Let’s just acknowledge, that there is a LOT of CAD packages out there. But what is the best? Without beating about the bush, my opinion (as of June 2022) is that Autodesk Fusion 360 is your best package! SketchUp is the second best.
Why? It’s cheap (sometimes free), easy to use, great visuals, well featured and plenty of scope to migrate into more ‘professional’ software in the future if you need to.
Who am I to give you an opinion? I have worked as a Design Engineer using CAD packages extensively since 2006. For many years, I used and championed Solidworks as the best package. I am even Professionally certified to use Solidworks. Though now I have migrated entirely to Fusion 360 for a whole host of reasons.
Do woodworkers need CAD? No, they don’t. But do engineers need calculators or scientists need lab coats? We all love tools, and CAD is just another tool that allows us to do what we do, just a little better. Much better to make a mistake on the computer and quickly fix it there, rather than in the workshop after hours of hard work.
I have now retired from my role as a Product Design Engineer to become a full-time Woodworker who designs and engineers his own furniture (yeah, I suppose it’s not that different). Coming from a CAD world, I naturally continued to use CAD software because I find it an extremely useful design tool.
In CAD, I can rough out a design quickly. Then after fine tuning the aesthetics, I can begin to work out how to make it. Most CAD software has an intelligent ‘history’ that can be rewound at any point and altered. If for instance, I designed a sideboard, then decided I wanted it a little longer, I would simply rewind, add the extra length, then fast forward again. Boom, I have a sideboard with the updated dimensions! Really useful if you change your mind, but equally useful if you need to make multiples that are all slightly different dimensions.
So no, woodworkers don’t need CAD. But, if you are a modern woodworker, looking to use the best tools to do a better job, faster. Then Yes, you should get some CAD software.
Comparing CAD Packages. Let’s start by saying, these are all good packages that each have a place. This advice is based on woodworking and the specific requirements that we have.
My recommendation for woodworkers! Fusion 360 is a slimmed down CAD package that contains all the features required for woodworking and for CNC work. It is sensibly priced (even free if you are a start-up or hobbyist). Because the package is the little brother of Autodesk Inventor, it is less featured, but this means it is easier to learn. There are a few annoying quirks and I find the ‘feature tree’ more limiting than other platforms. However these are things I am happy to live when I consider the big picture. Honestly it is an easy one to recommend.
I have very little experience with this package as it has never been well featured enough for my needs. As a woodworker however, I think it could be a very desirable package. It’s free, has a nice interface and only contains the functions that we need.
Inventor is the bigger brother of Fusion 360. It works very similar and can do everything Fusion can and more. The main disadvantage of this package vs Fusion is the price.
I have a love/hate relationship with this software and have used it many times throughout my career. It has the beauty of working just like a manual drawing board. To get the most from the software, you really need to know how to use a drawing board and all the tricks. This can be tedious, but also rewarding.
The truth is, however, that it is rarely, if ever the best option for engineers, designers, or woodworkers. There are simply far better options! Instead, this software is more of a legacy software from the ‘olden’ days.
I would NOT recommend this software, particularly if you want to work in 3D.
I have used this software extensively, although in 2018 jumped ship and went to Fusion. I simply could not justify the frankly ridiculous cost. Also I’ve felt for many years that the package is in need of some TLC to remain competitive, sadly they seem to be doing the opposite and are instead putting more features behind a paywall. Having said that, it is still a great package, that is versatile, well featured and used widely throughout industry. Although I list a lot of negatives , the positives are significant and it may be the package for you if you are using it regularly enough to justify the cost. It is a package that I often miss using, despite its faults.
Here is a list of CAD packages, that deserve a mention, though I have little experience with. As such I am not well placed to pass judgement on their appropriateness for woodworking.
SketchList 3D – a CAD package design specifically for woodworking. Simple package, one-click joints, different wood types and easy to make drawings. Could be a strong contender if you are making standard woodworking furniture. Though limited if you want to do much else.
Pro100 – listed as woodworking software, though from what I gather is potentially more suited to interior designers and kitchen planners. If this is what you are doing, it’s worth a look.
Rhino 3D – this is a surface modelling software which is probably not well suited to woodworking applications. Having said that, it is extremely powerful and capable software that might be worth a look for those niche applications.
Blender 3D – this is an extremely powerful 3D rendering package that is completely free. It could in theory be used for woodworking, but it is far better suited to 3D animation than woodworking. What it would be well suited for, is rendering your model (produced in Fusion) into a photorealistic image.
Keyshot – not a CAD package, but a quick and easy way to get photorealistic images from your CAD models. Unfortunately the price of this platform has gone through the roof in recent times, but if ever they have a sale it might be worth a look.