Seven Beginning Steps in SketchUp

comments (5) May 23rd, 2009 in blogs

Killenwood Tim Killen, contributor
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I've been teaching SketchUp to woodworkers for about two years. Most of my teaching has occurred at the adult education center in Pleasant Hill, CA. However, there have been several sessions with various woodworking clubs, a public school teacher association, and one-on-one individual sessions. Over this time, I've made several adjustments to the lesson plan and the number of sessions. Nevertheless, I believe students are generally overwhelmed with the amount of information, and they would like to have more class time to make it through the rough learning curve. However, I emphasize the need for spending time each day with SketchUp, perhaps for a few weeks, lest the skills are quickly lost. This will get them "over the curve" and feeling much more confident and productive.


When I started teaching SketchUp, I created a list called "Six Beginning Steps in SketchUp". This helped me focus the teaching plan on those key areas of learning necessary for students to get over the hurdle with SketchUp. After two years of teaching experience, I continue to believe this list is applicable. It covers the student issues and questions I experience in class, and I know they struggle with throughout and in between school sessions.


Perhaps, I would make one addition to the list: that of using the Arrow keys or the Shift Key to force a line placement or component move on a given axis. I do not disclose these helpful features until the end of the first session. I believe it is best for students to stay on axis without these crutches at first, as it increases the understanding of 3D and axes.


Here is my new list - now "Seven Beginning Steps":


  1. Set-up - there are unlimited variations here - what Toolbars to show, how to get SketchUp showing woodworking "units" with which we are familiar, how to set up dimensioning so it works best for furniture, font sizes that are effective, and how to have frequently used dialog boxes readily available on the screen.  Then how to save the set-up in a Template, so that each time SketchUp is opened, the desired settings are there on the screen.
  2. Moving around the model - I can't think of any more important basic skill for the beginning SketchUp user - what do the blue, red, green axis mean, how can you stay on these axes, how do you pan, zoom, orbit, with the mouse buttons, etc. I'll show the icons for pan, zoom, and orbit, but quickly push them to use the scroll wheel on the mouse and the Shift Key (with a depressed scroll wheel) for Pan. Some students have a tendency to retreat to the icons, but throughout the session, I'm working to encourage them to use the mouse for all pan, zoom, and orbiting actions, or they will be hampered in achieving productivity. Also, it is common for students to work with the component way out in space and distance. Trying to put a tenon on a stretcher that you can hardly see is quite a feat. I'm continually encouraging them to use the mouse scroll wheel to zoom in, so they can easily see what they are doing.
  3. How to use basic drawing tools - I include here the Line, Polygon, Circle, and Arc in this category. I show the rectangle, but I'm not a fan of this tool and don't emphasize it. I just find it easier to use the Line Tool. I spend most of the time with the Line Tool. Students have a tendency to hold down the mouse key when drawing a line. I work hard to stop that tendency since it will make it hard to become effective in SketchUp. Before introducing Push/Pull, I have students create a cube with the Line Tool only. This helps to understand how important it is to stay on axis and what it takes to get a face. Later in the first session, I introduce Push/Pull.
  4. Drawing to exact length using the Measurements Box  - To successfully design furniture, we need to draw to exact dimension. A plus-or-minus 1/32 inch is important here, and the entry into the Measurement Box helps make accurate models and joints. Often, a student will say he has no Measurement Box - this is the result of the Window being minimized and a click in the upper right hand corner will fix it.
  5. The useful Tape Measure - I'm using this SketchUp tool more than any other in the repertoire. This is used to place temporary construction lines in exact location to aid in the design process. There are many behaviors of this tool depending on where you click it or how you click it. So I spend some time showing these variations.
  6. Making, editing, moving, and connecting Components - Without Components, SketchUp would be a failure for designing furniture. This feature makes it possible to treat each piece in the model as if it is the real part of the furniture - the arm, leg, stretcher, stile, rail, panel, etc. You can copy it, change it, and flip it - if you change one of the components in the model, all copies are automatically updated. Very powerful......
  7. Using the Arrow Keys - While working in SketchUp, a user quickly finds out the importance of staying on the red, green, or blue axis. Unfortunately, it is sometimes very easy to go astray, find that we can't get a face to close, and causing much frustration. Fortunately, SketchUp provides two effective tools for forcing adherence to these axes. One way is to start a line or a move on a particular axis, then hold the Shift Key. This forces the action to stay on that selected axis. Also by tapping an arrow key, the intended action (e.g., drawing a line or moving a component) is forced to stay on the axis. The up and down arrow keys force action along the Blue Axis. The right arrow key forces action along the Red Axis, and the left arrow key, along the Green Axis.



So there you have it - my 7 most basic important skills to learn in SketchUp.



posted in: blogs

Comments (5)

Killenwood Killenwood writes: Don, I just checked the website. It is on and available at
Glad you've had success with SketchUp.

Posted: 4:14 pm on June 30th

DonzoB DonzoB writes: Tim,

I heartily endorse your view, continuous use of SketchUp is essential. I learned to use SU, after a fashion, by watching the many video demonstrations available online, and through everyday practice. The demonstrations helped a lot, but without the daily practice I would never have achieved the abilities that I did.
I add this, without contributors like you and Dave, I would be stuck at a much lower level.
However, complications in my life kept me from using SU for a while, and I found myself struggling.
Yes, one must continue to keep the skills learned at a fine hone!


ps. I tried to find your domain, killenwood, but the 'web doesn't seem to have such an address.

Posted: 10:21 am on June 30th

Killenwood Killenwood writes: Dear Seatoe: Your situation reminds me of my experience several years ago. I was using AutoDesk products plus Microstation and SmartSketch - 2D only. I wanted to be in 3D in the worst way, but the bigger systems were just too hard and expensive. I spent 3 hours in a SketchUp class in San Francisco, and even though the course was geared toward architects, I was convinced SU would work for furniture.

I spent the next 30 days or so working almost full-time to get my hands around SU. The 2D CAD experience did get in the way of progress at first. But then it started to make sense and I got over the worst of the learning curve.

Perhaps you can get into a course in your area. More woodworking clubs are getting involved in this, so you can check there. Also, SketchUp holds periodic training courses in major cities.

If you're in my area, there are more options to get over the hurdle.

Posted: 4:04 pm on June 3rd

seatoe seatoe writes: Tim, I learned Autocad a few years back and am very comfortable with it, except when it comes to 3D. I tried Sketchup, but it seems my knowledge of Autocad doesn't allow me to grasp Sketchup. I'm able to do isometric drawings in Acad, but I want to be able to do 3D. How can I become comfortable with Sketchup?
P.S. I was offered a job at Bechtel back in the 60's, but when they said I had to wear a tie and suit, I turned down the job.
Posted: 11:03 am on June 3rd

Killenwood Killenwood writes: To Design. Click. Build. Readers:

You may wonder why the week's gap in new entries to this blog. Both Dave and I added new posts last week but they did not show in Design. Click. Build. due to a failure in the blog software. I think the system is now repaired and those previous entries are now showing here in the proper location.

Over the last two years, we've worked to have regular posts on a weekly basis. So it was unfortunate to break that record. Hopefully, we're back to a stable platform.....

Posted: 2:06 pm on May 30th

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