CAD software review
This is the second installment of a two-part series on designing with CAD. In the previous article, we looked at how you can use CAD to design your own projects, and discussed what CAD can do for you.
Designing your own projects from scratch or using existing plans as a starting point is not only rewarding, it allows you to design the project to fit your specific needs.
The best thing about CAD is that you don’t need to know how to draw to use it. In fact, even if you can’t draw a straight line with a pencil, CAD will help you make precise drawings using it’s many tools and features.
Contrary to popular belief, a good CAD program doesn’t have to be expensive. For under $100 you can start designing your own projects with a full-featured CAD program. Like everything else, though, if you want to get more capability, such as 3D modeling and rendering, the price starts to go up.
2D or 3D?
To build a project from a CAD drawing, all you really need is 2D capability. This lets you easily create drawings like the ones you buy or used in woodworking plans, with fully dimensioned front, side, and top views (top photo). Some 2D programs also make it easy to create isometric drawings.
More sophisticated programs allow you to draw in 3D, however they are more expensive and a drawing in 3D is more complicated than 2D. The advantage is that you can view and print 2D views of the drawing (i.e. front, side, top, bottom, back) as well as isometric views that show all the parts (screen shot 3) or hide parts behind others (screen shot 4). In addition, you can view a rendered version (screen shot 5) from any angle.
Choosing a Program
Beyond the differences in 2D or 3D drawing, most CAD programs work much the same, with similar features and functions that may work differently, but accomplish the same thing. Just as when you buy a tool, be sure that the software you buy will meet your long-term needs, not just today’s project.
The following reviews will give you some idea of the different programs, their features, ease of use and documentation.
DeltaCAD Professional for Windows
At $60, this is the least expensive CAD program on the market. It is also the simplest, both for ease of use and features, although it has all you need to draw most 2D projects.
It uses a straightforward tab menu at the top of the screen that gives you quick access to the features and functions you need when drawing. This includes various snaps that make accurate drawing easier, entry of coordinates (which allows you to draw pieces by typing in their size) and the ability to enter feet/inch/fractional dimensions. It doesn’t provide an isometric grid, however it includes a parallelogram drawing tool instead. Two features it doesn’t include that are available on all other programs is a Trim function (for trimming lines to length after they have been drawn) and a Stretch function. While a Scale function is provided, this changes the object’s size in both directions – a Stretch function allows you to change it in only one direction.
Each of the features is well described in the manual, with a step-by-step guide on how to do things. The manual starts off with a simple tutorial that exposes you to the basics of a CAD drawing, then the rest of the manual describes the various functions.
Autodesk QuickCAD 8
By Autodesk, the maker of AutoCAD, this program is almost as inexpensive as DeltaCAD, at $70. It isn’t quite as simple as DeltaCAD, however it has many more features to make drawing easier once you learn how to use them. When you start a new drawing, it asks you to select an experience level. Selecting “Beginner” will limit the features and simplify the toolbar menus so that only the standard functions will be available. The Advanced or Expert level simply adds toolbars and functionality, many of which will make it even easier to draw once you learn them. In addition, the placement of toolbars as well as the functions on them can be customized.
QuickCAD includes all the functions needed for efficient 2D drawings, including isometric grids to make it easy to make isometric drawings, stretching, and the ability to fill an area with a hatch pattern, solid colour, or even a bitmap image. A number of features QuickCAD has that DeltaCAD doesn’t have won’t be immediately useful to you, however, as you draw more projects, you may find them increasingly important.
The manual is quite slim and is an introduction to drawing with CAD, using a tutorial format to explain how to use the basic features. It doesn’t explain each function or how to use them. For that, you need to use the Help menu within the program.
DesignCAD Express v12
With a price tag of $125, this is the little brother of DesignCAD 3D Max that is reviewed later. It is limited to 2D drawings. It has all the functionality of DesignCAD 3D except for the 3D capability. This includes the step-by-step tutorials available in the Help menu.
This program is also made by Autodesk, and is almost identical to QuickCAD with a number of added features for the $140 price. This includes a “new drawing” wizard,Web tools that enable you to create a web page so you can publish your drawing on the Web, and 3D effects tools (extrude and perspective). While it is not true 3D, it does simulate some 3D effects. The Autosketch manual is virtually identical to the QuickCAD manual. For advanced features, you need to use the Help menu.
At $140, this is the least expensive program with full 3D drawing capabilities. Since it is geared to 3D drawings, it is not as easy to use as some of the pure 2D programs discussed, mostly due to advanced features. If you don’t want to draw in 3D, however, you can simply ignore the 3D functionality. It doesn’t include an isometric drawing grid, so if you want the isometric look, you will need to learn to use the 3D features. This program includes the complete range of features to make drawing easier. The manual is quite comprehensive and uses a tutorial format to explain almost every feature, with examples to help you understand how the features are used. A companion ‘Getting Started’ guide walks you through both a 2D and 3D project from start to finish, using most of the key features. This is an excellent start for a first-time user.
The next step up in price, IntelliCAD, is $210 and also has full 3D capability. While all the programs reviewed except for DeltaCAD can import an AutoCAD file, IntelliCAD actually uses the native Auto- CAD file format as it’s own format. It has rich compatibility with the actual Auto- CAD functionality, including the command sets, which can be entered by typing the command names instead of selecting a menu or tool. The 3D features and its higher-level target market, makes it less easy to use than the 2D programs. To accommodate novice users, it allows you to identify your skill level and will set up the toolbars and menu accordingly.
DesignCAD 3D Max
This is another full-featured 3D drawing program and the price tag is getting into the next bracket, at $250. While the DesignCAD 3D Max also provides 2D drawing capabilities, the program is very much geared towards 3D drawings. This means 2D drawing will take a little more time to get used to. For the price, you get all relevant features except for an Isometric Grid. This program provides a couple of tools that make it easier to draw Isometric drawings without the grid, although it is still not as easy to use as some of the 2D programs.
The manual is a simple command reference that lists each feature and describes how to use it. It assumes you are already familiar with how to draw using CAD. Fortunately, there is a very good set of step-by-step tutorials included in the Help menu.
Choosing a CAD Program
The two main considerations when choosing a CAD program are price and whether or not you want 2D or 3D capabilities.
All the programs reviewed will enable you to draw your project with the precision you need to build it, and do it relatively easily once you learn how. If you are a first time user, make sure to choose a program with good tutorials or manuals. If the manual is not providing the information you need, you can also buy a third party book on CAD that will help you get started, making the manual less of an issue.
Some companies provide demo versions and, even if you don’t end up buying their program, it is an excellent way to decide if CAD is for you.
The prices shown are US dollars list prices converted to Canadian dollars.
A good source of free woodworking plans in CAD can be found at:
CAD software is available at a wide variety of prices and capabilities. Here is a list of packages you may want to consider.
The price range is about $100 – $250: