Whenever I start thinking about a new furniture project I start with a sketchbook and pencil. I find that armed with these simple tools I am best able to explore all the potential design ideas that may surface.
Because there’s no shortage of paper, I can keep drawing potential ideas for the project at hand. The sketches don’t have to be award winning, they just have to present the basics of the design and have a relative sense of scale and proportion (if the sketches don’t at least relate a basic sense of proportion, potentially good ideas might be dismissed early because they are not pleasing to the eye). In the pictures you can see a couple of quick sketches that I did for a sofa table that I am building. You can see that these are nothing special, but they do convey the basic elements (for example the style of the legs and aprons) of each potential design.
Sometimes I will break off on within a page to explore specific elements or details of the design (i.e. maybe a closer look at the legs of a table or the molding of a cabinet). This helps me to brainstorm and eventually capture some design details to eventually be transferred to the final project. Eventually I hit on a design idea or detail that interests me enough to explore it further. At this point I usually move beyond the pencil and paper to the computer to complete the design.
Because I have limited CAD skills, a while back I went looking for a more straightforward tool to use. I wanted a tool that could be an extension of my simple hand sketching with the ability to create the appropriate detail and dimensioning necessary to build a project. The other thing that I wanted was the ability to see the resulting design in 3-D. A little over a year ago I found a tool that met all of these criteria with one downside: it was pretty expensive to purchase for the average woodworker. The company offered a demo program that I tried and liked – the software met all of my criteria, and then some. Luckily for all of us in the woodworking community the original company was acquired by Google. The software is called SketchUp and Google now offers a free version that I use (there is also a Pro version that you can buy but I have not yet found a need for the extra features that it provides).
SketchUp works as an extension of my original drawings while allowing me to detail as much or as little of the design as I would like. Generally, I use the tool to capture the necessary dimensions to create a working drawing from which I can build the project. The tool allows you to actually design every Mortise and Tenon joint or Dovetail if you want to. However, I only occasionally use it in that fashion if a particular aspect of the joinery warrants the extra study. The real benefit of SketchUp to me is that I can continue to evolve my design electronically until I have something that I am ready to build. The 3-D modeling capabilities allow me to see the project from all angles before I cut any wood. Because the drawing is to scale, the visual model provides a very good representation of what the project will look like when it is built. In the picture (click to enlarge) you can see the how the design of the sofa table that I showed drawings of evolved with SketchUp.
There is currently a lot of buzz in the Internet Woodworking community about SketchUp and how it can help woodworkers and designers. If you try it and have questions or want to learn more, you can browse to a couple of the many sources of SketchUp information on the Internet. Sketchucation is an online community devoted to all things SketchUp. You can also visit the official SketchUp Online Help Center where there are tutorial videos on the use of the software.
I am by no means an expert on the use of SketchUp. However, by it’s basic design and with with all of these on-line resources available to help the program is fairly easy to learn. I plan to continue to evolve my skills with this tool and I think that my future projects will benefit from it. If you are serious about improving your design capabilities or you want to improve your ability to communicate your designs to someone, you should really give SketchUp a try. What do you have to loose, it’s free!
Once you’ve had the chance to try the software you can try your hand at a recently announced on-line contest over at LumberJocks (co-sponsored by Popular Woodworking) for a SketchUp designed Virtual Dining Table. Who knows, you may learn a new skill and also win some cool prizes!