Sunday, December 1, 2013

Review: Fine Woodworking SketchUp Tutorials

I first tried to use SketchUp several years ago. I could see that it would be a very useful tool, but I never got the hang of the user interface. It just seemed out of control.

When I got an email last month about holiday discounts at Taunton Press showing a book on SketchUp, I decided to take a look. I found two eBooks and a video, all instantly downloadable. I couldn't choose, so I bought all three; after all, the price was right, and I could get instant gratification. Having gone through them, I can tell you unequivocally it was money well spent.

The two eBooks are by Tim KillenSketchUp Guide For Woodworkers and the follow-on SketchUp Guide For Woodworkers: Traditional Cabinets. The video is by David Richards: Google SketchUp Guide For Woodworkers - The Basics (note that Trimble Navigation bought SketchUp from Google in 2012).

As I started going through Killen's first book, I realized that I recognized the logo on his drawings. It was his excellent drawings of Mickey Callahan's design that I had used to build my Queen Anne foot stool! Turns out he's a fellow member of the Society of American Period Furniture Makers and is passionate about reproducing period furniture.

Killen's first book, 145 pages, consists of 16 chapters covering SketchUp tools and techniques, from basic navigation to creating original drawings to making drawings from imported photos. He uses a variety of different furniture projects for examples, including simple cabinets and tables and a Windsor chair. It's copiously illustrated with step-by-step diagrams and is a fabulous example of written instruction.

His second book, 197 pages, consists of 7 chapters focusing on using SketchUp for cabinetmaking. It includes some review of basic usage, then covers three cabinet projects in different traditional styles down to the last detail. One of them shows how to work from scanned images. He also uses several other projects as examples. Like the first, it's packed with diagrams. Both books include information on creating a set of shop drawings and templates.

An interesting feature, taking advantage of the electronic format, is that the second book has several videos embedded in the PDF. So you can watch a video and see SketchUp in action, then read about the process in detail. The combination of video and text makes it suited to all types of learning styles, whether you prefer to read it or watch it.

Richards' video, 67 minutes, consists of 5 episodes that show basic navigation and usage, then go through the complete process for a hanging cabinet design. The download includes a PDF containing the complete transcript so you can jump around to find things easily.

What's nice about all of these is that they narrow the focus of SketchUp usage down to woodworking. It's a very powerful design and drawing program, applicable to a broad range of creative disciplines, but without some guidance, it's difficult to get started and use it properly. These do the trick.

I would be hard-pressed to pick just one of them. Both authors do an excellent job. There's plenty of overlap, but I'm a big fan of seeing different approaches to the same task. Each will contribute unique insights, and that's true here. Killen's second book is the most comprehensive, so perhaps that would be the best choice if you could only have one. But really, the cost is very modest, it's worth getting all three.

Working With SketchUp

Now that I know how to use it, I have to say that SketchUp is an absolute tour-de-force of software. The problem before was that I didn't understand how to operate its user interface. It was like I was trying to steer a car by using the pedals.

The zoom, pan, and orbit tools are critical to operating SketchUp, and those are the things I didn't understand before.

What's fascinating about SketchUp is that it truly is intuitive to use. And by intuitive I mean that when you use one of its tools and click on something, it understands what you want to do. No "you meant this and it did that" fussing around. Its drawing paradigm is to form faces from lines, rectangles, and circles, and then with the amazing push/pull tool, extrude those faces into the third dimension.

Connecting lines and arcs is very natural to form more complex shapes. Cleaning up lines and faces with the eraser tool is simple. Copying and duplicating bits of shapes is easy. It just works. It's very intelligent about selecting what you click on. Every intersection forms a new selectable segment.

The other thing that's absolutely fascinating is that you build up a drawing from components almost exactly the way you make the real thing. You form a squared-up piece, cut dovetails in it by drawing outlines and using the push/pull tool to push out the waste, form mortises and tenons by drawing outlines and pushing in or pulling out shapes.

One big difference from working the real wood is that you form parts in place, overlapped at the joints, then go into x-ray view to form the joinery and transfer the lines to the matching piece. The ability to copy components also means that duplicate parts can be formed instantly. Any change you make to one copy is reflected in all the copies.

The ability to compose alternate scenes showing different views and details is a huge benefit. Once you've drawn an initial perspective view, it's easy to add exploded and orthographic views. You can add any number of detail views with dimensions and annotations.

My First SketchUp Project

This all turned out to be timely because I had recently drawn up a project for a class I'll be teaching next year. Until now I've been focusing on skills-based classes; this will be my first project-based class.

The project is a simple Shaker-style step stool incorporating both dovetail and wedged mortise and tenon joints. While that may not be strictly Shaker style, it allows me to cover more joinery skills. Killen's first book also includes a version of a Shaker step stool.

I originally did a freehand drawing of what I had pictured in my mind. There I focused more on general shape and not on specific dimensions. Then I drew up a measured drawing with good old fashioned drafting tools on a drawing board and colored it in with a pencil.

I would have left it at that point had I not seen these SketchUp resources. I downloaded the free version of SketchUp Make and set it up according to Killen's specifications (that's another major hurdle to overcome, because there are a lot of settings that you can get lost in). After going through the exercises in his first book, I was anxious to try it out, so the stool was a perfect opportunity.

My progression of drawings is below. I was quite happy with the results. I was able to do it reasonably quickly for my first attempt as I got used to controlling SketchUp, very little struggling involved. The drawing process flowed very naturally using what I had just learned.

My initial freehand sketch to capture the concept.

Hand-drafted isometric drawing with dimensions.

SketchUp perspective view.

Exploded view.

Orthographic view with dimensions.

If you'd like to learn how to use this powerful tool, I highly recommend these resources. There are others available as well, including free ones. It's a worthwhile investment of your time.


  1. Nicely done! Only critique I have is that the through-tenon wedges are oriented so that they'd split the top if you hammered them too hard.

  2. Thanks! Yeah, I knew the grain was poorly oriented. I debated running the wedges the other way, but I prefer them across the width of the tenon, since the mortise ends will be flared so that the wedges turn the tenons into a dovetail shape, like a fox-wedged tenon. That reduces some of the splitting risk as long as the wedges aren't too aggressive.

    On the other hand, there's no reason they couldn't be wedged the other way, flaring the mortises along the other axis. However, since this will be in pine and the mortises are fairly close to the end, there's actually the risk that wedging action in that orientation could pop the mortise sides out the end grain.

    For the class, I was thinking it would be good to do a destructive test to show how this orientation can split the top. Find the limits of your materials!