7 Surprising Kick-Ass Things You Can Do with Google Sketchup

Alex Castle

As a part of Google's quest to be the undisputed overlords of the Internet, they've made a lot of quality services available for free. Gmail, Google maps and Google Docs are all famous examples, but one of the search giant's coolest free offerings, Sketchup , flies under a lot of peoples' radars.

Sketchup is a free 3D modelling tool developed based on the philosophy that by giving people a small set of powerful, intuitive tools, you can lower the barrier of entry to 3D modelling, so that almost anyone can make quality 3D models with just a couple of sessions of practice.

Still not conviced to give Sketchup a try? We've compiled a list of 7 awesome things you can do with Sketchup that you probably didn't know were possible. Did you know, for instance, that you can create a Left 4 Dead map in Sketchup? How about that you can design your own papercraft models? Read on to find out more!

Build a Model of Your House from a Floorplan

There’s something oddly rewarding about seeing a tiny version of your house. And beyond just the “Oh, neat!” value of seeing your living quarters in miniature, there’s real utility in being able to rearrange your furniture and try out different wall- and floor-coverings without actually having to do any heavy lifting. Fortunately, with Sketchup it’s surprisingly easy to make a model of a building interior. To do so is essentially a three step process:

1)    Obtain a floorplan of the building. If you live in a rented property, you might be able to ask your landlord for a floorplan, or you can simply take measurements of your rooms and draw your own floorplan in your preferred graphics program.

2)    Make a 2D replica of the floorplan in Sketchup. This step is easier than you might imagine. Simply click File > Import to import the image of your floorplan into Sketchup, and place it flat. Then, using the Rectangle, Line, and Offset tool, trace over the walls, drawing directly onto the floorplan. When you’re done, make sure to delete any extraneous lines.

3)    Finally, use the “Push/Pull” tool to extrude the walls you’ve drawn up. Click the surface, and type “10’” and press enter to manually select a height of 10 feet for the walls. Next, to make doors, simply draw a rectangle on the wall where the door should be, and use the “Push/Pull” tool to push the door through the wall, making a hole. You can copy/paste the door-shaped rectangle around the house, so you don’t have to individually draw each door. Repeat the same process for windows.

And that’s it! Now you’ve got a model of your house, ready to be furnished.

If you’d like more in-depth instructions about how to do this, Google has an excellent video tutorial here .

Design Your own Papercraft Schematics

You know about papercraft , right? It’s the art of making models out of paper and glue, generally from plans downloaded from the internet (and also one of our 50 things every geek should know ). With Sketchup, and a program called “Pepakura Designer,” you can create your own papercraft plans.

Here’s how it works:

First, you create a model in Sketchup. Simpler is better, particularly if you’re new to papercraft. Models with lots of rounded surfaces will produce difficult-to-follow plans, and won’t look as good when complete.

Next, you export your model as a Google Earth 4 kmz file. Unfortunately: Sketchup 7 is not able to export in the Google Earth 4 kmz format. Fortunately, it’s still easy to find older versions of Sketchup with a Google search, so you’ll need to install one of those to make your Papercraft model, and export it as a Google Earth 4 kmz.

Finally, open the kmz file with Pepakura Designer , which is shareware. The full version costs 40 bucks, but with the trial version you can still create papercraft plans and print them, you just can’t save your projects for later.

Now you’re ready to cut, fold and glue your papercraft model.

Design custom furniture

Alongside architects and designers, woodworkers have been one of the groups of professionals to embrace Sketchup in a big way. And why not? It’s quick, allows you to work in real-world measurements, and there are plugins to add all sorts of woodworking-specific functionality. For instance, here’s a free plugin that takes a Sketchup model, and creates a cutlist and layout. That means it shows you exactly how much of each type of wood you need to buy, and shows you how to cut it so that you get all the pieces you need, while wasting as little wood as possible.

If you’re interested in woodworking, or would like to try your hand at making furniture in Sketchup, check out Design Click Build , a site with tons of helpful guides about woodworking in Sketchup.

Image Credit: Tim Killen

Make a Left 4 Dead Level!

For a lot of computer users, their first experience with 3D modeling was in building levels for one of the classic 3D shooters, like Quake. In terms of sheer fun value and sense of accomplishment, it’s hard to do better than getting to run around and gun down your friends in your newly created model. While Sketchup was not originally meant for making game levels, Google’s been making efforts to move in the direction, starting with a plugin that allows you to use Sketchup to make levels for Hammer—the level editor that powers Source engine games like Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress.

Making a Left 4 Dead level in Sketchup is a pretty simple affair with the Hammer Sketchup plugin. First, install the plugin by downloading the Left 4 Dead Authoring tools in Steam (requires a purchased copy of Left 4 Dead) and finding the plugin in \Steam\steamapps\common\left 4 dead\sdk_tools\plugins . Extract all files in the plugins folder to Sketchup’s plugin directory. Once you’ve done that, two new items will be in the “Plugins” menu next time you start: Export SMD and Export VMF.

By allowing you to export as VMF, the Hammer plugin lets you to save your Sketchup models in a format that the Left 4 Dead version of the Hammer level editor understands. This means you can use Sketchup to quickly model props for Left 4 Dead models, or even entire level geometries, then use the Hammer editor to add the finishing touches, like scripting and AI pathing.

A word of warning: the Hammer editor is finicky, and this affects how you have to model in Sketchup. The primary concern is that Hammer requires that all brushes(objects to be placed in the level) have a convex topography, which is means no straight line can intersect a brush at more than two points. This means that any components you wish to use must be composed of simple, convex blocks, which themselves have to be made into components (by selecting them and pressing G in Sketchup). This can be a tricky process, so if you want to learn more, check out this link and keep your eyes on MaximumPC.com—we plan to offer a more detailed guide to Sketchup and Hammer in the future.

Use a Raytracing Renderer to Make Photorealistic Images

Once you’ve modeled something in Sketchup, it’s hard to resist the temptation to show it off to anyone who’ll look. But even with a wealth of style and lighting options, it’s hard to really make an object in Sketchup look great, or anywhere near photorealistic. Fortunately, there are 3rd party renderers that make up for this deficit.

For a free option, you can try Kerkythea. It's a freeware renderer with a Sketchup plugin available and can put together some pretty decent renders. For more information about how to setup and use Kerkythea with Sketchup, check out this blog post .

Image By: Alex

If you’re ready to move onto something a little bit more powerful, there are some relatively affordable renderers available, such as SU Podium, which has a free evaluation, and sells for $180. Unlike the previous renderer, SU Podium works directly within Sketchup, so you don’t have to start up a separate program, then export and import a sketchup model to make a quality render.

Image By: Evil Elvis

Of course there are also more advanced, general purpose renderers such as V-Ray that can be used to make photo-realistic images of your models, but these carry an industrial-strength price tag, sometimes running into the thousands of dollars.

Image By: tranganhhp

Make Custom Logos and Icons

Although Sketchup’s primary purpose is as a 3D editor, it can also be useful for making 2D images. For instance, for a quick 3D effect on a logo, import an image of the logo into Sketchup, then trace over it and extrude. Then paint the logo with the right colors using the texture tool, select a style, and export it as an image (File > Export > Image).

Step One: Import
Step Two: Trace
Step Three: Extrude and Color
Step Four: Style

If you want a transparent background, you’ll have to do a little post-processing using your photo editor of choice. Just pick a style that uses a flat white background before you export, then use a color-select tool (such as the “magic wand” in Photoshop) to select and delete the background.

This technique is also great for creating large custom icons for use on a website or in Windows Vista or 7. Just model an object in SketchUp (or download one from the 3D Warehouse), export an image, and then use a photo editor to remove the background and scale it down to icon size. Here’s a set of Moleskine icons made in Sketchup by Max Brown :

Turn Your Building Model into a Blueprint

An architectural or design model is great for visualizing an object or space, but sometimes you want a more old-fashioned, formal view of an object. Here’s how to turn your model into a printable plan, like this:

First you’ll need to annotate your model with dimension lines. To do this, select the Dimension tool from the Tools dropdown menu. If you’d like quicker access to the all the tools in Sketchup, and not just the essentials, enable the larger toolset by checking View > Toolbars > Large Toolset and unchecking View > Toolbars > Getting Started. To draw a dimension with the dimension tool, simply click on two points of your model, then move the mouse to one side or the other to “pull” a dimension line out. Depending on which direction you “drag” the line, it’ll measure different distances. For instance, if you pull to the right, it’ll measure the vertical distance between the two points, and if you pull up it’ll measure the horizontal distance.

Next, we’ll change the view to a straight-on side view. For this, first click on the Camera dropdown menu and uncheck Perspective. This will make your model look weird if you look at it from any sort of angle, but is the only way to get a perfect side-on view. Next, open the Camera menu again, then select Standard Views and select the side you want to view your model from.

Now you should have a nice, straight-on side view with labeled dimensions. If you want to take it a step further, you can give it a simulated blueprint style by opening the Styles window and then choosing Assorted Styles > Blueprint.

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