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Shawn Pixley

Sketchup and the design process

Rating: 2 votes, 5.00 average.
From 2011: “There was a spirited discussion in the design forum around using SketchUp vs drawing by hand. I am a proponent of designing by hand, so if something else works for you, do it. First, I should explain that I never use anyone else's plans unless I am taking a class. I am also an Architect, Artist and Musician which may give some insight as to my nonconformist attitudes. I am not trying to espouse that you should design this way or that this way is the best, but merely that this is my way. This blog will be about the process of design conceptualization, design development, mock up, and fabrication of an individual project. This will be a one of a kind project and will not be necessarily like my other pieces. It will however be indicative of the design process I employ and what works for me. So enough with the disclaimers; if you are willing to go forward, you have been warned.”

My other blog posts have been on design fast and slow as well as how design changes over time. Now I decided I am going to create two separate blog paths:

  1. My SketchUp experiment and how the design has evolved for a Jewelry or treasured object box (this blog below). People have encouraged my not to denigrate SketchUp without using it. I think that is very fair. Here is the first experiment. I will follow this up with different project related blog entries.
  2. The second will be a much more general discourse on design in general and sub elements of design / aesthetic thinking. The progress on my development of design curricula for teaching design to woodworkers. I will cover that in a separate edition. (this is separate from below).

Given a small health setback, I have had some time to think about things. I would like to memorialize them for discussion / feedback. My woodworking slowed while I recovered but my brain wouldn’t shut up.

So, I was going to build a jewelry chest for SWMBO (she is a graphic artist / jeweler) as she has this horrible unit she picked up at a garage sale. The plan was to enter it into a competition but ultimately it would end up in our bedroom. A very nice SMC member sent me a dvd by Dave Richards which provided a great primer for how to use SketchUp as a design aid. The SketchUp worked well, but I couldn’t resolve how to build and hinge some coopered doors that were integral to the design. With this stalling and me still having the desire to enter a project in the competition, I decided to develop another design. I still have the design for SWMBO that I may cover later (S=send me a PM if you want to see it sooner).

Recently, I had been thinking about the power of the simplicity of shapes / objects. I thought I might wrap a box with a closure element as a design motif. The first thing I want to explore was the Basic Proportions (Wider, Taller, Square, Double Square, golden section, etc. – there is no right answer here, only a choice you make). I also wanted to explore what the wrapper might do. So after I watched the DVD and understood the rudiments of SketchUp, I dove in.
Box 1.jpg

I started this on April 5, 2014. I don’t spend any time on refinement here but want to see what various choices would mean.

Box 2.jpg

Ultimately, I selected a box Proportion consisting of a golden section (Front Face) and double square (Top relative to depth front to back). This made it 10” x 20”x 16+” in size. I also decided upon basic materials (Walnut and Birdseye Maple) for the Box and the “wrapper.”
Box 4.jpg

I then had to decide on the number of drawers and their proportions (Equal, Geometric Progression, or Arithmetic Progression). I built an excel table to do the calculations. Ultimately the arithmetic scheme was chosen.

Box Photo 1.jpgBox 6.jpg

I had been building the box for a while as I thought of differing ideas to make this art not just woodworking (necessary for this competition). I mentally explored inlay schemes for the box. I learned how to do this in SketchUp but I almost had to rebuild the whole model. I am sure this was largely cockpit error. I also determined how I would fasten the boxes together. I had this in my head the whole time but it was time to put it down on paper (or at least 1’s and 0’s). It was at this point that my health issue forced a complete halt to all woodworking. I turned my energies to healing first, and as I felt better, I thought of various design choices. The non-completed box sat there staring back at me and I was forced to confront a stark truth, “would this be too big to sit on a table?” I’ll come back to that question in a second.

Box Photo 2.jpg

At a certain point I could return to my woodworking in limited doses. I completed the box and the wrapper with some limited embellishment. I also completed the top Handle, the Hasp Pins, and built a model of the Hasp Shackle to be cast in bronze.

Box 8.jpg

So when you stand next to this, you realize how big the box is. Ultimately, this will be sold or given to someone outside our house. It needs to be universal enough to fit into a number of situations. It also needs to be practical enough to open, observe, or pull out the objects inside. Would this be better as a cabinet on legs rather than sitting on a table or counter? Given the nature of the box, that might make a lot of sense. So this is where I stand today. I am still exploring design choices but am leaning towards putting it on legs. The long legs are very elegant, but the owner would need to be reasonably tall to feel good ergonomically using it.

So what is the verdict on SketchUp? I think it definitely has moments where it is invaluable. It also has challenges. Some things I could do much faster by hand, but other times editing in SketchUp is preferable. I don’t think there is a right or wrong here, I would choose relative to the task at hand.

Next time – Design Details & Choices


  1. Shawn Pixley's Avatar

    Good question. I suppose using sketch up has changed my view point somewhat.

    Do I think it is a great design tool for me? - no. I can work faster by hand and the edits necessary to work out details are a bit cumbersome. I already think in 3D, so like you, little advantage there. After the basic design was worked up, I did not take the time to completely rebuild the model to determine how to fabricate the pieces. I figured that out in my head. But I think there are two nice features to Sketch up:

    1.) The ability for others to visualize it the way I see it in my head
    2.) Edits in the middle of a project can be explored pretty simply

    In short, I view it as a tool like any other. good for some purposes, not for others. A plane does not make a good screwdriver.