible in the property section

You can see the properties of the box in the properties section.

After following through this example, you must have come across a variety of tools in the Sketcher and Part Design workbenches. Most of these tools do not require an explanation as to what they are used for since they have shapes suggestive of their work and when highlighted will display their name and a brief description of what they do. You could try drawing any other part using other tools.

Common tools in various FreeCAD workbenches and their work

Sketcher workbench

Tool

Description

Point Drawing a point
Line by 2 points Drawing a line by joining two points
Arc Drawing an arc using the center, radius, start angle and end angle
Arc by 3 points Uses two endpoints and another point on the circumference to draw an arc
Circle Drawing a circle using center and radius
Circle by 3 points Draws circle using three points on the circumference
Rectangle Drawing rectangle using two opposite points
Triangle Drawing a regular triangle
Square Draws a regular Square
Hexagon Draws a regular hexagon
Pentagon Draws a regular pentagon
Trim Trims a line, arc, or circle with respect to a clicked point
Construction Mode Toggles an element to/from construction mode where an object will not be used in a 3D geometry operation and it is only visible while editing the sketch that contains it
Mirror Mirrors selected elements of a sketch
Merge Merges sketches
Sketcher workbench commonly used tools

Sketcher workbench commonly used tools

Part Design Workbench

Tool

Description

Pad Extrudes a solid part from a sketch
Revolution Revolves a sketch about an axis to produce a solid part
Chamfer Chamfers the edges
Pocket Created a pocket from a selected sketch that is mapped to an existing solid part
Groove Revolves a sketch around an axis to generate a groove
Fillet Rounds or creates fillets on the edges of an object
Mirrored Mirrors objects on a face or plane
Linear pattern Replicates parts in a linear pattern
Polar Pattern Replicates parts in a circular/polar pattern
Part Design workbench commonly used tools

Part Design workbench commonly used tools

You can also select create a new sketch in Part Design workbench to access all the tools from Sketcher workbench. The Part workbench contains tools that are similar to those in the Part Design workbench.

With practice, you will get acquainted with more advanced tools from the workbenches you frequently use.

Navigating in the 3D view

Once you build your 3D object, you will need to move it around or rotate it to work on specific features or sides/faces.

To do so, you will need to first understand the FreeCAD 3D view space, which is a Euclidean space, meaning it has an origin point and three axes namely X, Y, and Z.

Euclidean space axes

Euclidean space axes

To navigate in the 3D view, you can choose to use the mouse, keyboard shortcuts, or the Navigation Cluster.

You can Pan, Rotate or Zoom and even select different objects or screens using the different FreeCAD navigation modes that are accessed from the Preferences screen or by right-clicking on the 3D view area.

FreeCAD navigation styles

FreeCAD navigation styles

The navigation styles in FreeCAD include OpenInventor, CAD, Revit, Blender, MayaGesture, Touchpad, Gesture, and OpenCascade.

Navigating using the Mouse

To use the mouse to navigate, right-click on the 3D view area and select the navigation style you want, and use the operations outlined in the screenshot below for the different navigations modes

Mouse navigation in FreeCAD

Mouse navigation in FreeCAD (source)

Navigating using keyboard shortcuts

CRTL + ‘+’ Zoom In
CRTL + ‘-‘ Zoom Out
Arrows To view left, right, up, and down
SHIFT + Left arrow Rotate 90 degrees to the left
SHIFT + Right arrow Rotate 90 degrees to the right
0,1,2,3,4,5,6 For Isometric, Front, Top, Right, Rear, Bottom and Left respectively
VO (held at the same time) Orthographic view
VP (held at the same time) Perspective view
CTRL and right-click on parts/features Selecting more than one feature/parts

View the full list of FreeCAD keyboard shortcuts

Navigating using the Navigator Cluster

FreeCAD navigator cluster

FreeCAD navigator cluster

This can be used to rotate the object around. When the mouse hovers about a certain point on the navigator cluster, it turns blue. If it is the side you want to see or use to rotate click it and hold and move in the direction you want to rotate or simply click if it a face you want to view.

Conclusion

FreeCAD may seem hard to learn especially due to the many workbenches. But on the contrary, it is one of the CAD software that has a favorable learning curve. With this guide, you can learn FreeCAD basics in just an hour.

2 Responses to FreeCAD: Learn The Basics In 1 Hour

  1. Bob Boyd Nov 21, 2020 at 11:27 PM #

    I wish I had seen this earlier in the year. You’ve produced a very handy get yourself started guide. Thank you.

    • Luke
      Luke Nov 25, 2020 at 3:28 PM #

      Pleased you found it useful, Bob

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