Google Sketchup

One of my readers suggested that I try Google Sketchup as a way of doing illustrations. I had used Sketchup when it first became available as a free tool via Google a few years ago. I was intrigued, but never really invested enough time to decide how useful the tool was. I decided it was time to try again.

So, yesterday morning, I downloaded version 7.1 and began fresh. I am starting a new project, not yet really documented, to create a “sleeping deck” at my wife’s family’s place in northwest Montana. We have a three-bedroom cabin there, but mostly people like to sleep outside on the deck. The weather is usually perfect in July and August, and remarkably (for someone from New Hampshire) there are essentially no biting insects. The problem is that we are running out of deck space and the few times it rains, there is a mad scramble into the cabin. I’ve been working with the family to design a pavilion, which would include a large deck and a sheltered area. I decided to use Sketchup to model the concept I have been developing.

So, I started at 6am and by 5pm I had some pretty nice images to share with the family. This included learning the tool and building the model. First, here’s the result…

I am pretty skilled in Adobe Illustrator. I know the basics of three-dimensional modeling, but I’ve never really moved beyond the demo phase of real tools like Solidworks. Mostly, I still use pencil and paper. So, I consider myself a decent sketcher, but a complete newbie when it comes to 3D modeling tools.

I watched the first four  demo videos Google provides on its getting started page. I didn’t, as they suggest, follow along in sketchup. I just watched. They are short; I bet I spent less than 25 minutes watching them all.

Then, I dove in. In sum, I’m sold on this tool. With less than a day’s learning curve, I feel I could sketch almost any project I am working on. The only caveat is that if all I were trying to do is quick illustration or setting a drawing in a photo, as I did in this post, I would stick with Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. The pavilion model took me six hours or so. I can do a quick sketch in about two hours. However, the pavilion model will be very useful going forward, and so the investment during the design phase seems worth it.

I won’t reiterate how Sketchup works, as it’s explained pretty well in the Google videos. However, let me comment on what I like and don’t like:


  • Ability to import textures and apply them to faces of objects. The siding and interior paneling is from photos I had of those materials. I cropped the photos and imported them as “materials” into sketchup, and I think they look great. The deck boards are also from photos, but they didn’t come out as nicely. I didn’t have great photos to work with, so ended up stretching the image to get it to look ok…but still not perfect. The ground is also a photo from the site, but it’s also not quite right. Still, I’m really happy with the siding and paneling.
  • Ability to import a photograph and use it as a background. The background in the image is an actual photo of the site. There’s nothing exotic here. You just import the photo onto a rectangular face which you position behind your model, just as if you were putting up a fake movie set.
  • Ability to use photos of people. That guy on the deck is my brother-in-law. I took a photo of him in August on our current deck. In Photoshop, I “cut out” his body from a photo and pasted it into a new PNG  image with a transparent background. Sketchup then lets you import that image, orient it, scale it, and move it. The coolest feature is that it shows the image from “both sides” so even though he is “flat” he looks ok from other angles.
  • Ability to nearly instantly import models from the 3D Warehouse on the web. The windows are Marvin 36×56 casements. They fit exactly. You can change their color/texture. It takes about three clicks to get a window into a model. (The side door is not so nice, I know. But, you take what’s available.)
  • Ability to type in exact dimensions as you are drawing, say, a rectangle to make it a precise size. That’s a couple of steps in Illustrator.
  • The tape-measure tool…so cool to be able to create guidelines easily.

Don’t Like:

  • Can’t push/pull faces through angled surfaces. So, if you want to “push a hole” through a chunk of your model whose faces are not parallel, it won’t work. This is really just a math/computing problem, so it’s hard to believe the bright kids at Google can’t figure that out.
  • Ok…this is really asking a lot…the terrain you import from Google Earth is a flat grayscale image. Worthless really. I’d like to import a terrain model with the right contours and the right view in the background. (I understand this is a data licensing issue. But, Google is richer than God, so should be able to solve that…and give it to us for free like everything else.)

Two big thumbs up for Google Sketchup. I’ll be using this a lot going forward. I may also be using it in my Product Design course next semester. (See, I didn’t waste a whole day playing on my computer yesterday. It was for my day job.)

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