10 must-have SketchUp plug-ins

Tim Danaher sifts through the add-ons available for Google’s design package to reveal the 10 essential plug-ins every SketchUp user should own.

We’ve sifted through the add-ons currently available to bring you our list of the 10 most vital plug-ins. While it’s still perfectly possible to build complex structures using the standard SketchUp toolset, sometimes it’s nice to have helpers to take a little of the load off you. Some of the results shown here are achievable with the standard toolset, but these plug-ins will save you time – something that working artists never have enough of.

Some of these plug-ins automate tasks that would take a fair bit of planning and desk time, while others add capabilities that would simply not be achievable using the base toolbox. Furthermore, all but one are free. Since Ruby is a scripting language, they will run equally capably on the Mac OS X or Windows versions of SketchUp (and on both SketchUp and SketchUp Pro).

01. Extended Push/Pull

SketchUp is founded on its Push/Pull tool, which enables you to easily extrude planes into volumes. Sooner or later, though, you’ll come across a situation where you want to perform a Push/Pull operation on a curved surface. In this case, SketchUp’s own tool will resolutely refuse to work. It is possible to achieve the same result by building the surface using Offset and Line, but it’s a time-consuming process that’s prone to error.
This is where the Joint Push Pull plug-in from SketchUp user Fredo6 comes into its own. It actually offers three different methods for pushing or pulling a surface. The first is Joint Push Pull, which extrudes along normals, giving a smooth, contiguous, offset face. The second is Vector Push Pull, which will skew the offset faces along a vector defined by dragging the mouse. The third is Normal Push Pull, which is similar to Joint Push Pull, but creates separate faces, extruded along face normals.

02. Easy multi-curve surfaces

Its Sandbox tools notwithstanding, SketchUp doesn’t do organic curved shapes particularly well. There are ways of generating certain curved surfaces from scratch, but typically the only option you’re left with is importing another program’s output – which brings its own set of problems. Developed by Josef Leibinger, Soap Skin & Bubble is a plug-in that puts tools used for creating tensile structures in your toolbox. Simply create a closed curve from arcs and lines, and Soap Skin & Bubble will fit a surface to them. You can set the number of segments in a surface, the tension in a surface and its inflation (incident pressure). Soap Skin & Bubble also animates the fitting process: another nice touch.

03. Better bevelling

It is possible to create bevelled edges in SketchUp using the Follow Me tool and a bit of forethought, but it doesn’t always work – for example, where more than three edges converge on a point. Thankfully, there are two plug-ins currently available that make bevelling a breeze. Chris Phillips’ SketchyBevel applies bevelling to every edge on an object. Simply select the whole object, right-click and select Bevel. Successively applying SketchyBevel will produce more rounded corners. (Generally speaking, a 3x followed by 1x bevel distance will produce an acceptable result.) But if you want a little more control over your modelled output, Fredo6’s Round Edge (by Bezier) is the the plug-in for you. This clever add-on enables you to set the number of edges in the bevel, and uses Bezier curves to draw them, to ensure continuity between the resulting curve and the straight edges of the model. You can also pre-pick edges to bevel them selectively, although you may need to do a little clean-up with the Eraser tool afterwards.

04. Add subdivision modelling

Costing a meagre $22, Dale Martens’ plug-in SubdivideAndSmooth puts true subdivision surface modelling inside SketchUp. Selecting an object and clicking the Subdivide button in the Tool palette produces a perfectly subdivided object. You can set the number of iterations between 1 and 4 to increase the surface’s fidelity. SubdivideAndSmooth also handles holes and uncapped solids with aplomb, and is not limited to just triangles and quads. Making an object into a group before subdividing will give you a proxy cage, which you can use to manipulate the underlying surface. SubdivideAndSmooth gives you the option to crease edges and vertices so that they remain sharp, plus a Knife tool that will cut through a proxy cage, introducing more control points for finer control. The Extrude tool gets around the problem with the Push/Pull tool introducing interstitial faces, which can have unexpected consequences for the shape of the derived surface. Creating a component from a group also gives you the chance to mirror-duplicate it and work on one half, effectively giving you symmetrical modelling.

05. Tools on non-planar surfaces

How often do you want to use SketchUp’s standard drawing and construction tools on a curved surface? With Fredo6’s Tools on Surface, you can. The plug-in installs a tool palette with analogues for all of SketchUp’s drawing tools: Line, Arc, Rectangle, Circle and Freehand. In addition you get the new tools Ellipse, Parallelogram, Sector (Pie), Circle (3 Points) and an Offset on Surface tool. It’s hard to believe this plug-in really works, but it does. Drawing tools wrap around the curved surface as you draw, leaving perfectly formed faces that can be acted upon by the author’s Joint Push Pull plug-in. It will even draw curves on Sandbox meshes, although you must remember to smooth out the TIN’s edges within the new face, so that it’s seen as a single entity.

06. Freeform deformations

SketchyFFD adds a freeform deformation matrix to your model, making it malleable. Simply pull on the deformation handles to distort your model any way you want. Objects need to be at a single group level – that is, non-nested – for SketchyFFD to work.

07. Automatic explosions

Bomb automates one of the most mind-numbing tasks in SketchUp: exploding everything down to the base level before exporting, say, to a renderer. All you need to do is run the script. It can take quite a while, but it still saves you from a tedious manual process. When finished, select items by material, group and export.

08. Free scaling

FreeScale beefs up SketchUp’s native Scale function. It adds features including a wireframe preview of a scaled object and taper scaling. Best of all, FreeScale aligns a scaling box to the object and allows immediate orientation of the scaling box to any face or edge in the model, so there’s no need to change the axes.

09. Real Booleans

OSCoolean is the only free script that can give true Booleans in SketchUp. This means it will draw in the surfaces formed by a cut: something SketchUp’s Intersect command can’t do. This also saves on cleaning up geometry. As this Ruby script is in beta, you’ll have to register at the site to download it.

10. Watch these spaces...

Since the introduction of the Ruby scripting interface to SketchUp 4.0, people have been encouraged to develop their own scripts to improve the software. Keep an eye on these two forum threads to see new Rubies and what they can do.