Virtual Design - part 8

Tools of the trade

Let's get to the point right away, here is what we use today (December 2005):

  • Spreadsheet: OpenOffice
  • 3D modeler: RhinoMarine (Rhino with Proteus add-ons)
  • 2D drafting: ACAD Lite
  • Visualization: Flamingo and Penguin

BTW, our OS is Windows just because Rhino is Windows only, otherwise we would be working in Linux.

Details below, links and alternative software listed at the bottom.

As you can see, I put the spreadsheet at the top. This is because design work starts with a spreadsheet in which we compare ratios. We enter values of boats similar to our design goal, compare and make decisions. Then again in the spreadsheet, define the basic ratios and values around which we will design a boat.

This may come as a surprise to the uninitiated but that's the way most designers work.

We use OpenOffice. It is 99% Excel compatible, it's free, powerful and runs in Windows and Linux. I find it more stable than the Excel 97 we were using until last year.

We start with the spreadsheet to get a look at ratios and keep using it during the design for weight calculations and the BOM. We are beta testing a way to link the Proteus add-on for BOM to our spreadsheet. More about that during the design process.


This is one page of our weight editing spreadsheet. It contains more than 25 pages and calculates the centroids of each and every part, their weight and the amount of materials used. The main page calculates a total BOM, total weight and center of gravity.

From the spreadsheet, we go to our 3D modeler, Rhino.

This is a very intuitive and powerful modeler. We tried others that cost 10 times more like SolidWorks and Pro-Engineer, Rhino beats them by it's ease of use and has all the features we need.

It allows you great control over the surfaces and lines, has nice analysis and fairing tools. The naval architecture add-on from Proteus makes it even easier.

Until last year, specialized modelers for boat design with their built-in marine analysis tools had some advantages over Rhino but add ons can take care of that. We have parametric design tools to start a model, parts properties for weight/BOM and planing boat analysis within Rhino. The add-on produces a spreadsheet that you can export.

We spend quite sometime with the 3D model in Rhino but during that process, we can check our work with shade or render and look at it from every angle.

We build almost every part of the boat in the 3D modeler, with the thickness, not just surfaces.


The Rhino picture above shows a canoe and the surface used to create it. Note the net and control points. The complex hull with a hollow at the bow and tumblehome was created with only 5 rows of 5 vertices.

Do we still draw by hand? Yes, sometimes I find it faster to sketch something on paper, 2D or perspective before entering it in CAD but you can't create a nice and fair surface like the one above with pen and paper.

The two other programs used for our design work are 2D CAD and renderers.

The renderers will show us how the boat looks, we'll see if it feels right and check for interference. We also use to present the finished product to the builder.

Penguin renders sketches cartoon style, great for technical illustration. The picture shows a stuffing box assembly with shaft and coupling.

Flamingo is a photo realistic renderer: this VG25 just sailed from behind the horizon.

The 2D CAD software is used for production drawings. 3D modelers are not good at presentation drawings and do not handle dimensions and text as well as a 2D drafting program.



We use Autocad LT. It does all what we need.

Note that we could design a whole boat without ever using 2D. If the 3D model files are used to cut a parts in CNC or even a 3D plug, there will be no need for 2D drawings.

We do not use those tools in a single sequence. During the design spiral we keep going back and forth through them and this means that we have to keep all files updated and in sync.

Important remark:

All that software is worth nothing if you don't learn to design a boat. I use a word processor but as you may have noticed, my writings will never become literature. It takes more than software to become a yacht designer. The three factors that make a yacht designer are boating experience, boat building experience and engineering knowledge. That discussion can be the subject of another article but yacht design software will not teach you those skills.

When I write that all that software is worth nothing, it doesn't mean that it doesn't cost.

15 years ago, I had for around $ 20,000.00 in software, a big investment. Today, what is listed above will cost around $ 3,000.00 per seat, much more reasonable but still expensive for a hobbyist.

An amateur designer or student can start with much less. He can use a free 2D CAD program and a free 3D modeler.

There is currently a consensus that FreeShip is the best free 3D modeler for yacht design. There are other good ones out there like Blue Peter or Carene but the great feature about FreeShip is that it uses the same NURBS surfaces than professional software. The fairing tools, control points etc. . all work the same way and if one day you want to switch to Rhino (or most other marine design programs), you will not have to learn new techniques.

Other good programs that we used are ProLines and ProSurf. They have student versions or light versions at a reduced price and free demos. Beware of free or cheap software that uses weird algorithms. Some show developable panels that can not be developed, others force you to learn strange design methods.

That's enough for this overview of the design tools, back to the drafting board or more exactly, the CAD station.

Links, software we use currently:

Open Office


Rhino Marine








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