Design your projects with 3-D software

Easy and free project design software

By Art Mulder

design sketch

Photo by Tobias Wian

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I’ve been working with computers for more than 20 years. But I still usually reach for a pencil and paper when sketching a project idea. Cost and complexity have been the main reasons I’ve stayed away from computer-aided design (CAD) software. But, thanks to Google, the Internet powerhouse that runs the most popular search engine on the web, I’m turning over a new leaf.

Earlier this year, Google purchased @Last Software and made a simpler version of its SketchUp program available free for personal use. You can download both Macintosh and Windows PC versions at

SketchUp comes with short, self-guided tutorials. Everything is three-dimensional in SketchUp. Draw a rectangle, then use the push/pull tool to pull it up and you have a board. Do that again, and you have another board. Add a few vertical boards, and within minutes you have a bookcase roughed out on your screen. And since it’s in 3-D, you can spin, zoom and move around the bookcase to look at it from all sides.

You still have to figure out all the measurements, joints and other details on your plan, but this allows you to draw your idea and tweak the design. Once you’re satisfied, save your model and come back another day, print it or export your images as a JPEG or PDF file.

There are several ways to keep learning more. First, there’s online help on the site, as well as discussion boards so that you can share knowledge with other users. Another interesting feature is the 3-D Warehouse: Google runs an online database through which people can find and share SketchUp models. I found countless sample houses when I searched, as well as pools, decks and even a tablesaw.

I only tried the free version, but the Pro version of SketchUp costs US$495. It offers many more import and export formats, and access to technical support.

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