Back to Ganoksin | FAQ | Contact

3D modeling software for metalsmithing

I am considering taking a 3D modeling (parametric design) course at
the local tech school. What use does it have to the practicing
jeweler or metalsmith on a regular basis?

As I consider it, it seems as if it would be of most use to someone
designing for limited or mass production, having the product
manufactured elsewhere. I see that it could occasionally come in
on a commission, when one of my clients asks me to design for one of
her other subcontractors.

When I do have a section that benefits from CAD or 3D software, it’s
usually a section that’s going to be jobbed out anyway. It’s always
made more sense to let the fabricator or specialist do the computer

Otherwise, would the investment of time and eventually money be worth
it for normal studio work? There may be many applications that I’m
not considering, so please share them with me.


Get in touch with Heath Satlow:

he uses Rhino to design and cut parts for his original welded
stainless steel sculpture. They are usually one off not for multiple
production. Also see

Rhino at:


Hi Kirsten

In regards to your question about the usefulness of a parametric 3D
modeling program for jeweler or metalsmith, there are some pros and
cons. Parametric modelers have a history tree which can be used to
update the size of certain parts of model as changes are made to
parts, while maintaining a proportional relationship.

So for instance, if you were a findings manufacturer who wanted to
design a new style of prong setting, you could create various sizes
of the setting, while maintaining a certain prong thickness
proportional to the setting within the parameters needed for
manufacturing a workable model. So the smallest and largest settings
would not have prongs which are too thin or too thick, as would
if you just scaled the model up or down as a whole.

Parametirc modelers tend to be more “clunky” than non-parametric and
generally more suitable for industrial design of widgets and things
than for the artistic design of jewelry. If the history is turned on,
each time you make a little change, the rest of the model has to
update, so there is a bit of a lag in terms of design fluidity.

Looking at the very organic hand-forged nature of your work, the
best fit would probably be a relief-modeler like ArtCAM, which is
for designing very organic shapes and textures while maintaining the
structural and dimensional accuracy needed for jewelry design.

Some CAD programs for jewelry take a Swiss army knife approach,
combining solid/surface modeling capabilities with organic/sculptural
tools, usually at the expense of one or the other. So, the thing to
is to identify the type of modeling that you do the most and find a
program that is strongest in that area.

Ask the software sales representative to demonstrate how to create
one of your designs in the program, if he can’t do it or refer you to
someone who can, move on to the next program, until you find one that
will meet your needs.

Most of what is done by jewelers with CAD is to create variations of
conventional jewelry with a greater or lesser degree of
customization. CAD has been under-utilized by artistic jewelers and
designers, so when I see your work I admire it’s unique
hand-craftsmanship, but I also see the potential to incorporate CAD
into your process and compliment your unique work with computer
generated components and treatments.

With some experience, a jeweler can create a design on a computer
and know that what they see on the screen will correspond to the
actual model in terms of structure dimension and depth of detail. But
for organic, natural design it can be more difficult, it’s not
uncommon to not get it quite right on a first attempt of a design.
There is a difference between a mediocre design that sort of looks
as you originally envisioned and a design that just “pops” when you
look at it because it it is even better than you originally could
have imagined.

This is where having a CNC milling machine at your disposal is
invaluable. To be able to draw a design concept as a virtual model on
a computer and then cut a wax model that you can hold in your hand in
less than an hour is truly where the power and creative potential of
CAD shines. A texture sample can be cut in 10 minutes.

I get excited when, after some design iterations in the program and
perhaps cutting a few variations in wax to evaluate the design as a
physical model, I come up with something that is better than my
original concept using tools that allow me to make changes and
explore design possibilities which I could not develop or foresee, by
any other means.

I lament that more artistic jewelers aren’t taking advantage of the
creative potential of CAD/CAM in terms of pure model making
capabilities and design development. However, with technological
advances, CAD programs are getting more user-friendly and hopefully
less costly.

A free program called Z-Surf can be used in conjunction with MoI or
Rhino to create some very basic organic reliefs from photos or
PhotoShop created gray scale images.

I haven’t used it a lot but there are some examples on my blog of a
relief of Angelina Jolie and a fractal pattern texture that I created
with Z-Surf, just for fun. Aside from anything else, designing with
CAD is just plain fun!



I’d say take the course. CAD is rather difficult at the beginning,
but what is learned with one program (with hopefully skilled
instruction) makes another program merely a translation exercise…
you already have an understanding of the basic concepts. A class also
enables you to better evaluate demos of other programs and purchase
at a student discount. The software is the hard part and often costs
more than the hardware.

As to how useful it would be for your work is hard to say. Modelling
organic shapes like yours is one of the challenges which still give
me chills. But once a modelled it’s really easy to deform and scale
to create related designs. I do use it for one off designs (matching
bands and mirrored earings are now far less of a night mere :-), and
model making for licensed merchandise (the ability to email
renderings critical). It’s not a universal tool, milling is slow and
the design has to be complex enough to warrant the modelling time. A
plain band doesn’t make sense but a tapered band with a rich
repeating relief does, especially since I couldn’t produce the latter
a a realistic price. A new tool, if not misused it can open new

And I totally agree with Jesse about having in house cutting
capacity in addition to doing your own modelling. What looked good on
the screen doesn’t always look good cut. Even after years I am still
surprised. A slight re-modelling and re-cut (or 2) and all falls into
place. Extra machine time (maybe the job will be a day latter than
desired) but I can essentially re-start a many hour piece from the
beginning spending often only minutes to fix little irritating

Demand Designs
Analog/Digital Modelling & Goldsmithing


If it isn’t too costly, I’d say take the course. You’ll learn quite
a bit about CAD no matter what software you’re using, both what’s
good and bad. Education is a good thing. It’ll make you that much
more knowledgeable when you evaluate other CAD programs, especially
those that are targeted towards jewelers.

CAD is an amazing tool, but it’s only a tool. You need to play with
it for a while and then you will see possibilities that you can’t
envision now.

Looking at your present work, the only CAD software that I know of
that is capable of recreating it would be Freefrom, from Sensable
Technologies, which is what I use. It’s an amazing tool for modeling

Good luck!