When I started doing drawings for woodworking I used Adobe Illustrator. Illustrator is a great program. It is used by designers throughout the world to do every kind of drawing, and it has more than enough capabilities to do nice drawings for woodworking. I already knew how to use it from my previous life as an art director, so I made it work for woodworking. The artboard would allow me to draw up to 200″ at full-scale. After that I had to scale down my drawings, but that wasn’t very often. The beauty of Illustrator was it’s ability to draw anything I dreamed up and to control the printing, which came in handy on full-size templates. I used the templates most often on curved pieces, and Illustrator is great at drawing curves with precise control.
For all of its positives, Illustrator has its drawbacks. First of all, it is difficult to learn, so I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone except those that do graphics for a living. Second, it is made to produce top-quality graphics, which means there are a lot of options but no templates, especially for anything related to woodworking. So, if you want to dimension a drawing, you have to individually draw arrows, layout the text between the arrows, rotate everything, and hope that it doesn’t need to be resized (because it doesn’t happen automatically). The third and biggest drawback is that it only does drawings in 2D. You can fake the 3D, but it is still just a 2D drawing. This became a more important issue as I noticed I was missing details because I couldn’t see the piece from different angles. The details were sometimes related to joinery, but were more often related to scale. A leg, for example, that looked well proportioned when viewed straight on was often actually too thick when viewed at an angle. With Illustrator and its 2D drawings, I just couldn’t see these things.
Obviously, it was time for a 3D drawing program, but I wasn’t interested in learning a new program. I wasn’t sure how much I would really use it, and after 9 years of driving a computer every day, I wasn’t in a hurry to drive more than I had to. For the most part, I wanted to be in the shop and only use the computer when I needed it.
So, my quest began. I looked at CAD programs, VectorWorks, Rhino-something, and others. I loaded them on my computer and tried them for free for 30 days. I used them for a couple of hours at the most, and could tell right away that they weren’t for me. It seemed like those programs were for folks that already knew what they were building but just wanted to get it in a very nice and presentable form. They didn’t seem conducive for designing. They weren’t going to work for a guy like me who often lacks direction until it shows up. I usually need to just work through things and figure them out, and none of those programs fostered that style. I would say they were very IBMish and I am very Macintoshish. Anyway, after a while, I just gave up on it, decided it wasn’t for me and just stopped looking. That, of course, is when the best things happen.
A friend of mine, Ron, who I would say is very IBMish, recommended that I check out Google SketchUp. He said it was free and it was for 3D drawings. I don’t know where he found out about it, but I do know I wasn’t in a hurry to check it out. After all, it was free. Nothing that is worthwhile is ever free. This program needed to cost at least $500 if Ron expected me to look at it (I scoffed). Knowing it was an obvious waste of time but wanting to give Ron a few valid reasons why I wasn’t going to use it, I visited Google and downloaded SketchUp.
It wasn’t love at first sight. The drawing maneuvers are like no other program I have used (again mostly Adobe products). It takes a different mindset to use SketchUp. But it didn’t take me long to figure out the basics – and get hooked. It was cool. In no time I was drawing simple shapes, zooming in and out, rotating, spinning, whatever, and doing it as fast as I could move. That is what I couldn’t believe. The program draws fast. You can slow it down with textures and photos if you want. But if you just want line drawings with some simple shadows for presentation, it is remarkably fast. After you build a piece, you can actually go in it and look at it from all angles – and see things you have never seen before.
I started to get excited, but I still didn’t want to spend the time learning a program that nobody used (remember, it was free). So, I started asking every architect I ran into what program they used for the renderings, and suddenly the common answer was SketchUp. Apparently, Ron let everyone know about the program on the same day.
Now, I use SketchUp on every project and incorporate the drawings into the job for approval. It works out great because I can figure out the details at home and not make any dust or noise. It helps me design the job, make sure everything will fit together and work mechanically, and I use it to dimension parts, which it does semi-automatically and with good control.
Another great feature of SketchUp is the component warehouse. This is a spot where drawings hang out just waiting to be used. Here is how it works: Say you are drawing a kitchen, and you would like to show a refrigerator in the corner. In the past, somebody (meaning you) would have to draw it. Not anymore my friend. Just pop in the warehouse, find a refrigerator that you like and paste it into your drawing. The drawings in the warehouse are either uploaded by everyday users of SketchUp or, as is more commonly the case, by manufacturers that want you to spec their product. It is not uncommon for me to find every appliance perfectly drawn and ready to be inserted (for free) into my drawing.
The last and best feature of SketchUp is that it is Free! It is not awesome because it is Free, it is awesome and it is Free! I know at this point it sounds like I am working for Google, but I am not – it just simply works that good. Take the time to download it and give it a whirl. On your first go around do something simple and walk away. The next day, do a little more. Don’t try to learn it all at once and frustrate yourself. Take your time. It will be well worth it.