Why Every Woodworker Needs to Know SketchUp

Learn SketchUp from Bob LangI’ve been making stuff from wood for more than 40 years and I do better work now than I used to. (If you’re curious about my woodworking, you can find photos going way back at this link.) I’m not one of those woodworkers who just goes out in the shop and starts putting things together. Folks who do that often claim that they’re creative, but experience tells me otherwise.

To do decent work in the shop, I need to concentrate on what’s on the bench. The shop is the worst possible place to make design decisions, resolve engineering questions, or even do simple math. If you start with the attitude of “I’ll figure that out when the time comes” you set yourself up to produce less than your best while you waste precious time and materials. If you go in the shop with a clear and detailed plan, you can work confidently, and that confidence is what you need to grow your skills.

At left is an image from my SketchUp model of a project that I hope to be building soon. Like a lot of my work, it is a reproduction of a Gus Stickley design from the early 20th century. When I build it, the task will be to cut to the lines. The problem to be solved before building is where to make the lines. One hundred years ago, 3D modeling software didn’t exist. Where to put the lines can be resolved with a pencil at the drafting board, or at the workbench. Geometry hasn’t changed, but SketchUp allows me to solve the problem far faster than the older methods, with greater accuracy. It might look like I did a lot of work, but most of what you see is rotated copies and pieces made to fit between existing pieces. I only needed to model one angled leg, and one of each of the stretchers. Because I used components, if I spot an error or want to make a change, editing one part will automagically change all the other like parts.

Before you solve how all the parts fit together, you need to determine the overall size of what you want to make, and most likely you’ll need to involve someone else in the decision. Again, this is something that can be done with pencil and paper, but in SketchUp it is quick and easy to create an initial design then make copies to explore variations. At the computer it’s a couple of clicks to make a copy, and a few more to see what things look like from any angle. On paper, each variation means starting a new drawing (that will only show one point of view). If you really need to sell the job, you can try out different materials, show the model of the furniture in a model of the room, and export images to send to your client by e-mail. When you have the design pinned down, you have the foundation to create a detailed model with all the bits and pieces.

Because all of the bits and pieces of a SketchUp model are distinct entities in the file, your computer keeps track of the size of each one. When you’re happy with the design, it’s a simple matter to generate a list of all the parts, along with the exact size.

I expected those benefits when I first started to use SketchUp. There are several more that I didn’t expect. One of those is how best to deliver information that will be useful at the bench. I was trained to work with conventional 2D drawings, elevations, plans and sections. Those became the convention because they can be drawn in a reasonable amount of time. In SketchUp we can take a model apart and look at it from any point of view.

The image at left is for a class I will be teaching in a couple of weeks. It’s a complicated piece, but you can clearly see that it can be broken down into a few subassemblies, and how those subassemblies will go together at the end. My students get a series of drawings before class so they know what to expect, and what sequence to follow. If I had to draw that by hand, I wouldn’t have enough time to make it worthwhile. With SketchUp it didn’t take long at all.

Making something for the first time is challenging. Making the second something is far easier. The best thing about SketchUp is that the process of modeling is essentially the same as the process of building. When I get to the shop to really build something I’ve modeled in SketchUp, it’s like I’ve already made one. I know where the tricky parts will be, I know what goes where, and which process comes first. I almost always find something in making the model that would be a costly mistake in the shop. I’m a better builder and I’m more efficient.

If you’re a woodworker who wants to add this incredibly valuable design, planning, problem-solving and presentation tool, you will need to invest some time in learning how to use SketchUp. If your time is valuable to you, I can teach you what you need to know through my PDF book (with embedded videos) “New Woodworker’s Guide to SketchUp” .

I you’re on a budget, or not quite convinced I’m the guy to teach you, here is a link to a bunch of free SketchUp tutorials.

I also teach live classes a few times a year. Click here for information about SketchUp Classes.

If you’d like to talk about me teaching a class for your group, or in your area, click on my signature below to send me an e-mail.

— Bob Lang



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