Which 3D Modelling Software To Choose?
compiled by Yuri Sos


As MSTS continues to grow, more people are starting to express a wish to build their own models. But which software should they choose?

In this article, I'll try to summarise the salient features from many of the posts that have been written on the subject over the past year. Each product is listed by availability, web page, cost and basic features.

Then I've included quotes from many threads on this very topic.  You will see that two products seem to come in from high praise from their users.

The main contenders are:

Click on each link to jump to that section or continue to read down through all the comments.

Some General Comments:

  • It's probably a lot to expect that you'll get good manuals these days but the manuals for all of the packages are either lacking altogether or really just quick overviews;  consider the availability of post-purchase support and upgrade plans for your software;
  • Read all the tutorials you can find, start with something simple. The learning curve for all four programs is steep;
  • Since Gmax is free and 3D Canvas has a free basic version, it might be reasonable to download them both and try which suits you better;
  • All mentioned programs have their shortcomings and advantages;
  • Texturing - construction and application of textures are a major part of model construction and some consider may even be harder than actual model building.

Criteria To Consider In Making Your Choice

Export To Other Sims
To many games - professional
To many games via exporters
To many games via gamepacks
MSTS only
Ease Of Learning
Ease Of Use
Official Support
Peer Support
3D Studio Max
Good - not MSTS specific
3D Canvas
Free Trial;
Plus is US$35;
Pro is US$70.
Continuous,Strong via Forums and Upgrades
Excellent - tuts and forums
Continually Upgraded
Excellent - tuts and forums
No Further Upgrades
Train Sim Modeler
Very Good - tuts and forums


3d Studio Max


Very comprehensive, used by movie makers to produce models for major motion pictures and games studios for game models where there is no budget concern - the Adobe Photoshop of 3D modelling.

Cost: US $3,495.00

User Comments

  • I just got GMAX and its exporter and it looks like I'll just keep building in 3DSMax and importing to GMAX and resaving as a Gmax file and then exporting for TrainSim;
  • I like the Gmax UI because I am so used to 3DStudioMax. It's familiar and I like that. The idea of getting to know a new UI and program doesn't thrill me. If this Gmax thing doesn't work as planned then I'll be investing in Canvas for sure;
  • I've used Gmax quite extensively over the last couple of days and it's growing on me. My next project will be built in 3DStudio Max and post-processed in Gmax to add some neat functionality to it. But then I'm a 3DSMax bigot, so I kinda like the babyMax - it's somehow strangely familiar;
  • I'm also used to 3DStudio Max so discovering gMax functions was fast:  I've tested especially LOD manager and new options with material shading.


3d Canvas Pro


3DCanvas actually has three versions:

  • 3D Canvas: FREE
  • 3D Canvas Plus: US $34.95:  (includes Train Simulator Wizard) contains everything you need to create and export models to MSTS.  This replaces the former 3D Canvas LP.  Unfortunately, the designer has crippled 3DC Plus so that it no longer supports user written plugins (anyone with an LP licence is still OK);  the designer has included a selection of "system" plugins, including a few of Paul Gausden's, but not Paul's Engineer plugin;
  • 3D Canvas Pro:  US $ 69.95: their fully fledged modelling package (also contains Train Simulator Wizard for export models to MSTS): this version supports all of the brilliant Paul Gausden plug-ins as well as "deanville"'s Foundry set.

User Comments

  • You can always download the free version to see if the interface suits you, and if it does then you can upgrade to either the LP or Pro version, both of which have MSTS export;
  • Has a large number of tutorials that detail almost all you need to know to build models for MSTS. Has a full exporter that literally takes your model and makes it a fully working one in Train Simulator;
  • Personally I'd recommend 3DCanvas, the tutorials for MSTS are very good, and if you go to the Amabilis web site and grab the free version of it you can work your way through the free 4 Wheel Wagon Tutorial and come out the other end knowing all the basics you need to build MSTS Models. Once you're happy that you enjoyed building that model, you can upgrade to the LP or Pro version and the Train Sim Exporter is included in there;
  • I did print the 3D Canvas HTML documentation and all of the tutorials:  that managed to save me lots of time finding the help I need. If it's not there, I ask on the Amabilis support forums  - something that puts 3D Canvas ahead of all the others in my humble opinion;
  • 3D Canvas is an excellent tool. It takes some getting used to but you will eventually appreciate it far more than what else is available unless you can afford the Mother of all 3D Modeling tools... 3D STUDIO MAX itself;
  • 3D Canvas seems to have plenty of support, plug-ins (in Pro version) and an easy user interface;
  • It is very different from TSM and will take a lot of getting used to:  I'd recommend going back to building simple shapes.  Ian Morgan's tutorials on the Amabilis web site are the ones to start with;
  • Here is a question, how simple is it to convert 3D Canvas to MSTS format?
    • Let's say you are building an engine -  it's "1" step! You run the Train Simulator Wizard.   It creates the directory to store the model, converts the textures to .ACE, creates the .S file and a default .ENG or .WAG ( or whatever) file to get you started.   Essentially, when you want to look at your model in the the sim you run the wizard, create a MSTS consist (if it's a wagon or engine) and then start the SIM to check it out;
    • A plug-in is available which makes conversion a breeze. You simply follow a step by step fill in format screen to convert your model/s into MSTS formats. I have only had 3D canvas since Sunday and I am now converted. I have created a few basic structures. House, Phone Box etc and in this short space of time I think I've done well for a 3D modeling program dummy;
    • although 3DCanvas is a general-purpose modeller, the TSWizard in it is custom-designed for exporting to the .s shape format. It seems that Richard (3D Canvas author) did a better job of his exporter than Microsoft did with their own Gmax gamepack;
  • If you're going to buy something, get 3D Canvas Pro - it doesn't have near the amount of flaws as TSM and is equal in every respect for creating nice, properly configured locos as Gmax. The best part, is the learning curve is about 1/4 that of Gmax - I'm into Gmax, but only because of years of 3DS Max use. If I was starting from scratch, 3D Canvas would be my choice;
  • G-Max forces you to use smoothing groups and has dreadful texture mapping options:  try doing per object smoothing in it or per vertex smoothing.... it can't do it!  In Gmax let's try doing an operation adjust to move and size and rotate a texture in real time on the model - can't do that either!  OK lets try a UV Remap so that you can have a totally smoothed smokebox and yet not have your texture distorted and rivits stretched at the top.... Ooops! Gmax can't do that properly either.  Also try complex boolean operations in Gmax.  Again it can't do them properly!  Plus the exporter stinks! it only writes .s files.  3D Canvas can output an entire working model;   let's not forget that you only get one working view in Gmax and it has grief when it comes to background working drawings too;
  • 3DCanvas is a general purpose 3D modeller! You can export your models to .3ds, directX, lightwave, autocad, popular raytracing programs, etc., and you can import from these formats (and more!) as well;   I don't believe that either Train Sim Modeler or Gmax can create all the files required for the trainsim within a single export process that compares in any way to the superiority of the 3D Canvas Train-Sim Export wizard. The ease with which I can go from a model on the screen to seeing it in trainsim is pure joy;
  • I do however think that for Trainsim the only modeller that does everything that's needed right now is 3DCanvas. While it may well be a general purpose modeler as you say, it does have access to every feature you could actually need to produce an MSTS model  without being either overloaded or underpowered. That's something that neither G-Max (Max) nor TSM manages to achieve;
  • It should be pointed out that 3DC's Trainsim Wizard will save you countless fiddling in getting a loco in the sim. It builds a basic ENG and SD file and folder structure, all you basically need to do is export and go;
  • Another plus for 3D Canvas is its extendible programming interface:  At the other end of the operation from the export wizard, Paul Gausden has written a plugin that automatically generates wheel sets and frames after entering a few dimensions; another plug-in that automatically generates wheel, con rod and piston animations, as well as several other useful extras - and more are on the way;  All are freely available on the amabilis site.
  • 3DC has useful support for LOD and specular lighting;
  • Why not try 3D canvas? The basic modeler is free.  l'd suggest you download it and have a play around and get a feel for it. It starts off hard but once you get the hang of it, it's great. You do have to purchase an upgrade USD34.95 for the LP version in order to create and export models into MSTS.   If you download POV-Ray (free), 3DCanvas will render your model using the POV-Ray raytracing engine. If your models and textures are good, this can provide damn near photo-quality rendering, perfect for creating the cab views.
  • Not to mention that learning a more general product is a plus because you can use the same program to model for MSTS, MSTS2, Trainz, Quake, your own pictures or movies, flight simulator. . .whatever you want.
  • The future does not look bright for TSM.   I have changed to 3D Canvas as it offers far more options when creating models, has a fantastic range of plug-ins available and more importantly has a great support network behind it and a commitment towards further enhancement and development.
  • I've got them all. As far as GMAX goes, it hasn't.   I'm still trying to learn 3d Canvas.  Later I'll tackle GMAX. I started with Flight Sim Design Studio (makers of TSM) so going to TSM was natural. By setting up project settings--giving a few names and mostly just clicking, you tell TSM all it needs to know to create a carriage, or a disel, an electric, or a steam loco. TSM also does all the export--ACE files, .S, .SD, and .ENG--all of them. Couldn't be easier, but is limited in features, so I bought 3d Canvas. Really nice, but I'm still learning and I also must learn not to expect it to work in the same ways as TSM. There is some interference in learning the different programs. The easiest, simplest way is to go TSM, but you will generally get the simplest model. There are some masters out there who can make the program jump through hoops, but I'm not one of them. I continue to do most of my models in TSM, but am trying hard to learn 3d canvas. I like TSM, but I think in the long run I'll find myself relying primarily on 3d canvas. If you can buy TSM you could probably buy 3d Canvas instead. Hopefully TSM will continue to upgrade its product -- it's so easy to use! But if it doesn't go any farther, I'd hang my hat on 3D Canvas.
  • 3D Canvas...In my opinion, is the best "in-between" 3D Model program out there. The learning curve is not as severe as GMAX but has a lot more power than TSM.  Tutorials and customer support is very good and has many features that cater directly for Train-Sim. Very handy. The cost is almost double of TSM but "you get what you pay for". Not a smart-ass remark...but the truth.
  • There is a certain amount of "program" shock once someone does the 3D program transition. I used TSM a lot, made a lot of models and was entirely used to the program. When I tried GMAX for the first time it was like going from a bicycle to semi-truck. I wished I had started with 3D Canvas first.   I would be way ahead of the game by now.
  • I've read the tutorials on modeling in GMAX and such, thinking all the while "hmmm... don't have to do THAT in 3D Canvas", "hmmm... THAT's MUCH easier in 3D Canvas", etc etc. Also heard of some things in TSM, where i'm saying "hmmmm... don't have THAT problem with 3D Canvas" and "hmmmm... i CAN do THAT in 3D Canvas!"

Tutorials for 3D Canvas

  1. Tutorials on the Amabilis web site;
  2. 3DC-specific tutorials on this site;
  3. Tutorials: General topics applicable to all modelling software.




Gmax is a watered-down version of Discreet's professional package, 3DS Max, with many of the same features. 3DStudio Max is pretty much a do-all program - with this comes tons of gizmos, buttons, bells and whistles.

Cost:  Free download.  You will need the Gmax program from Discreet's site and the MSTS Gmax game-pak add-on at the MSTS Tools site (link at discreet page).

User Comments

  • Gmax - free, versatile & powerful, few specific tutorials. The flightsim fraternity use Gmax thesedays;
  • Both Gmax & the 3d family have their roots in professional animation programs;
  • GMAX does have an awesome price (FREE), but I also find its user interface a bit daunting since I have no 3D Studio Max experience. It's really geared toward people who already know 3D Studio;
  • The most difficult part of 3DSM or Gmax is navigation, but many of the concepts are the same throughout the modeling industry - whether low end or high. Once you grasp Gmax though, working with it is a breeze IMHO.
  • I would recommend downloading and trying Gmax. You can dibble and dabble all you like, export your work to MSTS, and all at no cost - except for the download time and learning curve. If you find you like it, then either stick with Gmax or try out 3DC - both fare equally in creating MSTS content.
  • I use Gmax extensively - I also own both 3D Canvas and 3D Studio Max (both used for other things, and to create complex shapes for importing into Gmax), but Gmax is faster and does what I need without issues (not to mention is the only one of the 3 that uses industry standard nomenclature).  Sure it has some bugs, but once you know what these are, you can avoid them without Gmax ever crashing.  The last time I had a crash was shortly after 1.1 was released. Not a single crash since.
  • G-Max is as stable, if not more so then any other on the market. It's a very complex program, and it's up to the user to learn and understand the fundamentals.   But believe me, you will not learn to use this program overnight.
  • GMAX was released as a free modeler. Its 3D Studio MAX heritage is extremely apparent. The people using this tool that are having the best time with it seem to already own 3D Studio MAX, which is great for them... but your average "man on the street" has a common complaint... it's so complicated you have to be REALLY dedicated if you are going to learn it with no prior 3D Modeling experience.
  • There are no visual differences from a model built with 3DC or Gmax, though I feel Kuju's plugin for Gmax is pretty well intuitive in sorting complex alphas, and I prefer it to all others.
  • Gmax doesn't have a plugin for LOD optimisation (Max has this built-in and is the best I've seen for controling the model output). Someone else will have to give you the skinny on 3DC's point reduction. I own all three of the MSTS modeling tools, but still use Gmax almost exclusively (except for rendering and building complex objects).
  • I like the Gmax UI because I am so used to 3D Studio Max.  It's familiar and I like that. The idea of getting to know a new UI and program doesn't thrill me.  But since I have like 3 locos waiting in Max formats I won't start any more with Max but I'll finish the ones started. If this Gmax thing doesn't work as planned then I'll be investing in Canvas for sure.
  • I am quite pleased with gmax's ability to export models with multiple LODs, and I especially like the way it handles alpha textures. At last I can see objects such as trees and buildings through the far, tinted windows of a locomotive cab or passenger car. I was never able to get these to work using the command line conv3ds.
  • Granted, GMAX is free and the other programs are not.  But you'll spend a great deal of time learning GMAX.  Maybe you are a "brain" and pick up on it fast, then again maybe not.  If you really want to model, you may have to shell out the cash in case GMAX is over your head.  In my case, it really wasn't the complexity but the time it required to learn it.  With 3D Canvas, I was able to export a model the day I got it, which was promising.  Good Luck!
  • Yes, gmax is not easy to master. But there are various tutorials and other resources out there. For starters, check out .

    For several useful tips see http://www.christrains.com/ (FAQs)

Tutorials for GMax

  1. Great Starter Tutorial by Volker M Bollig;
  2. GMax-specific tutorials on this site;
  3. Tutorials: General topics applicable to all modelling software.


Train Sim Modeler


Cost: US $39 for download copy for TSM for personal use only.

Note: models constructed with TSM may not be offered for sale nor included in payware routes. You will need to purchase TSM Commercial: US $395.

TSM is closely related to Flight Shop Design Studio.
Generally considered the the easiest to use, however there is no "try-before-you-buy". TSM has a basic exporter that converts your model to MSTS.

User Comments

  • I started from scratch and couldn't get anywhere with 3D Canvas. So instead of giving up, I purchased TSM ... and haven't looked back. Yes, TSM has a few flaws but the learning curve is very low and so far I have been able to do everything I've wanted to with it.    However, I do plan on trying Gmax now that I have a better understanding of how this whole 3D modeling stuff works.
  • I bought TSM before GMAX was available. TSM pained me with its mediocrity and the fact that it did not follow guidelines for creating well-designed, visually and functionally consistent user interfaces for applications that run on the Microsoft Windows platform.
  • I have "TSM commercial", "3DCanvas" and "GMax":  for ease of use for someone who does not have alot of modeling experience, TSM wins hands down.  For someone with some more experience who wants to create a more complex model, 3DCanvas would be a better choice,, and for you guys that are hardcore designers then the Max programs make the best choice;
  • ;
  • What really disappointed me about TSM was the apparent lack of support from its creator despite its popularity among model builders. It's a great tool despite its bugs and I am sure many more fantastic models will continue to be produced with it. However the template tool (jagged edges on angles), the mysterious flap and lack of boolean operations needs to be corrected. Will this ever happen, Who knows ?
  • All of my emails to Abacus have fallen on deaf ears re bugs with the program.
  • TSM has  not such good support & limited in the use of transparencies or animation. Desperately in need of an upgrade. Specific tutorials have been written, but not by the distributor;
  • TSM...the real "Cheape$t Program". Easy to learn. Tutorials aren't too bad, however customer support could be more desirable. I consider TSM a good training ground for 3D modeling. Not very complex, but it is simple enough to understand to make the simplest of models;
  • The real travesty here is that TSM is usually what people try first... it absolutely "screws them up" for any other modeling tool.  Changing over from TSM to 3D CANVAS or GMAX is a nightmare once you start using TSM.

Tutorials for TSM

  1. TSM-specific tutorials on this site;
  2. Tutorials: General topics applicable to all modelling software.