Many of the animated movies and videos you or your kids watch today were created using some kind of 3D modeling software like Maya. Open source software like Blender makes it possible for almost anyone with the desire to learn to create amazing 3D graphics and even feature-length movies. The problem is most 3D modeling and animation software is complicated and hard to master.

You can spend weeks taking online classes and reading books yet end up with no real knowledge of how to create 3D models or use the software. You might be able to develop simple models or understand the basic commands, but it takes a long time to understand most 3D modeling software to the point you can use it effectively. That’s not a flaw in the software; the software is just super sophisticated. 

Microsoft 3D Builder attempts to reduce the learning curve to something similar to a straight line which allows almost anyone to start modeling in 3D. You can create, view, edit, repair, and even print 3D models using this app. You can get the app for free from the Microsoft Store, and it runs on some phones and tablets as well. 

Microsoft 3D Builder lets you create a new scene to build from scratch, or you can use some of the models online. It will open most of the popular 3D printing formats including WRL, PLY, OBJ, and 3MF files. It includes a feature that lets you capture an image using your computer's camera and create 3D models or effects from it. 

Your First Steps Toward 3D Modeling

two red lego cars

Image via flickr

Getting started with Microsoft 3D Builder is straightforward, and you'll be creating simple shapes and models in seconds. The software comes pre-installed on most Windows 10 computers, so you can search for it in the Start menu to open it. Once you open it, creating a simple 3D model only takes a few clicks:

  • Create a new scene
  • Choose an existing shape from the menu bar
  • Position the new shape in the scene
  • Start playing with the editing and color tools

It really is that simple to create a new scene and model using Microsoft 3D Builder. You can load some of the 3D models from the online repository by choosing the Add option from the Insert menu. It includes several fun models to get you started from simple letters to all the pieces you need to build a highway with a bridge. 

You can import an image or capture one using your computer’s camera as well. Microsoft 3D Builder will automatically create a 3D version of the image for you. High contrast images or images with a limited color range work best for this feature. Pictures with too many colors end up looking like odd 3D trees or bushes with your face on them. That said, this feature can turn images into fun shapes.

You can scan and import images or shapes using Microsoft's Kinect device. Getting everything linked up to accomplish this goal falls outside the scope of this article, so use your favorite search engine to track down a guide on how to do it. Older computer hardware and Kinect devices do not play well together which adds several steps and workarounds to the process.

Once you master the basics and understand the load and import features, you can begin creating 3D models based on your ideas. Some of the online models might work with your design as well, so browse or search through them before you spend a lot of time creating something already available.

Finding The Power In Microsoft 3D Builder

The user interface in Microsoft 3D Builder is intuitive, and everything about the design helps simply 3D modeling for you. However, one of the first things you need to do is check the type of measurement the app is using. Most 3D printing companies and apps use millimeters as the standard unit of measure. If your Microsoft 3D Builder defaults to something else, change it in the settings to mm.


On the right side of the screen, you can group objects or ungroup them along with selecting different objects in the current scene. You can select or deselect all the objects in the scene from this menu as well. Clicking the arrow at the top of the menu expands it inward so you can read what each tool does until you memorize them.


When you create your first scene, the Insert menu is already open at the top. It’s the classic Windows tab menu style followed by Object, Edit, Paint, View, and finally, Help. The insert menu lets you add basic shapes like spheres or boxes to the scene or load pre-designed models and custom ones. It includes all the basic shapes common to 3D modeling software. 


The Object menu tab lets you duplicate any object you have selected in the current scene. It will also duplicate multiple objects if you have them selected as well. You can also use cut, copy, and paste to duplicate objects. You can measure the models in your scene from this menu or settle them against the bottom of the scene which is handy is complicated scenes with a lot of objects.


The copy and paste options are using under the Edit menu in most software, but Microsoft 3D Builder decided to include them under the Object menu. The Edit menu in Microsoft 3D Builder lets you directly edit the shape you have selected in the scene. You can merge or weld it to other shapes, extrude it, split it, and emboss it along with a few different options. 


The Paint menu is for adding materials to your objects or changing their textures and colors. Materials affect how light bounces off an object and its opacity. The color option simply changes the color to another color or shade of colors. Textures affect how light bounces off an object and they help add cool effects to things when you extrude them. Textures and materials help you make things more realistic.


The View menu is essential as well. From this menu, you can change how the objects look when you print or view them. You can remove or add things like shadow effects, smoothing, shading, colors, and reflections. The View menu is also where you change the scene’s default floor from checkerboard to solid grey or change the models from a semi-rendered 3D look to a wireframe.


At the bottom of the screen is a small docked menu that lets you see where a selected object is positioned based on its X, Y, or Z axis. You can do basic stuff from this menu as well including moving objects and rotating or extruding them. This menu lets you quickly swap the type of measurement as well just in case you need to see them in feet instead of millimeters for some projects.


Microsoft 3D Builder includes all the tools you need to create basic and complex 3D models. It's not a production grade 3D modeling app because you can't adjust the lighting very quickly without a third-party app and there's no option for changing bump maps or multi-texturing layers. That said, unless you plan to build a career around 3D modeling, you probably won’t need these options.

I Created A Model, Now What?

Print it! This is where the fun part begins. You can print your model on paper or to a PDF, but the best option is to get it printed in 3D. If you have a 3D printer, you can send the job directly to it from Microsoft 3D Builder. Otherwise, open the main menu and select the option for ordering a print online. From here you can request a 3D version of your model and have it shipped right to your door.


Imagine creating a football trophy or toys for your kids in Microsoft 3D Builder then getting the 3D version in the mail a few days later. The gift ideas alone are worth learning how to use this app. If you’re boring and frugal, you could use it to create parts for something as well like a plastic bushing for a sliding door or parts for something you invented to build the prototype.

Ok, we take back the boring comment, that part sounds fun as well. We suggest finding the app on your computer and playing around with it. Be mindful of the time; we lost track of time while using the app on several occasions.

Conclusion

Microsoft 3D Builder is one of the best 3D modeling apps for beginners, but it offers some compelling features for advanced users as well. The app is free from the Microsoft Store which adds to its appeal. Learning how to use it isn’t painful, and you will catch on quickly. The best part is that it gives you the option to print your 3D model or scene directly from the app.

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