Comparing SketchUp to Other 3D Modeling Programs

By Aidan Chopra

Among the widely available 3D modeling applications, SketchUp is the easiest to use. This software has been successful for one reason: Within a few hours of launching SketchUp for the first time, you can get good enough at SketchUp to build something. You have no thick manuals to read, and no special geometric concepts to understand. Modeling in SketchUp is about grabbing your mouse and making someth

So how long should it take you to discover how SketchUp works? That depends on your background and experience; in general, you can expect to make something recognizable in less than four hours. That’s not to say you’ll be a whiz — it just means that SketchUp’s learning curve is extremely favorable. You don’t need to know much to get started, but you’ll still pick up things years from now.

But is SketchUp easy? SketchUp is, without a doubt, easier than other modeling programs, but 3D modeling itself can be tricky. Some people catch on right away, and some folks take longer. If you want to build 3D models and you have an afternoon to spare, there’s no better place to start than SketchUp.

Three-dimensional modeling software comes in two basic flavors: solids and surfaces:

  • SketchUp is a surfaces modeler. Everything in SketchUp is basically made up of thin (infinitely thin, actually) surfaces — dubbed faces. Even things that look thick (like cinderblock walls) are actually hollow shells. Making models in SketchUp is a lot like building things out of paper — really, really thin paper.

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    Surfaces modelers like SketchUp are great for making models quickly because all you really need to worry about is modeling what things look like. That’s not to say that they’re less capable; it’s just that they’re primarily intended for visualization.

  • Using a solids modeler is more like working with clay. When you cut a solid model in half, you create new surfaces where you cut; that’s because objects are, well, solid. Programs like SolidWorks and Autodesk Inventor create solid models.

    People who make parts — like mechanical engineers and industrial designers — tend to work with solid models because they can use them to do some pretty precise calculations. Being able to calculate the volume of an object means that you can figure how much it will weigh, for example.

    Also, special machines can produce real-life prototypes directly from a solid-model file. These prototypes are handy for seeing how lots of little things are going to fit together.

An important point to reinforce here is that there’s no best type of modeling software. It all depends on three things: how you like to work, what you’re modeling, and what you plan to do with your model when it’s done.

One of the niftiest features (introduced in SketchUp Pro 8) is a set of tools that lets you manipulate special solid objects in your models. The Solid Tools feature offers a whole new way to work in SketchUp.

Yet another caveat: The truth is, you can split 3D modeling programs into two groups another way: by the kind of math they use to produce 3D models. You can find polygonal modelers (of which SketchUp is an example) and curves-based (NURBS) modelers.

The former type uses straight lines and flat surfaces to define everything — even things that look curvy, aren’t. The latter kind of modeler uses true curves to define lines and surfaces.

These yield organic, flowing forms that are much more realistic than those produced by polygonal modelers, but that puts a lot more strain on the computers that have to run them — and the people who have to figure out how to use them. Ultimately, it’s a trade-off between simplicity and realism.