Open Source CAD

I’m always desinging something, I admittedly never build anything… or not once I’ve worked out it’s do-able but I enjoy designing weird stuff. Almost all of my designs are scribbles on paper and I never actually make any kind of plans for them. Paper’s cool because it’s simple, you don’t need much to draw something and it’s quick. It does have it’s down sides, things aren’t that straight it’s hard to get the scale right without rulers and possibly the worst part is that when you decide to move something or want to see if perhaps putting a hole through the case would look ok or moving the bathroom next to the kitchen to see if it’s better you need to re-draw everythng because you can’t just move stuff around and theres no undo button.

Which brings us to CAD software, I’m not looking for anything fancy, my needs are simple. I want something thats easy to use and that I can draw any kind of technical drawing. Ideally I want to be able to in the same program do the floor plan for my million dollar mansion or the design for my new tv cabinet or the case for the ultimate HTPC. The problem is that I have a minimum requirement that the program works on Linux and it would be nice if it also ran on MacOSX and Windows and that it shouldn’t cost anything.
And so the search starts for an open source CAD program.

It’s been awhile since I went in search of a CAD program, I don’t really need it for my day job and when I do need to draw something InkScape or something similiar does ok. What I really hate is there is no such thing as an “easy to use” CAD application, they go from extremely cryptic to “I need an engineering degree to just understand what they talking about.”. That said I’m rather impressed with some of the applications, there was a bit of a learning curve but with abit of fiddling and reading up you’ll be able to design the new garden shed or the all important secret weapon that’s holding up your plans for world domination.
So here is the list of CAD programs I could find and that I tried out. I started my search by simple searching in Synaptic on my ubuntu Linux machine for “CAD” and seeing what popped up and then also doing a bit of searching in google.

PythonCad – This one is rather interesting, it’s written completely in python. It doesn’t have lots of nice buttons with pictures on so it takes a bit of learning to work out how it works and what todo. I was able to draw up a few things and I think with a bit of time I could get the hang of it. One problem though is it is a bit hard to use if you’re new to this CAD stuff. Because it’s written in Python & GTK it runs on Linux, Windows and MacOSX or at least it should, it’s OpenSource and scriptable to.

QCad – There are two versions of QCad the Community Editiion which is free and open source and then the Professional version which you can buy. This application uses the QT library so it looks a little out of place on a Gnome desktop but it does work and it’s alot easier to use than PythonCad it’s also got a lot more features and comes with a huge library of parts that you can use in your drawings. The ‘pro’ version is available for Windows, Linux and MacOSX I wasn’t able to determine if the Community Edition was available for anything other than Linux but admittedly I didn’t look that hard. The community edition is Open source so I can put it on this list without a problem.
Dia – Now technically this is not a CAD tool but more a diagramming tool but I’m putting it on this list because it does work. Dia is probably closer to a tool like Microsoft Visio than a true CAD tool but I’ve used it in the past to draw all kinds of basic diagrams and designs normally for simple things like a bookshelf or a simple electronic schematic. This is kind of like using a knife as a screwdriver it was never designed to the job but it can and does work sometimes. It is though a brilliant easy to use tool for drawing things like network layouts, UML designs and database. It runs on Windows, Linux and MacOSX and it is an Opensource application and you can write simple “plugins” for it that do things like generate code based on your designs.

VariCad – this one technically does not belong on this list as it’s not open source, but I want to mention it anyway because for along time it was the only CAD system for Linux (Well the only one I knew about.). They do offer a 15day trial of the software and it’s not that expensive if you want to buy it. It runs on Windows and Linux.

This list doesn’t contain a complete exhaustive list of CAD programs for Linux, but these are the ones I found and tried out. I must admit that while PythonCad is cool I’ll probably be using QCad to do most of my drawing and designing. Also don’t discount applications like Blender and Inkscape if you all you’re doing is drawing something too see if your idea is crazy or not, I also won’t be throwing away my piece of paper, ruler, pencil and eraser because as much as I want everything to be “electronic” I haven’t found anything that can beat it… yet.