A few years ago, author Bill Hylton wrote a review of CAD (computer assisted drawing) software programs for the Journal. His top choice among the free options was SketchUp by Google. “Free” sounds like a good option in today’s economy, so editor-in-chief Rob Johnstone thought we should take another look at the program — this time from an art director’s perspective.
I design and draw woodworking projects as part of my daily job, so I had a pretty good idea of what a good program might include. My overall impressions? If you like designing your own projects, this can be a very fun and useful tool — as long as you don’t mind putting in some time to climb the learning curve, and acquiring a few gray hairs in the process.
It’s pretty obvious that, before you can actually design anything in SketchUp, you have to learn how to draw and navigate within the program first. Luckily, SketchUp has done a good job with their tutorial information.
Downloading SketchUp (http://sketchup.google.com) is free, and it’s easy. So far, so good. You will also find video tutorials at the startup of the program or on YouTube. I found watching them on YouTube, where I could stop the video and practice the skill that had just been demonstrated, to be extremely useful.
I also found it helpful to keep the “instructor” window open as I began using SketchUp. It helped as I got used to the program and began the process of learning to “think” the way it does.
As someone who has been drawing woodworking projects for over 20 years, I like to think I know what I’m doing — but, in SketchUp, methods that seem to be the obvious way to draw don’t always work. For example, to create a cube, you start with a 2D flat surface in perspective — the program’s default setting — then, with the patented Push/Pull tool, you extrude the flat surface into a three-dimensional form, as I’ve shown in the sequence of drawings at right. It’s a simple matter of clicking to start extruding, moving your mouse, and clicking again to stop. You can Push/Pull a rectangle into a box or even draw the outline of a staircase and Push/Pull it into 3D. In essence, the main reason that SketchUp is known for being easy to use is the patented Push/Pull feature.
Free Version Limitations
Once you have learned to draw and design your project, you’ll find that there are some drawbacks to the free version: some things, you just can’t do without paying for the upgrade. For instance, the graphics don’t export very well into other programs, and printouts appear rough.
Also — and this was a big drawback for me — there is no way to make a material list of the parts.
Test Project (Canisters)
To give the free version of SketchUp a good test, I used it to redraw a project we featured a few years back in Woodworker’s Journal — our Classic Kitchen Canisters. That project originally started out with a “napkin sketch” from an editor, went through a professionally rendered (by me) pen and ink artist’s sketch, got tweaked a little bit, and then had the final version drawn in Adobe Illustrator (me, again) and the color shadings painted by hand (yep, yours truly).
This time around, because of all the work I’d done earlier, I didn’t need to redesign the project and was able to draw parts right away.
This project provided a good demonstration of the power of CAD programs. For instance, our canisters have eight sides, but I drew one side and used its duplicating features to create the other seven sides. If I wanted to change the dimensions of the side, making the change on one side would automatically apply it to the other seven, too. This can be achieved by adding one measurement for the dimension you want to change.
So, what would I use SketchUp for? Well, it does have some very handy features for project design. And I have to say that it can be very helpful if your drawing skills are not that advanced. It would also work well for anything from kitchen remodels to laying out a deck or fence project right up to adding a room to your home.