SketchUp: 3D Modeling for Woodworkers

By Sean Headrick
San Jose, California

Welcome to my new monthly Wood News 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 Google Sketchup . 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 Window>Instructor 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 Shift , Control (Apple key on the Mac) and Alt . Using 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 Go-2-School . 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. YouTube 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 . Sean was interviewed by Wood News in 2007.

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