Finding Starter Projects: Free Software for Making

Finding Starter Projects: Free Software for Making

Image (1) computercostume.jpg for post 57382Learners and teachers have so many free options at their fingertips, we find that fewer are buying the higher-priced software. Just like with all kinds of making, with software these days you can do a lot with a little. Years ago, the costs of new software, especially those used by creative professionals, were prohibitive to schools. Administrators favored programs that kids would encounter in office settings, but we all know that the workplace of the future is a makerspace! The field of what’s available can be intimidating to navigate, however. Who doesn’t download with trepidation? We thought we should share our Maker teachers’ go-to apps.

In today’s post, we share software applications and suites for every maker and maker-to-be. Some of these products are simple to use, while others are far more advanced. For applications that are less intuitive, be sure to seek out tutorials, by both developers and user communities.

Remember to protect your computer. It’s always a good idea to have up-to-date virus software. If downloading from an unknown source, consider typing the application into a search engine to check if other users have raised red flags.


123D-Make  123D-Meshmixer123Dapps

123D123D-Creature by Autodesk isn’t one software app – it’s eight. (Six of them are pictured, above.) Create 3D models for printing, prepare files for laser cutting or CNC routing, transform your digital camera into a 3D scanner, or make a wild creature (with 123D Creature app for iPad, right). You can even export files from Tinkercad into Minecraft!

Good for: Beginners designing for the physical world (3D printing, laser cutting, CNC cutting, circuit boards)

Most similar to: CAD programs

Works on:  varies by app, Windows, Mac OSX and iOS, online


SketchUpSketchUp is great for building 3D objects, but also entire environments. You may accidentally “pull” the wrong surfaces at first, but watch a few tutorials and you’ll be mocking up your dream makerspace in no time, with furnishings found in SketchUp’s 3D Warehouse, the world’s biggest repository of free 3D models. Like many software programs, memorizing a few keyboard shortcuts will save lots of time.

Good for: Beginners through professionals, as SketchUp has a Pro paid version

Most similar to: CAD programs

Works on:  Windows, Mac OSX

Easeleasel-screenshot is a software environment designed to be as easy to use as Powerpoint. It has two panels: on the left you design, and in the right you can preview what your final design might look once produced.

Good for: Beginners designing for production at a remote fabricator

Most similar to: Drawing programs

Works on:  Online


Inkscape is a free, open-source application with a great tagline: draw freely. Inkscape can be used for illustrating, and is especially useful when you need vector graphics, such as for laser cutting or scaling drawings without the loss of resolution. If you haven’t used Illustrator before, start with the tutorials. You’ll be drawing in no time.

inkscape-logoGood for: Drawing, creating vector graphics for laser cutters and plotters

Most similar to: Adobe Illustrator

Works on:  Windows, Mac OSX, Linux


GIMPGIMP has an odd name (it stands for “GNU Image Manipulation Program”), but many find it indispensable when it comes to photo retouching and image manipulation. It’s not the most intuitive or pretty of software programs, but it’s powerful. Even if you don’t use all of its extensive functionality, Gimp comes in handy for opening and converting files you couldn’t open (ps, psd, tiff) into more friendly files (bmp, gif, jpeg, pdf, png). If you haven’t used Photoshop before, the tutorials will help you make sense of it all.

Good for: Transforming photographs

Most similar to: Adobe Photoshop

Works on: Windows, Mac OSX, Linux



ScratchScratch & Scratch Jr. may look like they’re just for kids, but we’ve seen plenty of adults delight in this visual programming language. Instead of using text-based commands, Scratch uses blocks than users can drag and snap together. With Scratch, use either the online editor or download for offline use. Create on screen games, animations, and interactive stories, or even connect to the physical world with the addition of a MaKey MaKey or Pico Board. The Scratch community is millions strong and supports a rich supply of help resources.

Good for: Learning to program, making simple games, enhancing the MaKey MaKey

Works on: Online, Windows, Mac OSX, Linux (Scratch), iPad (Scratch Jr.)


Arduino IDE (integrated development environment) is an accessible, open source programming language that tells your Arduino (or clone) microcontroller how to sense, think, and act. New users are often surprised at the number of example sketches out there, including dozens that come with the software under file>examples. Although there are extensive resources, tutorials, and books by the likes of Arduino and Make:, users often start learning by looking at Arduino_Logocomplete sketches and playing with variables.

Good for: Programming Arduino microcontrollers

Works on: Windows, Mac OSX, Linux

processing-ideIf you’re a bit more advanced, Processing is a versatile language, and Makers working in sound or video speak highly Pure Data, a visual programming application.

Want more? EdSurge created a comprehensive list of programming applications, along with learning resources, here.


Most folks know about WordPress for authoring websites, but educators and beginning makers are often delighted to discover Mozilla Foundation’s Webmaker tools. These tools are a great way to learn how to create the web and app resources you use everyday like web pages, interactive videos, and mobile apps. The in-browser tool X-Ray Goggles may tickle your web newbies’ funny bones!

mozilla-webmaker_logo-wordmark_RGBGood for: Taking control of the web

Works on:  Online


appinventorMIT App Inventor lets makers do just that: design their own apps. This cloud-based application also has a phone emulator, allowing makers to create apps even without the hardware.

MITAppInventor-logoGood for: Apps, from games to citizen science

Works on:  Online


If you have a computer, you probably already have Windows’ Movie Maker or Mac OSX’s iMovie. But sometimes you may need a little something more.

Can’t open that file? VLC Player is a lifesaver when it comes to playing unusual file formats. It has basic VLC-logo-Bedit functions as well.

Good for: Opening media files

Works on: Nearly everything! Windows, Mac OSX, Linux, Ubuntu, Android, iOS…


Or perhaps you want to do something a bit different. Stop motion animation is all the rage, and HUE by iCreate to Educate is one of the leading applications for use in education. That said, HUE Animation isn’t free, so if you’re looking for free, Jelly Cam includes the essential functions, like onion skin, file importing, and the ability to add sound.

JellyCam-logoGood for: Creating stop motion animations for fun and/or education

Works on: Windows, Mac OSX


AudacityScreenshots is many makers’ go-to for free audio software. Check out Audacity’s Wiki for tips, and check out Make’s project ideas Auditory Illusions and Found Sound.

audacity-logoGood for: Recording and editing sound, podcasts, music, and foley

Most similar to: Pro Tools

Works on: Windows, Mac OSX, Linux

EVERYTHING ELSEdownload-by-cnet-logo

If your software technology needs aren’t listed above, check resources like Download by CNET and the Free Software Foundation, along with blogs like EdSurgeedsurge-logo, Free Tech for Teachers, Free Technology for Teachersand eLearning Industry. There are many, many free applications out there. Use caution, then enjoy the free bounty!





If you plan on purchasing software, don’t forget to check for educational discounts! Established software companies like Autodesk and Adobe offer significant discounts to educational organizations – all the way up to 100%.


What’s your favorite free software for making? Add to our list by commenting below.


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Jessica designs art, making, and STEAM experiences for learners of all ages. She's developed and produced hands-on workshops, public programs, video media, project guides, and PD resources for organizations like Maker Media, the Exploratorium, and Franconia Sculpture Park. She holds a BFA in Sculpture from RISD and an EdM from Harvard.

She's shared hands-on activities with attendees at Maker Faires since 2007.

View more articles by Jessica Henricks

Michelle, or Binka, makes . While at Maker Media, she oversaw publications, outreach, and programming for kids, families, and schools. Before joining Maker Media in 2007, she worked at the Exploratorium, in Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab, and as a curriculum designer for various publishers and educational researchers. When she’s not supporting future makers, including her two young sons, Binka does some making of her own, most often as a visual artist.

View more articles by Michelle "Binka" Hlubinka


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