Finding and using free 3D models

Time to 3D print some free stuff.

Getting your first 3D printer is an exciting time, but once it arrives you may find yourself staring at the printer like a writer at a blank page.

What on earth are you going to print? The learning curve for creating your own 3D models might be a little steeper than you first expect, and so a great way to start printing straight away is to download some free 3D models. Using these ready-made files will allow you to jump right in to the exciting world of 3D printing, while giving your 3D modeling skills time to improve.

If you would like to read about getting started with creating your own models for 3D printing at home, check out our helpful guide to FREE 3D printing software for beginners.

For those of you who aren’t yet interested in building models from scratch but still want to customize your prints, you can still make your own unique 3D models. Each downloadable model is a completely editable file that you can further modify for scale, shape, even add or delete parts to create your own ‘version’, exactly how you want it. See a coffee cup design you like, but don’t like the handle? Download the cup model and reshape the handle to look just the way you want it to!

This might all seem a little far in the future, but in fact thousands of tools, games and products are available to download and print at home, right now!



Where to find free models.

Getting your hands on some free models is actually really simple. There is more than one option for finding and downloading free 3D models, but the largest and most popular is Thingiverse. From the creators of the market-leading Replicator 2, MakerBot has built Thingiverse into an enormous free model database that has grown into a community of ‘makers’ sharing and ‘remixing’ designs. This online collaboration really adds to the enjoyment of learning about and designing your own 3D models.

In a recent decision, Thingiverse decided to remove any downloadable gun and gun-related models and will not allow them to be uploaded to their database.  MakerBot spokesperson Jenifer Howard said “MakerBot’s focus is to empower the creative process and make things for good.” We couldn’t agree more.

Next up is the Shapeways 3D parts database. Not exactly a competitor to Thingiverse, the Shapeways database contains more of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of 3D design. Here you will find many pre-made components like cogs and mechanisms that allow you to combine into more complex designs. A highly useful resource for sure, but one that lacks the fun and adventure of designing and creating that Thingiverse’s community of users inspires.

Another free resource is the Google SketchUp 3D model warehouse. As the name suggests, these models are aimed to be used with Google’s 3D modeling software SketchUp. To be honest, the 3D model warehouse is the hardest resource to look at. The layout is not the most inviting, but with Google behind it, we hope for better things in the future.


What file formats can you print?

The file format typically read by a 3D printer is STL (Stereolithography). This file is a ‘sliced’ 3D representation of your model, allowing the 3D printer to essentially break your model down into its printable layers. An STL can be converted from a number of different 3D file formats (more on this later), enabling you to 3D print models from architectural plans or CAD industrial design models, for example. As long as you can ultimately convert your model using ‘slicing software’ into an STL, you can use it to print. What formats your software can convert from will depend on your particular software package, so check the documentation to see if the format you wish to convert is supported.


Viewing and editing models.

Once you’ve selected and downloaded a file you want to print, even if you don’t want to modify it, you will want to check it’s just right before sending it to the printer. Practically all 3D printers come with software for importing, viewing and editing models, and just how good the software is can really impact your 3D printing experience. Before choosing which printer is right for you, be sure to check out the software included . If you want to play with and explore editing free 3D Models, but don’t yet have a printer, the team at Thingiverse has made an online app for viewing and modifying some of the models on their database. The MakerBot Customizer allows you to manipulate and design your own ‘remixes’ of models and save them to your free account for printing later. It’s a great, free way to start exploring 3D printing while saving up your hard-earned cash for your own printer.


Copyright and intellectual property.

Before you go rush off and download that thing you’ve always wanted to print, it’s worth talking about downloading models legally and respecting the work of designers. There’s plenty of places on the internet to get things for ‘free’, but it’s important to make sure your models are downloaded and used legally. The possibility for 3D printers to be used for harmful purposes like making weapons or stealing products is very real, but so too are the possibilities for a great many benefits. How the 3D printing community ultimately develops will come down to people like you. And choosing to respect the work of designers, as well as sharing and working to develop your own ideas, will help to build a bright future for 3D printing.


Go create!