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SketchUp How-To


Lieber Leser, im Gegensatz zu meinen anderen Papierwerke-Seiten ist diese Seite auf Englisch geschrieben, weil ich in meinen Software-Werkzeugen einfach meistens „auf englisch“ denke. Wenn Sie Interesse an dem Inhalt haben, aber mein Englisch nicht verstehen, fragen Sie bitte einfach. Meine Mailadresse finden Sie am Fuß jeder Seite.

A Good Tool: SketchUp

SketchUp is a great tool for 3D wireframe and polyhedron surface modelling. There is a free version that has all the functions you need for 3D modelling and a professional version that adds some import and export formats, a layout tool and a style builder. It runs on the most common operating systems (Mac OSX and Windows– no Linux as of 2010, though) and is very intuitive to use.

However, if you want to use SketchUp for large projects and want to expose your results to critical professionals, just doodling, fun though it is, will not do. You want to create results that are consistent, that you can change easily when needed, and you want to work efficiently. Efficiency comes from certain sources: Experience with the task, knowing your tools, re-using results, getting things right the first time, knowing where to look for things you don't have or know, to name a few.
Some of these skills you can only get by doing a task repeatedly, but for some aspects you can use shortcuts by using proven recipes. Exactly that is what I mean with "method": Using experiences others made. And of course the method I describe here is also built on what I heard and read from others. My own experience comes mostly from architectural and landscape models, but the method should work for any project. I invite you to try it.

My SketchUp Project Method

The method items are often presented as questions. Sometimes a few typical answers are provided, but they are only meant to fuel your own imagination. Test yourself by trying to explain your answers to someone else– if you have difficulties to do so, you are probably not quite done with thinking!

  • Know Your Task
    This is the base of your work. If you fumble here, you cannot expect to get good results. Take this point extremely serious. Errors are most expensive when discovered late in the project; they may be beyond repair when time is running short at the same time.
    • Who is your client?
      What is his focus? How well do you know him? Is there a common understanding of the task? Why do you believe there is?
    • What exactly is the expected result? For which purposes will it be used?
      Interactive use, visualisation, presentation, what-if-studies, ...
    • When and in what intervals will you present the model to your client?
      Avoid working for yourself and then present only the final result- you may be in for a surprise. Plan in-between evaluations and acceptance sessions. Never take for granted that you and your client have the same idea of the task; such an understanding is not just there, it must grow. Iterative working is the keyword.
    • To whom exactly will it be presented?
      Underline the names of the persons that are most important. Could they have differing agendas?
    • What secondary results will be derived from the SketchUp model?
      Printed exposé, video/slide show, fly-through DVD, physical model, re-use in future projects, education, ...
    • What is the extent of your model? Which parts are most important?
      Which parts will the client look at first? What would delight him? What will he only look at cursory?
    • Take notes of your answers in this section and read them again from time to time!
      Many a game has been lost by players getting carried away with the course of play, forgetting the victory conditions.
  • Understand the Object
    Again, the time you spend here is well-spent. It save countless hours of re-doing things that you did not properly understand when you rushed into modelling. If you do this right it may look like meditation. Support your imagination by doing pencil sketches.
    • Understand the physical aspects of the object!
      Gravity is your friend: What rests on which other parts? What are bases and what needs firm support? What would fall or tilt without support, and into which direction?
    • What is the bottom plane of you model? What other horizontal planes are important?
    • What are the vertical dividing planes? Between which horizontal planes do they run and through which do they cut?
    • What are the natural building blocks of the object?
      What masses are naturally coherent? Where are natural dividing lines and planes? Imagine that you should model the object from wood and had only an adze as a tool.
    • Which parts of the object are the most important? Which parts must be detailed to what extent?
    • What are the boundaries of the model?
      Or, as sometimes it is easier to see: What is definitely not a part of the model?
    • Visibility: What aspects of the object will be visible? Will you need to switch parts of the model on and off?
      Can you omit certain parts of the object? Will you need partial views, like dollhouse views or floor views?
    • Which physical aspects of the object need to be modelled close to nature?
      Are you free to break down walls, floors and roofs as it would be most practical for the model, or do you need to model certain physical elements coherently, as they are in reality? (Hint: Try to avoid such requirements, they may make your work very hard.)
    • Where will you put your model's origin and zero-Z-level?
      Note: You can easily change that later, for now choose by practical considerations. For example, consider from which points most dimensions are measured.
  • Plan the Model
    When you have understood the object, plan how to build your model.
    • Decide upon measurement units and all the other stuff you find in the Model Info window.
      Be practical. You can change all of this later if needed. US citizens: Remember that he rest of the world (except Liberia) thinks metric; try to get used to the thought if you plan to work internationally.
    • Split your work into sections, according to their importance. Often it makes sense divide your work into main objects, their surroundings (landscape, "flatwork base") and the "bells & whistles", i.e. the small things that make the scenes lively and natural but that are largely independent of the model itself (people, cars, vegetation, lamps etc. may fall into this category, depending on the type of model).
      Often it makes sense to start with a fast sketch of the landscape, then concentrate on the main objects, then detail the landscape. Do not get side-tracked by "bells & whistles" early in the project!
    • Remember that you can use components as placeholders. Use such such placeholders to break down the physical size of the model until the final rendering.
      If the technique is unknown to you, look at the "Components" section, below.
    • Check for re-usable parts of the model; plan to build components for them.
  • Organise Your Work
    Do not try to do this all at once or you will not get anything done, organising takes time and experience. Try to take notes. Try to imagine whether you would understand your notes a month later.
    Some of the following remarks are not really project-specific, but you need to plan them ahead for any project. Repetition leads to a consistent style of work.
    • Look for ready-made components you are going to need (the "bells & whistles" section is a likely candidate for such needs).
    • What materials are you going to need? Is there anything special that the customer must provide or expects? Will you need textures that take a lot of time to get them right, or that cost money?
    • What styles do you need? The customer may expect a certain style for the final rendering. In your modelling sessions, some styles are more practical than others for certain aspects of your work, it is great to switch between them with one click.
      Find the styles you need most often, edit them to fit your needs, and save them in a template.
    • Try to make an estimate for the time you will need for certain tasks. Plan for extra money you need for components, textures and scripts. Make a realistic schedule.
      They say "Planning replaces chance with error", but sometimes it is inevitable to do it. And try not to cheat yourself.

Project-Independent Hints

Here are some more things that you can do to organise your work and that are not project-specific. Many of these hints have to do with organising your tools and raw material. Think of a craftsman that has, after years of work, all the right tools and lots of material assembled in his shop; when he needs something, it is usually within reach.
The opposite example is the badly-organised DIY man who has to run to the hardware shop every couple of hours. Or minutes.

  • Know Your Tools
    • use groups - layers - components - in the final model no object should be ungrouped - no group/comp on level 0 xxxxxxxxx
    • sandbox tools, not only for landscapes! draping xxxxxxxxx
    • Look up the help or a manual for the SketchUp tools you use; many tools have hidden capabilities that can speed up your work.
      Do you know how to use every tool in the toolbar? Do you know when to use it and when not? Could you explain these things to someone new to SketchUp?
    • When you have used always the same tools for some time, take a look at the other tools. Why did you not use them? Do you not need them, or do you avoid them because you do not understand them?
    • Read tutorials and watch tutorial videos to brush up your skills from time to time. This is a very good use of slack time between projects.
    • Read what others tell you about SketchUp. You will certainly find things you missed completely and others you could do better.
    • Evaluate downloaded models, for example from 3D Warehouse. Do you understand how they were made? How would you build them? What could you improve, and what techniques should you copy for your own work?
    • Understand what groups, components, layers and scenes are useful for. In your final design no element should be outside a group or component, and no group or component should be on the default layer (Layer 0).
      • Use groups to to keep elements together, to avoid gluing in unwanted places and to assign materials to a number of bojects in one step.
      • Use components if a piece of geometry is needed more than once in the model. An extended concept of component use are placeholders (see below, "Reload" technique) for faster work or collaboration. Components can be organized into libraries and can be made dynamic (needs SketchUp Pro and some programming skill, though). Components also have a number of neat features- they can be set to glue to faces when placed, and they can automatically cut openings into faces.
        My opinion is that understanding components is one of the keys to professional work with SketchUp.
      • Use layers, and (almost) only layers, to control visibility. My rule is to have most simple elements on Layer 0, and most groups and components on other layers. Remember that layer visibility is evaluated top-down; for example, if a group is on a non-visible layer you will not see any of its elements, regardless of the layer these elements are on. Place anything you may want to switch on or off independently on its own layer. SketchUp has no concept of sub-layers, so invent some naming convention for your project to easily find the layers you want to use.
        Do not use hide/unhide to control visibility, it is quite tedious. In particular, Unhide is difficult to handle when you have a mix of hidden objects. Use Hide only to remove really unwanted things.
        Sometimes it makes sense to hide edges through the seetings in the Style; see advice on visibility control below.
      • Styles are also able to control visibility of edges and faces, but they can do a lot more. Switching the style can make your model look very differently.
      • Scenes are often thought of as something to use in final rendering and display, but they are also great if you often need to switch between certain views on your model; they are much neater than using zoom in/zoom out, hundreds of times per session. They also remember a lot of things like style and fog, camera location, layer visibility, hidden entities, section planes and even axis locations. In other words, each scene can be a dedicated working environment inside your model. You can also decide for each scene whether it should be part of an animation, so your "workspace" scenes will not interfere with the "visualisation" scenes.
        In short: Scenes help to work efficiently.
    • Some things to try for yourself:
      Do you like Autosave? It will break into your work every few minutes, but you are sure not to lose a lot when SketchUp crashes (which, unfortunately, it is apt to do at times). I switch it off and try to remember to save at crucial points. Sometimes I forget and promise to reconsider.
      Do you need naming conventions for layers, components, materials etc.? I always think I need them and always come up with things to difficult to remember. Opinion: If it is more than three sentences, it probably is too complicated.
  • Visibility has been a topic in some of the advice above. Here is what I do currently– this may change with future experience. It takes some time to keep to this method, but I feel with this procedure I got the balance between effort and effect about right:
    • Layer 0 (default layer) is always visible. No top-level object is ever on Layer 0.
    • Use "Hide" only for edges you definitely never want to see again (like the edges the Push tool creates where lines and arcs meet).
    • Place edges you do not want to see most of the time on a layer of their own. So you can very quickly switch them on when needed (for example, to snap to) and can switch them off when not.
      You can make this a multi-stage device by using more than one such layer, for example when you want to single out lines that should be visible in a "sketchy" style but not in a texture-rendering style.
      I did not yet feel the need to use more than two such layers.
    • A trick I use to prepare models for walk-throughs: Closed doors do not look good when walking through a model; open doors may look untidy when viewing the model otherwise. The solution: Create a copy of the door (you always make components from your doors, ne c'est pas?) and rotate it to an open position. Place all open doors on one layer and all closed doors to another layer. Switch those layers on and off as needed. Store the layer settings with the scenes you use.
    • Visibility affects rendering time! Invisible things will not be part of the what-is-visible-and-what-does-it-look-like calculation; the more you see the longer it takes to render scenes.
  • Organise Your Components
    You need to understand SketchUp components if you ever aspire to even modest fame as a modeller. As soon as you do, you will find how many other SketchUp users don't; just take a look at 3D Warehouse if you are brave at heart.
    To have a set of proven components at your disposal is a treasure that saves time and effort. You should spend some time to acquire a set of components that are small, proven and that are in a style you like.
    • You can get a lot of components from 's 3D Warehouse, but do not expect too much: Along with some excellent things you will find a lot of junk.
      For the furniture items I downloaded I'd guess about 90%. Most common problems, in my opinion: Unnecessary geometry, hidden geometry or geometry hidden on switched-off layers, wrong scale, funny origin; not using components or using them wrong; huge texture images; not removing unused components and textures from the model.
    • Some models are even disastrous if loaded into your SketchUp session, so: Never download unknown components directly into your project file!
      Write that down 100 times. Or save your model before you go to the Warehouse.
    • The best way to download components from 3D Warehouse is not from within SketchUp, but through a normal web browser. Use the web browser's functions to open models that interest you in new tabs or windows and compare before you download.
    • When you click the download button, you can see the model size before you download it. Never use large components when small ones will do. Possibly reduce component size by simplifying them, for example by using smaller textures.
      In an architectural model you can easily use some hundreds of components– just imagine the file size when each of them were just one MB large! Some people have no scruples to upload a salad bowl with a size of 8 MB. Without the salad, that is.
    • Download models in batches and evaluate them later. Clean up the components you want to keep (set correct scale/size, glue faces, origin; remove unwanted geometry and guides; check for hidden geometry; set layers according to your own conventions).
    • Make download sessions outside the normal project work. Collect models for one theme you are going to need, clean them up, and organise them into SketchUp files or into model collections. Then work from these proven collections when the project demands it. It is very distracting to hunt for individual components just as you need them.
      For example, when you know you are going to need kitchen furniture and appliances, make a list of what you need and then go hunting. Stop when you have everything you think you need, clean up, organise
      There are several ways to organise your components. I sort them by use (kitchen, bath, garden, bedroom etc.) but for you other criteria may be better (like manufacturer, material, colour, ...).
    • In some cases it makes sense to have the same component in several levels of detail, for example 2D and 3D. Use the simple variant while modelling and replace them with the sophisticated version only for the final rendering. You can use the "Reload Component" function of SketchUp to great advantage for this.
    • This "Reload" technique can also come in handy to distribute work into several models that can be worked on independently, either to share work between several people or to keep the model size small and SketchUp fast. Here's how you do it:
      • Create the "big" model. Represent the major objects by very simple elements, for example a building by a cuboid. The only restriction: Get the boundaries between the elements exactly right. Make the building into a component and save the component. Do this for all major objects in the model. Close the big model.
      • Open the component file and detail the building, or send it to someone to detail it. Be careful not to change the boundary to its neighbours in the big model. Save the component file and close it.
      • Now open the big model file again, right-click the building placeholder and "Reload". Choose the component file you just edited and confirm.
      • Voila! The simple building component (actually all its instances, if more than one) are replaced immediately by your splendidly detailed building. Looks like magic, and is quite useful.
    • Do not forget to purge unused components from your models! Unpurged they still take up space in your file, even if they are not used anymore in the model. (Hint: The "purge unused" function is in the Components window.)
  • Organise Your Textures
    Textures are another thing that comes in many qualities, very similar to components, and an equally important part of your toolbox.
    • The hunting rules are the same for components, above.
    • Try to use bitmaps with a small footprint. JPEG is better than PNG for most photo-realistic textures. Save the JPEG in a size and quality just sufficient for your task.
    • Many textures you can download look nice but do not tile properly, i.e. when filling a face you see repetition boundaries. Get better textures or improve them yourself; bad tiling looks amateurish.
    • If you are going to render your model with special rendering software (like Kerkythea, for example), get texture libraries for that tool and use them in SketchUp. This will later save the time to re-assign textures before rendering.
    • Do not forget to purge unused textures from your models! Unpurged they still take up space in your file, even if they are no longer used in the model. (Hint: The "purge unused" function is in the Materials window, "In Model" section.)
  • Get the Scripts You Need
    SketchUp's functions can be easily extended and work accelerated through script programming (using the Ruby programming language). Do not waste your time to write your own scripts if you can avoid it; lots of scripts have been written, and probably there will be one that covers your problem. Many scripts are free, others cost so little that re-writing them does not make sense.
    • Look up the SketchUp script repository and the Smustard site. Browse through their scripts to see what they have got.
    • Get the scripts you have always wanted to have immediately.
    • Take a note of scripts which you think may be useful for certain tasks.
    • Try to understand the purpose of scripts that seem arcane to you. Do they hint at some way to improve your SketchUp skills, at things you did not know?
    • Repeat the above points every few months to catch those scripts you did not know you missed.
  • Stay Tuned
    So you learned a lot about SketchUp by now, but in this job your knowledge has a short half-life span. Things are moving fast when thousands of people co-operate and compete!
    • Join some SketchUp forums and look into them from time to time. You will get a lot of advice that you did not even know you needed, and you will hear about new SketchUp releases.
    • In all forums, keep forum etiquette meticulously. Apply manners as if you wooed the other forum members.
      Do your homework before you post in a forum. Use the search function before you ask questions. Remember that a quick question you post may occupy helpful forum members for hours.


  • 3D Vinci tutorials (excellent tutorials, well worth their price; available as PDF download and printed)
  • Bonnie Roskes: SketchUp Cookbook (O'Reilly Media, 2009, ISBN 978-0596155117)
    Tutorial with problem solutions, explained on exemplary projects
  • Daniel Tal: SketchUp for Site Design (John Wiley & Sons, 2009, ISBN 978-0470345252)
    Using SketchUp for architectural work. The book oscillates between very good practical advice and very basic technique descriptions.
  • Robin de Jongh: SketchUp 7.1 for Architectural Visualization (Packt Publishing, 2010, ISBN 978-1847199461)
    Using SketchUp together with rendering software to get high-quality images. Very specialised, no SketchUp tutorial for general work.