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From Cat Models to the Legend of Zelda

6 Best 3D Sculpting Software Tools (4 are Free)

Picture of Mika Yeap
by Mika Yeap
Jun 11, 2018

To produce models, 3D printers need files, typically in STL format, to be sliced into G-code. One type of software used to make these models is 3D sculpting software, which can recreate organic curves and freeform shapes.

What is 3D Sculpting?

A 3D sculpted model
A 3D sculpted model Source: ArtStation

There are many tools out there for making 3D models. One subcategory of such tools is 3D sculpting software, which is specialized for creating models by manipulating objects as if they are made of clay. This style of modeling — used to create sculptures, busts, animals, and fantasy characters, among other designs — has the ability to create more freeform shapes compared to parametric modeling — used to create bridges, mechanical assemblies, or buildings.

In a modern sense, the term “3D sculpting tool” typically implies additional tools for painting, texturing, and rendering the sculpted model. You’ll find that many of these extras come bundled together because they can be as important as the modeling itself.

Sculpting software is used across multiple industries, such as game design, character animation, film, engineering, and product design. In the following we list some of the most popular paid and free 3D sculpting software.

Featured image credit: Nelson Tai / ArtStation

Mudbox

Mudbox UI
Mudbox UI Source: Autodesk

If you’re invested in other Autodesk products, you’re in luck.

Cost: $10/month OR $80/year

Autodesk is no new kid on the modeling software block. And that’s certainly clear from their latest offering in the 3D sculpting world: Mudbox. This software is pretty much the top of the line in the industry, beaten only in some areas by ZBrush, another common professional choice.

This tool can handle high polygonal modeling — easily, of course — and even offers the option of painting maps right onto your meshes, something few comparable tools can offer. Apart from the usual 3D sculpting features, this one can also pull some unique rabbits out of its hat, like correcting topology to distribute polygonal density.

Yet the biggest advantage of Mudbox, especially for the penny-pinchers in the audience, is its price, which is more reasonable when compared to the closest functional equivalent, ZBrush (at least in the short term).

Product image of Mudbox

Autodesk Mudbox

Blender

Blender's interface
Blender's interface Source: Blender Artists

So feature packed that it could replace your operating system.

Cost: FREE

Behold! The famous open source sculpting tool loved by many. With advanced (but not technically the best) sculpting functions, a video editor, character animation options, and texturing controls all bundled together, this is a highly potent piece of free 3D sculpting software.

It’s hard to wrap your brain around how complete of a tool this really is, but never fear! To help explain all of the features, Blender created a video.

The only downside to all these bells and whistles is a steeper-than-normal learning curve. With no end of hidden menus and buttons, it’s hard to recommend Blender to most people. Unless you’re planning on using all Blender’s secondary functions, it might be worthwhile to pick a different tool made 100% for 3D sculpting.

ZBrush

ZBrush's user interface
ZBrush's user interface Source: CGMeetup

Still a 3D artist’s dream.

Cost: $895

ZBrush is to 3D sculpting as General Electric is to automobiles, capable enough for everyone from prosumers to professionals. And as one of the most fancy sculpting offerings in this list, it’s no wonder ZBrush is so popular.

We won’t dive deep into what exactly makes this software worth over $800, but you can rest assured while you’re maxing out your creidt card that it’s the weapon of choice for many professional 3D artists.

Unless you know for sure that you’ll need ZBrush, you probably shouldn’t commit to it in the long term, not just because of the hefty price tag but also because the developers cater to the majority of their customers, who happen to be professionals. Thus the community and discussion surrounding ZBrush might not seem as exciting to a sculpting hobbyist just looking to make something fun.

Sculptris

Sculptris' interface
Sculptris' interface Source:

If you really like ZBrush but want to save a buck (or eight hundred), this is for you.

Cost: FREE

Sculptris, made by the same company that makes ZBrush, is free 3D sculpting software targeted at beginners. The interface and controls are very similar to ZBrush, which makes it a good way to transition to the more advanced functions of ZBrush later on.

As a beginner, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to use Sculptris for free for a while, and then move on to ZBrush, knowing that you’ll be able to use its functions comfortably (since they are all similar to Sculptris).

By itself, Sculptris is a slightly limited tool for 3D sculpting. In some areas, it feels like it was made to be a “ZBrush trial” that never expires. You get the basic manipulation controls when it comes to sculpting, but you might catch yourself wishing for more room to grow. Nevertheless, you should try it out sometime to get a sense of what all the fuss surrounding ZBrush is about.

Meshmixer

Piguin made in Meshmixer
Piguin made in Meshmixer Source: Materialise

If you’re sculpting for 3D printing, this is your best bet.

Cost: FREE

Another gem from industry giant Autodesk takes shape in the form of Meshmixer. Known as the “Photoshop of 3D Printing”, this free 3D sculpting software packs a lot of potential beneath its deceivingly simple interface.

You’ll find you’re able to manipulate basic meshes as well as mash together multiple meshes to form whatever creative chimera you’re thinking of. One example is the Piguin depicted above, made with Meshmixer.

But the greatest gift in Meshmixer is its ability to prepare models for 3D printing. In most cases, the models you sculpt in other fancy sculpting platforms need to come through this one before being 3D printed, anyway. So why not use this in the sculpting part of the workflow as well? After all, it can produce great models that are indistinguishable from those produced in other software.

uMake

The uMake app
The uMake app Source:

The most unique modeling process and the only option for diehard iPad fans.

Cost: FREE, or $10/month ($80/year)

Someone once thought, “I wish I could sculpt 3D models on my iPad.” And so uMake was born.

Creating things in uMake is slightly different than with other tools. First of all, the fact that lines are constructed with a finger or stylus makes the process feel more hands-on and controlled. Also, the menu of buttons and sliders as well as the navigation are smooth and modern because it’s an iPad app. Perhaps the most important perk: You can sculpt while reclining on your couch on Friday night with no wires or mice attached.

For some professionals, who are used to more traditional sculpting software, uMake might feel a bit limiting. Currently rendering options are meager compared to other offerings on this list. Not to mention painting and texturing is nonexistent. Because of that, this might be more of a hobby sculpting tool for now. There’s no denying that it’s fun, though.

License: The text of "6 Best 3D Sculpting Software Tools (4 are Free)" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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