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Woodworking drawing; is SketchUp always the best option?

The huge growth in numbers of people using drawing software for craft applications is probably most marked in the woodworking and furniture design worlds. As an illustrator for a number of UK woodworking magazines, I used to get letters from readers asking how I drew the 3D exploded perspectives which appeared every month. Nowadays, its more common to receive finished SketchUp models from the article authors themselves, along with the text and pictures which will illustrate the project.

There was usually a good reason why those readers wanted to know how I drew in 3D; many wanted to do the same, either for design or presentation of ideas, or both. I had to tell them that the software I used was expensive, complex and difficult to use. This wasn't me protecting my work; it was true. Then SketchUp happened, or at least, a change of ownership of the software took place, and that new owner was Google.

Google acquired SketchUp as part of its push to promote Google Earth, a project I still don't fully understand, but somewhere the idea of 3D modelling all the buildings on the planet and placing them on a virtual reality globe existed. SketchUp would be the vehicle by which this was achieved, as individuals modelled their own houses and significant buildings locally, and these were incorporated into a bigger picture. Significant resources were put behind SketchUp, in the form of really good online tutorials, and this, coupled with the fact that for a 3D program, SketchUp is really accessible and relatively easy to learn, plus, and most importantly, it was FREE, meant that large numbers of people found that they too could produce decent looking perspective drawings after all!

There are now large and growing online communities and websites dedicated to SketchUp, and some of these are just focused on the use of SketchUp in woodworking. In many ways its an ideal program for drawing furniture and other timber projects, which tend not to be too complex (there are exceptions), and usually include a significant amount of rectangular shapes. its an ideal tool to quickly produce an outline of something like a table or a cupboard, testing the proportions and adding features in a few minutes. With the aid of various plugins, you can even come up with a pretty good photo-realistic image, which can be a huge advantage if youre trying to sell the idea to a client. Changes are especially easy to make, and you can add and subtract in seconds. I have been a big fan ever since I first used this software, and I still am.

However, it does have its limitations. The most obvious one appears when you want to produce some working drawings from your 3D model. The current owners of SketchUp, Trimble, have made it almost obligatory to purchase the "pro" version of SketchUp, which retails at a little under £350, if you want any meaningful dimensioned 2D output. This is probably not unreasonable if you are using the software to earn money, and on a regular basis. However, there are large numbers of woodworkers who don't really fall into this category. In addition, even the pro version doesn't, in my view, come close in its 2D capabilities to a professional CAD program, which has far more powerful and faster 2D drawing tools, and which are actually easier to use, for this purpose. If you want fully dimensioned plans, my view is that SketchUp isn't the answer.

So what is? Many people will have heard of AutoCAD, the market leader in the CAD world, which, in its various versions aimed at different groups of professionals, retails around the £3000 mark or above. What is less well known is the existence of what could be termed AutoCAD "clones" which are available at either a fraction of that price, or completely free. These clones don't have the full capabilities that AutoCAD has, obviously, but they do have a very similar command structure and tool functions, which means that if you can use one of these programs, you can use AutoCAD or another clone within minutes, and become fairly proficient in a matter of days. The skills are transferable, basically.

There is now a really great "clone" available called DraftSight, and best of all, its free, just like SketchUp. Its published by a major European corporation, so has significant resources behind it. They are hoping that users will upgrade to their highly respected 3D software, SolidWorks. Its cross platform, so can be used by Apple users as well as in the PC and Linux worlds. For really professional looking plans, details, and things like templates which might be put through CNC machines, this is really the way to go. It means learning a parallel program, and the useability of drawn information between SketchUp and DraftSight is pretty limited, which is a real shame, if predictable. If you want to draw and output 2D woodworking and furniture plans and templates, though, download a copy of DraftSight. You won't be disappointed.