Chris Schwarz's Blog

The Tool That Changed My Woodworking Life

The most significant woodworking tool that has been introduced in my lifetime doesn’t cut wood and it costs nothing. It is Google’s SketchUp program, a 3D computer-aided design program that runs on virtually any computer.

Before SketchUp (the BS era), I used a variety of CAD programs to create construction drawings. Because I use only Macintosh computers, the CAD programs available to me were expensive, clunky or just laughable.

But I muddled through and paid the man because CAD is an incredible woodworking tool when it comes to designing furniture from scratch.

When SketchUp was released, I deleted my old programs and have never looked back. SketchUp allows me to easily design things in three dimensions so I can really get a feel for what the piece will look like. It allows me to quickly try out dozens of different designs before I narrow the field to the point where I want to mock something up. And it allows me to be a more accurate and faster builder , I can get dimensions I need without using that pesky error-prone thing called math.

Plus, there is Google’s 3D Warehouse, a treasure trove of objects and designs you can use in your CAD drawings. Why re-draw a Veritas woodworking vise when someone has already modeled it for you?

I cut my teeth in SketchUp by taking the online tutorials; they’re great, but can only take you so far. My real education in SketchUp has come from Senior Editor Robert W. Lang, a long-time AutoCAD jockey who knows SketchUp inside and out.

In fact, SketchUp was the inspiration for our Woodworking in America conference next month on Furniture Construction & Design. The core of the conference will be Lang’s presentations on the computer program and a laboratory that will be staffed by SketchUp experts.

If you haven’t noticed, I’m not teaching anything at this conference. Why? Because I want to attend it, laptop in lap, and become a better designer, both in my hands and in my heart.

If you are on the fence about attending this conference, consider the following: When we proposed a conference on design, it was difficult to sell the idea to our superiors. The topic seemed too esoteric. But we pushed hard anyway because we think that design is an undiscovered country for most woodworkers.

I know this conference will be a success, but I don’t know if we’ll ever repeat this topic again. So this might be your best shot for finally mastering SketchUp and getting a boot-camp style education on furniture design from a group of A-list speakers. Personally, I can’t believer we’re going to have all these people in one place.

I know the conference is expensive. I know the economy is tough and lots of us are holding our breath right now. But if you can attend, I know you’ll be glad you did.

And you might get a chance to kick my hinder. More on that tomorrow.

- Christopher Schwarz

14 thoughts on “The Tool That Changed My Woodworking Life

  1. Jamey Amrine

    I can’t seem to get on board with SketchUp. I think it is great that so many people have found it to be a useful tool, but I am an engineer and use CAD for work all the time. Believe it or not, I actually like a break from that stuff when I get home. Also, in my job, just like in my woodworking, I do my best design work away from the computer. A notebook and pencil allow more creativity and enjoyment. I find on my of the pieces I make, I draw the exterior to determine proportions, but as I start to work, things get adjusted to account for available stock dimensions and appearance.

    I also really struggle with the fact that SketchUp is not parametric like the software I use frequently at work. I just can’t get my brain around that.

    Tablesaws and CAD are great tools for woodworking, but I enjoy the craft much more by ignoring the existence of both when I am at my bench.

    -Jamey in Ann Arbor

  2. Christopher Schwarz

    About an hour, total.

    The end vise was a component we had on hand from an earlier SketchUp drawing. The face vise I drew from scratch.

    I find it very quick. And I kinda stink at it.

    Chris

  3. Aarf

    I’ve spent a few hours with SketchUp 7.

    Can you give us a rough sense of how many eight-hour days it took you to make the model pictured at the top of this post? Are the dimensions to scale? You DID do that model entirely on your own, right? With SketchUp? No other CAD tools? No downloaded models?

    Because from what I’ve seen of SketchUp, it would be easier and quicker write the code to render that workbench in C# than try to do it in SketchUp. That’s C#. In C++, probably a toss-up.

  4. Mark Wells

    Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but I tried to use SketchUp several years ago, right before Google bought it. I followed the tutorials and found it WAY too difficult. I have relatives who are artists and they had the same reaction. I’m sure I could learn it, but I’d rather spend time in the shop.

    For my design work I use Visio. It’s not "real" CAD, but it has a simple drag-and-drop interface and will produce accurate 2D drawings with measurements. Visio is not free, but I need it for work, so that’s "free to me."

    I find it much easier to visualize a 3D object in 2D than actually go to the effort of drawing it in 3D. I have also used pencils and rulers. They still work as well. The only thing I don’t like about pencil drawings is that they are difficult of modify.

    Mark

  5. Jacques

    I’m a mechanical engineering draftsman. That is, a mechanical engineer, who does drafting full time. I do concept and detailed designs for mechanical systems on 3D CAD 8 hours a day.
    I also go visit the workshop quite often to see whether the artisans understand what I drew and are building the parts correctly.
    When I’m planning the next woodwork project, I put together a model and some drawings in half of my lunch hour (illegally using company equipment for private use, but hey).
    I don’t see how anyone can do woodwork without CAD, specifically without 3D CAD. The only time I don’t use it is when I do "craft" type woodwork, like carving salad spoons or the like.
    I struggle to use Skechup though. It’s too limited. But then, I get to use the really high-end 3D programs for free :-)

  6. Jeremy

    Interesting… the use of the word design and CAD interchangeably can be a serious problem. I have been a CAD jockey for some years and after designing many projects with CAD I have greatly improved my designs by … not using CAD.

    It is helpful to get measurements and such from a CAD model, and it shows light on a questionable joint areas long before you get there with tools, but I’ve found most everything I’ve designed strictly in CAD lacks the spark that comes from a pencil line or a free flowing hand. These can’t be duplicated as well in even high end CAD programs, well maybe PIXAR but that’s different.

    I realize your design seminar will be more than a CAD tutorial, but to quote Einstein "Not everything that counts can be measured. Not everything that can be measured counts." I think this applies to Design well, as CAD struggles with non linear. Of course maybe that’s why I’m more enamored by the more organic forms of Sauer & Steiner than the perfect Holtey lines, obviously no offense intended toward Mr. Holtey.

  7. Rob Cameron

    I few months ago I put together a site just for teaching Sketchup to woodworkers named, appropriately enough, Sketchup for Woodworkers!

    http://sketchupforwoodworkers.com

    Learning new software sucks, and learning 3D software REALLY sucks, so I put together some tutorials specifically for woodworking. Almost all the tutorials I found online were about modeling houses and other architecture work and I found it hard to equate those concepts to something like half-blind dovetails. I figured I could save lots of people the same heartache by just recording my screen and talking through the moves. I’ve got tons of positive feedback so it must have worked! :)

  8. Rick Yochim

    Chris,

    Heartily agree with you about the imperative to learn design. I worked wood for a long, long time making pieces that functioned ok and fit where we put them but didn’t give me any sense of satisfaction. Why? Because I didn’t understand what I was making. To invoke David Pye, my craftsmanship was disposing of what no design was proposing. I just made stuff up as I went along. But, no mas.

    Now I work at understanding the elements of good design, force my hand and eye to work together by practice drawing and study the history and aesthetic characteristics of the pieces I build. Lots of new tricks for this old dog, but worth the effort.

    I have downloaded SketchUp but haven’t explored it enough to make it sing and dance. Right now I’m doing it the Neanderthal way to get the basics down. All things in time.

    Wish I could go to Chicago, but I just can’t swing it financially (my problem, not yours). All the ingredients for success are there. It should be great.

    Rick

  9. Rick Yochim

    Chris,

    Heartily agree with you about the imperative to learn design. I worked wood for a long, long time making pieces that functioned ok and fit where we put them but didn’t give me any sense of satisfaction. Why? Because I didn’t understand what I was making. To invoke David Pye, my craftsmanship was disposing of what no design was proposing. I just made stuff up as I went along. But, no mas.

    Now I work at understanding the elements of good design, force my hand and eye to work together by practice drawing and study the history and aesthetic characteristics of the pieces I build. Lots of new tricks for this old dog, but worth the effort.

    I have downloaded SketchUp but haven’t explored it enough to make it sing and dance. Right now I’m doing it the Neanderthal way to get the basics down. All things in time.

    Wish I could go to Chicago, but I just can’t swing it financially (my problem, not yours). All the ingredients for success are there. It should be great.

    Rick

  10. B.L.Zeebub

    Dang, I wish I didn’t already have all of my time off scheduled this year or otherwise I’d be THERE! SketchUp is a great tool and I’d spend more time with it if I hadn’t already learned to adapt Adobe Illustrator for orthographic views years ago.

    The learning curve has always frustrated my efforts which always leads me back to Illustrator. I do love the SketchUp files and download them frequently telling myself I will dedicate the time needed… someday.

    always,
    J.C.

  11. Glenn Madsen

    SketchUp is really a neat tool. I took a class offered at the local Adult Ed, where the woodworking program is located, and enjoyed it immensely.

    What’s rather funny, or odd, really, is that the SketchUp class is taught by the same fellow that runs the advanced hand tool classes in the woodworking program. Windsor chairs, steam bending, hot hide glue and 64bit Vista don’t seem to go together well, but… Tim also is one of the lead fellows over on the FWW board.

    What caused me a challenge was that the free software cost me a monitor upgrade, and another 2GB of ram. And won’t run on my XP Pro laptop.

    It’s better than physical prototyping for some things, though. And much more portable. And easier to share the work.

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