Staying afloat: a quick SketchUp boat rack

If you’ve followed my SketchUp career, you know that I’ve used SketchUp to design and build all kinds of projects: kitchen and bath remodels, 3D prints, CNC contraptions, even arduino-based electronics. But you don’t need to model a circuit board to harness the power of SketchUp. More often than not, I get the most out of SketchUp when I focus on simple problems.

I recently spent some time at a beautiful lake in Maine this summer. At this lake there are many kayaks, a paddle board, and a couple of canoes. At the end of the day, exhausted humans place all the watercraft haphazardly on the shoreline. When the family I was staying with mentioned it would be great to have some sort of rack to organize all of the boats, Vacation Eric quickly gave way to Maker Eric.

Tranquil vacation setting: or complex design constraint?

A quick Internet search showed a bunch of ‘off-the-rack’ racks, but they all required reasonably flat ground. The shoreline of this lake is full of huge boulders and uneven ground so none of these standards were an option.

Another constraint: all we had to work with was a small chop saw and a screw gun. No fancy work benches, no CNC machine, and no access to material outside of what you could get at the local lumber yard.

With these limitations in mind, I fired up SketchUp to start the design, but I set some ground rules for myself first:

  • No part could be longer than 8’ (we only had a small trailer to pick up lumber.)
  • No assembly could be heavier than one person could carry (we had to carry all the parts down very uneven ground down to the water’s edge.)
  • The rack had to hold 6 boats.
  • The rack had to be made out of a single lumber type (all 2x4s in this case.)
  • The rack had to accommodate for VERY uneven ground.
  • The rack should use as few unique parts as possible.

The first thing I did was draw a single 2x4 in SketchUp. This component would be the basis of the whole project..

Every great model starts with a useful component.

Next, I cruised over to 3D Warehouse to pick out some boats. I wanted these in my 3D model right away because I would need to design around them. I used the Scale Tool to quickly resize them so I was working with models correctly sized for this lake.

Now that I had my rules set, my 2x4, and the proper size boats, it was time to start sketching out my idea within my constraints...



As you can see, this design didn’t take a whole lot of modeling effort on my part. I simply copied and pasted the original 2x4,and used the Push Pull Tool to resize it as needed.


Even the clever part of this project is pretty simple. To accommodate for the uneven ground, the legs have an adjustable footing: the rack can be leveled by simply screwing in the footing where it needs to be.

Before we rushed off to the lumber yard, I had to figure out how much material we needed. I took my SketchUp model and laid out all of the lumber parts.

Measure twice, cut once!

Because there are many parts that are under 8’, I wanted best to get the most I could out of each piece and reduce waste. I used this simple online cutlist calculator to help me figure all of this out. It only takes a few minutes to type in all of your cuts, and what you get back is a guide that optimizes every piece of lumber. All of my dimensions came right out of SketchUp so this was really easy to do.

Then, I took the laptop out to the garage with both the 3D model on the screen for reference and the cut sheet. Within an hour we had all the parts we needed. After a bit of manual transport down to the lake shore, we used the 3D model as an assembly guide and screwed everything together. Voila: problem solved/itch scratched!

From idea to reality we had this project done in just a few hours -- needless to say, this amazed pretty much everyone in the house. At first, I didn’t think it was a big deal because the modeling was very simple. But then it hit me: SketchUp doesn’t have be doing something powerful to be “powerful.”

This novice-level model could be drawn by just about anyone with even a little SketchUp experience and it saved us a bunch of time and material. Maybe we could have figured out this project based off of a napkin sketch, but I’m sure the finished product wouldn’t have turned out nearly as well as the SketchUp model did.

So, the next time you’ve got a project around the house you’d like to figure out, grab SketchUp and design it up. You might save a few bucks in material, you might experiment with different designs, or even share your project with others for feedback. However your model turns out, I bet you’ll learn something interesting about the problem you’re trying to solve, and probably even figure out a simple way to solve it.

Happy building!