Solve Design Problems With SketchUp

ChaiFrameIn between an idea and an object is the process of design. You may not like the process, but it can’t be avoided. You need to decide how big, what shape, what material, what color and what level of craftsmanship to work to. Some people approach the process by trying to ignore it (“I just go out to the shop and let the wood tell me what it wants to be”) while others wallow in the mud of the process and drag it out as long as they can (“Of course the typical project will take 60-70 pages of detailed drawings, not to mention the photo-realistic renderings”). One thing that makes the process a challenge is going from two dimensions on a napkin sketch to three dimensions in wood. It’s easy to make something look good on paper that just doesn’t work in real life, or works but doesn’t reach it’s full potential. If you do your design work with physical stuff, either working on the real thing or making models and mock-ups, you waste a lot of time and material.

What would be helpful in this situation would be a tool that makes it possible to quickly compare this to that, as we see it in real life. Good design is born of curiosity and becomes mature by refining the answers to “what if” questions. The first answer might be good, but the second answer (after observing the results of answer #1) will be better. It’s a progression of problem solving and if there is any complexity involved we often need to see what happens if we do this before we can decide how to do that. Here’s a real-life example of how I use SketchUp to resolve design issues before I start making. This time around we decided to create and finish this carving before deciding how to frame it. Some discussion and quick sketching produced an idea worth pursuing. The question to answer was “will this sketch work in real life?” To answer that question in the shop would take time and materials. The shop is a risky place to make design decisions.

SKP_DES_1The first step was to take a photo of the finished carving. That photo was imported into SketchUp then scaled to the actual width and height. That moves things away from theory and closer to reality. I modeled parts based on the pencil sketch next to the imported image. I could see what the geometry of the frame looked like in relation to the art, and as a bonus  (because I was modeling at the real size of the carving) I can extract the exact size of the  parts from the model at the end. This feature of SketchUp  combines the artistic part of the design process with the engineering part; how big to make the pieces when I get to the shop. I don’t have to worry about numbers because the program is keeping track of all that for me.

SKP_DES_2As a design evolves, more “what if” questions arise. What if this piece is thinner, and that part is thicker? What if we stretch it here, and pinch it there? If you’re in the shop and actually making stuff (even if you’re prototyping out of cardboard of foam), or working on paper, there is a strong temptation to ignore those questions. Answering them is going to involve repeating most, if not all of what you did the first time.

The beauty of doing this work in SketchUp is the ability to make as many copies as you want or need. All it takes is a few mouse clicks; no wasted material and just a few moments of time generate another iteration. The copy can be modified in a fraction of the time it takes to build from scratch and compared side-by side with the original. Exploring “what if” questions leads to a better end product.

SKP_DES_5It also helps to communicate during the process. In this case my wife is an integral part of this project. The concept and painting are hers, I did the carving and I’ll build the frame. It’s a lot easier to explore the options when you can see the results in a few seconds. From the original concept we wondered if thinner rails at the top and bottom would look better. Click, click, click and yes they do. She wondered if less taper from top to bottom on the stiles would be an improvement. I didn’t think so, but one more copy and a few more clicks and I could see that she was right. I wondered if there should be some shape to the horizontal rails. Well, let’s just see. What if the frame were slightly darker? No problem, just edit the material.

I’ve been designing and making stuff for a long time, and the process described here was ridiculously quick compared to the way we used to do things. It’s a lot more fun to head to the shop confident that the project will look the way we want to to. Things may still change and evolve as the work goes on, but I won’t be performing major surgery towards the end due to either of us saying “I didn’t realize it would look like that”. We know that it will look like this:


Bob Lang

Learning how to use SketchUp is a lot like learning a second language. If you want to make your design, planning and problem-solving process efficient and painless, the time you spend learning SketchUp will be time well spent. I can help, either with my SketchUp Books, or a SketchUp class.

Click Here for more information about a SketchUp Class in Cincinnati on October 10-11, 2015


What do you think?