Skip to main content

Six rules for success for SketchUp beginners

David Heim is a veteran book and magazine editor specializing in woodworking. He has been writing about and teaching SketchUp for more than four years, and says he never begins any project until he has previewed it in SketchUp. This is another guest post from David on modeling principles for woodworkers.

As I prepared to teach my first SketchUp class at a nearby Woodcraft store, I realized I couldn’t just walk into the room and begin talking. The class needed something to take home and use to make SketchUp behave. So I came up with my six SketchUp “Rules for Success.”

Despite the hyped-up title, the rules embody basic principles to help beginners who find SketchUp frustrating because they haven’t been able to grasp a few fundamentals. And although I wrote the rules for woodworkers, I think they can benefit newcomers doing any kind of design work in SketchUp.

I wrote these rules for woodworkers, but they can benefit newcomers doing any kind of design work in SketchUp.

I’ve used these Rules at every class and demonstration I’ve given over the past four years. These rules are illustrated in the modeling process in the video below and explained throughout this blog post. Without further ado…

1. Always work with components

To me, this is paramount. It’s an especially important rule for woodworkers because so many woodworking projects require multiples of the same part: table legs, shelves, cabinet sides, door parts, spindles. If I design a table, I want to be sure the mortise-and-tenon joints connecting the legs to the apron are exactly the same for each leg. If I use groups when I make the legs and aprons and decide to modify the joinery, I have to make the changes to each leg and apron separately. Each change represents an opportunity for an error to occur. But if I use components, I only need to change one leg and one apron and the rest will be identically adjusted.

2. Work in SketchUp the way you would in the shop

Six rules for success for SketchUp beginners

This x-ray view of a leg and two aprons shows that the tenons on the aprons are too long. They overlap at the end and need to be shortened.

Modeling furniture or cabinets in SketchUp serves as a very useful dress rehearsal for their actual construction. You can easily tell if all the joints are properly designed, and you can work out the most efficient way to glue pieces together (an anxiety-inducing task for many woodworkers). And if you’re building the model from someone else’s plans, SketchUp can help you identify mistakes in the dimensions.

My friend Tim Killen, author of Taunton’s SketchUp Guide for Woodworkers, uses this rule to help him model and build period furniture. When he heads to his shop, he goes in with absolutely accurate plans and patterns. And because he has already built the piece once in SketchUp, he can work faster and with fewer mistakes when he begins shaping actual, expensive wood.

3. Draw in place

I tell people, “Don’t waste time measuring things that don’t need to be measured, or moving things that don’t need to be moved.” To save time and help ensure accuracy, draw components right where they belong.

So, for instance, if I’m constructing a bookcase, I begin by making one side piece and adding all the grooves, or dadoes, that hold the shelves. Then I copy the side, flip it, and draw the edge of one shelf in place so it fills the space between the dadoes. That guarantees the shelf is the right size and in the right place. I don’t care what its exact dimensions are; that will come later.

4. Draw once, make as many copies as you want

SketchUp for beginners

Make a copy of a correctly placed component, then make edits so that accuracy is built into your work.

For experienced modelers, this may seem like another self-evident rule. But it isn’t obvious to beginners. In my most popular demonstration, I model a small cabinet with shelves that have two long tenons on each end. I draw one tenon, then quickly make copies and move them into position. Check out the video to see this in action. That’s all it takes to get people to understand how this practice fosters speed and accuracy.

5. Type the exact values you need

This, too, ensures accuracy. I’ve talked with many SketchUp beginners who didn’t know how to produce exact lengths, distances, radii, and the like. It doesn’t take much to get people to understand the value of this practice. The SketchUp folks have a great video about modeling with accuracy.

6. Use guidelines and inferences

I’ve seen beginners struggle to connect one component with another (never mind Rule #3, above). As soon as they see how the array of color-coded hints and inferences can help them position components precisely or draw shapes exactly though, they understand.

Anyone who is proficient in SketchUp will probably just say, “Well, duh” when they read these rules. Well, it’s only a ‘duh’ if you’ve already mastered it. I can only hope rules like these become no-brainers for everyone who wants to use SketchUp to make clean, accurate models quickly and efficiently.

About the Author

David Heim is a veteran book and magazine editor specializing in woodworking. After a 28-year career at Consumer Reports, he moved to Fine Woodworking magazine. David has been writing about and teaching SketchUp for over four years, and never begins any project until he has previewed it in SketchUp first.

Profile Photo of David Heim