In Praise of NapkinCAD 1.0


I like SketchUp – not as a tool for designing furniture, but as a way to communicate complex ideas across vast spaces.

Instead of sending someone endless sheets of drawings, I can send an electronic model that the recipient can take apart and modify with ease. That’s the beauty of the program.

For most design chores in my shop, however, SketchUp is too slow. Paper, pencil and my imagination are far more efficient when I need to communicate my ideas only to myself. And when I do use SketchUp to model something for myself, I don’t draw any standard joinery – that’s a waste of time.

I can hear some woodworkers out there fashioning a hangman’s noose from a mouse cord.

So let me say this: If you enjoy drawing dovetails in SketchUp, by all means draw them. If you are facing a tricky joint with lots of intersecting elements, by all means draw the joint. If your hobby is drawing furniture in SketchUp while pretending to work as an insurance claims adjuster, then by all means draw the pee out of that joinery.

But if you just want to see what the object looks like in the round, you can skip drawing the joinery. Your drawers can be rectangles drawn on a box (yes, I’ve done this). You can draw the square parts of a project in SketchUp, print it out and then draw the curvy details on the printout. Yes, I’ve done this as well.

napkin2When else should you draw the joinery? When you are trying to explain it to someone else who might not know squat about joinery, such as when you write an article for a magazine. I draw all the joinery, mouldings and interior bits when I submit a SketchUp model to a magazine. That helps me develop a good cutting list for the article. And it helps me double-check my writing so that the illustration, cutlist and story all agree.

But when my ideas go from my head to my hands, SketchUp is rarely involved.

The illustrations with this article demonstrate my working sketches for the recent backstool that I built and then modified. They are crude compared to SketchUp, but they work.

This, I can tell you, is exactly how some craftsmen worked in the 18th and 19th centuries. And that is what I’ll discuss tomorrow.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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20 Responses to In Praise of NapkinCAD 1.0

  1. kendewitt608 says:

    Amen, from a Luddite.

  2. occasionalww says:

    Hey Chis,
    Thanks for that, I use pencil and paper and not AutoCad or Sketchup for the same reasons that I use hand tools and not CNC routers. I enjoy improving my manual skills.

  3. You and I spoke about this last week at the Lie-Nielsen event. I always felt like should be doing what the cool kids are doing and draw the joinery, but in hind-site it’s silly for most of my work. I even took your advice and bought a sheet of pink Styrofoam insulation at Home Depot and knocked out a scale mock up in less than an hour (with neighborhood kids watching and wondering). It made a big difference in my decision process on proportions. Thanks for the suggestion.
    Now, does anyone need a styrofoam cellarette?

  4. Matt Merges says:

    Agreed – I use pencil & paper for almost all of my design work. Even when planning out (non-woodworking) corporate PowerPoint presentations. Like the one I really need to get back to right now…

  5. Jeff Branch says:

    “If your hobby is drawing furniture in SketchUp while pretending to work as an insurance claims adjuster, then by all means draw the pee out of that joinery.”

    I’m a flooring salesman, not an insurance claims adjuster and I now draw most all of my projects in SketchUp, drawing projects to a very high level. I just like it. But I used to hand draw all my projects to scale using pencil, an eraser and graph paper, and I still like to do this initially, then nerd out on SketchUp. 🙂

  6. I use this approach. I keep a sketch pad for ideas. I refine the ideas and get the proportions right. Then I use Sketchup to make sure I don’t have any issues with joinery, etc. It’s also nice to see your work in three dimensions before starting a build.

  7. Chris, I finally have the Dutch tool chest DVD. I don’t think major pictures take that long to get to market! Ha! but the Sketchup renderings on the DVD have no deminsions, I only post here because awhile ago you said your personal email was shut down because you are now too busy to allot time for answering them all. Am I missing something in the Sketchup operation or are the dimensions just not there. I know that they are in the pdf article with dimensions but the base is not in the article. I wish to build both the chest and the base. Thanks in advance for any positive response with the needed info.
    Norman Tn

    • Norman,

      You can use the Tape Measure tool or the Dimension tool to strike any dimensions you need. Think of the model as the actual piece sitting before you. Measure what you need.

      The pdf article has traditional construction drawings for both chests. You have more than enough information to proceed – promise!


  8. abtuser says:

    I do most of my work with paper and pencil (now working some drawer fronts using same). Anything I might want to keep as an archive project I’ll probably throw in Sketch Up, but it’s one more thing to learn and my brain is almost full.

  9. Bob Jones says:

    Hey, that napkin already had a picture of a chair on it. It must have come from ikea

  10. paul6000000 says:

    I do most of my idea sketching on an iPad with the Procreate app. The newest version has really useful scaling tools.

  11. I tried googling for NapkinCAD, but can’t find their homepage. Where can I download NapkinCAD? Is it open source or commercial?

  12. kmhatch says:

    All those fractions make my head hurt.

  13. Scott Taylor says:

    Another Luddite here. Personally I dislike any computer design/drafting/drawing tool. They seem to take the tactile enjoyment out of the process and seem totally incongruous with working with ones hands… Additionally I never have to charge my Blackwings (even sharpening the pencil is a pleasure) or my paper… But that is just me.

  14. Niels Cosman says:

    I prefer EnvelopWorks 2.0. It’s a bit more of a stable platform. The functionality is more or less the same.

    • toolnut says:

      Try JunkCouponMailer (any version). Most versions have one blank side per coupon (although some are cheap knockoffs that print both sides). It’s the original freeware, has weekly updates and best of all it comes with free delivery to your door.

  15. At Rowden Workshops we have been wrestling with this issue for a few years now. We have taken on a good quality CAD programme call Rhino as it will export drawings to CAM set ups which is great for getting accurate jigs made really fast.

    What it is not good at is that bit Chris is talking about the expression of the initial concept and fast development of the idea. At that stage it is overwhelming clumsy. CAD is no replacement for drawing, the fastest most versatile and expressive tool in the shop is a 2b pencil.

    What we do see increasingly is a student who has come from a product design course who has done nothing but engage in virtual reality construction. Its a cheap college course. What they lack is the engagement in the material the understanding that wood is not plastic, it has demands and restrictions that you are bumping up against all the time. The only way to learn where those restriction are is through your hands . And hand tools are a pretty damn good starting point.

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