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An Introduction to SketchUp for Finish Carpenters

It works the way a carpenter thinks.

If you are tired of working out trim details on a scrap of wood or making shop drawings with graph paper and a ruler, SketchUp is your answer. Unlike most computer-aided design programs you may have tried, SketchUp is very intuitive and works the way a carpenter thinks.

SketchUp has a simple set of tools that you can use to create anything from a rough mock-up to a very detailed drawing with 1/64″ precision. How much detail you want is up to you. The ability to convey your ideas to customers quickly and to produce working shop drawings is what SketchUp can do for you. Are you intrigued? What if I told you that it’s FREE!

It’s true. SketchUp is 3-D design software available from Google. It is currently available in two versions—SketchUp 7, which is absolutely free, and SketchUp 7 Pro, which is not. The free version of SketchUp has all the power of the Pro version with the following few exceptions.

SketchUp 7 Pro includes:

Layout – additional software that works with SketchUp and allows the user to import drawings from SketchUp to create various types of presentations. You can incorporate title blocks and use standard sheet sizes for printing.

Style Builder – additional software for creating custom drawing styles.

Additional Exporting Options - PDF, DWG, DXF, as well as various vector formats.

Creation of Dynamic Components – used to make components that are interactive, such as moving doors and drawers, and to make components that will rescale or replicate, such as fence pickets or floor tiles. These components will work in the free version, but can only be created in the Pro version.

SketchUp 7 Pro currently retails for $495. A student license is available for just $49 a year to anyone who is currently enrolled in an accredited school and has an .edu email address. The terms of a student license, however, forbid commercial use. Both versions can be downloaded from http://sketchup.google.com/download/.

Before you download the software and get to work, make sure your computer’s hardware is adequate. The hardware requirements to run this program should be “no sweat” for most new computers. This link should answer any questions you may have.

http://sketchup.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?answer=36208&cbid=-x534j6yf9529&src=cb&lev=topic

The one thing Google lists as “recommended,” that I feel is ESSENTIAL, is a three-button, scroll-wheel mouse. Without this very inexpensive add-on, I can promise you nothing but frustration. Navigating in a 3-D drawing is almost impossible without one.

Drawing your way:

Once you have installed SketchUp, you have the opportunity to customize it to the way you work. SketchUp is used by architects, engineers, and designers, as well as carpenters. Different units of measurements and levels of precision are available as preset templates for the type of work you do. The first screen you see after installation will look like this. Note that tutorials are available from this screen. They are excellent for the general user.The button labeled “Choose Template” will give you  an opportunity to select the type of drawings you plan to do and will  load SketchUp with those settings every time you launch it (circled in red on right).
The template that will probably be of the most use to a finish carpenter is the “Product Design and Woodworking – Inches” template (circled in red on right). It is a 3-D template with the units of measurement set to fractional inches. The template for metric units is also available just beneath it. This is a good place to start, and as you become more familiar with the program, any personal preferences you decide to change, such as unit precision, background color, styles, etc., can be saved as a new template with a unique name.

One thing you might want to consider changing right off the bat is the unit precision in this template. It is pre-set at 1/64″. For most work, I keep the precision at 1/16″. If I’m working with veneer core plywood, I will dial it down to 1/32″ precision to get more accurate shop drawings (I still take actual measurements in the shop before I cut anything!). It is also a good idea to check the box labeled “Enable Length Snapping.” These options can be selected from Windows>Model Info, under Units.

Once you have your new preference set, create a personal template by going to File>Save As Template.

 

Getting your tools in order:

 

These are not the only tools available—just the selected tools by Google for “Getting Started.” By going to View>Toolbars, you have the ability to turn on or off the toolbars you want available. The toolbar setup I prefer to have available looks like this.

This is only my preference and what you will see in the following video tutorials.  As you become more familiar with the program and all of its different tools, you may find that a different tool suite suits your work better.

Keyboard shortcuts are great timesavers for the most commonly used tools. Instead of moving your cursor back and forth from the drawing window each time you want to select a new tool, new tools can be automatically selected by pressing an assigned key on your keyboard. If you click on the “Tools” menu at the top of the screen, a menu with a list of frequently used tools will appear. To the right of the tool name will be the assigned keystroke. A list of all assigned shortcuts can be found under Windows>Preferences>Shortcuts. There you can change any shortcuts or create new ones.

SketchUp Quick Reference Card

Many of SketchUp’s tools also have multiple functions. By hitting a modifier key on the keyboard, the selected tool will perform a different task.

You are probably starting to worry that there is too much to remember. A great help is the quick reference card that Google has available for download at: http://sketchup.google.com/support/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=116693

I highly recommend printing a copy of this PDF to keep handy as you start to learn SketchUp. I even laminated mine!

Navigating in 3-D:

In order to draw in 3-D, you must first understand how to navigate through the three-dimensional world of Sketchup. There are three colored axes in a SketchUp model—red, green, and blue. The blue axis is your vertical “plumb line.” The red and green lines are both “level” and run at right angles. These axes all meet at the origin. Understanding this important concept is half the battle when it comes to drawing your masterpiece.

Although all of the navigation tools are available from the toolbar and through keyboard shortcuts, using your three-button scroll-wheel mouse is the only way to draw efficiently.

Zoom – By rolling the mouse wheel forward, you can zoom in for a closer look at the detail under your cursor. Roll the wheel backward to zoom out again.
Orbit – Pressing down on the scroll wheel will allow you to pivot your point of view. By holding down the scroll wheel and moving the mouse left and right and forward and backward, you can orbit around your drawing to change your perspective.
Pan – Holding down the shift key while “orbiting” with your mouse will allow you to slide your current view in any direction. This can be helpful for moving quickly to another part of your drawing.

Helpful hints:

  • When zooming in or out, place you cursor over a part of your drawing instead of the background. This will speed up the process since you are zooming from a specific point and not a point in space.
  • Use “Zoom Extents” on the Camera Toolbar to find yourself when you get lost in the details.
  • Don’t overlook the “Pan” tool. Sometimes it’s the fastest way to get to where you want to be.

Drawing 2-D shapes:

Unlike a house that is composed of thousands of different components, a SketchUp drawing is only made up of two things—edges and faces. An edge is really just a line. When you close a loop of at least three edges (in the same plane), a face will be automatically created. The face is like a skin connecting all the edges. You can think of it like the canvas an artist might stretch across a wooden frame, and like a canvas, those surfaces can be “painted” with colors and textures to give your model a more realistic look.

With the very simple set of drawing tools SketchUp provides, you can easily create complex shapes with precision. (Shortcut keys are in parentheses.)

Drawing Toolbar- Use the rectangle (R), line (L), circle (C), and arc (A) tools togetherto create new shapes.
Undo – Use this to back up through your previous operations.
Eraser (E) – Use this tool to erase unwanted edges.
Measurement Toolbar or MTB- Use the MTB, located in the bottom right corner of the screen, to give precisemeasurements to the lines and shapes you draw

Inferring – This is an internal part of SketchUp and is always available. It allows you to use points in your drawing as a reference when creating or moving new objects.

Helpful hints:

  • The perspective of your view tells SketchUp which plane you want to draw in. Using an elevation or the plan view is a quick way to give SketchUp the “hint.”
  • Use the inferred snapping points along an edge to quickly draw objects with precision.
  • When entering numbers in the MTB for a rectangle, the length along the red axis is entered first. If the rectangle isn’t aligned with the red axis, the blue length is entered first. There are exceptions to this rule that will be covered later.
  • To recreate or “heal” a face, redraw any of the face’s edges.

Drawing 3-D shapes:

The magical part of Sketchup begins when you start to extrude 3-D objects from the faces you have created. The intuitiveness of SketchUp’s patented “push/pull” technology not only makes it easy to learn but also fun to use.

Push/Pull (P) – Like its name implies, this tool allows you to push or pull on a selected face to add or subtract volume from an object.
Select Tool (Spacebar) – Use this to select objects for modification in your drawing.
Move (M) - Use this tool both to move and to copy selected objects.
Rotate (Q) – Use this tool to rotate a selected object around any axis you choose.
Follow Me - Use this tool to extrude shapes along a path, including around corners and curves.

Helpful hints:

  • Inferring to parts of your drawing while using the Push/Pull tool or the Move/Copy tool is a quick and accurate way to set dimensions.
  • Double-clicking a face with the Push/Pull tool will repeat the last push/pull operation.
  • Pre-selecting a path for Follow Me is faster and will often give better results.
  • Creating a “selection box” by drawing a box with the Select Tool from left to right will help you select objects quickly. This will select every edge and face that is completely bound by the box. A box drawn from right to left, on the other hand, will select everything in the box as well as any line and face the box crosses.
  • The Move Tool is in “copy mode” when a “+” appears next to the cursor icon. This is toggled on and off by pressing the Ctrl key (Use the Option key on a Mac).
  • To move objects in an axis direction, use the arrow keys to lock the movement of the Move Tool. Pressing one of these keys will toggle the lock on and off.

↑or ↓ for the blue axis (remember: the blue axis runs up and down)

→ for the red axis (remember: right for red)

← for the green axis (remember: it’s the only one left!)

Putting it all together:

With the basics under your belt, it is time to apply them to a “real world” project. Using the previous tools and techniques, some tools from the Construction Toolbar, and an introduction to “Groups” and “Components,” we will put together a simple bookcase.

Components (G) – An entity of edges and faces (or other components) that are separated from other objects in the drawing. All instances of a Component are automatically updated by editing a single copy.
Groups – An entity of edges, faces, or components that are separated from other objects in the drawing.
Tape Measure (T) – Use this tool to create guidelines and points to help layout and place desired objects.
Dimension – Use this tool to display dimensions in your drawing.

Helpful hints:

  • When creating a component, make sure the box labeled “Replace selection with component” is checked.
  • When drawing rectangles connected to endpoints or on the face of another object, the dimension entries in the MTB will list the longest dimension first.
  • Use Flip along from the context menu to create mirrored copies of objects.
  • Use the Outliner to hide and unhide groups and components in your drawing to view details.
  • When using Follow Me on a group or component, make sure to draw the path within the group/component by double clicking on the entity to edit it.

When you are finished with your drawing, you can save it by going to the File menu and choosing Save. You can choose to share your drawing in several ways. You can print the current view in the drawing window by selecting the Print option from the File menu, or you can create a JPEG file from the File>Export> 2D Graphic option. The JPEG file that is created can be printed or sent in an e-mail. You can share the 3-D version of your drawing by sending the saved SKP file to anyone who has SketchUp on his or her computer. Clients can easily view your designs in 3-D with the SketchUp viewer available from Google’s SketchUp website. This software only allows users to view the drawing, they cannot edit it! http://sketchup.google.com/download/gsuviewer.html

Honestly, this article has only scratched the surface of what SketchUp can do. There are many other tools available and even more ways to use the tools that I have introduced. I hope I have been able to dispel the myth that all computer-aided design software is complicated and has a steep learning curve. In future articles, I hope to share some more advanced techniques, which will help you make your drawing more efficient.   Learning to make your own personal component library, and using the “Paint Bucket” tool to give your drawings a more realistic look, will take your drawings to the “next level.” It’s easier than you think.

I truly hope this brief introduction to SketchUp has made you consider using it in your work. I promise it will save you time, impress your customers, and most importantly, make you even more successful in your career.

Additional resources:

 

Books:

 

Google SketchUp 7 for Dummies by Aidan Chopra:

An excellent book that I always keep nearby for reference. Whenever I go to look up a question I have, I find myself engrossed and come away learning something I hadn’t even planned on.

On the Web:

http://www.aidanchopra.com/ — The companion website to Google SketchUp 7 for Dummies. Includes video tutorials that follow the book, chapter by chapter.

http://sketchup.google.com/training/videos.html — Straight from the source. Includes great video tutorials for the beginner through advanced user.

http://www.go-2-school.com/ — The definitive website for SketchUp education. Offers training material for purchase, as well as a blog and free “webisodes” of their fantastic webcast, “The SketchUp Show.”

http://finewoodworking.taunton.com/blog/design-click-build — A blog from Fine Woodworking magazine dedicated to the use of SketchUp for the woodworker. Tends to cover more advanced techniques, and I am always amazed by their work.

http://garymkatz.com/ — A great website for the finish carpenter and where I was first introduced to SketchUp.  There are two SketchUp tutorials located on the Charts & Drawings page that I highly recommend.

 

http://www.youtube.com/user/toddmurdoc — My YouTube channel. A collection of short videos, covering some timesaving techniques for the carpenter who uses SketchUp.

Read this article in its original format (with more images) at TiC Issue 4!

AUTHOR BIO

Todd is a fourth-generation carpenter/woodworker who is currently employed as a corporate pilot. His schedule alternates between a week “on the road,” flying all over North America and the Caribbean, and a week at home in Northern Virginia.Todd Murdoc

While at home he enjoys spending time with his wife Jennifer and their three children.  The time at home also allows him to “escape” to his shop where he builds custom furniture and cabinets. Most of his work is for pleasure these days, doing only one or two paying jobs a year.

He began learning SketchUp as a way to kill time on layovers and quickly discovered he could use it to continue progress on projects back home. Having a detailed model completed ahead of time also makes his limited time in the shop more efficient, since all the details have already been worked out in a “virtual” prototype.

During college, while working for a local contractor, Todd vividly remembers shingling a roof one VERY hot summer day. He paused for a moment to watch a jet flying high over head and thought to himself, “Boy, I wish I were up there flying.” Ironically, he now finds himself occasionally looking out the cockpit window from 35,000 feet and thinking, “I wish I were down there making sawdust.”

Comments/Discussion

7 Responses to “An Introduction to SketchUp for Finish Carpenters”

    • Todd Murdock

      Craig,

      Thanks, I’m glad you liked the article!

      SketchUp works great for decks. It is a great design and problem solving tool for just about anything. That being said, it is not going to do all the work for you like a dedicated deck design program would. The good news is you can save components you have drawn once and use them to assemble future deck drawings. Google also has an ever-expanding “3-D warehouse” of free components you can download into your drawings.

      There is a neat feature called “photo-match” that will allow you to incorporate your drawing into a photo of the job site. And, if you decide to buy a pro license, you can use your drawings in LayOut to put together scale drawings for plan submission.

      Todd

      [img]http://www.thisiscarpentry.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/deck[photomatch]-2.jpg[/img]
      [img]http://www.thisiscarpentry.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/Deck[LayOut]-2.jpg[/img]

      Reply
  1. Mike Vega

    Great tutorial. I love Sketchup. I have been playing with it since V6 but struggle with using it for detailed projects. I supposed its the level of expertise on my part that sends me back to paper drawing. I get frustrated and spend more time trying to figure out how to do something. I am still confused with components, groups and find my drawings distorted when I get into the 3D views.
    Thank You for the tutorial. I will strive to master this program. I will check out the other links as well.

    Mike

    Reply
    • Todd Murdock

      Mike,

      Thanks, and please don’t give up! Creating and using components plays a big part in making SketchUp useful and efficient. I’m actually working on an article devoted specifically to making and using components, and component libraries!

      I’m curious about the distortion you mentioned when moving into 3-D. My first thought is that your “Camera” setting is set to “Parallel Projection.” That setting is normally used for printing 2-D drawings to scale and it can make perspective views look awkward. Click on the Camera menu, and make sure “Perspective” is selected (see attached jpeg). If that’s not the problem, feel free to post a screenshot, or your skp file here. I would be more than happy to help you get to the bottom of it!

      Todd

      Reply
  2. Barry

    Todd,

    As one who frequently looks up, what was your path to piloting?

    Barry

    Reply
    • Todd Murdock

      Barry,

      I was fortunate to have made my decision to pursue aviation as a career early in life. I attended Southern Illinois University, and graduated with a degree in aviation management with a minor in flight. I was also fortunate to have found a very demanding, “old school,” mentor that taught me to be an aviator, not just a pilot–A true master of the ‘craft.’ He was a passionate instructor that also instilled the joy of teaching in me.

      Just like carpentry, it’s only after your education/apprenticeship ends (when you think you already know everything) that the REAL learning begins. I spent the next several years as an instructor building hours, and then several thousand flight hours working as a pilot for a commuter airline. It took a while, but I was finally able to land a job that had the potential to eventually pay the bills.

      It’s not uncommon nowadays for me to fly with people who have become pilots as a second career. It’s a tough road, but the view out the window is always spectacular!

      Good luck,

      Todd

      Reply

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