Woodworking With SketchUp: Start at the End

Even if you’re experienced with using a computer, learning a new software program presents two problems. The first is learning how to get around the program; the second is learning how to make the program do what you want it to do. We’re excited about what SketchUp can do to make woodworking easier and better, and I’ve been working on developing methods to help folks learn it. I’ve come to realize that instead of starting at the beginning by making simple models, you can dramatically shorten the learning curve by starting at the end.

The real value of SketchUp is the amount of information within the model, and the ease with which you can retrieve it. Even if you never draw a line with SketchUp, you can better understand projects before you head to the shop. If you start with an existing model, you can learn how to orbit, zoom and pan without the pressure of creating something. You can learn how to move components of a project around, get a better look, and take them apart without the fear of messing something up. The image above is Roy Underhill’s Tool Chest from our June 2009 issue.  It’s a good example because some of the joinery is tricky, and that can be hard to describe with printed words and pictures. But it is easy to understand if you take it apart and look at it from any angle or distance you want.

To get started, you need to download and install SketchUp on your computer. The software is free from Google, and information about getting it can be found on the Popular Woodworking SketchUp Page. There, you can also find most of the models we have made available (also absolutely free). You’ll find all of our models on our 3D Warehouse collection, accessible through our SketchUp page. Browse the collection and download something you’re interested in.

Spend some time just looking at the model from different points of view, using the Orbit, Zoom and Pan tools. There’s a lot of help available within the program, and one of the best helpers is the Instructor window. You can find it under the Windows menu in the program; when you have it open, it will show you the basic moves of each of the available tools. Click on a tool and the Instructor window will tell you how to use it.  When you’re able to move around the model without getting lost or bumping into things, start using the Move tool to take the model apart. In the image above, I clicked on the top of the chest and moved it vertically. Notice that the top moves as one piece and the entire top is highlighted in blue.

That lets you know that SketchUp thinks of the top as a single unit , a component. If you click to highlight it, right click, then select Explode from the pop up menu, you’ll be able to move the individual parts around. All of the parts of the model can be found in the Components window. A good SketchUp model is organized this way. When you draw things in SketchUp you draw lines and connected lines will form faces. When you have enough lines and faces for something to look like a piece of wood, make it into a component and it will behave like a piece of wood. Here we have a good look at how the joints of the frame work with each other and with the panel.


Down at the base of the tool chest we can see what St. Roy was talking about in the article. Again, all I did was orbit and zoom to the area I wanted to look at. Then, using the Move tool, I disassembled the base. Putting it back together will give me a good idea of the sequence of moves to make in the shop when working on the real thing.

When I was a kid, I learned a lot about how things work by taking them apart. And unlike the telephone in the kitchen that always sounded tinny after I put it back together, you can take things apart in SketchUp fearlessly. If you mess things up you won’t have to run away from home; you can download a fresh version of the model. And in the process, you’ll learn a lot about the program before you start to draw.

– Robert W. Lang

p.s. I’ll be teaching several SketchUp classes, and we’ll have a “drop-in” clinic available for additional hands-on training, at the Woodworking in America: Furniture Construction and Design conference, August 14-16 in St. Charles, Ill. There’s still time to register.

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2 thoughts on “Woodworking With SketchUp: Start at the End

  1. Bob Lang

    Well Nick, that does work, but I think with a nested component like this you’re better off exploding than editing. Especially if you’re exploring an existing model. If you edit, you change the component every where it occurs, including the instance that is stored in the components window. There isn’t an easy way back from there. If you explode it to move the parts you still have a copy available in the components window. You can also select the pieces (as long as they are components this is easy) and redefine the nested component.

    That’s how I do it anyway,

    Bob Lang

  2. Nick Webb

    Rather than exploding components to get at their contents, I woudl suggest that you drill down by selecting "Edit Component" from the context menu. Double clicking the component has the same effect. That way the original model is unchanged.

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