In principle there seems to be a vast difference between woodworking and 3D modeling. Woodworking uses manual tools and natural materials to create physical items that you can touch, feel, and use; 3D modeling uses computers and screens to make virtual designs that only exist in the digital realm. They can be seen as opposites, but used the right way, modeling in 3D offers advantages from which even the most seasoned woodworker can benefit.
I have been modeling in 3D for over two decades. I have designed everything from jewelry to machine parts to entire buildings, and I have seen the clarity that comes to a project when a good 3D model is used to kick off the design process. Full disclosure, I do work for SketchUp (I’m the SketchUp guy on YouTube), but these tips can be leveraged with other software as well. With that, here are five reasons woodworkers should use 3D modeling in their design process.
MEASURE INFINITE TIMES, CUT INFINITE TIMES
Woodworking often involves trying things out several times before it works. That’s part of the fun: making something new and figuring out how to make it work. Unfortunately, this can be a time- and material-consuming process when done in the “real world.” This is where 3D modeling can save you time, materials, and heartache. Testing a design, or determining material needs in pixels is far less stressful (and costly) than doing so in the shop.
3D FOR 2D
This can seem a little counter-intuitive, but 3D can be a great way to generate 2D geometry. CNC is a big piece of a modern woodworker’s workflow. While toolpaths are generally sent to the machine as 2D geometry, the final pieces need to take into consideration things like material thickness and clearance. Rather than estimate clearances and then find out you were just off, model your pieces as components digitally for more accurate dimensions. This will allow you to have the pieces interact as they would in the real world before you purchase material for the CNC.
SIMPLE DESIGN ITERATION
As you make changes, optimize materials, perfect your design, a 3D model will allow you to simplify tracking your progress. Unlike the storage space needed to keep examples of six iterations of a chair design in the real world, a 3D model will allow you to keep each and every change you make in the same file! This can also be a huge help if you ever want to go back to a previous design choice, or just review the evolution of your design process.
One of the best parts of designing in the virtual world is that it is so easy to share information with others. Want to get a friend’s input on a table you are considering building? Want to have a coworker help you figure out how to make a stool more stable? What happens if your collaborator lives 1,000 miles away? If you have a 3D model you can just send them a copy of your design. SketchUp and many other CAD programs offer free web versions so collaborators can easily open your model and see everything you need them to see.
Possibly the most amazing part of having a 3D model is that you can see exactly how it will look before it exists. And, I am not just talking about seeing the 3D model on a computer, either. Most 3D modelers today have the ability to visualize 3D models in augmented reality. This means you can use your smartphone to see exactly what your project is going to look like when it is complete and sitting in your living room, before you even step foot in your shop. Not only is that satisfying for you, but it makes getting sign off from a significant other much easier when planning your next project.
From these perspectives, woodworking and 3D modeling are really not that different. 3D modeling helps you get your woodworking project across the finish line. In my opinion, it truly is the best tool for your shop.