SketchUp Advantage: 3D Cutlists for Woodworking Projects

Drawing of Stickley 74 Bookrack from Popular Woodworking MagazineTraditional approaches in woodworking are generally reliable and efficient. If you know something has worked well for other woodworkers for a few hundreds years, you can likely assume that adopting it will be a good way to accomplish what you want to do. But the traditional approach isn’t always the best method forever, and when a new technology comes along such as SketchUp woodworking software, it can make the shortcomings of a traditional approach blatantly apparent.

This is the case with shop drawings, cutlists, and the adoption of SketchUp as a design and planning tool. Here is an example, using the Gustav Stickley No. 74 Book rack I built for the August 2012 issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine. The first image (at right) is the illustration as it appeared in print, and the second image (at left) is the cutlist published in the magazine. As a reader, you expect to see this form and we’ve never really questioned whether or not this is what we should print. We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way, as have other publications for the last century or so. But the reasons why these types of drawings were developed isn’t because they are the best way to communicate information, this tradition developed because this is a quick and easy way to create a technical drawing by hand and put it on the printed page.

Drag components into the model from the components windowWhen I built the piece, I worked from a SketchUp model. I did make some prints from the model to use as a reference in the shop, but what I find useful when building doesn’t look like a traditional drawing. After completing the model, I navigate to an empty area and drag parts of the model from the components window into the model space. This is a simple piece with few parts, but I use the same approach with more complex projects. When the parts are in the model, I move and rotate them so that they are in the same neighborhood. What I’m after is an arrangement where I can clearly see the size and shape of each part.

Use the dimension tool

Then I grab the dimension tool from the toolbar and put in the dimensions I want to see when I’m selecting material and fabricating the parts. Because of the way SketchUp works, this process is quite fast. The elapsed time between these two screen shots is about two minutes, far less time than it would take me to write a cutlist the traditional way. It is also far more useful because I can include additional information, such as the size and location of joints, and when I refer to it I don’t have to find a detail in the drawing then hunt it down in the cutlist. The other benefit is that if I have a carefully constructed model – I don’t need to do any calculating to arrive at sizes. All I need to do is click on the right points in the model with the dimension tool, and SketchUp lets me know what the real sizes are.

For me, this is the ultimate reason for using SketchUp, it speeds up the process and gets me out to the shop sooner, armed with reliable information so I don’t have to stop building to revisit the planning. In addition to an easy to use cutlist, I also generated full size patterns for the shape of the side pieces. As a bonus, these patterns also gave me the exact location and size of the through mortises.

– Robert W. Lang

We have lots of resources to help you learn how to use SketchUp to plan your next project, including free SketchUp tutorials, hundreds of free SketchUp models and my digital book with embedded videos “Woodworker’s Guide to SketchUp”.

17 thoughts on “SketchUp Advantage: 3D Cutlists for Woodworking Projects

  1. rnease

    I used to use Autocad, then downloaded the free version of Sketchup, and then watched a few of Mr. Lang’s video tips. Took his quickie seminar at WIA, bought the pro version of S.U., bought his digital book, and haven’t looked back since. I have designed many virtual projects, including cabinets, tool stands, workbench, kitchen remodel, new workshop, barn, tractor shed, and many small shop projects. I totally agree with Bob that it does not cut into my shop time, but makes my time in the shop way more productive, and helps my goofy brain avoid costly mistakes with expense hardwood. In addition to all that, there is a plugin called product connect, that has many free dynamic, accurately scaled components – from windows to kitchen appliances – that you can download directly into your drawing. My current project, the kitchen remodel mentioned above, is using all new appliances, and it makes it very easy to find the best relationship in a 3D virtual environment that is very easy to create. A few hours spent learning the program will save you many days of wasted time. Kudo’s to Mr. Lang, he and his book have completely changed my woodworking life. And no, I am no relation to him.

  2. shannonlove

    Another advantage of sketch up, at least for hobbyist, is that it lets you do “virtual” woodworking in times and places when you can’t get to the shop. It’s almost like “Woodworking – The Video Game!”

    There used to be a program for the Mac called “Design Intuition” that was a dedicated drawing/cad application for woodworking. You could input your existing board dimensions, the size of your saw kerf etc and actually replicate the production process. That really did feel like a woodworking sim.

    Sketchup is pretty close to that and besides the basic is free.

  3. DaveC3R

    Hi Robert… I have taken up woodworking as a hobby and have built a number of projects, several fairly complex. I also have been using SketchUp for the last few projects and think it’s a great tool. It does help with all the issues you addressed, but in addition I have found it useful to minimize waste in projects. I built a bathroom cabinet using some fairly expensive cherry faced plywood. I ‘built’ the cabinet in SketchUp then copied the individual large sheetgood parts onto a SketchUp 4×8 sheet of digital plywood. By moving the pieces around I could arrange them to make the best use of the sheet, and minimize waste.

  4. Tom8021

    Have you ever used the plugin Cutlist 4.1? I like using it not only to get a cutlist and overall board feet measurements, but it points out mistakes.

    Your way does give you the exact shape, but I just refer to the drawing. I have the free version.

  5. DaveC3R

    Hey Robert… Good points on SketchUp. I am a relatively new woodworker, and I’ve made several complex projects to date. On a recent bathroom cabinet I made I used SketchUp to ‘build’ the cabinet digitally. Since I purchased some cherry faced plywood to use in the cabinet I really wanted to make sure I got the most out of each sheet as it’s pretty expensive. I used SketchUp as you outline in your blog post, but I also used it to create a layout on the sheet goods to maximize the panel. As you note, taking the model apart (copy/moving parts) and applying the parts directly onto a digital 4×8 sheet of plywood, I could move things around and get the most efficient use of the panel. This works great and I ended up with large cutoffs for other projects. In the past I might have made my rough cuts larger than necessary and wasted more of the panel.

  6. ArtieMax

    Robert, 2 assumptions on my part. You have a computer at hand in your shop. 2nd, Pro lets you print much more readily than Free does. If you can print a full size plot, Pro must have a much more robust print algorithm than Free. A lot of us using Free have a terrible time just having it print on a single page, at any scale.
    Bruce

      1. John Hutchinson

        Hi Bob,
        I went back to read your earlier post, and your “Sometimes dragging your feet can be a good thing” comment is in itself worth the price of admission. Besides being a great piece of writing, it perfectly expresses the concept that 3D models of components are exponentially better than their 2D counterparts. Getting into CAD for its 2D features alone might be a questionable because it’s only a baby step beyond traditional pencil/t-square/triangle. It’s only when your parts begin to live in your computer as distinct entities that “never look back” kicks in.
        The only upgrade to your 2009 post that I’d like to suggest is your selection of spray adhesive. They could have fixed the Titanic if they had a can of 3M Super 77 on board. Krylon Easy-Tack Repositionable Adhesive has been my go-to buddy for the past few years.

  7. caebli

    Sketchup does has a learning curve, but with watching Bob Langs Sketchup videos it is greatly reduced. I have found sketchup to be a tremendous asset for drawing woodworking plans. Just like anything else, it takes a little practice to become proficient with it, but it is well worth it.

  8. Ken Thayer

    Bob, while I believe Sketchup is a great way to design projects, there is (at least for me) a steep learning curve. I can either sit at my computer for hours on end and learn that, or I can be out in my shop making sawdust! Guess which I prefer.

    Ken

    1. Robert W. Lang Post author

      With a systematic approach to learning how to use the software it doesn’t take that long to learn, and the benefits are worth it. It’s a lot like learning a language, if you just poke around randomly it takes forever to get the hang of it. If you have a guide to explain how things work and what to practice, it isn’t bad at all.

      I believe that SketchUp has made me a better woodworker. I catch things while working in SketchUp that have a significant cost in either wasted time or wasted materials if I just head to the shop. It’s nice to solve building problems when the materials don’t cost anything and an “undo” command is available.

      Planning with SketchUp doesn’t keep me out of the shop, it makes the time I spend in the shop more productive and enjoyable. I can concentrate on the enjoyable parts of building without worrying about whether or not things will fit because I’ve already made the project on the computer.

      Bob Lang

  9. Canuk Wood Chuck

    Bob I totally agree. I like this design method so much I made a web site using this technology. I love working off a 3d woodworking plan.
    Bruce (Wood Chuck)

  10. agardo

    There is one problem with Sketchup, it need a fairly powerful computer. If you have lot of round holes the program will forget them in part or as a hole if the computer is too old or weak. A hole in sketchup is not a circle but a series of lines thus using up memory and computing power.
    AutoCad is old, expensive and difficult but it works very well when you get used to it and it doesn’t need a new computer, it just goes a bit slower.

    1. rossm

      Actually, AutoCAD is new, expensive & difficult to learn and requires an extremely powerful late model PC, unless you happen to have bought a copy a long time ago. AutoCAD licenses are non-transferable, so you can’t buy an old version. The usual retal version, AutoCAD LT does not do 3D modelling – for that you need AutoCAD WS edition – about $6,000 or so. For that you could buy a very fancy & powerful new computer system with a large screen to run SketchUp & have $5,000 change to spend on wood & tools!

      1. John Hutchinson

        Full-blown AutoCAD is a strange animal. I’m running AutoCAD 2007 on a 7-year-old computer with an XP operating system. Works like a champ! Not much of a learning curve when you’re an architect and “practicing” eight hours a day for fifteen years. I noticed that there are a number of “free downloads” for AutoCAD 2007 on the Internet today. Probably not a good place to go. The AutoCAD police are constantly on patrol. And I guess they should be. When I was in Brazil a few years, they were selling it on street corners at $5 a pop.

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