How to learn to use SketchUp


If you’ve worked for any length of time at all in tech support, you have probably heard the term RTFM. It’s always been a Good Idea to read the instructions for any product before you use it. As products have grown more complex, however, the manuals have grown even more so. When I was little, the instructions to use a telephone were pretty simple and fit on a dozen pages (most of which included pictures and instructions in telephone etiquette). My antique Samsung flip-phone has a manual that is 206 pages long. An iPhone 7 (which I don’t have), has a manual that is 586 pages long. While, today, the practice of careful RTFMing is more important than ever before, most folks just rip off the wrapper and start poking at things.

SketchUp says that it is “The easiest way to draw in 3D” on their website. However, Mr. Internet has a slightly different opinion that leans more toward Intermediate than Beginner. This is not intended as a negative comment or observation, but it is necessary to highlight that SketchUp is easy enough for most folks to learn, but powerful enough for professionals as well. As a result, the recommendation to please RTFM before using, becomes a swirling dark hole of videos and contradictory information that tends to confuse more than to inform.

It is unfortunate that there is no single coherent on-line reference that can provide one-stop-shopping for SketchUp answers. Once I found this guide, ug_sketchup_win.pdf (3.0 MB), I was able to read it through and then go back to specific sections until I felt I had a pretty good grasp of everything. While this particular guide is for version 6, it pretty much describes the same tools as they exist in 2017.

I also found this quick reference guide for Windows: sketchup8refcardwin.pdf (388.4 KB)

The latest one for SketchUp 2017 is here*: sketchup2017refcardwin.pdf (308.6 KB)

And one for Macs: sketchup8refcardmac.pdf (384.3 KB)

The latest one for SketchUp 2017 is here*: sketchup2017refcardmac.pdf (308.7 KB)

Or follow this link: SketchUp

Reading the 1 page Reference Card is easier than reading the 390 page manual. Taking a few minutes to look at each item and learn how they work will quickly highlight some weak spots a user might have in their knowledge base.

I recently came across an old adage I had never heard before: "Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad” [Miles Kington]. In SketchUp, this translates into workflow and Good Practices. Everyone comes to SketchUp for a different reason. Some want to remodel their house. Or make money 3D printing. Or maybe model the new car that they bought. One of the biggest mistakes that new users make is trying to do something difficult and elaborate as their first project. While some people can run before they can walk, they are rare indeed. If creating several cubes in groups and intersecting them to form a solid is “impossible,” anything more complex is not going to be any simpler. Bad habits that are developed by not RTFMing before using, are hard to break and can become exponentially frustrating as a project evolves. This is often exhibited by newer users of SketchUp that have spent countless hours trying to accomplish a relatively simple task. Would reading 390 pages of a manual to learn the scope of a product provide insight? More than likely. But learning the details of the tools alone will not prevent you from putting them in the fruit salad.

I think the best way to learn SketchUp is to start with a simple model. Maybe some stairs. Or the outside of a house. Or just a few boxes and cylinders randomly drawn on one another. Designing an office building full of offices and furniture is not a good choice. Modeling that new Subaru BRZ is not a good one, either. Start with straight edges first, then play with circles. then extrude and manipulate surfaces (or facets). Try building a simple model three different ways. Installing the electrical in a real-world house is much easier before adding the floors, walls, and ceilings. This, of course, is obvious after you watch a house being built. Similarly, in SketchUp, some things are much easier when done in the proper order. When properly grouped and managed on layers. And learning to add the texture at the end instead of the beginning. When to scale up and when to not. And why.

RTFMing will give the user knowledge. Practice, practice, practice, will allow them to model Carnegie Hall.

  • Thanks to @DanRathbun for pointing me to the new Reference Cards!

What is wrong with the Community?
Making a bookcase in SketchUp (beginners tutorial series)

I was first dragged into using SketchUp by a co-worker who wanted to model our campus and put it into Google Earth. Having previously used a number of 3D CAD programs, I was more than happy to comply. As we worked on the buildings, however, my co-worker grew more and more frustrated with not being able to get SketchUp to do what he wanted it to. That was ten years ago and his frustrations stick in my mind today.

I think that the best place to start when using SketchUp, is to make sure that it is installed properly. On Windows systems, it is not enough to be the Administrator when installing it. On most newer systems, you should sign in with your preferred user account and then shift-right-click the package and select Run as administrator to insure that SketchUp can alter the permission scheme of the folders in order to function properly. The next thing would be to check the settings of the graphics card or internal chipset and make sure that it is configured according to Best Practices.

The next step would be to understand the user interface. While this seems like it should be self-explanatory, I would suggest starting with a simple layout. Hovering over one of the buttons will display the name of the tool and a brief explanation of its purpose (commonly called a Tool Tip). As the various buttons displayed below are understood and mastered (see the Reference Card in my last post for a more detailed summary), more can be added as desired. Start by keeping it simple.

One of the first How-Tos I read before first using SketchUp, was the suggestion to add the Large Tool Set shown above as well as the Views buttons. These are basically all that is needed to do the simple to the complex. Understanding and familiarizing oneself with them is the best place to start.

Once this is done, the next step would be learning how to navigate and orientate the workspace before moving on to anything more complicated. Start with a simple square or circle. Learn what Zoom Extents does. How do you Orbit the geometry? Or Zoom or Pan? What do those terms even mean? My co-worker had a lot of frustration with manipulating the geometry and its orientation to the rest of the model. Lack of understanding the differences of working in Perspective versus Parallel Projection views and how to orbit efficiently was a primary hangup.

Most new forum users will ask a simple question and be instructed to use Layers and Groups (or Components). My CAD background prior to SketchUp made this a no-brainer to me for anything more complicated than a shoebox. However, it was nearly two years into using SketchUp before I learned why you should keep (mostly) all of the geometry on Layer0. Also, you don’t need to be creating an elaborate model to use groups to keep things straight. Once it’s understood that Layers are not isolation boxes, but attributes of a group or component, keeping everything on Layer0 begins to make sense.

The manual has this to say about Groups and Components:

My rule-of-thumb for 35 years has been to treat every physical item I’m trying to model as a separate entity. While I can create a nut and bolt together, it makes more sense to put each in a separate group. And if I’m going to need more of them in my model, I make them into a component instead.

After struggling with orientation and views, my co-worker became frustrated trying to move things into place. A wall was easy to create, but it would stick to stuff when he tried putting it where it should be in the model. After putting things in groups, he was next frustrated in the copy-move-rotate class of modifications. Again, this was a basic lack of understanding about X, Y, and Z co-ordinate systems. The Red, Green, and Blue colors are there for a reason. It’s a Good Idea to pay attention to them.

Which segues into the subject of Inferences. Inference, of course, comes from the word infer which means “deduce or conclude (information) from evidence and reasoning rather than from explicit statements.” In SketchUp, this means having the software try to understand what you want to do and provide helpful hints as needed. Understanding the various types of inference is critical to learning how to use SketchUp and it is the key to creating the geometry you want correctly.

The manual says this about Inference:

From this point on, I think that it should be smooth sailing for even novice captains. And, if they happen to need some help in navigating the shoals of SketchUp, they will be better able to frame their questions and understand the solutions and advice they are given.


Jim, thank you for these essays!

Regarding RTFM, it has always been the case that some people struggle to learn that way; they need to learn by doing, not by reading or even by watching video tutorials. Others are simply impatient; reading takes too much time. Our current culture encourages this impatience. And some are arrogant: they assume that their background qualifies them, so the application is defective if they can’t simply sit down and use it.

It’s a sad fact that essays such as yours can’t fully overcome these difficulties, as one must read them to get the point - which is a paradox!


@DanRathbun suggested that I post this in a more prominent place than the Corner Bar, but it’s not really a guide to learning how to use SketchUp as much as it’s my personal soapbox rant about learning in general. SketchUp just happened to be the focus this week :wink:

That being said, however, I was hoping to maybe get some feedback here and a consensus on wording and material flow so that it might be more formalized and put into a fairly short Start Here reference. In the forums here, I’ve spent two plus years now watching new users struggle with the basics. In general, they eventually get the help they need. Others, however, don’t seem to listen to the advice and the helpful responses dwindle into nothing. This then causes frustration on the OP and much hilarity and grief generally ensues. Or not.

This is a key point … everyone learns differently. And a machinist will look at SketchUp totally differently than a carpenter would look at it. Or an architect. Or mold maker. So, maybe a Start Here should have links to videos (with narration) explaining the material being read.

Oh yes, I forgot …


Quick Reference Cards:


(good reading)
Maybe important to note is each tool shows relevant information on the status bar while applying it. This is often forgotten or goes unnoticed. It even helps the unpatient modeler.[quote=“slbaumgartner, post:3, topic:39207”]
And some are arrogant: they assume that their background qualifies them, so the application is defective if they can’t simply sit down and use it.
I couldn’t help thinking of replacing some of your words: application > job (as in president). Especially with the news that is getting to us now. Ah… forget it. I don’t want to hack this thread.


I am totally a guilty party of not RTFMing SketchUp.

I, similar to your co-worker, downloaded SketchUp because I wished to model something and import it into Google Earth. I downloaded SketchUp, was amazed at it, and watched a few of Trimble’s introductory videos on YouTube.

12 months later on, I’m still working on this same model, and I can confess to not developing the “correct” habits when it comes to modelling. For instance, I only discovered the “Intersect” function about 6 weeks ago. Guess how I was “intersecting” faces before? The hard way, by drawing on surfaces and playing “connect the dots” with the line draw tool. It (thankfully) worked out more often than not, but it was not efficient.

I’ve learned to pay attention to the cursor and what behavior it exhibits when I’m modelling. Often I’ll hover over a corner to draw a line out from it, only to see the cursor “jump” between two points that are very, very, very close to one another. Parallel Projection to the rescue. I zoom wayyyyyy in and, well, look at that. A parallel edge 1/32" away from the actual edge I wanted. Delete that, and - whaaa?? The entire face vanished! Click on the edges, and find they’re in 2 or more segments!..

And so pulling that one thread on the sweater unravels the whole thing, or at least a portion of it.

Yeah, I wish I had done a bit more study on this thing before diving in, but oh well. Hands on learning is the best. Or something.


Seems to me that there is one thing not even mentioned here:
The Instructor
Manuals, quick reference cards and tutorials on youtube are all ‘Out of the Box’ but instructor is within SU itself!
I think that the way instructor is now (select a tool: get the wanted instructions on the selected tool ) could be enhanced and developed more to a guided set of instructions.
Say, I am within the Architectural Template and I draw a rectangle. The instructor could suggest : "Hey, you’ve just added a rectangle, would you like to group them or Pull it up to a wall?"
Just a few hints in any direction would improve the learning curve.
The hints could be based on the selected template and maybe on the experience level of a user or even the last few actions (did he import a JPEG and started drawing rectangles on the image->maybe he is drawing a floorplan)
New at SketchUp ? -> Show the (Enhanced) Instructor


Something I left out of one of my earlier rants is learning how to use the selection box properly. Left-to-right Window Selection versus right-to-left Crossing Selection. In RTFMing the user’s guide, I discovered that this isn’t even mentioned until page 80 where the Selection Tool is explained. Up to that point, selected items are referenced, but no indication as to how to select them. Learning how to use the selection tool should be one of the first steps, I think.


For an extensive documentation of recent SU versions Bonnies ‘The SketchUp Book’ is always a recommendation worth.


I agree with much of what has been said on this topic, just want to add my take on “How to learn to use SketchUp” (not necessarily a new opinion, just in my words):

When approached with the right mentality, one does not need a manual to learn SketchUp. I didn’t anyway. The process for me was

  1. getting in and figuring out what I could myself, then
  2. listening to tips from more experienced users – tips on how to do better what I had already figure out how to do.

Of course, I was coming in with no prior experience in 3d or design software: this can be a big handicap in learning SketchUp, as we have all seen. But for someone coming in with an “un-corrupted” idea of 3d modelling, I say take the time to figure things out yourself, then come to a place like this to get better. That’s why I think the Skill Builder series was a great idea – again, a place to learn a better process for a task you already know.

For example: When somebody showed me how to use groups and components, I instantly appreciated the importance of the concept, because I had already wasted unnecessary hours wrestling with big, messy, groupless models, and some of them were pretty detailed. Now if someone had told me on my first day of SketchUp, “You have to put everything you draw in a group and assign it to a layer,” I would have rolled my eyes and said “What a waste of time. Let me get back to modelling.”

Get what I’m saying? People typically won’t appreciate a tip until they have tried the wrong way first, so I say let them try. Then once they come to the forum and see your shortcut, they’ll think you’re a genius. Always nice when people think that :wink:

I gotta run, but I might come back later and add to this.