Home > Features > Product Review: SketchUp 3.x

Before I get started with SketchUp 3.0 let me make a confession. When I heard about the existence of a new modeling program that was designed to simulate what architects and designers do as "napkin sketches" I was more than slightly disinterested. Why would architects pay for such a program when—if they are properly educated and skilled—they can do that kind of work on paper, such as tracing paper, and—yes, even napkins themselves? After all, some of the best sketches I have ever done as an architect were done on napkins.

First off, SketchUp isn't simply meant as a replacement tool or workflow substitute for the traditional tracing paper sketch...although you could certainly do that if you wanted to. SketchUp is meant to supplement the traditional processes architects usually go through. In fact, it works wonderfully along side a piece of tracing paper. SketchUp—as it turns out—is also meant for another purpose. It is specifically designed as an easier tool to learn for those wanting a more reasonable onramp into the world of architectural or general modeling. The folks at @Last Software have told me that many of their users have tried other architectural or CAD modeling programs before but gave up because they were too darn hard to learn or master. Whether you are a 22 year old fresh out of architecture school or a 55 year old who only recently picked up CAD drafting, the value of an easy to use software is still the same. Bottom line: easier is always better if it gets you to where you want to go faster. And SketchUp gets you someplace fast!

Getting Going

How fast is it to learn SketchUp? And just where can I go with it? The answer to the former is really fast, comparatively speaking. And the latter? Well, we'll make that suggestion to you in the form of this review.

The folks at @Last Software have done something truly useful for their new user. They gave them QuickTime-based learning videos right inside HTML help/tutorial files. So if you missed the last AIA convention or Macworld? No problem, you can watch and listen to how SketchUp works in seconds after installation. There is simply no better way to learn software than in this method. You can stop the QuickTime movie (pause) and practice what they just showed you or you can go get a cup of coffee.

After you have finished with the tutorials you can learn more in the rest of their built-in manuals and help system.

The Basics

When I started with SketchUp the first feature that really won me over was its inherent ability to draw orthogonally on a different axis without having to reset the axis or create a second axial set. Once you create an angled line you can reference it simply to create orthogonal geometry off of this angle.

SketchUp is very plane-oriented. You begin modeling by defining the lines (literally drawing them) that bound a plane in 3D space. You can easily draw these lines to accurate dimensions by typing a dimension at the numeric prompt. And you can also just as easily draw them at angles to the main orthogonal grid (see note above).

The paradigm in SketchUp is edges and surfaces. This is the modeling structure. In the view below and in the urban building study on the following pages you can see that I have drawn a series of rectangles to define my building form first. Then you draw verticals at the corners of the structure, typing in their correct heights if you wish. Each time you draw a vertical line dotted alignment lines appear to help guide you to the same height. As you close a plane the plane appears—always with a contrasting color on the opposite side. Note, sometimes the opposite side of the plane is called the backside. (see 001)


What SketchUp cannot do in regards to planes is draw warped planes. Therefore, a common mistake that can happen to newbies is that they mistakenly have drawn a different length on one line segment of a bounded volume and thus forced a warped plane. SketchUp will tell you this indirectly by not shading this plane.

A Guidance System

SketchUp has a very nice but simple snap/grid guidance system. Blue, green and red lines equate to various grid/3D orientations and cursor hinting in these same colors helps you orient yourself in 3D space. Snapping in 3D works intuitively. Color is used simply in this program to differentiate corner versus midpoint vertices. Cyan is mid point while green is corner point of lines. (click on smaller images to see larger ones).


Layers in SketchUp only affect visibility of objects. They do not affect geometry or 3D position as they often do in other CAD or 3D programs. Layers can have assigned colors which enables the user to visibly see layer assignments in the model. (See 002-003). This is powerful stuff, because you can come to understand model modifications in geometry easily through this visibility.


For example, when you move a surface, say, through push/pull, you will see that surfaces touching the affected surface also make adjustments. In the forms above, if I set back the top most volume from the edge of the model it will inherent the wall's layer (thus setting the form blue-green in the model). But say I don't want that. Using the eraser tool I can conjoin surfaces into other surfaces taking on their layer assignments or I can simply pick the surfaces and change their layer setting.

Next Page: SketchUp 3.x - Modeling and Textures

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Home > Features > Product Review: SketchUp 3.x




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