FreeCAD is a 3D CAD/CAE parametric modeling application. It is primarily made for mechanical design, but also serves all other uses where you need to model 3D objects with precision and control over modeling history.
FreeCAD is still in the early stages of development, so, although it already offers you a large (and growing) list of features, much is still missing, specially comparing it to commercial solutions, and you might not find it developed enough yet for use in production environment. Still, there is a fast-growing community of enthusiastic users, and you can already find many examples of quality projects developed with FreeCAD.
Like all open-source projects, the FreeCAD project is not a one-way work delivered to you by its developers. It depends much on its community to grow, gain features, and stabilize (get bugs fixed). So don't forget this when starting to use FreeCAD, if you like it, you can directly influence and help the project!
First of all (if not done already) download and install FreeCAD. See the Download page for information about current versions and updates, and the Installing page for information about how to install FreeCAD. There are install packages ready for Windows (.msi), Ubuntu & Debian (.deb) openSUSE (.rpm) and Mac OSX. As FreeCAD is open-source, if you are adventurous, but want to have a look at the brand-new features being developed right now, you can also grab the source code and compile FreeCAD yourself.
The main concept behind the FreeCAD interface is that it is separated into workbenches. A workbench is a collection of tools suited for a specific task, such as working with meshes, or drawing 2D objects, or constrained sketches. You can switch the current workbench with the workbench selector (6). You can customize the tools included in each workbench, add tools from other workbenches or even self-created tools, that we call macros. There is also a generic workbench which gathers the most commonly used tools from other workbenches, called the complete workbench.
When you start FreeCAD for the first time, you are presented with the start center:
The Start Center allows you to quickly jump to one of the most common workbenches, open one of the recent files, or see the latest news from the FreeCAD world. You can change the default workbench in the preferences.
FreeCAD has several different navigation modes available, that change the way you use your mouse to interact with the objects in the 3D view and the view itself. One of them is specifically made for touchpads, where the middle mouse button is not used. The following table describes the default mode, called CAD Navigation (You can quickly change the current navigation mode by right-clicking on an empty area of the 3D view):
|Select||Pan||Zoom||Rotate View||Rotate View
|Press the left mouse button over an object you want to select. Holding down ctrl allows the selection of multiple objects.||Click the middle mouse button and move the object around to pan||Use the mouse wheel to zoom in and out. Clicking the middle mouse button re-centers the view to the location of the cursor.||Click first with the middle mouse button, hold it down, and then click the left mouse button and drag the mouse in the desired direction. The cursor location at the middle mouse button click determines the center of rotation. Rotation works like spinning a ball which rotates around its center. If the buttons are released before you stop the mouse motion, the object continues spinning, if this is enabled. A double click with the middle mouse button sets a new center of rotation.||Click first with the middle mouse button, hold it down, and then click the right mouse button and drag the mouse in the desired direction. This method works just like the previously described Rotate View that uses Middle Mouse Button + Left Mouse Button, except that the middle mouse button may be released after the right mouse button is pressed. Users who use the mouse with their right hand may find this Rotate View method easier than the previous method.|
|Press and holdkey and click and release right mouse button to pan (rev 0.14)||Once in Pan mode, press and release left mouse button to Zoom, to exit back to pan mode press and release right mouse button (rev 0.14)||Once in Pan mode, click and momentary hold left mouse button to rotate, to exit back to pan mode press and release right mouse button (rev 0.14)|
You also have several view presets (top view, front view, etc) available in the View menu and on the View toolbar, and by numeric shortcuts (, , etc...), and by right-clicking on an object or on an empty area of the 3D view, you have quick access to some common operations, such as setting a particular view, or locating an object in the Tree view.
FreeCAD's focus is to allow you to make high-precision 3D models, to keep tight control over those models (being able to go back into modelling history and change parameters), and eventually to build those models (via 3D printing, CNC machining or even construction worksite). It is therefore very different from some other 3D applications made for other purposes, such as animation film or gaming. Its learning curve can be steep, specially if this is your first contact with 3D modeling. If you are struck at some point, don't forget that the friendly community of users on the FreeCAD forum might be able to get you out in no time.
The workbench you will start using in FreeCAD depends on the type of job you need to do: If you are going to work on mechanical models, or more generally any small-scale objects, you'll probably want to try the PartDesign Workbench. If you will work in 2D, then switch to the Draft Workbench, or the Sketcher Workbench if you need constraints. If you want to do BIM, launch the Arch Workbench. If you are working with ship design, there is a special Ship Workbench for you. And if you come from the OpenSCAD world, try the OpenSCAD Workbench.
You can switch workbenches at any time, and also customize your favorite workbench to add tools from other workbenches.
The PartDesign Workbench is specially made to build complex objects, starting from simple shapes, and adding or removing pieces (that we call "features"), until you get to your final object. All the features you applied during the modelling process are stored in a separate view called the tree view, which also contains the other objects in your document. You can think of a PartDesign object as a succession of operations, each one applied to the result of the preceding one, forming one big chain. In the tree view, you see your final object, but you can expand it and retrieve all preceding states, and change any of their parameter, which automatically updates the final object.
The PartDesign workbench makes heavy use of another workbench, the Sketcher Workbench. The sketcher allows you to draw 2D shapes, which are defined by applying Constraints to the 2D shape. For example, you might draw a rectangle and set the size of a side by applying a length constraint to one of the sides. That side then cannot be resized anymore (unless the constraint is changed).
Those 2D shapes made with the sketcher are used a lot in the PartDesign workbench, for example to create 3D volumes, or to draw areas on the faces of your object that will then be hollowed from its main volume. This is a typical PartDesign workflow:
Which gives you an object like this:
At any moment, you can select the original sketches and modify them, or change the extrusion parameters of the pad or pocket operations, which will update the final object.
The Draft Workbench and Arch Workbench behave a bit differently than the other workbenches above, although they follow the same rules, which are common to all of FreeCAD. In short, while the Sketcher and PartDesign are made primarily to design single pieces, Draft and Arch are made to ease your work when working with several, simpler objects.
The Draft Workbench offers you 2D tools a bit similar to what you can find in traditional 2D CAD applications such as AutoCAD. However, 2D drafting being far away from the scope of FreeCAD, don't expect to find there the full array of tools that these dedicated applications offer. Most of the Draft tools work not only in a 2D plane but also in the full 3D space, and benefit from special helper systems such as Work planes and object snapping.
The Arch Workbench adds BIM tools to FreeCAD, allowing you to build architectural models with parametric objects. The Arch workbench relies much on other modules such as Draft and Sketcher. All the Draft tools are also present in the Arch workbench, and most Arch tools make use of the Draft helper systems.
A typical workflow with Arch and Draft workbenches might be:
Which will give you this:
More on the Tutorials page.
And finally, one of the most powerful features of FreeCAD is the scripting environment. From the integrated python console (or from any other external Python script), you can gain access to almost any part of FreeCAD, create or modify geometry, modify the representation of those objects in the 3D scene or access and modify the FreeCAD interface. Python scripting can also be used in macros, which provide an easy method to create custom commands.