10 Steps for 3D design software for woodworking

More woodworkers are turning to 3D design software for woodworking projects.

This is good.  However, some people find some of the woodworking design app alternatives too challenging to learn.  That may be true, but it’s also not so good.  In ten years of training people to use woodworking design software, I may have identified another reason the software falls short of user expectation.  As the cartoon character said: “We found the enemy, and they are us.”   Sure, blame the victim you’re thinking.

The real problem – or at least part of it – is some people think the woodworking design app is a silver bullet.   If it doesn’t immediately put out good designs, well, it must be too hard to use.  Maybe.  But maybe not.

There’s work to be done – by you – before you run off to the shop.

1. So let’s start with an idea!

image light bulb


Your next project starts out as someone’s idea, a client, yours, or maybe a family member.  And guess what takes it from an idea to the shop.  Thinking.  And the more structured and organized your thinking is, the better your design and final output.  In this post, I share some thoughts on structure and organization – the process – of woodworking design.

There is a distance between an idea for a project and successfully delivering the finished product.

There are steps you take.  Things you know.  Ways you work. Everybody knows this!  Well, maybe we don’t.   Some woodworkers possess years of experience that they – knowingly or unknowingly – use to get from idea to delivery.

But that approach does not work for everyone.  Those of us without the required decades of practice need help.  And for the case where our project idea is very complicated we need more help.

More and more woodworkers are leaning on 3D design software for woodworking, which is good.  However, it’s not enough.   More than how to use the software, we need a knowledge of the process.  This post lays out my experiences in teaching, using, and watching others use design software and what process they develop.

2. Community and crowd-sharing

Since the beginning of the year, SketchList has held monthly online design meetings with the users of our woodworking design software.   Users have been sending in projects so the group can learn by evaluating the designs, suggesting alternatives, and asking questions.

image of woodworkers

  • Group communications happen with the computer service Zoom.  With it, we talk and listen, view, and explain.   The woodworking design app serves as another type of communication vehicle – almost as much as the internet connection.  It provides the structure.
  • When the discussions get going, people focus on the project and how to design it more than how the software works. It’s easy enough to ask “what if” or offer up “try this’ and sometimes, “I used those hinges on my last project.”

Maybe you don’t think you have a community where you can meet and design – but perhaps you do.  Who to ask?

Some suggestions:

      1. A client
      2. Some co-workers
      3. Your spouse
      4. The neighbor
      5. Online meetup or blog site
      6. The workers at your woodworking supply house

Brainstorming and idea-sharing (sometimes called crowdsourcing) are proven methods to improve an idea.

3. What is it you are making?

Of course,  you need to start with your idea at the very beginning.  What are you making?  Describe it with drawings and sketches and notes.  Make lists of the ideas or thoughts you have when considering the project.

  • You are working with those things that both to some extent, are necessary and desirable. Everything’s a trade-off, but remember, don’t close off your thinking too early.
  • Exploring some elements of your idea works better at a less detailed level.  The big picture, if you will, provides perspective and a sense of scale.  Some of the parts of the designs should be taken in detail – to avoid or at least identify problems.   And for sure, you will bounce back and forth, adding details to all incrementally.

Consider – very important – what at what level of detail should you work at this early point in the design.  Different degrees of detail are more useful at different stages.

4. Level of detail in woodworking design

An excellent way to complete big jobs is to break them into small parts and attack one at a time.   The thinking about levels relates to the number and type of objects in the project.  It is a way to find those small parts that you will attack to achieve the whole, like building blocks.

  • Block drawings showing just the primary outlines
  • Breakdowns of the major components or assemblies
  • Proportions or dimensioned drawings – to scale
  • Drill down a level into the assemblies – interior details
  • Door and drawer design and layout
  • Hardware types

Perhaps the significant trade-offs are those of detail and time, and detail versus mistakes.  More time and detail usually mean fewer mistakes in the shop.  Everyone has their views on this.

At this point, think of yourself as modeling and not drawing your project.  Drawings are collections of lines.  A model is an organized set of building blocks reflecting an idea which you intend to design and build.

Models offer flexibility and coherence.  Rather than battling lines with models you easily copy, resize, move, merge, and delete parts at will.  These capabilities let you quickly explore alternative solutions to your design problem.  With drawings the work required to make changes sometimes discourages exploration of ideas.

5. Alternatives

2D drawings of different Murphy bed alternatives with explanations

The images of the Murhpybed alternatives show five options that took about three minutes to create.  Rather than use my 3D design software for woodworking, I designed these using a simple graphics package.

The basic building block is a box.  Copied, stacked, and merged, a series of boxes become a bookcase.  One bookcase can become a second bookcase to be resized and reconfigured.     Modified the basic box becomes the desk – with fold down legs or perhaps chains to support it.

  • Start with your first or most essential idea.   What might be better or different?  Create a number of these alternatives.  When working with woodworking design people, I find that the further they go down the road with their first idea, the more they commit to it.  And the more mentally committed they are, the more difficult it is for them to change it.
  • So we ask about alternatives, “How many to consider?” There’s no correct answer.  More?   The truth is many woodworkers grab onto their first idea and change it in the shop!  It becomes an alternative design at that time.
  • Related to that is how far to go down the path with a given alternative?  This is where the level of detail comes into play.  If your exploring of alternatives is at a high level [big blocks], you can go further with many options.  Then pick one and take it to more detail.

6. The significant rules for woodworking design are:

      1. Think of working with building blocks
      2. Start simple and grow more complex
      3. Of course, be logical.

If you find yourself getting stuck, take another approach.  Use other media – paper, note pad, or a whiteboard for lists, sketches, and notes.  Generate more ideas than you need and cut back the dumb ones.

Back to the crowd share approach mentioned above.  Get some fresh eyes to look at your work.

Thinking you want to do right in with Woodworking design software and all this other stuff is a waste of time.  You are not wasting time!  The more you wrestle with your idea – evolving it into a design – the more you will learn and understand the project.  As you move forward, that understanding will answer questions and solve problems that may arise.

Experience tells us that to really succeed, you need some level of passion for what you are trying to design.  Making furniture for your kids – there should be passion there.  Trying to win a bid – may or may not be passion involved.  Need to meet a deadline tomorrow morning?  Good luck.

Let’s start the process.

7. More completely define the project.

When I work with someone on a design, I always ask, “what are you trying to build?” Many times the answer is some variation of “I don’t know.”  Like for example, “You know, a cabinet.” There’s some amount of needed detail missing in that answer.

Once in a while, when I train someone, and the idea isn’t getting across, I say, “OK, tell me in English [my only language – sorry] what you’re trying to do.” When he or she starts to explain the desired outcome, and we make progress.  Additional detail is uncovered.  The idea becomes more in-depth and clearer.

The clearer you are, the better your outcome will be. An excellent outcome should is your goal. Right?

Again the key is to write it all down.  Beyond a verbal description, what other information is there?


image of notepad

A sample list on information includes:

          1. Sizes of the project
          2. Room size – including access
          3. Obstructions
          4. Sizes of modules [cabinets] within the project
          5. Materials – type and size
          6. Joinery or fasteners
          7. Hardware
          8. Details
          9. Storage requirements
          10. Cost

Take your most viable or favorite alternative; break it down to small building blocks.   How many cabinets, doors, drawers, frames, side panels, tops, and so forth.  Make a list.

Search for common elements or potential building blocks.  I once wrote a post, maybe with a video, on taking a six-sided box and transforming it into a complete kitchen.   Well, OK, I was proving a point, but the smallest building block idea will save you tons of time.

An entertainment center can have one prominent structure but most often is made of two [top and bottom] or six parts [top and bottom, left, center, and right].   Design one basic building block and clone is five times, and call it over.

8. Project review in action

image 3d woodworking design software

After you create your design with your 3D design software for woodworking, it’s time for inspection.

Look at your design in both two and three dimensions.   All woodworking design software these days provide both views of a design. Take several passes at the images, front and back, top and bottom, left and right.  Then spin them around in 3D.

Ask yourself:

      • Does it make sense?
      • Does it look good?
      • Do the parts connect to other parts?
      • Do parts occupy the same space?
      • Are parts floating in the air?
      • Are the grain directions correct?

9. Look at the reports and ask if they make sense?

Most 3D design software for woodworking integrates reporting with designing.  Integration means reports automatically generate and change with changes in the design.

  • Does it make sense to you?
  • Quick check – are board thicknesses what you expect <> 3/4 inch?
  • Does the number of parts seem more or less what you expect?
  • Are any of the parts way under or oversized?
  • Is the number of sheets of material in line with your expectations?

  10. Make a Virtual build with your 3D design software for woodworking.

SketchList 3D, as in most design programs, can hide and show parts.   In the spreadsheet, click the show cell for each [or many] of the parts in your design.  One [or a few] parts at a time add them back into the design [show them].   Check it out.  Are the sizes as you expect?  Are the locations correct?  Hint – is your sideboard is located directly on the front of an assembly [i.e., front = 0] and your rails and stiles are also at front = 0, something’s wrong.  They cannot occupy the same space.

Spin the design in every direction.  Zoom into a close-up and zoom out to a perspective view.

Now back to the crowd.  Use your woodworking design software to print up of save image files of your design and share them with others.  Put some notes in the emails, or better yet on the parts in the spreadsheet cell notes, and ask people to review it all.

One more critical step.  Take some time away and go back the next day and review it again.

That will help you avoid either 1. The post lumber yard panic or better still 2. The real-time, non-virtual design adjustment rituals that take place in your shop.  That second one is also known as wasted time and money.

More ideas on can be found here.

Latest Blogs

Pleasure in Woodworking: The Role of Furniture Design

Discovering Pleasure in Woodworking: The Role of Furniture Design Woodworking offers a world where decorative and useful objects are crafted with skill and care, extending even to design[1] https://www.thecrucible.org/guides/woodworking/.  Consequently...

Virtual 3D board facilitates design

Creating a virtual 3D board can be an exciting and new way to showcase your woodworking designs. By utilizing  software, you can bring your creations to life in a virtual...

Door Design Overview

Door Design is a Critical Function In this article, we will explore the art of designing doors and how they can transform your living space. Whether you are searching for...