OpenSCAD Basics: The Setup

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 []