Should I Buy CAD Software?
by Loren Hutchinson

Since I set up CAD Files for Woodworkers, I often get e-mail from other woodworkers asking that question. I thought it would be appropriate for me to set down some guidelines from my experience that might be helpful to someone faced with that decision.

What is CAD?

Simply put, Computer Aided Design (Drafting, Drawing) software is a computer program that allows you to use a mouse or electronic drawing pad to draw objects to exact levels of precision. That object can be anything from a jet engine to a bookcase. The software doesn't draw the object for you. You still need to tell it how wide, how tall, how long, but it makes it very easy to experiment with different dimensions, allowing you to see the proportions of an object and determine if it is pleasing to the eye.[Figure 1]

The biggest advantage to CAD software is its ability to let the draftsman edit a design. Once a drawing is completed, it is fairly easy to adjust the height, width, etc. or try different detail treatments on a basic object. When you change the proportions in a CAD drawing, the dimensions are changed automatically to the new size. So a case that is 66 inches tall can be 'shrunk' to 34 inches in a matter of seconds to create a companion piece (see Figure 1).

Who will enjoy using CAD?

I believe people who enjoy challenging puzzles will enjoy learning how to use a CAD program. Almost all CAD software has a rather steep learning curve because you have to 'relearn' how to draw. It is a skill that absolutely requires you to read the manual and figure out how it works. Successful CAD users are people who have patience. They are also people who derive almost as much satisfaction in designing a piece of furniture as building it. It helps if you have a basic understanding of the principles of drafting. Most woodworking plans created by amateurs like myself are done in the 3-view style with a 'Top', 'Front', and 'Side' view of the piece. Some have tackled 3D (three dimensional modeling), but it is a quantum leap from simple 2D CAD software.

Why CAD?

Much of the power in a CAD program is contained in the special drawing tools that are available to the user. Mastering those tools takes the frustration out of using the program. There are tools that will allow you to lock onto the end point or mid-point of a line, the intersection of two lines, the center point of an arc or circle, and many other points in a drawing. It simplifies the process to be able to have the software lock onto one of these points rather than tediously trying to position a mouse cursor exactly on the point.

There are tools that will create a radius or chamfer between two intersecting lines for when you're wanting to spruce up a detailed edge. You can specify the angle you want one line to have in relationship with another and trust that the angle drawn will be exact. You can also lock the cursor so it will only move horizontally or vertically. That comes in handy when you are drawing a long line that will extend off the edge of the screen. You don't have to worry about it moving off of the horizontal or vertical plane.

CAD programs let you zoom in on a section of a drawing without losing any of the detail. With conventional drawing programs the lines get bigger the tighter you zoom in the view. With CAD the lines are always the same thickness regardless of the zoom factor (see Figure 2).[Figure 2]

Maybe the nicest thing about drawing with CAD software is that you can draw your piece full scale, whether it is a small jewelry box or the floor plan for a house. You don't have to go through the mental gymnastics of calculating scale as you draw. Just draw it full size and let the software scale it to fit your printer page.

What software should I start with?

I encourage all first time CAD users to not purchase one of the high end programs that professionals use. Simple 2D software will meet the needs of most woodworkers, and it will give them a chance to see if they enjoy using CAD without making a major monetary commitment. High end programs sell for thousands of dollars. Medium range software still costs several hundred, but there are some good introductory programs that can be purchased for under $100.

DeltaCAD is another easy to learn (well... easier to learn) package that can be downloaded from the web. Their site is at You get a 45 day demo period for free, but must register it ($19.99) after that time or lose the capability to save, edit, or print files. The manual will cost you another $20.00, but it's still a good buy for $40 total.

There are specialized CAD programs for specific needs. Designing a house? You can get a program that comes with all the symbols and individual items to show walls, doors, furniture, etc. There's also one for landscaping, with symbols for trees, shrubs, walkways, etc. There are even special programs for designing kitchen cabinets, but again... these are fairly expensive because of the limited size of their market.

One good source to keep an eye on is the internet auction sites such as and Both of them have new and used CAD software for sale, and sometimes you can even find an early version of AutoCAD for under $100. AutoCAD is pretty much the Cadillac of the industry. The professional version sells for over $2000, but there is a version called AutoCAD LT (lite) that can be purchased at many college bookstores for under $200. It's a stripped down version of it's big brother, but still a very powerful CAD program. You might want to check with an area community college to see if they offer classes in CAD. It would be a great way to learn the software from a professional who uses it.

A viewer of this web site, Al Gulseth, offers his comments:
I'd like to suggest you take a look at a CAD package I found. It is called 'QCad' and is produced by RibbonSoft (
Note that there are two different versions: the Windows version is a commercial product (although there is a demo version). The other 'Community Edition' (for the Linux operating system) is open source (as in free.) I'm using the Linux version under a 'distro' (distribution or version) of Linux called Mepis (which is also an open source free download) and from my limited amateur perspective have found that QCad is very powerful. If you're interested in trying out the package, Mepis Linux can either be installed dual-boot (both systems on a current machine) or standalone on older hardware that won't handle current Windows versions. (I'm running the Linux version of QCad on an ~8 year old 1.5GHz Dell with 512MB of RAM and a 40GB hard drive. Scrolling is a little slow at times but in general it works remarkably well.) There are Mac versions available for OS X 10.3-5. Here's a link to the demo/download page if you'd like to try it out: Hope this helps. Thanks, Al.


So, is CAD for you? You're the only one who can answer that. Understand that while you are learning to use the software, you will be able to draw ten tables... or chairs... or whatever... faster than it will take you to draw one with CAD, but after you've mastered the tools, you'll wonder how you ever designed anything without it.


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