SketchUp Guide: How to Get Started with SketchUp

SketchUp is one of the most versatile programs out there for 3D modeling. This post is part of an on-going series that will provide you with a closer look into its inner workings and teach you a few new tricks along the way so that you can maximize your efficiency and enjoy working in SketchUp.

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Where to Start?

We all have to start somewhere. There’s no shame in that; none at all. Let’s talk about the initial moments you’ll experience when you open the program for the first time so that you can get your bearings and step off with the right footing.


Installing SketchUp

First things first, you need to install SketchUp. I know that this may seem simple (and it is), but you can’t go much farther without this step. Hopefully that will become perfectly obvious to you if it isn’t already. But there’s a catch! Trimble (the company that owns SketchUp) actually makes different versions of the software.

As of this posting, you can download one two flavors of SketchUp: SketchUp Make and SketchUp Pro.

SketchUp Make

SketchUp Make is the ‘free’ version of SketchUp that you can download and try in order to learn the program and create personal projects.

SketchUp Pro

SketchUp Pro is the ‘paid’ version of SketchUp that gives you all of the tools from Make with additional functionality and tools for commercial and professional use. It costs approximately $700.

Note that SketchUp Make comes with a 30-Day trial of the SketchUp Pro functionality. After 30 days, you’ll be still be able to use SketchUp Make. For our purposes, I would recommend downloading SketchUp Make. Test it out first and then make the jump to SketchUp Pro later if you need to. I think you’ll find that SketchUp Make has most, if not all, of the functionality to still be dangerous as a 3D modeler.

Once you’ve decided on a flavor of SketchUp, all you need to do is download a copy, install it per the instructions given to you by Trimble, and boot up the program.

Your First 15 Minutes

You’ve installed your brand, new SketchUp program. Huzzah! Now the fun and excitement can begin!


When you first boot up SketchUp, you’ll be presented with a small intro screen. This screen gives you a few options to make your experience customizable from the get. The most important task here is to choose a template for what you’re going to be modeling.

Because this tutorial is geared towards architects and designers, you’ll almost always choose the “Architectural Design – Feet and Inches” template. Simply click it so that it turns blue and then click the button at the bottom right-hand corner that says, “Start using SketchUp.” A piece of cake!

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the program!

The User Interface

Once SketchUp has fully booted up, you will notice three primary items on the screen – The drawing area (complete with a complementary person provided by Trimble!), the default ‘Instructor’ tray, and the various menus and tool bars along the top and bottom.

The Drawing Area

This is the place you’ll spend the majority of your time. SketchUp is somewhat unique in that, unlike more advanced programs, it relies upon the simplicity of a single viewport at all times. The focus on a singular work area, however, can afford you focus that the others may not. Notice that there are three axes that stem from an origin point next to the character (Each version of SketchUp has a new one. In this case, it’s ‘Chris’). Each is a different color.

If you recall, only for a moment, your days in math class, you’ll remember that the three dimensions of space are the X, Y, and Z axes. In the case of SketchUp, each axis is represented in a color in order to help you navigate as you draw. X=Red, Y=Green, Z=Blue. Now, the important thing to remember here is that, for all intents and purposes, red and green are always horizontal, blue is always up and down. Since we can rotate the model any which way we please, the specific differences between red and green don’t tend to matter once you start on your way. All you need to know is that each of the colors is a different direction 90 degrees from the other.

The Instructor Tray

In SketchUp, there are buttons, toolbars and trays. A button is an icon tied to a very specific tool. The line tool, for example, has an icon that looks like a pencil. It’s your primary drawing tool. Toolbars group similar buttons together so that you can keep your interface tidy. Trays are larger, moveable toolbars that, instead of carrying buttons, carry additional information such as a list of the objects that are in your model or the controls for shadows.

By default, SketchUp provides you with the ‘Instructor’ tray to the right of your screen. Every time I load a new year of SketchUp, I see this tray and every time, I immediately turn it off. It’s unnecessary and you likely won’t use it.

Customizing your UI

One of the most user-friendly features of SketchUp is the opportunity to customize your workspace very quickly. If you go to Window along the top menu bar, you can select more Trays. Typically, I prefer to stack the trays along the right side of the screen so that they float. You can also add additional toolbars such as the ‘Large Tool Set.’ I will typically place a larger toolbar like that along the left side of the screen as shown here.

Understanding How to Draw in SketchUp

As I’ve mentioned before, SketchUp is about Drawing more than it is about modeling. You create three-dimensional models by drawing points, lines, and surfaces. These pieces connect together in order to form ‘solids.’ They’re not actually solid, of course. Rather, they appear to be because their forms are closed.

There are inherently two types of drawing tools in SketchUp. Those that actually draw the shapes you want to make and those that manipulate or adjust the shapes to your specification once they’ve been generated.

In order to move your view or ‘camera’ around, you can roll the middle mouse button back and forth in order to ‘zoom,’ hold it down and move the mouse to ‘orbit,’ or hold it down and the ‘shift’ key at the same time in order to ‘pan.’ Take a moment and test out the motion controls. Right click on the character in front of you and select ‘hide.’

Now that Chris is gone, let’s start drawing!


Draw Your First SketchUp House

Below are a series of steps to complete your very first model.

Step 1 / Select the ‘Line’ Tool and Click the Origin

Step 2 / Move your cursor along the Green Axis until it Snaps to It

Step 3 / Without Clicking again, Type 5’ and Press Enter. Repeat in a Clockwise Pattern Until You Reach the Origin Again

Step 4 / Select the ‘Push/Pull’ Tool and Hover Over the Surface. Once the Texture of the Surface Changes, Click and Drag Upwards.

Step 5 / Without Clicking again, Type 5’ and Press Enter

Step 6 / Draw a Line Along the Middle of the Top Face of the Box

Step 7 / Select the Line and then Select the Move Tool. Hover Over the Line, Click and Drag the Line Upward.

Step 8 / Without Clicking again, Type 2’ and Press Enter

Step 9 / Select the Rectangle Tool and Draw 2 Rectangles on the face of the Box

Step 10 / Draw a Rectangle Next to the Box. Use the Push/Pull Tool to Extrude the Rectangle as Shown

Step 11 / Move the New Box in Place Along the Top of the Box

Huzzah! You’ve Just Created Your First SketchUp House!


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SkillsMichael LaValley