Every year, I go through a review of my software suite and processes to see if there’s anything I can do to improve or streamline things further. There wasn’t much this year in the way of new software to choose from (I’d already upgraded to Photoshop CS5 back in 2011), but I was intrigued by the fact that there were now 3 unfolding plugins for Google SketchUp, 2 of which are specifically oriented towards papercraft development. I thought I’d give the thing a try just to see if it was worth doing.

The first candidate was Waybe, which is a commercial plugin. It looked like a fairly decent start, but I nearly fell out of my chair laughing when I saw their commercial license pricing. It costs $200 per year for commercial use and only has a subset of the functionality that you get with something like Ultimate Papercraft 3D, which only costs $39.95. That put Waybe out of the running before the race even began.

Our next contender is Flattery, which is a simpler plugin. It’s free, but the author accepts donations, which is good because money’s a nice incentive to keep working on something. It does what it says on the tin, but it’s a long way from being in the same league as Ultimate Papercraft 3D or Pepakura Designer. It’s still got potential, though.

In the end, I decided that SketchUp still doesn’t cut the mustard as a papercraft development tool. I mean, you can use it for that, but it’s not quite something I’d consider suitable for a production environment.

However…I did fall in love with it for another purpose entirely. It has a rather unconventional toolset that, once you get the hang of it, makes detailing and greebling models surprisingly easy. This is my second SketchUp model, some sort of half-assed floaty tank thing that’s really just meant to be a canvas for figuring out the best ways to greeble stuff:


It’s kind of nuts–I never had it this easy back in the 1990s when I was doing photorealistic 3D modeling. That thing above only took me a few hours of goofing around in SketchUp to do, and would easily have required significantly more time in my other more conventional 3D modeling applications. I’m going to see if this thing can actually export nice, clean, and watertight solids that can be used for 3D printing. If it can do that, that’d be awesome.

9 thoughts on “SketchUp

  1. TOPO

    Years back I toyed around with sketchup and used it to do some things… basically all the Hirst Arts Scifi sets just to be able to plan builds in 3D.
    Sketchup turned out to be really easy to use with awesome output.
    I’ve had to learn 3DS Max some time ago to convert (and create) some models for Battlefield Accademy, I’ve been doing a WWII mecha mod using my mecha models… It is by far too complicated compared to Sketchup.

    But for paper models I keep using metasequoia… the reason is that With both sketchup and 3DSMax you can work easily with medium and high poly shapes, but really got problems making them truly low-poly, the lo-poly needed for paper models… I still prefer metasequoia where you have much more control of the faces. Sketchup is the triangle paradise 😀 even a straight forward conversion of the chickenhawk dropship to sketchup resulted in a hard to control set of surfaces with too many polygons (maybe they’ve enhanced that, that was when sketchup started to rise).

    Anyway… glad to see you moving from paper to 3D printing… that’s the new frontier and there are already people doing really good things, soon it’ll be late to enter there.


  2. Christopher Roe Post author

    I agree–Metasequoia has been the king of my papercraft toolbox for years because it’s like a sort of Notepad for 3D. It’s simple, lightweight, and does low poly models very well.

    I’m excited by the idea of doing some stuff for 3D printing. I’ve wanted to experiment with that for a couple of years now, but I didn’t find a favorite modeling application for it until now. The other alternatives I’ve tried were all too expensive or didn’t make sense to me because they worked in ways I’m not used to.

  3. Christopher Roe Post author

    I looked into Shapeways, but decided not to go down that route because their high prices mean a 28mm or 15mm vehicle model would be cost-prohibitive to print, and I can’t imagine a Shapeways store being a profitable venture. For example, that tank in your link is only an inch long and costs $6.11, and the prices increase very rapidly with the volume of the object. I’d rather print a master pattern once and then have it cast in a good quality resin. It’d be cheaper, stronger, and an easier sell.

    Mind you, I haven’t put a ton of planning into this yet. Finding out how easy it was to do high-detail models kind of caught me by surprise, so I don’t know if I’m going to actually sell models myself or if I’m going to be just doing freelance digital sculpting instead. 🙂

  4. Darby

    I’ve talked to a LOT of 3d printing people, and they all agree that Sketchup does not provide models that are “clean enough” to make quality prints from. I’ve made a few models and imported them into both Lightwave and Rhino, and they’ve had some serious problems. It’s a real bummer, especially since Sketchup is so easy to use.

  5. Darby

    To get better info than I can remember on the subject, email John Veigher at Moddler. He’s a great help!

  6. Christopher Roe Post author

    I was aware of that reputation initially, which is why I closed the blog post with that semi-skeptical caveat.

    My investigation into the matter shows that its bad reputation has more to do with user error than the program itself. A lot of people use it because it’s easy, and the problem with easy stuff is that it lowers the barrier of entry to the point where people who normally wouldn’t get into 3D modeling can jump right in before they even learn the fundamentals that other programs hammer into you before you ever reach the point of producing useful output.

    In the case of SketchUp, it’s easy to end up with stealthy showstoppers like bad normals, degenerate 3D faces, non-coplanar quads, post-boolean topology issues, and meshes that leak because they’re missing an extremely tiny triangle here or there. Carrara has the same problem–both modelers hide bad topology from the user and provide no tools to diagnose or repair those problems. The reason 3D printing services hate SketchUp geometry is because a lot of the people who submit it don’t clean up their meshes or validate the topology beforehand, and they use poor modeling techniques like overusing boolean operations. I try to stay away from booleans as much as possible, and I prefer to hand build complex geometry details just to have that extra bit of control over the topology.

    In addition to insulating beginners from too many bad practices, the renderer is too forgiving and doesn’t alert you to some basic, elementary issues, so when you take a clueless beginner and an overly forgiving modeling software, you end up with a garbage-in-garbage-out kind of deal.

    SketchUp 8 is the first release that started paying attention to modeling clean solids, and there’s one standout plugin in particular that can help you troubleshoot the kind of things that drive 3D printers to despair: the Solid Inspector. The other thing I’m in a habit of doing, and this comes from developing paper models, is always checking for bad topology in Ultimate Unwrap 3D during the intermediate export step. Reversed normals, degenerate faces, disconnected vertices, stray microtriangles, unnecessary colinear edges–those all get cleaned up before the final export.

    Short form: I’d bet money without blinking that I could generate usable STL output from SketchUp. It’s just a matter of being smart about how you model things, staying on top of the topology, and validating your geometry in other tools.

    For example, you can see some of the typical errors that beginners make with SketchUp models as well as an example of validating its output in other programs here:

  7. Darby

    Ooooohhh… I didn’ know 8 was out already. I’ve been out of the loop.

    I’ve found that sometimes you just can’t get past a certain shape without booleaning. I hate it, but it works (as long as it works!). I’ve had some major disasters, and some huge successes.

    That little greeblie tank is pretty cool, even for just a mess around thing. You really should think about doing some vehicles for someone…

  8. Christopher Roe Post author

    I go out of my way to avoid booleans because messy topology drives me nuts, and I usually have to manually clean up the mess anyway, so I might as well use that time to manually shape it and get the topology right instead. SketchUp makes it semi-painless compared to the other tools I use, since the way it lets me draw on surfaces and push/pull them into the geometry makes booleans unnecessary in most cases.

    I don’t know if I want to jump right into digital sculpting for others just yet. I’d rather get a few of my own prints done first just so I’ll have some practical experience under my belt, then kind of ease into it as a side venture at some point in the future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.