A common woodworking tip is “measure twice, cut once.” But first you have to know what you are doing and how big it needs to be. It is much easier to measure if you have a clear and accurate plan. Woodworkers have designed with pencil and paper for generations, but computer-aided design (CAD) programs can make drawings faster, more accurate, and easier to adjust.
A few months ago, I started using a CAD program called Shapr3D (free or $25 per month for Windows, macOS, iPadOS, and Wacom tablets) to design my woodworking projects. It’s a much simpler and simpler interface than some of the more powerful programs like SketchUp and Fusion 360, both of which are great for woodworking. Shapr3D, which by default works with solid objects rather than log ones like SketchUp, is well-suited for positioning and digital program manipulation. And best of all, the free version of Shapr3D has 99 percent of the features I need, so I haven’t had a reason to pay for it yet. The only paid functions I wish I had were the ability to convert a 3D rendering into an actual set of PDF plans, and make aesthetic and color changes.
Although Shapr3D is easy to use, there is a learning curve like any other complex piece of software. But with a little time and effort, it’s a powerful and versatile tool that will help you take your designs to the next level. These five tips will help you get started.
1. Work through one or two detailed tutorials
If you’re anything like me, you learn a new computer program as you go along. I rarely read or watch tutorials on how to use an entire program—I only look at how to perform specific tasks in a program. That’s a bad strategy with CAD, especially if you’ve never used computer design software.
Instead, spend some time working through some project instructions. I highly recommend the “Learn Shapr3D in 10 Days” playlist by PDO-Shapr3D on YouTube. This series of 10 videos walks you through building a series of increasingly complex projects that each focus on a new set of tools in the program. After a week, I was familiar enough with the program to start designing my own projects and know what to look for when I got stuck. These tutorials use the paid version of the software, so there are some features that aren’t available or work a little differently in the free version that you’ll have to figure out.
Once you’ve built a solid foundation of Shapr3D skills, I recommend checking out Bevelish Creations’ CAD Talk playlist on YouTube for some more advanced tutorials on how to get the most out of the program. Whether you use these tutorials or another, take the time to not only watch them, but build the projects alongside the videos. It’s the fastest way to learn, even if it takes a week or more.
2. Keep your projects organized and labeled
Like most CAD programs, Shapr3D allows users to name components and group them into folders. Stay organized by using that functionality while building. Don’t make the mistake of trying to label and group everything when the project is almost finished – it’s confusing, takes forever, and you’ll likely make some frustrating mistakes.
I usually use several layers of folders. The top layer is a folder for each individual project, which is only necessary if you’re using the free version which limits you to two project files. Within each project folder, I create subfolders for the main parts of the build. For a nightstand I built recently, for example, I have one folder for the main body of the piece, one for the drawer, and one for the legs. Within each of those folders, I’ve labeled each individual board or panel (ie left drawer, right drawer, bottom drawer, etc.). If I had more than one drawer, I would put each drawer into its own folder, and then have another folder that holds all the folders for the individual drawers.
Labeling and organizing serve two purposes other than quickly knowing which piece is which. First, it will help you easily duplicate large pieces. If I need to create a second drawer for my nightstand, I can simply select the drawer folder, then copy and duplicate it, rather than having to select and move the drawer components individually.
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Second, you’ll be able to temporarily hide an entire article at once. So if I need to change something inside the body of the nightstand, I can hide the entire drawer folder to access areas that might be hidden, make my changes, and then the drawer make visible again. This capability also makes it easy to inspect different versions of the same component. I can create a folder of drawer fronts, each with a slightly different design, and hide each version I’m not working on. But if you’re not organized about it, that kind of repetition can get really annoying.
3. Think in terms of wood joinery
One of the major advantages of CAD drawings over pen and pencil drawings is the ability to visualize and design project joinery. Whether you are using dados, rabbets, dovetails, box joints, mortise and tenons, or some other type of connection method, you can design it directly into the sketch.
Once you’ve drawn the joinery, you can hide one of the boards to see exactly what the joint looks like, which you can’t do on paper. You can’t cheat too. If you get your math wrong and do a dado too deep, you can see the error on the screen and fix it before you ever touch a program. I had to rethink my carpentry on numerous projects after seeing my first idea in action in Shapr3D.
To make carpentry easier to design, get used to the subtraction tool – all the tools are clearly labeled rather than relying on abstract icons that you have to memorize. This function allows you to drag two overlapping programs and remove the shared area from one of them. At its simplest, rabbits and dados are easy to create. Just drag the registers where you want them, with one input bit against another, and activate the subtraction function. This removes the shared content from the dado or rabbit position. Mortise and tenon, miters, dovetails, and box joints are a bit more complicated because they require you to draw the geometry of those joints on the boards, but once the shapes are in the right place, all you have to do is use subtraction. tool. Aside from the extrude tool, which allows you to expand a two-dimensional shape into a three-dimensional table, the subtraction tool is the feature that saves me the most time.
4. Learn different ways to achieve the same result
Shapr3D is powerful and easy to use, but it’s not perfect, and I’m not the perfect user. Occasionally I can’t get a certain tool to work the way I want it to. Rotation, for example, is one task I always struggle with. I’m having trouble getting a component to rotate around the correct X, Y, or Z axis. While the rotate tool saves time when it works, it can be time-consuming to figure out when it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s easier and faster to skip that rotation and draw the component when I want it.
That’s why it’s helpful to learn more than one way to achieve the same result. Another great example of this is the subtraction tool: If the parts aren’t subtracting the way you want to create dados for a shelf, it might be easier to drag the dado onto a panel and then the t -extrude content. Sure, it might take two minutes longer than the subtraction tool, but it’s much faster than figuring out why that tool isn’t working. Trying a different method can save you 30 minutes of frustrating troubleshooting.
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Of course, this only applies to tools you generally know how to use. If you’ve never been able to use the rotation or subtraction tool correctly, watch a tutorial and find out what you’re doing wrong. Do not avoid learning one of the tools because it is a challenge. Working through that challenge and verifying all Shapr3D functions will save you time in the long run.
5. Start with pencil and paper
This one isn’t really necessary, and you’ll probably grow out of it as you get better at Shapr3D. But, as I learn, it’s easier for me to have some idea of what I’m designing before I start on the computer. Even a rough sketch showing the basic size, shapes and proportions allows me to focus on getting the details right in the board rather than brainstorming on the screen.
Like anything else, experience is the best teacher. The more you design in Shapr3D, the better and faster you will be. Get in there and let your imagination run wild.