OpenSCAD Basics: The Setup

Posted by on Wednesday, January 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

Disclosure: I’m just now learning OpenSCAD, so this is an adventure for me too. 1 2  The OpenSCAD online manual is good, but it’s dense reading.  This is my attempt to help you dive into OpenSCAD in the shortest time possible.3

Why OpenSCAD?  Once you’ve gotten into OpenSCAD, it will let you do some pretty amazing things with your designs.  I find it easier to draw spheres and get exact measurements than with my other design program of choice, Sketchup.  One of the more powerful features of OpenSCAD is the ability to include variables that allow the object to be quickly customized without having to know any code or having to tinker with the design.

  1. Introduction. OpenSCAD is a free open source 3D design program.  Unlike Blender or Sketchup or many other 3D drawing programs, OpenSCAD doesn’t have a way to directly manipulate objects with the mouse.  It’s much more like using the OpenSCAD language to describe the things you want to appear and then watching it appear.  Don’t worry if you’re not a programmer – you’ll be able to pick this stuff up in no time.
  2. Program. Installing OpenSCAD is pretty easy.  Just choose the version that’s appropriate for your platform4 and install in its own directory.  There wasn’t any kind of auto-installer for Windows.  It was also very easy to start running.  Just click the OpenSCAD icon and I was in the program.
  3. Interface. The display is pretty stark.  The left pane is for typing instructions.  The top right pane is where the program will render the image you’ve described.  The bottom right pane is where you’ll see status and information about the current object.
  4. Settings. The only setting I changed from the default is to “Show Axes.”  You don’t have to do this, but I find that it helps orient me as I’m working on something.  You can get to this setting by, “View->Show Axes” or hitting Ctrl-2 to toggle the setting.
  5. Usage.Besides writing down instructions in the left pane, there’s not much to really do in OpenSCAD.
    1. Rotate.  Just left click and hold, then move the mouse around.  You’ll get the hang of it.
    2. Move. Sometimes you need to move  part around.  Right click and hold, then move the mouse.
    3. View.  Just typing stuff won’t make anything appear in OpenSCAD.  Once you’ve got something written, going to “Design->Compile” or clicking the F5 button will make it appear in the top right pane.
    4. Comment. It’s a good idea to leave little notes in the description so that you can keep track of what you’re doing.  Putting “//” at the beginning of a line will let you type in whatever notes you want without having OpenSCAD thinking it’s supposed to be trying to figure that part out.
    5. Export STL. You can export to several different formats, but the one I use is STL since that’s what I print with.  Just “Design->Export as STL…” and export the file wherever you want.

What tips do you have for beginners5 getting into OpenSCAD?


  1. Thanks to Tony Buser, Clothbot/Andrew Plumb, MaskedRetriever/Allan Ecker, Schmarty/Marty McGuire for patiently helping me out.  Anything that makes sense is due to their help.  Anything that doesn’t is my fault.  🙂  Also: 9000 blog points can be yours for helping out. []
  2. Photo courtesy of Scanlime and his OpenSCAD pill box insert []
  3. Off topic: I’m a big fan of Doctor Who.  I was very tempted to entitle this post “Learn with me,” since I really am learning about OpenSCAD as I’m writing this series.  There’s a great bit in one of the Doctor Who episodes where a bad/good guy says, “Burn with me.”  </nerdramble> []
  4. I’m using the Windoze version. []
  5. Such as myself []
Tagged with , , , 12 comments

12 Comments so far

  • eagleapex
    January 19, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    God, that online manual is horrible! There’s just enough detail to get you making stuff, but as soon as there is a problem, the section I find says FIXME. I almost broke my hand today banging on the table because it’s so hard to figure out and only imports DXFs from 1993.

    I try to RTFM whenever possible and this pile not yet ready for primetime. It’s back to sketchup and STLs full of holes for me I guess.

  • MakerBlock
    January 19, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    @eagleapex: Well, I’m trying to figure out DXF imports too. That will definitely be one of my upcoming tutorials, if there’s enough interest in more of them.

  • Evan
    January 19, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    I’ve played with OpenSCAD for a while, but I’ve been frustrated by the language; I want things like recursion and hashes, as well as libraries for image handling (and everything else). I’m not sure we need one more special-purpose language.

    Wizard23, at did the heavy lifting for Python code that can use all of OpenSCAD’s capabilities, but all of Python’s too.

    So… my advice is: if you’re just getting started with modeling AND programming, then thank MakerBlock for his gentle introduction and check out OpenSCAD out of the box; it can do some neat stuff. If you’re ready for some more complex modeling or you already know some Python, try using Wizard23’s PyOpenSCAD solution and don’t worry about the OpenSCAD language at all.

  • aubenc
    January 19, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    My 1st advice would be put the word “variables” out of your head. They are constants. Once you set your parameter… it is set and that’s all folks! But yes it’s great to be able to use those parameters!

    I would also like to say “do things as easy/simple/whatever you can!”, combine some cubes, cylinders and from time to time one polygon here and there an you’ll get really accurate and amazing designs easily and fast.

    Even if I miss many programing features I have to say that I do like OpenSCAD.

  • OpenSCAD tutorials | MakerBlock
    January 19, 2011 at 6:19 pm

    […] it looks like the poll is 67% in favor of more OpenSCAD tutorials.  The comments to my recent tutorial seem very positive.  So, I’ll keep going until I get a ton of hate mail or I hit the limit […]

  • OpenSCAD Basics: 2D Forms - MakerBot Industries
    January 20, 2011 at 11:41 am

    […] I gave you some basic information to get started with OpenSCAD. 1  Today you’re actually going to get to use some of what you learned yesterday.  […]

  • OpenSCAD tutorial, take II | MakerBlock
    January 20, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    […] OpenSCAD Basics: The Setup […]

  • =ml=
    January 21, 2011 at 2:32 am

    @aubenc true, until you use the assign() statement, variables are constants.

    Here’s how to change the value of a variable once initialized:

    foo = 23;

    echo(“foo 1”, foo);

    if (foo == 23)
    assign(foo = 11)
    echo(“foo 2”, foo);

    More info:

    Not the cleanest way to change a variable’s value, but it works. Now if only there was a way to return a value from a function/module…

  • OpenSCAD tutorials | MakerBlock
    January 25, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    […] OpenSCAD interface […]

  • OpenSCAD Basics: Manipulating Forms - MakerBot Industries
    January 28, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    […] OpenSCAD Basics: The Setup […]

  • Open SCAD Tutorial Roundup
    January 28, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    […] The Setup […]

  • Cliff Huffman
    January 23, 2014 at 10:45 am

    This looks like exactly what I need . Wish it was available in printed version so It would be easier to try.


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