Learning a new skill is a lot easier if you think of it as a hobby. Though I wasn’t one of the earliest adapters, I started using SketchUp, a drafting program you can download for free, a few years back. (A pro version can be purchased as well, but the free version does most anything a woodworker needs.) I’d always wanted to learn AutoCad, but I knew it was a major investment of time that I simply didn’t have–or at least didn’t want to spend at a computer. But I suspected that selling furniture would get a lot easier if I could quickly draw out an idea, draft a few different versions, and zip it off to clients. I liked to give people options, but redrawing everything quickly and by hand was a skill I’ve never possessed. Not to mention, my hand drawings have never been the kinds of things you’d want to hang on the wall: my brain can envision what my hand tries to draw, but I always feared clients left meetings thinking, “Boy, I hope he builds better than he draws.”
With that in mind, I decided to make Sketchup a hobby. Instead of letting it bite into an already full workday, I started messing with it for a little while almost every night–when I’d normally read a book I drew little boxes on the screen and tried to put them together. At that time there was no decent SketchUp instruction catered to furniture makers, so I figured out a great deal just by clicking around and discovering things accidentally. That said, after you figure out a few key tools, it’s pretty intuitive. Before long I was drawing boxes, changing their shape, adding legs and even a piece of molding here or there. Somewhere along the way I bought one of those books with a needlessly insulting title, SketchUp for Stupid People, or something like that, but, again, it was more instructive for engineers than furniture makers. In the end, I fought the good fight trying to learn SketchUp in my spare time and made it a point to put the computer away before I got too frustrated. Before long I was sending clients computer drawings. I don’t know if they were impressed, but I sure was.
Over time, however, something that I didn’t expect to happen at all happened somewhat naturally. My designs were getting (hopefully better but definitely) faster. In the time it would take me to draw two different versions of a similar idea by hand, I could make small tweaks and compare dozens of designs side-by-side on the screen. I was largely self-taught and fairly proud.
Then I started working here at the magazine. I’d already become proficient creating drawings of things that are rectilinear, but I was never great with curves. And I could make the outside of a piece of furniture look decent, which was all I’d ever needed.
At the magazine, however, the editors do most of the drawings–those that appear in the magazine as well as more extensive SketchUp models online. Prior to working here, I had no reason to learn much more than I knew, but the magazine demands more. So I’m slowly becoming more proficient and learning new skills, like creating different components so that, for instance, the legs on a piece of furniture can be removed and turned to expose the joinery. I’m still learning.
For now our Executive Editor Bob Lang is giving me large amounts of help. Most helpful is when he simply says, “Yeah, I get it. I can finish it up from here.” But I know that won’t last long. Luckily, he not only teaches classes on the subject but has also written books and shot video that teaches furniture makers how to use SketchUp . Again, I’m learning it slowly, under Bob’s tutelage. He’s got a couple different titles available, and while they are all extremely helpful to me now, I can’t tell you how much time they would have saved me if they existed when I started with SketchUp a few years ago. Right now I’m working through both his SketchUp for Woodworkers DVDs, and a his Woodworker’s Guide to SketchUp.
Just as there’s no single “best way” to cut a tenon or sharpen a handplane, no particular drafting technique or program will fit all your needs all of the time. I still fill the margins of my notebook with quick sketches of chairs and cabinets. And in terms of rattling loose a new idea, I think I’ll always favor a pencil and a large, unlined sheet of paper. But once I’ve honed in on a basic idea, I now switch over to SketchUp. To me, it’s invaluable for quickly tweaking overall proportions: instead of starting from scratch or laying tracing paper over an earlier drawing, I simply click the top or side of a piece and give it a pull with my mouse. I can save it as a different version and then compare it to my original, or just undo the changes and try again. And I’m now experimenting and learning more about the program again. Like building furniture, you can take SketchUp as casually or as seriously as you like. . . just make sure you keep enjoying it along the way.