Welcome to my new monthly
column featuring the benefits and uses of Google SketchUp. In this first article, I want to share a little bit about how I
came to be a SketchUp fan and how this tool has benefited my work.
Since I began woodworking about twelve years ago, I have had an eye out for 3D modeling software that would bring my ideas to life on the computer
screen. What I discovered were two equally disappointing scenarios. First, I found that complicated CAD-based programs were the standard. Even the
"light" versions, designed for the hobbyist and inexperienced user, were very confusing to me. On the other hand, I found simple illustration
programs. Although easy to use, these programs were no more effective than the two-dimensional sketches and drawings I already did. These
illustrations certainly did not help me convey my ideas to clients any better. Neither option was what I thought 3D designing would be like.
Then several years ago, my wife sent me a link to
. After downloading it and expecting to be disappointed as I had been so many times
before, I was pleasantly surprised. Within a few hours, I was hardly able to contain myself. I found SketchUp was simple to use with intuitive tools
and an interface that seemed to know what I wanted to do. Within a few weeks, I was able to incorporate SketchUp into my work flow. I started with
simple models that clearly illustrated my designs for clients. Soon after, I was creating detailed models that showed every measurement from which I
could actually build my designs. I had found my 3D modeling software — easy to use with powerful design capability and made for woodworking.
Easy to Use
When you download Sketchup from its home page (the standard version is absolutely FREE), you will be presented with a tutorial to build a house. Going through this 10-15 minute exercise will
illustrate the most commonly used tools and how they work. For a helping hand, click on
at the top of your modeling screen. This
will bring up a help window with an explanation of each tool and its functionality. At the lower left of the modeling window, you will also find a
description of the tool you have enabled, along with any modifier keys. Modifier keys are either
(Apple key on the Mac) and
modifiers in conjunction with the tools will greatly expand each tool's functionality.
In addition to SketchUp's tool guides, there is an endless supply of tutorials on the web. My favorite resource is a site called
. Here you
will find a long list of topic-specific tutorials that you can watch for free. They also sell a few DVDs that will make you a SketchUp pro in no time.
has a channel devoted to Sketchup tutorials. The SketchUp website offers videos for every experience level, as well as self-paced tutorials
where you learn through the step-by-step creation of a project or model.
Powerful Design Tool
The small set of tools that are displayed when you first open SketchUp will allow you to build most things right away. You should probably go ahead
and enable the large tool set by clicking
View>Tool bars>Large tool set
. As you become more knowledgeable about each tool's function, you can add
them to the tool bar on your modeling window. You will find this greatly increases your efficiency. As you get faster and more
proficient, you will be able to create complex models that show every joint, dado and drawer box. In no time you will be able to build true-to-scale
project models that contain as much information as you want or need.
As a planning tool for the hobbyist, SketchUp is great. But for those of us who rely on woodworking and design for our livelihood, the true value is
its ability to accurately convey concepts and ideas to clients. I have had many clients express that having an accurate model, placed in the virtual
likeness of their living room or kitchen, has given them the confidence to make a decision on a project. They don't have to imagine, they can see it!
Creating designs in SketchUp gives you a powerful visual tool that a sketch on graph paper or the elevation drawings produced at the "big box" stores
can't compete with.
Made for Woodworking
While it was not designed specifically for woodworking, I don't think SketchUp could have been made more perfectly for woodworkers. The way that you
build things in SketchUp is very similar to the way that you manipulate materials in woodworking. The program has a tangible feel that allows you to
translate your woodworking experience to the computer. For instance, the "follow me" tool, given a specific profile, acts like a router milling a
decorative edge around a table top.
When creating the drawing to the left, I was able to create the dovetailed tenon using the same principles I do in my woodworking shop. I laid out the
joinery with the pencil tool and then I cut it out with the "push-pull" tool. Each step in the process is like that — woodworking techniques applied
to a different medium.
Whether you do wood turning as a hobby or cabinet and furniture design for a living, SketchUp is an incredible tool to add to your toolbox. Speaking
of turning, next month we will see how you can use SketchUp to design turned projects including stair spindles, furniture legs and hollow and lidded
vessels. We will also see how to use those models to print full scale templates to take to the lathe. Until then, keep sketching!
Sean Headrick, a former Atlantan once seen frequently at Highland Woodworking, now lives in San Jose, California where he does woodworking and design.
His website is
interviewed by Wood News