I've been learning SketchUp. It's... pretty good. I gave it a try a few years ago with version 6 and I found it intolerable, but version 8 seems to be much improved.

I'm in the process of making a ridiculously detailed 3D model of DNA Lounge, based on our blueprints. The end goal is to end up with some imagery that looks like this amazing poster of The Haçienda, a defunct nightclub that I have fetishized since I was a kid.

I'm finding that this project is tweaking the same kind of zoned-out obsessive parts of my brain that I get building "real" models, like that orithopter and zeppelin, even though it's not physical. It's fiddly and trance-like and hours go by.

Anyway, about SketchUp:

  • Watching the first four tutorial videos was a big help, because there's a lot about the UI that is non-intuitive and non-discoverable. CAD software UIs are notoriously awful, and SketchUp seems better than ones I've tried before, but it's still pretty weird.

    In many ways it's a lot like Illustrator. So much so, in fact, that almost every way in which it is unlike Illustrator annoys me. Now, don't get me wrong, Illustrator's UI is also non-intuitive and non-discoverable. Illustrator has a learning curve like a plumb line. It's just that I've already put in the hours and hours and hours to learn it, and now I'm learning something new that's almost-but-not-quite. To put it another way: Illustrator is the Qwerty of drawing UIs. Why are you coming at me with this Dvorak nonsense?

    The most frustrating thing about it is that it wants to "merge geometry" all the time, which means, you draw a line or a face and it snaps the endpoints to existing endpoints. Illustrator does this too. It's familiar. Here's where SketchUp fucks that up:

    1. When you move an object and SketchUp snaps two points together, they become the same point. You can no longer ever separate those two objects.
    2. There's no way to turn off "Snap to Point".
    3. There's no way to turn on "Snap to Grid".
    4. If an object is invisible, the mouse doesn't snap to it, but it will merge with it!

    That last part is so absurd I couldn't actually believe it at first, but really. Look:

    That is truly an error message for the record books. Has anyone ever said, gosh, I sure would like this random click I just made to be affected by something that I can't possibly see?

  • So it turns out that there are two things you have to do to avoid this: First, group everything. Things inside groups will snap to, but not magically-merge-with, things in other groups. So basically after you've laid down your second endpoint, make it a group if you want anything to behave sensibly.

    The second is that, as far as I can tell, Layers are completely useless. In every other program that I've ever used that had a concept of "layers", those are grouping objects that sit one level above other kinds of groups, from which you can control visibility, editability, etc. Not so in SketchUp. "What layer am I on" is a property of a vertex. They don't group things at all. I think a single rectangle can end up with it's corner points on four different layers. Also, layers control only visibility. They're a bulk way to hide vertexes, that's it.

  • The other thing I find really frustrating about the UI is how often you have to switch tools, and how much that slows things down. In Illustrator, if you're in the "Selection" or "Direct Selection" tool you can not only select things but move them. In SketchUp, you constantly have to switch back and forth between the Select and Move tools, or Select and anything else.

    Illustrator has the thing where you hold down the space bar and are temporarily in the "Hand" tool for scrolling. SketchUp uses middle-button and Option-middle-button for that, but it's kind of awful because -- something that I have recently learned -- dragging my mouse while holding down the mouse wheel hurts after a while. I only just learned this because I've never before used an app that made me do that. Now I have a bruised little divot in my index finger.

  • I find that the rectangle tool just about never does what I want, unless I'm aiming at two existing points on an already-coplanar polygon. And even then, not always. The line tool plus inferencing seems to work better, mostly? Inferencing (the snap-to-horizontally-aligned points lines it draws) gets confused a lot, too, especially by background clutter. I keep rotating things to get a view of the "sky" behind me when I'm drawing.

  • The Orbit tool is confusing, because it is not the kind of "virtual trackball" type of behavior I've come to expect from other programs. It does not orbit around the center of the screen, or even around the X/Y position of the mouse: it seems to orbit around the object under the mouse (or possibly some point on that object's interior?) This means that if you slip, it's easy to end up orbiting around some object that is miles away, and moving just a few pixels whips you out to the Wild Blue Yonder and you have a very, very long walk back.

    Likewise, the speed of zooming in and out varies depending on what's under the mouse. This means that if you back up and slide inside an object that was behind you, you have to roll that mouse wheel for a mile to get back. Seriously, 3 clicks backward to fall into the "wall whiteout", then 50 rolls forward to return. So frustrating.

  • Given how picky everything about SketchUp is about things being co-planar or otherwise aligned, I'm amazed that there are no "Horizontal Align" and "Vertical Align" tools, e.g., multi-select some vertexes and say "I expect these to all be lined up, make it so." (The "Move" and "Scale" tools plus inferencing are almost this, but they only work on objects, not individual vertexes, and you have to do it one line at a time.)

  • It is incredibly easy to end up with two points that look like they're the same point, but that are not. I guess it happens when you have a lock on a point, but twitch just slightly when you click? You end up with a second point next to the first point, but so close to it that they are visually identical on the screen. You only notice this later when you can't close your object and fill the surface, and then you're on a mad hunt for the broken point. You can only see them if you zoom in absolutely as far as you can, and even then, you can't really get close to them or you run into the camera clipping plane! Maybe these points are so close together that floating-point rounding errors are actually coming into play? Look at this shit:

    Is something wrong here? I can't tell.

    "Enhance! Enhance!"

    Oh, too bad, you're out of zoom. Hope you have good eyes and a steady hand.

  • But even worse, once you have identified that you have two points that didn't snap together but should have, you have little recourse. Basically you have to delete one or both of them and re-draw everything that was connected to them. There's no way to just lasso them or something and say "merge these". At least, I've had no luck picking one up and dropping it on to another. Even if you do that, you end up with flat surfaces that are subtly but perceptibly buckled diagonally, because inevitably you picked the wrong point and now your walls aren't coplanar, or aren't at right angles. (See also "no 'Snap to Grid', no 'Align Vertically'.)

  • It's so frustrating that I can't multi-select faces to use the push-pull tool on them all at once. Yes, you can double-click each face in turn to repeat the last push-pull distance, but I find that half the time when I do that it pushes instead of pulls, or vice versa.

  • Sometimes the Arc tool will lay down an arc that is exactly tangential to both edges of the right angle I'm trying to turn into a curve. I've done it by accident several times. Never on purpose.

    Related: once you've used Follow Me to turn a line into a tube, you can't ever reshape it in any useful way. Hope you saved a copy of the original path!

  • Importing DXF files is a pain in the ass. The only way I could make it work was to use a trial version of SketchUp 6 Pro. The importer no longer works in SketchUp 7 or 8.

    It is shameful to ship software using a new file format that does not have import and export of the existing decades-old formats as a basic feature.

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32 Responses:

  1. Illustrator is the Querty of drawing UIs.

    It's QWERTY, not Querty. My OCD is tripping over itself with this.

    Otherwise, I agree with this review (though I haven't used SketchUp since 7, it seems Google doesn't like fixing anything major).

  2. CTD says:

    Last I read, Google was not giving SketchUp a lot of support. You may find it worth your time and molar surfaces to buy AutoCAD or CATIA or some such.

    • Ben Brockert says:

      I use Solidworks. It's meant more for machines than architecture, but I've used it for architectural stuff.

      It's fairly easy to learn, as it has decent tutorials, and for everything in JWZ's list it either does it "right" or has a way to fix the problem. For example, for zooming weirdness you can just click a perspective button to get back to somewhere reasonable, and for accidental close points it will zoom to them for you and you can always zoom tight enough to manipulate them.

      • Jez Weston says:

        Oh God, Solidworks is just beautiful. It is the closest that humanity has ever come to a UI that does want you mean, not what you say. Solidworks has spoiled me from ever using any other CAD package.

        ...and it costs several thousand per year.


        • Ben Brockert says:

          I got a free copy with the Simulation suite for offering to do free work for a nonprofit that got sponsored by them. Worth about $10k, a fairly good deal.

          I hear, arrr, that other mateys I know have found alternative ways to get Solidworks at low cost. Arrr.

    • That could be because google actually sold off sketch-up awhile back:

      Not sure what Trimble's plans for it are but I'd give them some time to get up to speed with their new toy before expecting much to change.

      • CTD says:

        My looking-up-stuff was from a year ago (tangentially, I was trying to find out why there's no Linux version), but I am not surprised by that. It actually may be good news for the product.

  3. Here are a few tips that might help you out:

    When using the rectangle or circle tools (and others), find a face that is in the orientation that you want, then hold down shift. This will lock your new rect or circle to the plane of your choice.

    I don't recall if you are using a Mac, but on the Mac version there are single key shortcuts to the tools. r for rectangle, c for circle, and spacebar takes you back to the pointer. You can switch between them while modifying geometry too, so jumping to the oribit tool with o and back to the circle with c (for example) can make some things way easier.

    Also when using the orbit tool, holding down shift turns it into a pan.

    Holding down the option key when you click on a part or group to rotate or move it will cause it to be duplicated.

    When I hit the camera clipping plane, I hit the isometric view (cmd-7) which seems to reset the camera somehow. It appears to be a weird bug of some sort.

  4. Components and Layers : if you came from autoCAD, the layers might still have relevance (for attributes only). the Component inspector tree is great though.

    i use the origin tool to reset it to the center of my model. this helps with both orientation of non-orthagonal shapes and changes the rotation point.

    when that still doesnt work, I have found that cntl-shift-E (command-shift-e) to view extents makes it slightly better to get back going where you were again once you've done a 'death-zoom'. this is shitty workaround,to be sure, but it saves some time when the UI location system goes to pot.

    "but I find that half the time when I do that it pushes instead of pulls, or vice versa. " this has to do with which side of the plane is currently "out" . still stupid, faces should default to camera-side=out on creation but the don't and weirdness ensues.

    anyway, Sketchup is a great tool with many limits. many of which you're describing have given me the sweats.

    have fun when your model gets "big" or god forbid "foliage"... it can really slow the works.

    also, Autodesk is giving out free one year trials of Autodesk inventor. works in OSX now...

  5. I've tried to get the hang of it a few times and always gotten frustrated. Things like entering exact measurements throw me off since there's no obvious input method - you just do it and hope it understands what you wanted. But once I got used to that it got a lot easier to deal with.

    I found the official videos to be of little help for me, but these (from an ex RIM engineer) finally helped it make enough sense I was able to complete a few drawings for some projects with it:

  6. EricH says:

    In Window/Model Info/Units there is "Enable length snapping" that may give the snap-to-grid behavior you want.

    A lot of Sketchup users make heavy use of plugins. There's a good index over at SketchUcation. For example, with your problem trying to find holes in your geometry, there is "Solid Inspector" by thomthom which will highlight where your holes are (though once you've been at it for a while, this is a rare problem).

    Similarly with the problem of not being able to push/pull multiple faces. The Joint Push Pull plugin from Fredo6 solves that problem and much more.

  7. Neal C says:

    Are you aware of Autodesk's 123D?
    I've not tried it myself, but I think it's meant to be an easy modeller in the SketchUp niche, presumably intended to get newbies pushing money through the associated fabrication streams.

    Btw, if you've not seen it, 123D Catch is a lot of fun - I used that to scan my sister last year, while it was in early beta.

  8. turbofart says:

    jwz: sometimes I have the same frustration with unintuitional keyboard/mouse shortcuts in different software, so I use to remap keys for one particular application. It's a nice tool worth checking, if you did not know about it yet. Cheers.

    • turbofart says:

      Oh, shit, now I've just learned, that you don't use M$ software. You can simply delete my comment. Cheers anyways.

      • Lun Esex says:

        The OS that jwz uses has built-in menu shortcut remapping for any application. (OS X)

        Still doesn't help for actions that solely require holding down meta keys, like Command/Option/Shift/Control, or a particular mouse button, or the (unmodified) space bar. There are 3rd party software utilities that can remap mouse buttons to keyboard keys (the one I use is called USB Overdrive), but I'm not sure about vice-versa.

  9. relaxing says:

    I actually felt my anxiety levels rising as I read this, and had to quit 3/4 of the way through.
    Queasy, chest pounding, ears burning, labored breathing.

    God, software is horrible.

  10. reboots says:

    Remember the IBM Spaceball? Remember how badass the dystopian cyberpunk future was gonna be once 6DoF pointing devices trickled down to the Street and worked with anything besides a tiny subset of fantastically expensive 3D applications?

    Well, the Spaceball is still here; it costs $95; it works great with SketchUp; and it feels fucking awesome to grab, twist, pull and rotate your 3D models (until your carpal tunnel caves in).

    Also works with Google Earth.

    • jwz says:

      Actually, I had already ordered one of those! Actually the SpaceExplorer. It just arrived today, and after a couple hours of use, it seems pretty nice. I'm not totally used to it yet but it's a vast improvement over the mouse-wheel pain-device.

    • nooj says:

      Does it have an option to rotate the view centered on the object? I want to pretend that I'm grabbing the object and pulling it closer to my face.

      Most CADs want to manipulate the camera itself or rotate around some mysterious point in the view (like the origin!); but the front/back clipping planes get in the way or something something, and the object slows down and quits getting closer. (If you know more about 3D rendering than I do, you know what I mean and can articulate this better.)

  11. Sheilagh says:

    Hmm. Do you think The Haçienda could've been an Entrance 2 Hell?

  12. If you are looking for a replacement to SketchUp and don't want to deal with Solidworks (I'd recommend using that if you plan on doing structural analysis or part building), try Rhino 3D It's in development for Mac and is mostly stable and is free to test at the moment.