SketchUp for Woodworkers Guide: My Journey Learning SketchUp

intro screen - sketchup for woodworkers'Most of the woodworking that I do is custom, requiring original design, or at minimum a bit of modification of an existing concept.  Prior to learning SketchUp, I had developed my designs over the years using pencil and paper, as well as a couple of general purpose computer applications that were not specifically intended for furniture design.  All of these approaches left me feeling constrained, and I felt that the limitations of the tools were negatively affecting my designs.  I wanted to gain the efficiency of a “real design tool” that would allow me to work in three dimensions with a tool set that was purpose-built for detailed illustrations, so I finally made a commitment to learn SketchUp.

SketchUp was a natural choice for me because A) there is a robust version available for free, B) I have seen many example drawings that represented exactly the type of projects that I wanted to design with the tool so I knew that it was capable of performing my intended tasks, and C) because it is so widely adopted, there is an abundance of free and inexpensive self-guided training materials available.

A few years back I had made a couple previous attempts to just “dive in” to the application but I found it difficult to master that way.  The tool set was different from other applications that I have used, and working in a 3D space using a 2D mouse proved challenging without some guidance.  Therefore, I came to the conclusion that this time around I would seek out the training materials necessary to improve my chances of success.

What follows is a SketchUp guide for Woodworkers detailing my journey learning SketchUp. If you’re interested in learning more beyond what’s in this guide, you can check out the SketchUp classes available on WWGOA:

SketchUp Fundamentals

SketchUp: Beyond the Basics

800x300WWGOA class banne_sketchup

Getting Started with SketchUp for Woodworkers

There are two editions of Sketchup available on the SketchUp.com web site, so it will be important to choose the right one depending on your needs. If you are planning to use SketchUp for personal projects, “SketchUp Make” is the free version and probably the right option for you.  It is feature rich and offers more than enough functionality for most of us.  If you will use SketchUp to produce professional projects, “SketchUp Pro” is intended for you.

After the application is installed, you will want to determine your training plan.  Given that SketchUp is a versatile tool that can be used for many applications (construction, interior design, landscape design, etc.) I wanted to find training materials specifically targeted for woodworkers.  One resource that I found to be particularly useful was the web site http://SketchUpforwoodworkers.com/.  On this site I found a series of free video tutorials, where the host walks through the use of several key tools in the SketchUp arsenal.  After watching a handful of these videos and following along (I found it really helped my retention if I hit pause during the video and did exactly what the instructor was demonstrating), I felt that I was ready for a “real project”.

As it happened, I was developing a story for WWGOA at the time that required the design of a dartboard cabinet.  So I started to design the project using SketchUp and the new skills that I had learned in the tutorials. It was slow going to say the least.  I found myself using Sketch-up’s built-in help function a lot, and many of my answers were found easily that way. In other cases, I couldn’t find what I needed there, so I scoured the internet, and with that approach I was able to find an answer to each of my questions. In many cases it was relatively easy to find a video on YouTube of someone demonstrating the answer to my exact question.  What a gold mine!

dartboard cabinet drawing colored open - sketchup for woodworkersdartboard cabinet drawing exploded carcaseIt took me the better part of a day to go through the tutorials and then design the dartboard cabinet.  It was a slow process, but by that point I felt that I had learned enough about SketchUp to design most cabinetry and rectangular projects.  While the new knowledge was still fresh in my mind, I decided that I wanted to take on a few more projects to reinforce the learning and help with retention.  Because I didn’t have anything else in my project queue immediately, I reached out to George Vondriska to see if he had anything in the works that I could assist with.  As you might imagine, George had a plethora of activity going on, and he allowed me to put drawings together for a few of his projects.  Each one presented new challenges and helped me learn new skills.

david hutch - sketchup for woodworkersOn this credenza project I learned how to create tapered legs and apply a custom wood color.  I also learned how to pull images in from the massive library of free models that are available.

george desk - sketchup for woodworkersWhen working on this desk design I had to figure out how to make major proportion modifications, add drawers, and flip the entire design end for end to accommodate change order requests from the end customer.  These changes were intimidating initially, but proved to be straightforward after a bit of investigation.

liquor cabinet - sketchup for woodworkersThis liquor cabinet allowed me to incorporate glass shelves and a mirrored back panel, as well as a face frame that serves as a flange for easy installation.

SketchUp for Woodworkers: Next Level Training

While the SketchUp for Woodworkers site was a great resource to help me get started, I learned about another resource called “SketchUp Guide for Woodworkers – The Basics” by David Richards.  David is a SketchUp guru who does a lot of illustration and Skethchup tutorial work for Fine Woodworking.  This incredible resource helped me gain efficiency and greater confidence, and was loaded with pro tips and tricks.  I have continued the learning from David by following “Design.Click.Build”, a blog hosted by Fine Woodworking at which David is a co-author, found at http://www.finewoodworking.com/blog/design-click-build .

SketchUp for Woodworkers Key Discoveries

Start slowly and build up one skill at a time.  In my first attempt to learn SketchUp, the main reason that I got frustrated and ultimately gave up was that I had attempted to learn everything all at the same time and without guidance.  In my second attempt, by following good tutorials, I was able to isolate the critical skills and learn them one at a time, which produced much better results.  When I was ready for real projects, I started with the relatively simple dartboard cabinet and from there I worked through progressively more challenging projects.   This approach allowed me to achieve the satisfaction of conquering one challenge before moving on to the next one.

Learn the visual cues that indicate which axis is being followed.  It can be extremely frustrating to attempt to move objects in a three dimensional space when using a two dimensional mouse and monitor.   For anyone who has used other mouse driven applications, Left/right and up/down are pretty obvious, but how do you move from front to back?   Fortunately SketchUp gives you some clear guidance as to which way you are moving, and it will be critical to learn these or you will be lost quickly.

Create a “component” immediately after drawing any object.  This effectively groups all of the subcomponents together and treats it as an independent object within the drawing.  It also allows the item to appear as an individual entity if you decide to automatically create a cut-list for your drawing using an available third party plugin.  Also, if you don’t take this step, then the new geometry that you have created will likely connect itself to some other object within the sketch, making it difficult to edit independently later.

“Cheat” by using other people’s work.  The Model Warehouse contains a massive collection of drawings that have been submitted by other SketchUp users.  There is a good chance that, no matter how unique your drawing is, there is something quite similar in the Model Warehouse to use as a reference.  Also, SketchUp as evolved into a highly extensible platform, upon which users create plug-in utilities that extend the functionality of the product.  For example, there are tools available that can render your sketch into a realistic photo quality image.  Or, another extension called “cutlist” allows the user to create a detailed breakdown of components that can be used as a cutlist in the woodworking shop.  If the capabilities of the application itself are not compelling enough, the community of brainpower that surrounds SketchUp makes it an even more attractive destination.

Check out the video below that covers these topics with examples from directly within SketchUp:

SketchUp for Woodworkers Conclusions

A good design tool can really extend your woodworking capabilities, and for anyone who is even the least bit computer savvy, I strongly suggesting giving SketchUp a try.  In my case, it required an up-front investment of about six hours to get a handle on the basics, and the skills that I have learned promise to pay ongoing dividends for as long as I am active in woodworking.  If you have an experience in using or attempting to learn SketchUp, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below this article.

Source:

SketchUp Make (Free Version)

Trimble Navigation Limited

http://www.SketchUp.com/download

“SketchUp Guide for Woodworkers – The Basics” by David Richards

Taunton Press

866-325-2495

http://www.tauntonstore.com/fw-google-sketchup-basics-fwg0001.html

SketchUp for Woodworkers (free tutorials)

http://sketchupforwoodworkers.com/

Discussion
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23 Responses to “SketchUp for Woodworkers Guide: My Journey Learning SketchUp”
  1. Kent Billington

    Very similar experience here. Just recently got into sketchup and was very frustrated with trying to teach myself how to use the tool. I started looking for help and found the sketchup for woodworkers website, very helpful. Think I”ll check out Dave Richard’s blog. Thanks for the article and video Paul, enjoyed them.

    Reply
  2. Jeff Fluharty

    Well, I just noticed the paragraph long comment I typed a few days ago got lost and not posted. Anyway, I want to thank you Paul, for taking the time, and sharing your knowledge of Sketchup. I too, tried jumping in with both feet and trying to learn the program. I figured, “can’t be that tough”. I’ve been using computers since the 80’s. I considered myself very proficient in their use. I use Adobe Photoshop practically every day, along with the other usuals, Word, Outlook, etc, etc. But I struggled figuring Sketchup out, and realized I definitely needed a “one little step at a time” approach. Your article is great, and the additional resources you’ve provided are greatly appreciated! I hope everyone else here at WWGOA takes advantage, and learns this incredibly useful piece of software. Thank you again!

    Reply
    • georgeadair

      Jeff aren’t all of us woodworkers basically the same? I did the same as you and Paul and tried to jump right in. I for one should have known better after using Autocad for the past 15 years. I will now swallow my pride and watch the instructions. Excellent article.

      Reply
      • Joy T

        I’m curious for those that have used AutoCAD and SketchUp. I’m an engineer and have been using AutoCAD to draft my woodworking designs. What advantages does SketchUp have over AutoCAD? I’m not sure it is worth investing my time to learn another software when I have AutoCAD available, especially since I only tend to build one item at a time and don’t really repeat anything. I pretty well use my CAD drawings to figure out proportion and sections and Excel for my cut list.

        Reply
        • Stormy Weathers

          In short, it’s easier to build 3D models with SU than with AutoCAD (IMHO). I have used AutoCAD since version 2.13 for woodworking et al. I am still new to SU, but already enjoying the process. I am reading “A Design Guide for Woodworkers.” It’s a great resource for a former CAD user. It requires unlearning some of the CAD things. One concept to remember, SU does everything with edges and surfaces. AutoCAD allows solids and surfaces. Like previous posters, I had to swallow my pride and stop trying to make SU behave like AutoCAD. One might say AutoCAD is a great tool for making 2D drawings that can be extruded into 3D objects. SU is good for building 3D models that can turn into 2D drawings to take into the shop.

          Reply
      • Bill Kutz

        I have the V-Carve software, and I was wondering if SketchUp has lines that are connected. I have a software CAD/CAM (GibbsCam), program that has a tendency to draw lines that you have to go in and connect all of the drawings otherwise it can not create a vector for the tool paths. While I am still learning the V-Carve software, it seems to have the same issue. I was a machinist / engineer for 42 years, and I never had so many issues just drawing anything then converting it to (G-code) tool paths. Thank you for your time posting this article, and trying to help this novice woodworker.

        Reply
        • Customer Service

          Hi, Bill. I don’t know the other software products that you reference, so I don’t have any comparison points for you. But Sketchup does have the concept of connecting lines and other components, and if you don’t do so, it can present lots of problems for you downstream. Sketchup does make it fairly easy to connect these items as you are building, however, and seems to demonstrate some bias toward doing so. If you haven’t already seen this, check out the new Sketchup resources on WWGOA.com. Dave Radtke is a Sketchup guru, and this class is a great way to get up to speed quickly: http://www.wwgoa.com/class/sketchup-fundamentals/. There will be more to follow as well.

          Reply
  3. GearJamminSob

    Yup, I got frustrated after probably trying to learn too much too fast like everyone else, I guess. I think part of my problem, though, is the difference between the Mac and Windows versions of the program, everything out there seems to be all about the latter, I figured I could learn that version and figure out the differences but that has proven to be harder than I expected. Today I updated to the 2015 version, Make, and one of the first things I did was I created a simple rectangle and tried right clicking then selecting “make element”, as described in the video, but that option wasn’t there in the menu that came up (“element” not even found in online help). Does anyone know of any good resources for learning the Mac version? Perhaps that site dedicated to Sketchup for woodworkers deals with this, have’t gotten around to really spending any time on there, but gonna try to find some Mac-specific resources.

    Reply
  4. Mark Johnson

    Nice intro article. Thank you for the links to help learn. I am very interested in the plug-in utilities. Where can I find them and especially where can I find the Cut List plug in?

    Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi, Mark. There is a button for “Extension Warehouse” near the right side of the standard default button bar on the Sketchup GUI. Click that button and search for “cutlist” and it should be the first item in your search results. Also, if you are interested in learning more about Sketchup, WWGOA recently added a new class on this subject, presented by our own Sketchup guru David Radtke. Worth a look: http://www.wwgoa.com/class/sketchup-fundamentals/

      Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi, Gregg. Please contact us at 1-855-253-0822; our Customer Service Team would be happy to assist you!

      Reply
    • Customer Service

      Hi, Christine. We have tested this successfully. We suggest trying a different browser, as this could be a browser issue. If you continue to experience issues with accessing this content, or if you have any other concerns, please contact us at 1-855-253-0822.

      Reply
      • Michael

        The link IS broken and has nothing to do with the type of browser used. Clicking the Fine Woodworking link it adds a ‘%20’ to the end of the web address and displays a Page Not Found Error.

        After clicking the link, delete the %20 in your browser’s address bar and press enter, it’ll take you to the proper Sketchup site.

        Reply
  5. Jorge

    Paul, I can definitely relate to the learning curve. I mainly design fishing lures with Sketchup, so I don’t normally get to play around with straight lines. That made things more interesting. I’m also a big science fiction fan, and decided to use the program to design some ships. In that case, I am again attracted more to curves than straight lines. The hardest project I’ve done so far was designing connectors to join the struts for a tetrahedral kite. The angles are odd due to the kite being built like a 3 sided pyramid-and the shapes are all curves. I definitely chose the hard way to go, but it was worth it!

    Reply
  6. Michael Taylor

    I got into SketchUp for various reasons. 1) I retired as a design engineer a few years ago and used a parametric modeling program called Solidworks. While I was actively working in the field, Solidworks allowed me to keep a copy of the software on my home computer. When I retired, I got to keep the software, but could not use it commercially. Well, the computer it was on has since retired also, so I downsized to a laptop. I am also an avid woodworker and I needed some way to draw my projects and thought SketchUp would be the ticket I was looking for. I like the program and though I would be able to fire it up and start drawing and designing right out of the box. No such luck! I find myself looking for commands and toolbars that once existed in Solidworks but aren’t here in SketchUp. It looks like I am going to have to retrain myself to SketchUp. I am also going to buy the full version when my free trial runs out.

    Reply
  7. rac4nd

    I have made the same mistake as others, thinking I can become a designer in one day and getting frustrated. I struggle with the 3D aspect. I now wonder what advantage it is over my 2D iPad drawings. Making components is an obvious advantage over repeatedly drawing the same thing. I love to learn new things, how can I learn to love Sketchup as a woodworker?

    Reply
  8. Dot

    I am a retired craft maker, I am self teaching or trying to learn how to do some basic wood crafting for gifts for family and friends. My husband can do some woodworking and he is now retiring.

    Reply