Overwhelmed with software choices and need advice

So I just did my first job on my Shapeoko and have spent several days since then looking at all the different software packages for CNC machines and at this point I’m lost.

What I want to do is take a 3D STL file pull it into software that will do the toolpaths and then produce the g code to send to the machine, Is this possible ? If not how do I accomplish this ?

I also want to eventually use ZBrush to make my own 3D models that I can export out of Zbrush and carve.

I currently have a MacBook Pro that can dual boot to Windows or I have Parallels but I am not sure if any of the CAD/CAM etc software would run ok in Parallels

Yes, there are a number of ways to do this, here are a few of the common options folks use:

  • Carbide Create Pro has this feature. It used to rely on importing a grayscale heightmap derived from a 3D object STL,

but very recently it got even better with Carbide Create v7 beta, where there is now a built-in STL import option in Pro: Carbide Create Beta Downloads

  • Meshcam is also 3D capable and is used by some people here (especially Nomad users). Here’s a thread showing what a member did with incredible ZBrush art and using Meshcam

  • the Vectric VCarve/Aspire line of software supports this too

  • one of our community members (@fenrus) came up with a tool that takes an STL file and directly generated gcode: New (kinda): Going from STL to GCode directly (CAM). It won’t provide the same level of control as solutions above, won’t let you assemble other non-3D elements into the design, and has no built-in preview, but still a fantastic tool for simple cases.

Designing your own 3D models is a great endeavour (it reminds me of @Caffein8ted learning Blender and coming up with a fantastic cut of a cardinal a few weeks later).


If you’re on a Mac, I’d suggest looking at the following programs for 3D modeling/CAD which are either native to, or ported to Mac OS:

  • Cheetah 3D: https://www.cheetah3d.com/ — this is native, which I consider a big deal, being a former NeXTstep user and fond of Services and so forth.
  • Moment of Inspiration 3D: http://moi3d.com/ — not sure what toolkit is used here, but the program was designed for use on stylus computers and is supposed to be very easy to use
  • Shapr3D: https://www.shapr3d.com/ — originally for the iPad Pro w/ Apple Pencil, this is also quite simple to use

For 3D CAM, MeshCAM and Carbide Create Pro are the notable examples, along w/ Autodesk Fusion 360 — pretty much everything else is opensource/web-based: Fenrus’s tool as noted above, pyCAM, Kirimoto, &c.

One opensource option to consider is Blender — the constraints solver from Solvespace has been ported to it see:

so it is becoming a precision tool, in addition to being an excellent one for free-form modeling — there are also the plug-ins BlenderCAD and BlenderCAM.

What sort of models do you wish to make? Decorative bas relief? If so, CC Pro and ZBrush should work well.


Thank you for the information, this is great!

I did not know about cheetah, that looks promising. I did not know Shapr could be used I know someone who uses that for their 3D printer.

I plan on doing decorative bas relief initially (just learned something new, did not know that was what it was called), then once I have some experience I want to do full 3D models.

I imagine that will be awhile before I get to the 3D point though. I will need to learn the 3D apps and get experience with them.

For the original art for these you may need a vector drawing tool — the usual suspects here are:

  • Adobe Illustrator — for folks who are willing to pay monthly
  • Serif’s Affinity Designer — affordable alternative modeled on FreeHand

One option which is both free/opensource and incredibly expensive is Cenon:

The basic drawing functionality is free, but there’s an optional CAM module (but be sure you are seated before checking on the price).