SketchUp replacement

Dear Lazyweb,

I think that SketchUp is dead to me now. I started using it because it was free, simplistic, and mostly worked. Well now it's very expensive, still simplistic, and still only mostly works.

  • The only free version is now a web app.
  • The only app version is now like $300/year.
  • The "free" web app is missing basically all features; anything even remotely useful is an up-sell.
  • The web app won't talk to my 3DConnexion mouse, and all versions of SketchUp are intolerably, utterly unusable without that.

So what should I be using instead? My needs are:

  • Maintaining the gigantic DNA 3D model, hopefully in a format that other people can load.
  • Very simple and precise editing of low-poly DXF files for xscreensaver assets.
  • Not spending a zillion bucks for software that I use maybe twice a year.
  • Not devoting months of my life to a plumb-line-like learning curve before I can do anything.

A few years back I learned Maya, but I hated it and I've forgotten it all. And I'm told that Blender is terrible for CAD-like tasks.

Fun fact, there are no online converters that can read and convert SKP files. Even the ones that claim that they can. There's a Blender plugin for importing SKP but it doesn't work. I have an export-to-DXF plugin for SketchUp 7 but it barely works. I'm sure it would omit like 30% of my DNA model and all of the textures. Maybe SketchUp's built-in DAE exporter works better, but I haven't tried. The SKP file format is turning out to be a lock-in nightmare.

In an ideal world, the DNA Lounge model would be a thing that one could fly through on a web page, or by loading it as a level into some game software, but hey, let's not go crazy here.

I know that several people have imported my model into various other systems over the years, but I believe that every person who did so did it destructively, editing it in a new system in ways that can't be reversed.

Previously, previously, previously, previously.

Tags: , , , ,

40 Responses:

  1. James Baicoianu says:

    One option that might be worth checking out, but which I haven't tried, is IfcOpenShell ( In theory it supports the same file format as Autodesk Revit, and there are some web-based viewers for IFC, including this one that works with Three.js

    Again, I haven't actually used this myself so I can't comment on UI, learning curve, or feature completeness - but it looks promising and doesn't cost $300/mo like Revit does!

  2. Jim says:

    I would love to recommend free software beyond Blender but I feel compelled to point out that only AutoCAD, a relatively early lisp adopter, has RevIt, which includes spaciogeometric distillations of entire compendia of building codes from several of the more popular jurisdictions.

    • Jim says:

      Update: my sources instruct me to recommend Vectorworks.

      • peachtheif says:

        Do not use vectorworks, it's terrible, and it is really a 2D program that has had 3D added as an afterthought.

        For free software I believe blender has a blenderCAD add on now (untried), FreeCad (looks like a mechanical engineer did the UX but it's functional). Free as in beer includes some byzantine hobby licensing with Fusion360 which is not perfect but works okay. Closest to old sketch up is form Z or Autodesk Formit I think now.

  3. FXB says:

    I haven't used sketchup in some time (for the very reasons listed) but last i remember it could export to collada .dae, which pretty much any other 3d package should be able to ingest without much problem.

    *i've also seen this format used as the go-to for 3d web frameworks such as a-frame.

  4. Daniel says:

    This is probably the sort of thing you get a specialist for yeah? I’m happy to take a look at the file if it would help, I’m a lighting artist for games and film at the moment and you’d be surprised how much brute force square peg round hole file conversions happen in the industry. If it takes hours it takes hours - professional 3d modeling people are a special breed. I call them the drummers of the CG world.

    (If you’re curious, maya is still the standard tool for this sort of thing. And at least in film, there are a few new open source formats that have seen wide enough adoption to be safe choices for archival purposes - Alembic. Wild overkill for this case but that would be my vote for a format that’ll still work in 10 years. Though it’s possible you might only need an Obj file, which will probably still be readable in 30 years by our neural Twitter implants.

  5. necronian says:

    BricsCAD Shape BricsCAD started as an AutoCAD clone but they have grown past that now.

    It uses dwg as the native file format and has good direct modeling support. I own the super full version so I'm not sure what you can export from Shape. I'm 100% sure it can import/export dwg/dxf and can import skp.

  6. DSKRIM says:

    My money is on Rhinoceros from Mcneel.

    Super flexible, reads and writes SKP (along with the majority of CAD formats).
    Serious array of free/open source plugins.
    Not free, but one-off payment - lifetime license.
    There's Grasshopper included for more complex models.
    It understands curves as NURBS; does not approximate them as polygons (except to visualise them on the screen). It still understands classic polygon meshes though.

    I am an architect, and I can assure you that software dedicated for the construction industry (like Revit) sacrifice flexibility for fast project delivery. The models are not pure 3d models but have additional metadata and are focused on very specific professional workflows.

    If you want to treat your model as a pure 3d model that you can edit and modify and treat everything as simple 3d objects (maybe textured), that software is to be avoided.

    • DSKRIM says:

      Forgot to mention: Rhinoceros has a command line, unlike a lot of other similar software.
      When I know what I am looking I type away.
      The relevant command will pop up.
      No searching in menus, sidebars buttons, etc
      This makes learning it much easier.

      • nooj says:

        Of all the options I have used (AutoCAD, Maya, Solidworks, Rhino, in-house code), except for the price, I agree with the argument that Rhino is the closest to meeting your needs. It's the only one with a low learning curve. It's generally accepted as being the easiest to use. Those Eyes of Agamotto I emailed you a few Halloweens back I built in Rhino.

        Biggest problem: it's a $1000 node-locked, lifetime license. (If you happen to be taking an online class at a local community college, it's $200 one-time cost, probably for a time-bombed license that needs to be continually re-upped. So $200 + tuition.)

        Rhino has a Mac version.

        Supports the 3Dconnexion mouse.

        Claims to support DXF and SKP. Says it supports reading and writing of 2020 versions of .skp format.

        Your model is heavier than the ones I've dealt with, about as heavy as some of the ships and cars I've seen people use, where every flange and rivet and bolt are included. It has a 90-day free eval period (after which it stops allowing saves), so you can try it out on your hardware and look for import problems.

        • Jim says:

          I would be recommending Rhino if the nightclub version of Vectorworks hadn't put so much effort into building an asset library of commercially available equipment. I think it's probably worth an extra grand to not have to find all those external assets, but only Jamie has the information to weigh that.

  7. jwz says:

    Welp, sounds like if you ask 10 people you get 10 different extremely confident answers. This is... not encouraging.

    • MrSpookTower says:

      This will not be helpful: it sounds par for the course.

      It seems that pretty much all physical-world design software (CAD, EDA, etc) falls into two groups: a) gigantic packages of hypothetically decent software, but fiddly to use and expensive as holy fuck (esp. EDA), or b) heaps and heaps of siloed trash fires that don't know anything about each other. Best of luck.

    • Duality K. says:

      The problem you've run into is that CAD software is used to make manufacturers money, therefore it is B2B software, therefore it is always some combination of too expensive and too broken. The free software options are Blender (which is 3D but no good for CAD) and FreeCAD (which is CAD but no good for modeling), and they are both unnecessarily idiosyncratic, have vertical learning curves, and are consistently broken in bold new ways per version, along with CADT type UI reworks.

      SketchUp was a total outlier in being somewhat functional and affordable. There's a yawning, empty chasm in the software space between what car companies will site license for a zillion dollars and what 3d printer nerds will reluctantly muddle along with. You, like the rest of us, are in the latter category.

      • jwz says:

        I guess I'm surprised that the video game world hasn't converged on some commodity / standard way of building assets by now. Like, shouldn't placing walls and stairs in your level design and having basic physics work have been a solved problem by 2002 that nobody even thinks about any more?

        • Duality K. says:

          You'd think, right? I saw your post though and went "oh nooo" because I went on a quest a couple years ago and found out how dire the situation was, and I pity anyone who has to wander through this particular briar patch too. I have reached an understanding with FreeCAD for my own project, and that is about the limit of my praise for it. It's a buggy, cantankerous piece of shit, but Blender's no good for dimensional accuracy.

          • nooj says:

            I'm also saddened that the 3D printing community hasn't cobbled together something by now. It appears that functionality grew only as far as it needed to: handling small, face-sized models with precise/programmable dimensions, but not a lot of detail.

            • J. Peterson says:

              Fusion360 more or less owns this space, with the "free" hobbyist license. Learning curve isn't bad, and there is enormous support for it (tutorials, forums, etc.)

              However, it's not oriented towards architecture, and thus not likely a solution for our host.

        • Elektro says:

          video games are not cad, but you are talking about unity/unreal.

          Anyways I use solidworks. Rhino is cheaper and my machinist/welder likes it more.

          • jwz says:

            Well I'm not designing a fuel pump, I'm showing floor plans to customers. That seems like something video games are really good at.

            • Elektro says:

              Revit is the big name for architecture but I read the post again and sounds like you should be using blender.

              It's at least worth checking out.

        • dcapacitor says:

          Given my very limited familiarity with the gamedev world, noone uses CAD. People working on assets use whatever software they are most familiar with (ZBrush, Maya, Rhino, Blender, etc) and proceed to eyeball things until they look about right. I have seen a 3D modeling tutorial where the author modeled pentagonal bolt heads. This is not the sort of crowd that works with dimensions.

          I have been looking for similar software as well, and can confidently report that I was able to find jack shit. I reach for OpenSCAD if I can get away with it for my 3D printing needs, and use Fusion360 otherwise, but can't say I'd recommend either as SketchUp replacement.

          Does SketchUp make it completely impossible to use one of their old versions?

          • jwz says:

            I have a copy of SketchUp 7 that still works, but "never upgrade" is rarely a sustainable solution, so I'd rather get my eggs out of this basket before it's an emergency.

            Also it's already impossible to download new assets that will load into it, since it won't load the version of the SKP file format that 3dwarehouse publishes now.

          • phuzz says:

            OpenSCAD is not what jwz is looking for. It's basically 'CAD but for programmers', and while that's great for designing objects for 3D printing, it's less useful for architectural modelling than a DOOM level editor.

        • Absolutely not indeed, and as an indie game enthusiast who longs for easier tools to create games, I'm very interested in this topic. Famed researcher Robert Yang (you may be familiar with his blog, or his gay-themed games) tweeted some months ago that existing mod tools are not "more recent than a 2004 level editor built on top of a 1996 level editor". He has been an advocate for user-friendly 3D creation tools for a long time. I'll keep an eye on this comment thread to see what kind of solutions are emerging.

    • necronian says:

      All CAD programs are terrible. I personally own Sketchup, TurboCAD, BricsCAD and Fusion360. At work I have AutoCAD and Rhino (5).

      I personally work for higher end commercial furniture manufacturers so my focus area is CAD to show to customers and then CNC Routing. So my experience is not exactly in what you are doing.

      That being said I recommended BricsCAD primarily because it's free and they are specifically targeting Sketchup users. The interface will be familiar (vaguely....) It even has the stupid person in the default template. There are fancy architecture features for for quick insertion of stairs and doors/windows that I've never used.

      FreeCAD - seems kinda okay now. I've found it takes me a lot longer to draw anything. Partly experience, but also partly their UI is standard open source UI.

      Blender - It's not CAD, my experience basically ends there. Great for rendering an imported CAD model though.

      Rhino - I haven't used the latest version. The version I have is very solid. Interface isn't my cup of tea but I'm 2 major versions behind now. I'd buy it without a second thought if I didn't think what I have now covers the same bases for me.

      Onshape - A while back I signed up for a demo and tried it out until they called me up and told me I was using it too much. Very nice. Way too expensive.

      Fusion 360 - Too cheap not to own right now. I paid like $800 last year for a 3 year contract. 5-Axis tool paths for under $300 a year? Friggen amazing. Waiting for Autodesk to jack the price up 9000%

      AutoCAD - I have no idea why it is the standard still. It's fine for me because it's basically for the imos furniture design CAM software we have. I would never try to draw anything 3D in vanilla AutoCAD.

      TurboCAD - Great value. It has every feature you could ever want. I think they do research to figure out the worst possible UI to expose those features. My coworkers learned CAD in the early 90's and couldn't afford AutoCAD so now I'm stuck dealing with it. God forbid they learn anything new.

      I could go on longer. Moi3d? Alibre Atom3d? Honestly I'm watching this to see if anyone has found anything better too.

  8. Nick Gully says:

    The hard part about SKP is that the "format" is a serialization dump of the in memory data structure, harkening back to it's 2000 era creation.

    Online services have a hard time coping with the Win/Mac only provided SDK libraries.

    People dump on Blender, but it has a pretty sharp group behind it, and funding from multiple sources that means it will continue to grow into the Architectural markets that game / rendering companies aspire to eat.

  9. Craig says:

    Onshape is effectively SolidWorks in a browser and they have a free tier.

  10. Andris says:

    Blender is your best bet for FREE if you are used to using Sketchup. Any respectable, useful CAD package will cost more than Sketchup.
    The UI and capability of Blender is amazing now and there is a huge universe of support to get up to speed with it. I use it exclusively now for things that I used to do with Sketchup. Export your SKP to DAE and off you go.
    And there is Unreal Engine, also FREE and you can make your own little DNA Lounge levels to your hearts content, make your own virtual nightclub, ???, profit.

    • Jim says:

      Unreal Engine would definitely be better than Vectorworks if you can import SKP and 3DWarehouse, but there's a version of Vectorworks with an asset library specifically for nightclub rigging, and I doubt they'll be dropping support for exports.

  11. Jake Nelson says:

    If you get any good answers to this, I would also love to hear them. I've been using TinkerCAD for everything for the last few years but it's a webapp and basically a toy (the total polygon limits are a problem sometimes). Does most of what I want (largely for 3d printing), has a usable UI and is free, so I stick with it, but always hunting for a real program that isn't hundreds of dollars and/or designed by aliens who have no concept of human interfaces

  12. Walter says:

    I managed to import the model into Blender using a combination of this fork of the importer , Blender 2.83.0, and uncommenting the two lines of the script where it threw an exception.

    I didn't do any cleanup, but apart from a few overlapping polygons it looks pretty usable. The blend file is here.

  13. Cant says:

    Sweet Dreams are made of this. I suggest Sweet Home 3d. The reason being is that it is actually "architectural design software" rather than CAD.
    Pros: Free (libre+gratis)
    Runs on your desktop OS (if you run a major OS).
    Simple enough for a fool like me to use.
    Easier than Blender.
    Does multiple and split level buildings.
    Lots of existing models for stuff, including people.

    Cons: Can't do curves (doesn't look like you have a curvey floor plan).
    You'd have to create your own model furniture and signs somewhere else, and then import them (I think).

  14. Cant says:

    Sorry for WordPress eating my line breaks in the previous comment.

  15. CoJo says:

    Wow, poked a hidden bear on this one!

  16. Trebon says:

    Designspark (a reduced Spaceclaim App) can read skp files imo. Best 3D Cad i ever used and free (except step im-export etc).

    Blender is good in animation / physic simulation and there is a step importer which cost a few bucks.

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