One of the biggest complaints I hear from users is that the standard proprietary Computer-Aided Design (CAD) program costs more than they can afford to spend. A CAD tool that won’t set you drain your budget and is cross platform is FreeCAD, which is currently in the alpha stage. FreeCAD is free, open source, and has an outstanding list of features, which include:

  • Fully customizable workbench Gui
  • Command-line tools available
  • Python module support and built-in console
  • Scripting framework
  • Modular MSI installer
  • Undo/Redo framework
  • Transaction management
  • Parametric associative document objects
  • Compound document save format
  • Built-in macro tool
  • Thumbnailer (Linux only as of this writing)
  • Primative, Offset, and boolean 3D Mesh creation
  • Import/export of 3D Meshes
  • Import/export of following formats: .stl, .ast, .bms, .wrl, .nas, .obj, .iv, .py, .gcad, .svg
  • Simple planar geometry
  • Modification operations
  • Annotations

Installing FreeCAD

Since FreeCAD is in alpha, I recommend only using this installation as a testing ground, so you can get up to speed on the application for when it is in full release (as well as to help with bug reporting).

The installation of FreeCAD is quite simple regardless of platform. With Windows and Mac, it’s as easy as downloading the installation file and running the normal install routine.

For many Linux distributions, you will find FreeCAD in the default repositories. So in order to install FreeCAD, you open your Add/Remove Software tool, search for FreeCAD, and install. Or, you could open a terminal window and issue your distribution’s equivalent of: sudo apt-get install freecad.

You might consider adding the daily build repository so you can have the latest and greatest release. To do so, follow these steps:

  1. Open a terminal window.
  2. Issue the command sudo apt-add repository ppa:freecad-maintainers/freecad-daily.
  3. Type your sudo password and hit Enter.
  4. Once this is complete, issue the command sudo apt-get update.
  5. Install FreeCAD with the command sudo apt-get install freecad.

By installing with the above method, you should be able to update on almost a daily basis to ensure you have the latest build of FreeCAD; otherwise, you’re at the mercy of whenever the packages make it to the main repositories, at which point they will be out of date.

Using FreeCAD

Once installed, open FreeCAD (you should find it in your Graphics sub-menu of whatever desktop you use) and begin your work. Figure A shows FreeCAD in action. You see a portion of a 2D elevator design being viewed from a perspective angle.
Figure A

This is a drawing in FreeCAD with the Create Box Window open and ready for an object to be selected.

It is also possible to disassemble a piece and even do different views (such as axiometric views as seen in Figure B), but that is not CAD 101.
Figure B

A portion of the design disassembled and viewed in axiometric view.

Create macros
There are two ways to create macros in FreeCAD. The easiest method is to record one by clicking Tools | Macro Recording. In the new window (Figure C), give the macro a name and then hit the Record button.
Figure C

Give the macro a unique, identifying name.

After you hit the Record button, walk through the actions you would like to be included in your macro. When you’re finished, click Tools | Stop Recording Macro, and the macro will automatically save. To run that macro, click Tools | Macros and then select the macro to be run and click Execute.

The other method is that you can freely use macros from this collection by following these steps:

  1. Copy the macro python code from that macro’s page.
  2. Paste the code into a blank text document using a standard text editor (not a word processor).
  3. Save the text file with the extension .FCMacro.
  4. Move the .FCMacro file to the FreeCAD user folder. This will be either /home/yourUser/.FreeCAD on UNICES or C:\Users\yourUser\Application Data\FreeCAD on Windows.
  5. Restart FreeCAD.
  6. Open the Macro manager, select your new macro, and click the Execute button.


I think you’ll be impressed with FreeCAD, even in its early development phase. Give this open source CAD solution a try, and report back to let us know what you think of it.