What You Should (and Shouldn’t) Expect SketchUp to Do

By Aidan Chopra

Have you ever been to a hardware store and noticed the multitool gizmos on the racks next to the checkout stands? If you prefer specialists — tools designed for doing one thing really well, SketchUp’s one thing is building 3D models. Here’s a list of things (all model-building related) that you can do with SketchUp:

  • Start a model in lots of ways: With SketchUp, you can begin a model in whatever way makes sense for what you’re building:

    • From scratch: When you first launch SketchUp, you see nothing except a little person standing in the middle of your screen. If you want, you can even delete her, leaving you a completely blank slate on which to model anything you want.

    • From a photograph: You can use SketchUp to build a model based on a photo of the thing you want to build; it’s not really a beginner-level feature, but it’s there.

    • With another computer file: SketchUp can import images that you can use as a starting point for what you want to make. SketchUp Pro can even import CAD (computer-aided drawing) files that give you even more of a head start.

    • From a geo-location snapshot: If you’ve ever used Google Earth, you know that Google has amazing aerial imagery and 3D terrain data for the whole world. In SketchUp, it’s easy to grab a geo-location snapshot (a small chunk of the planet, basically) to use as a site for your model.

  • Work loose or work tight: With SketchUp, you can model without worrying about exactly how big something is. Your models can be super-sketchy or absolutely precise. SketchUp is just like paper in that way; the amount of detail you add is entirely up to you.

  • Build something real or make something up: What you build with SketchUp really isn’t the issue. You work with only lines and shapes — or in SketchUp, edges and faces — so how you arrange them is your business. SketchUp isn’t intended for making buildings any more than it is for creating other things. It’s just a tool for drawing in three dimensions.

  • Share your models: After you make something you want to show off, you can do a number of things:

    • Print: Yep, you can print from SketchUp.

    • Export images: If you want an image file of a particular view, you can export an image in one of several popular formats.

    • Export movies: Animations are a great way to present three-dimensional information, and SketchUp can create them easily.

    • Export other 3D model formats: With the Pro version of SketchUp, you can share your model with other pieces of software to create CAD drawings, generate photorealistic renderings, and more.

    • Upload to the 3D Warehouse: This is a giant, online repository of SketchUp models. Add (or take) all the models you want.

What can’t SketchUp do? A few things, actually — but that’s okay. SketchUp was designed from the outset to be the friendliest, fastest, and most useful modeler available — and that’s it, really. Fantastic programs are available that do the things in the following list, and SketchUp can exchange files with most of them:

  • Photorealistic rendering: Most 3D modelers have their own, built-in photo renderers, but creating model views that look like photographs is a pretty specialized undertaking. SketchUp has always focused on nonphotorealistic rendering (NPR) instead. NPR (as it’s known) is essentially technology that makes things look hand-drawn — sort of the opposite of photorealism.

  • Animation: The movies that you can make with SketchUp involve moving your “camera” around your model. True animation software lets you move things around inside your model. SketchUp doesn’t do that, but the Pro version lets you export to programs that do.