10 Tips To Get You Started With Google Sketchup

Considering an architect can cost up to $250 an hour, having professional renovation plans drawn up can get expensive fast. While there is no replacement for a professional when determining your final plans, creating a 3D model of your renovation can save you some cash by presenting the architect a general idea of what you’re looking for.

Google Sketchup is a free 3D modeling program that I’ve been using for a couple of weeks to do just that. It allows me plan the renovations to scale and then walk around the house as if I were in it, giving me a better idea of where what works on paper and what works in the real world coincide. I did this once with a kitchen renovation, and it worked out extremely well.

In my short time working with the product, I’ve compiled a number of tips and resources to help minimize your frustration and get you up to speed faster with your own project.

1. Customize Your Toolbar

Sketchup starts with a limited toolbar so that the new users aren’t overwhelmed, but the limited format will have you hunting around for a lot of the basic tools you’ll need. Hunting in a new program can be very frustrating, so do yourself a favor and activate the following toolbars from the View / Toolbars menu. Having only these toolbars visible should give you access to 90% of the tools you need:

  • Large Tool Set
  • Standard
  • Layers
  • Views
  • Face Style
  • Google
  • Shadows

2. Learn To Use Layers Early

A Layer is like a group of objects that can be hidden. Getting large groups of items out of the way without having to physically change their positions will make the modeling process much less frustrating. I would suggest storing your outside walls and the related windows and doors as one layer, each floor as its own layer, and all your renovations in another layer.

3. Dock Frequently Used Windows

I have found it useful to keep certain windows available when working on my model. Click the following items from the Window menu and drag them to the upper right to dock them together. Clicking on the title bars will minimize them in place to keep them out of your way:

  • Materials
  • Components
  • Layers


Playing with Sketchup a little before you read the manual can increase your comprehension, but you will save yourself a lot of time and frustration if you at least skim through the Google Sketchup Users Guide (.pdf) before you dive into a full project. Some things in Sketchup are very intuitive, but others are painfully not.

5. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

There is no reason to spend two hours building the perfect model of a bookshelf if your real objective is to model a renovation. Unless a specific, custom bookcase is essential to the room, you can save a lot of time by downloading pre-built models included in the Sketchup Bonus Packs or some individual, user-built models from Google’s 3D Warehouse.

6. Customize Your Components

When you insert an object from the components list (such as a staircase or counter) and it isn’t exactly what you want, you have the ability to customize it. Start by moving the object away from all your other components (if you don’t, reassembling the object will be painful). With the object selected, click Edit / Component / Explode. This will break the object into its individual pieces. Make the changes you want, highlight all the pieces of the object, and select either Edit / Make Group or Edit / Make Component to reassemble it.

7. Creating a Triangle

You can create squares and circles by clicking on the square or circle buttons, so you would think that creating a triangle would be as simple as clicking the triangle button. It’s not. The triangle button is actually the “Create Polygon” button, which will create a hexagon by default. To create a triangle, create a hexagon and right click its edge. Select Entity Info to change the number of sides to three. If you click the middle of the hexagon instead of the edge, you will slowly go insane looking for a “Sides” parameter that isn’t there.

8. Tell Google Where To Go

Because your model is three dimensional, Sketchup has to interpret the direction you want an object to go when you move it. It usually works pretty well, but when items randomly switch planes and shoot off into the horizon when you move them, it can drive you berserk. There are two ways (that I know of) to guide Sketchup’s interpretations. If an object is moving in the direction you want, holding down Shift will lock whatever plane you’re moving along. If you can’t seem to get an object to move in the direction you want, hold down one of the arrow keys as you drag to force the movement into a particular plane. Left is Red, Right is green, and up & down are the blue axis.

9. Measure Twice, Cut Once

Use the tape measure (shortcut T) to measure off areas before creating your components. The tape measure tool will create dotted lines that your components will snap to. These lines can then be deleted after your components are created.

10. Learn the Shortcuts

Things go so much faster if you learn Sketchup’s keyboard shortcuts. More complete information can be found on the Google Sketchup Quick Reference Card (.pdf).

  • Arc Tool (A)
  • Paint Bucket Tool (B)
  • Circle Tool (C)
  • Eraser Tool (E)
  • Offset Tool (F)
  • Pan Tool (H)
  • Line Tool (L)
  • Move Tool (M)
  • Orbit Tool (O)
  • Push/Pull Tool (P)
  • Rotate Tool (Q)
  • Rectangle Tool (R)
  • Scale Tool (S)
  • Select Tool (Spacebar)
  • Tape Measure Tool (T)
  • Zoom Tool (Z)
  • Zoom Extents Tool (Shift+Z)
  • New (Ctrl+N)
  • Open (Ctrl+O)
  • Save (Ctrl+S)
  • Cut (Ctrl+X)
  • Copy (Ctrl+C)
  • Paste (Ctrl+V)
  • Print (Ctrl+P)
  • Redo(Ctrl+Y)
  • Undo (Ctrl+Z)

Further Resources

If you’re just starting with Sketchup, you may have a lot of questions beyond what was covered here, so below are some tutorials, forums and extra information that should help. Good luck!

11 thoughts on “10 Tips To Get You Started With Google Sketchup

  1. I’m convinced that Google will be the next skynet. I had no idea that they had their hands in modeling software. Curious, I decided to see what all google had which lead me to their wiki page. WOW.

    Everything from image labeling games, music trending … What next? Fast food?

  2. Thanks for the ten tips – they have helped me significantly.

    I am particularly grateful for your tip 4 with the link to the PDF version of the User’s Guide – I had only come across the html links for individual topics. Reading the manual is so much easier than trying to read individual topics.

    In tip 7 you describe one way to create a triangle using the polygon button. Another way to do it with this button is, after you click on the button, type “3” and [Enter]. This replaces the “6” in the VCB – the value control box located in the lower right corner of the screen – with a “3”, thus designating a triangle. Now, click on the drawing area and you will see that the polygon is in fact a triangle. If you want to create, for example, a dodecagon, simply enter a “12” rather than a “3”.

  3. I’ll have you add some other tips.

    1. Create shortcuts
    I don’t know if I can live in Sketchup if I can’t create shortcuts (Windows > Preferences > Shortcuts). Create shortcuts for all common things you do that isn’t assigned shortcuts by default.

    2. Realize that in Sketchup, the polygon tool and the circle tool IS THE SAME TOOL. The circle tool just have high number of polygons so it looks like a circle. And be aware that you can change the number of polygons used to draw a circle.

    3. You don’t need the “Standard Toolbar”. Most Windows users know (or should know) by heart what Ctrl-N, Ctrl-S, Ctrl-O, Ctrl-C, Ctrl-X, Ctrl-V, Ctrl-Z, Ctrl-Y, and Ctrl-P means.

    4. Learn what each slight movements means to the “inference guesser”.
    This is what differentiates Sketchup from other 3D tools, the inferencer detects some movements (movements that you mightn’t notice you’ve done) and would infer where you want to go. All of the regular movements like going parallel to the axis (Red, Green, Blue) and parallel to the current line (Pink) might be noticed without reading the manuals, some like the inferencer would infer your line parallel to an arbitrary line by pausing the mouse a few seconds over that line isn’t so obvious (but could speed up sketching by a lot).

    5. Learn/notice what each change of line color and dot color means. (I’m pretty sure this last tip isn’t needed since most user should be able to notice it pretty fast and make use of it in a glance)

  4. pps. uh it’s ok i think i just found the answer

    The “Value Control Box” (VCB) is located in the lower-right corner of the SketchUp window. If you can’t see it, the most likely reason is that your SketchUp window size is larger than your available screen viewing area. In that case, the bottom status bar of the SketchUp window, which includes the “VCB” box, can be hidden behind the Windows taskbar (the bar that contains the “Start” button).

    To recover your view of the VCB, maximize the SketchUp window by clicking the “Maximize” button, which is in the upper-right corner of the SketchUp window, to the left of the “Close” button (the red button with a white “x”).


  5. I don’t know if this changed between versions but with Sketchup7 you don’t hold down the arrow keys (item 8) to force an inference, the arrow keys act as a toggle. Holding them down causes (apparently) inconsistent behavious which is most frustrating. Toggling when using the Move tool causes the cursor to change. There is no cursor change for Line and Tape Measure.

  6. Some good starting tips John.
    I’m a keen amateur draughtsman and have been using SU for a while now and agree with your advice and would like to add a few of my own thoughts.
    Layers are very useful but slightly confusing if you are used to Autocad etc. I would strongly recommend the use of components, gets you out of a ‘sticky’ situation when moving geometry, (for those just starting out ‘stickiness’ is a feature of SU) however care is needed to ensure the correct layers are selected for building them. If you can get your head round it, a component can be on one layer and the lines and faces on any number of other layers leading to some ‘interesting’ effects/errors.
    The use of x-ray face style can also reveal some otherwise hidden errors. (Be very careful when making selections during x-ray display)
    If you find yourself disorientated during panning, orbiting and zooming the shift+z zoom extents and the standard views shortcuts get you back on an even keel.
    I’m a iMac user so my key combinations are occasionally, slightly different to Windows users but there is an oddity, of limited use I would think, usually during orbiting the model stays oriented upright, however if you hold down the alt key on the mac the constraint is removed.
    Finally, as usual if all else fails and you inadvertently delete, move or mess up your model there is always the undo (Ctl+z windows, cmd+z mac) sometimes better to use it from the menu as this gives you a hint as to what it going to undo.
    Oh, and my advice would also be save your models frequently, nothing more annoying than toiling into the wee small hours only to lose your prize winning design.

  7. This is a great writeup on SketchUp.

    I really like the “Dynamic Components”. I created a model once with intricately customized components, including floor joists. Now I can set parameters in Google’s Floor Joist Component (or whatever it’s called) and quickly create an entire floor of 2x10s.

    I also created a walk-in closet with those wire-frame shelving units, and Google’s dynamic component version of the shelves make it easy to trim out modeled closets.

    I’ve been using SketchUp for years now, and I still can’t believe it’s free (non-“pro” version, anyway…)

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