Woodworking CAD – Look Carefully

Woodworking CAD – what do you know?

“You cad you.”  What is a Cad anyway?  One definition is “a man who behaves dishonorably, especially toward a woman.”   Hmmm.  No female cads?   The synonyms for cad include scoundrel, rascal, good-for-nothing, cheat, fraudster, and trickster, among others.  Sorry, wrong CAD.  CAD companies are out to sell woodworkers CAD software.  Of course, software CAD means computer-aided (or assisted) design. But still, it too can disappoint the user.  What is a better option is woodworking-specific cad software.

screen image showing Fusion 360


You should carefully consider using CAD programs marketed as a  woodworking design tool.

The CAD  program uses concepts and approaches conceived in the metalworking industry several decades ago. This is not to say that CAD programs are not very useful for design. Instead, they are cumbersome and do not facilitate the woodworking design task.

To see why,  consider the terminology, toolset, and approaches of traditional CAD. The first is to notice that the CAD program to work in three-dimensional space uses the timeless mathematical approach of X, Y, and Z.  Who wants timeless.  We want to save time.

It’s much easier to use the words “height,” “width,” and “depth” and call them left-right, front-back, bottom-top.

When using CAD, or perhaps watching a video explaining how to use CAD, you’ll notice that terms like geometry, vector surfaces, and vertices are used to describe the design elements. For woodworkers, it’s much easier to take that basic building block of woodworking design and call it what it is.

That is, it’s a board.

Generally, a board has two surfaces and four sides. And using the cutting tool, you can create as many sides as are necessary for your design.

Then there is the concept of layers by which you can slice up the design into collections of related objects. You can choose where the objects will be placed by displaying or hiding layers. You might think of a cabinet carcass as one layer and the face frame as another. In fact, we don’t hold that distinction in the physical woodworking world.

Another thing you’ll notice when you glance at a CAD software user interface is that there are many small icons, each linking to a function. One might guess that most icons rarely get used, some of which are combined with other icons. This is very difficult to keep straight in your mind

One particularly egregious procedure in CAD software marketed to woodworkers is that of extruding. If you want to place a hole in an object or add a tenon on a board edge, you draw a rectangle locating it as needed. Then you use the tools to push or pull that rectangle into a tenon or hole.

Generally, people trying to learn to use CAD software find that they can conquer the task in two dimensions but have difficulty moving into that third dimension.

There is one significant setback for those who persist in pursuing the marketeer’s packaging of CAD for woodworking.

While CAD programs generally do an excellent job creating shop drawings with dimensions. They do not provide critical woodworking reports. For example, if you’re using CAD for woodworking after finishing the design, you must go through your drawings and pull off your cut list or your part list. Similarly, if you choose to create an optimized layout for parts cut from sheet goods, you must do that manually. Of course, there are packages you can buy to help you with that. Still, the question is, why do you want to take on additional work of learning yet another software package to accomplish what should be in the one you’ve already purchased.

Did I mention changes to the design? It can be challenging to do simple modifications because designs are put together using lines, squares, and rectangles as pixels on the screen. For example, making a cabinet taller or wider. There’s a video about fusion 360 in which the teacher shows how to do just that. But to accomplish widening the cabinet, he had to first select all of the vertical members of the design and turn them, so they were horizontal. And, of course, after the change was made, they had to be moved back to the vertical position.

The speed with which someone learns a new software package depends on many factors.

In an article in the Fine Woodworking magazine (SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2004), the author Gregory Paglini estimated it might take 10 to 30 hours to learn the basics, depending on the package.  Now he’s an expert and very experienced in the ideas and general techniques and approaches of using CAD. He addressed this in the article.

“At first I was concerned that my knowledge of drafting and CAD would affect my judgment. I trained on AutoCAD, the industry, and worried that my familiarity with the program would make an objective review difficult. But to my surprise, none of the programs shared AutoCAD’s concepts and commands, including the two programs that were made by the same software manufacturer. As a result, I faced each program with the same learning curve”

There is a whole world of experience and understanding that goes beyond concepts and commands that apply to all the software.  He was to a large extent comparing oranges to oranges.

In various blog posts, people write that it takes six months to become proficient at using CAD.

I attended a woodworking show where a CAD software company used for woodworking was putting out a presentation. They had beautiful renditions of a library office in a New York City apartment. The woodwork covered the walls with shelves, the windows with beautiful casements, and even the ceiling. During the break, I asked the designer how long it took him to learn to use the software to that extent. he said he thought it took six months 2 become proficient but over a year to become skilled. This is a person who’s five-day a week job was creating designs using CAD. Now for the revenue made on that room, the expense and time were probably justified. But for most woodworkers running their own business, that time frame is entirely unrealistic.

So looking at computers for woodworking software makes little sense, and so many woodworkers are still stuck in the pen and pencil approach to design. Those have been around, well, as long as pencil and paper.   The irony is that they find that old pencil and paper faster and more productive. Although changes are equally as challenging to make.  For more on this and SketchUp see this post.

But it need not be that way.

SketchList 3D  — the woodworking-specific woodworking cad software that mimics the processes of the steps and thoughts used by woodworkers to build their projects using only three tools. The designer can create virtually any type of design using just three tools. These are a spreadsheet, a calculator, and the mouse moving a 3-dimensional image on the screen. These are all built into sketch list 3D. You create your design like you’re working in your shop: cutting and assembling virtual boards in real-time.

With this approach, there’s no cost material, no need for machinery or floor space, or the possibility of making mistakes that are difficult to undo.

These virtual boards can be made of any material.  Design and construction details are added to the boards with just a few mouse clicks. They include contours, joinery holes, and shapes. All reports are automatic and integrated with the design process. Any changes to the design automatically update dimension shop drawings, cut lists, and optimized material layouts.  A bonus?  The availability of photo-quality 3D images.

With a few easy-to-understand tools, you accomplish your first design quickly.


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