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Sketchup: A Woodworking Video Game

I fought SketchUp for a long time. It’s not that I thought it was a bad idea, it is more that I was afraid it would consume my time. Building a model of your next project in SketchUp is almost like woodworking in that you get to create the joinery and assemble the parts. I get the same feel of excitement in the planning of the project as I do during the build. This is very dangerous.

I can’t tell you how many days on the river I have lost in the last 25 years tying flies and “getting ready” to go fly fishing. Tying a fly takes only a few minutes and it is enough fun to do that those few minutes can quickly turn into hours. Tried and true fly patterns are nice, but it is always sweet to add your own touch.

“What if I add a bit of Marabou along the body then rib it with copper wire to create motion and flash in the water?”

Fly Fishing FlyBefore you know it, you have a fly box stuffed with great patterns that have never tasted a cold stream. You had a blast making them, learned a lot about creating flies, and probably a great bit of entomology too. You might say the time spent at the fly vise has made you a better fisherman…to a point. If you get on the river and you can’t execute that roll cast into the wind and drop that lovingly created fly exactly where you want it without the river dragging it unnaturally away from your target trout. If you can’t cast the fly you will never catch a fish.

So back to the wood shop. If you cannot saw a line then it doesn’t matter how beautiful that SketchUp model is or how much you have learned about the joinery. You will end up frustrated and cursing a blue streak as your project doesn’t look at all like the clean lines and piston fit joinery you created on the computer. So there is the bad part of SketchUp and the reason I have fought against including it in my design process for every build.


For the hobby woodworker who perhaps sits at a desk all day and only gets a few hours in the woodshop each week, SketchUp can be a really great tool. Spending your lunch break doing some virtual woodworking can go a long way to giving you that fix we all need. Moreover the beginner still trying to understand which joint to use and when will gain a lot by piecing thing together this way. Maybe this is just the way I build but I usually start with a rectangle that has been push/pulled into a “board”. I then layout my joinery using the tape measure tool and “cut” it with a variety of other tools. This virtual process very closely resembles how I actually build in the wood shop and only serves to strengthen my own process. Whether using power tools or hand tools, layout is always such a key step to tight fitting joints. SketchUp really cements this process and helps you understand where to remove wood to get a good fit. This is all for basic joinery and is really helpful.

Now imagine you are creating something entirely new with a joinery method you haven’t used before. I’m designing a tool box for Semester 4 of my Hand Tool School that incorporates compound angle dovetails. Cutting these with hand tools is no different than a standard dovetail joint. Saw to the line, transfer to the mating board and repeat. The hard part is laying out the angles on the first board. Maybe I’m geometrically challenged but wrapping my head around this joint is making me cross eyed. 15 minutes in SketchUp and I know not only know how to lay out the joint, but why I do it that way and how to repeat it in the shop.  This is a topic for another post.

This presents a very fine line to tread. SketchUp can solve many woodworking problems while working to create more if we don’t shut it down and get down to the shop. In many ways SketchUp is like a woodworking video game that can suck up many many hours of shop time. Of course all those years of playing Duck Hunt served me pretty well the first time I went to a shooting range.

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