SketchUp was not designed for woodworking.

SketchUp - wrong tool

SketchUp.  Sometimes you know the wrong tool.  Sometimes you don’t.

Several software reviews have selected SketchUp as the best software for woodworking design.   Whether SketchUp is or is not the best tool for woodworking depends, to some extent, on a reviewer’s outlook and experiences.    They write many reviews and may not have the time to do a deep dive into the issues.  My deep dive into the best software for woodworking design finds that SketchUp doesn’t qualify.

In a survey asking people who tried or tested if SketchUp if is well suited for woodworking, only 40% responded yes. Of those who actually use SketchUp, 60% said it is designed for woodworking.  So those with more experience rate it as slightly higher for woodworking.  Still, to be rated as the best we would expect a higher score.  More on that later as we see what the original developers had in mind.

As I said before, SketchUp is not the best design software for woodworkers.

Let’s consider three things.

1: I might be wrong.  After all, it works for 60% of users in our survey.

  • It depends on how it is used.  Some users only do quick sketching needs for large concept designs and do not concern themselves with woodworking details.  This is key – how do they use SketchUp?

From Wood Talk []  experts Marc Spagnuolo, Shannon Rogers, and Matt Cremona.  They are discussing the design and creative process they follow.

“it’s a little bit of trying to find inspiration, put stuff down on paper, and then there is a point where I do want to go digital; it’s when I need to work out. You know proportions…, I don’t necessarily need to completely 100% build this thing out in SketchUp, and I’ll tell you most of the time, my drawings are maybe 50% of the way there.

So that’s pretty far along actually do pretty well 50%…

That’s where mine is kind of more than like a 10% range. Yeah, there’s like no joinery; nothing’s got actual angles on anything. It’s just like yeah, here are some boxes looking thing, so I can get some key dimensions in there, you know, use your imagination, and be fine.

But yeah, I don’t often like I get that question a lot, do you have 100% finished SketchUp drawing, and no, I never do.

What are the chances of that 100% finished SketchUp drawing actually being true to the project by the time you’re done, like  zero?”

This gives a glimpse of who three very experienced woodworkers actually use SketchUp in their design process.

They are not seeking end-to-end design and production – but a starting point for exploration.

  • If used by users with experience in other CAD systems, they may have the mindset and necessary experience for using SketchUp.  And by many accounts, SketchUp is an easier-to-use CAD product.  So, it makes sense they find it easy to learn and use.
  • Some people spend much time and effort invested in learning the software.  They join groups, pay teachers/consultants, and (pre-Covid) attended all-day or weekend classes.

2:  There are a number of woodworking groups, bloggers, articles, reviews, consultants, and authors that disagree with me.   But consider the following.

  • Consider vested interests.  There are scads of consultants, authors, and blog post writers.  What if a software product needed no consultants or teachers?   How would they make money?  I cannot blame them for going after the largest market for their services.  But still, they are teaching the use of the wrong tool for the job. I’ll get into this more in a bit.
  • Reviews are seldom in-depth examinations of usability or features.  It takes a lot of time and effort to do a meaningful review.  If you read many reviews on SketchUp, you might notice that a review tends to get copied and republished.  In many cases, web pages are simply publishing to attract visitors.
  • SketchUp users have a certain crowd/cult mentality.  Supporters of SketchUp are firm in their opinion – and there are entitled to those.  But the strength of one’s conviction is not enough to bring you to an accurate conclusion.

3: And finally, it was, indeed, not designed for woodworkers.

One of the original developers of SketchUp, John Bacus, wrote:

“Most people find software tools frustrating to use (‘un-intuitive) when fail to match [user] expectations set by some prior experience.  In SketchUp’s case, we relied on ‘drawing’ for our scaffolding.

SketchUp was a quick hit with Architects because they are all taught how to draw- and (especially) how to ‘think with drawing.’ We matched a prior experience for them, so the transition into 3D modeling was easier.”

: Bacus

Jeffrey-McGrew – a SketchUp expert – wrote the following.

“Sketchup is one of a very small number of 3D apps that was made to be easy for everyone.”

And Michael Freiert,  a Project Captain at Pope Architects, adds:

“SketchUp was designed as a sketching tool. It is for quick and rough iteration of a design to get it to a useful place to fully develop. It is great for that because it is so simple to use. BUT that ease of use for sketching … people want to continue to use it for design development and production work, which it is poorly suited for.”

  • SketchUp is not intuitive for woodworkers.

For many, intuitive usually means how easy it is to use the user interface.  And what makes a good user interface is software that functions in ways that fit how the user thinks and wants to use it.

Again, from John Bacus,: Bacus, one of the first SketchUp developers:

“The key issue for me is ‘intuitiveness.’ There is nothing inherently ‘intuitive’ about any computer software, though software designers like me often talk freely about how intuitive our stuff is. Most people find software tools frustrating to use (‘un-intuitive) when they fail to match expectations set by some prior experience.”

The key phrase is “set by some prior experience of the user.”

You see, the SketchUp user experience framework is drawing, not woodworking.

If the framework was woodworking, it would support functions like ‘add a dado.   It doesn’t.  In SketchUp, placing a dado on a board edge requires the user to draw a rectangle and use the push-pull tool to pull it out to the desired size.  In the woodworking world, users don’t pull dados out of wood.

Rob Cameron’s well-done YouTube video “SketchUp for Woodworkers: Molding Revisited” serves as a good example.  In it, he places a molding board on the top of a bookcase.  If you watch it see if you can identify any steps that fit into your – as Bacus calls it – ‘prior experience’ as a woodworker.

It would be much easier if the software allows you to select an edge for the miter, click the miter tool button, and add the number of degrees [or accept the default].

And that gets us into the structure of the design – how it is used and managed.

SketchUp project structure is apart from the woodwork process.  In woodworking, you build a project – say a cabinet.  You add doors, drawers, panels, and boards.  You put some details on the boards – like joinery.  There is a definite and pretty well standard structure  – cabinets, doors, drawers, and boards.  SketchUp approaches managing the components of the project much differently.

This description of managing structure in SketchUp is from the Trimble help page.


“Groups and Components vs. Layers

The process of modeling complex items requires internal order or structure to the 3D file, keeping separate things separate and similar things together. In SketchUp, this order can be attained using Groups or Components.

Layering in SketchUp is for display only. Think of them as light switches that illuminate something or turn it off. Layers in SketchUp are not for individual edges and faces. This is because of the shared nature of faces and edges. All native geometry in SketchUp (edges and faces) belongs on Layer0.

After you have made something into a Group or Component, then you put it on a Layer.

The organization of components in a SketchUp model greatly affects the speed at which your design and modeling work can progress.

By definition, a Group is a single instance of a collection of geometry.

A Component is a named collection of geometry that can exist at multiple locations within the model. Each instance is a repetition of all others.”

Wow!  Teach that in shop class, anyone?  Cabinet – door, drawer, boards, or native geometry [edges and faces], groups, components, and layers.  Which seems more woodworker-friendly?

The SketchUp interface has become too complex.

Freiert implies that because SketchUp provides an easy solution for some design projects, people apply it to work for “which it is poorly suited.” And he makes another great point – it suffers from “scope creep,” which is the continued addition of features are tools.

The lack of woodworking scaffolding, or design focus, necessitates many add-on functions (and more icons) to achieve the desired result.  This, in turn, adds complexity.  I once attended a sales presentation about an expensive cabinet and room design product.  On the screen, there must have been 200 icons.  Someone asked if the software would center a cabinet between two pipes.  Of course, it could, said the presenter, but he needed to go three levels deep in a cluster of icons to find that function.  This is an example of scope creep.

  • And we must recognize that user frustration with any software can come from the user’s lack of computer experience.   It is hard to use a sophisticated package when the user finds opening or saving a file a challenge.
  • Impatience, people are not willing to invest time to learn.

It amazes me how many new users refuse to view even the shortest training videos to learn how to use the product.  I think that comes from an expectation the software will mimic that user’s way of thinking.  The better the software fits your expectation – based upon experience – the less time it takes to learn. But there are gaps between your expectations and the software’s abilities, and the same training or learning is needed.

And sometimes, the user expectations are just too high.   Maybe the marketing hype is responsible for part of this.

There is a relationship between every tool and its intended purpose.  Just match the tool with your purpose of using it.

Finally, in terms of an end-to-end tool well suited for woodworking, consider reports.

A woodworking software product should provide integrated reports such as cut lists, shop drawings, material layouts, or purchase lists.  SketchUp free or not — requires you to find, perhaps buy, and install add-ons or extensions to meet these needs.  And it seems from a brief look, some of these depend upon Excel for reporting.   How can software designed for woodworking be the best if it does not provide these essential reports?

SketchUp customers like it as a CAD product. But both by function and design, it is not the best design software for woodworkers looking for an end-to-end solution.  Moreover, it was designed, according to its original developers, as a better drawing tool.

Clearly, the marketing people have packaged it for woodworkers.

And media widely support that packaging.  Accordingly, it has taken off in that market.  But in terms of function and convenience, it cannot really hold up to the other software packages specifically designed for woodworkers.

The problem is that many woodworkers believe the marketing, then try the software and finds it does not suit their needs.  These people conclude not only that SketchUp doesn’t work for them, but that they just don’t understand how to use design software.  Or maybe there is no good design software for them.  Then they stop pursuing the design tool that would really benefit and expand their woodworking experience.

Of course, this causes problems because software design programs, much better suited to the needs of the woodworking community, do exist.

For more on this subject see this article by clicking.



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