Best Software Program for Designing Cabinets?

I’m fairly new to woodworking and enjoying making and designing cabinetry. Is there a software program that will help me with this? Currently I’m drawing my designs to scale on drafting paper, then figuring out a cutting list. I’ve looked into SketchUp, but it seems to have a steep learning curve. Any suggestions for any Mac (Apple) programs? Also, is there a list on a website of the dimensions for all the parts (cuts) for standard-size cabinets? – Dennis Sullivan

Rob Johnstone: While I am not an expert on design software, I think SketchUp is likely your best bet. I think there are some dedicated kitchen design software programs, but I’ve heard that they are pretty limiting (and, in truth, I have not used them). On the flip side, your learning curve for SketchUp could be offset by the rich amount of instructional material available. Also, there are free online libraries where you can grab other people’s drawings of hinges, doors, drawer slide hardware and so forth, and use them in your own designs. They are real timesavers. I found a couple of websites that have some reasonable dimensions for kitchen cabinetry, but I would personally recommend getting a book by Danny Proulx: Build Your Own Kitchen Cabinets. There you can find dimensions and advice. It is not a new book, but as a primer for designing kitchen cabinetry, it is very good.

Tim Inman: I’m an old guy and I love to use drafting tools and paper. I “think” better that way. I’m also a tech guy and I use computers a lot. So, I’m not anti-software. My personal experience, though, is this: unless you are going to do a lot of drafting via software, you’ll spend hours trying to figure out how to manipulate the programs and neglect the design essentials. For now, as you learn woodworking and seek to enhance your skills in that world, I would forego the additional learning curve of software mastery. Others will surely disagree. But pencils and paper and rulers and compasses are still viable tools in my world. There is so much to learn and know about good design. I heartily encourage you to spend your time studying the classic pieces and maybe even trying to reproduce them from available working drawings before you branch out into computer software. Software engineers are seldom furniture designers. They seem to me to be so “geeky” about how their software works they overlook the ultimate task it is seeking to accomplish — namely, the easy and efficient communication of good plans for good works.

Chris Marshall: While I agree with Tim that there’s nothing wrong with tried-and-true drafting tools and paper (they still work, after all!), I do think learning a woodworker-friendly software like SketchUp does make sense. Once you’ve got the basic skills down, the ability to render your drawings in three dimensions, rotate them, pull them apart, create cross-sections and build cut lists does save time. And, the basic version of SketchUp is free! It’s also easy to make changes to a drawing and print it out again, or even save old drawings and re-use components in future drawings — that’s tough to do if you’re drawing everything by hand and from scratch. So, if time is on your side, and you are patient, I suggest trying to learn SketchUp. Given the huge popularity of SketchUp, there are so many resources and user forums to help you. These days, I think it’s safe to say that SketchUp has become the woodworking choice for a CAD program.

And since Rob mentioned a cabinetry book, I’ll suggest another one I’ve found very useful in the past: Bob Lang’s The Complete Kitchen Cabinetmaker. Bob is a no-nonsense guy and an excellent woodworker with a background in cabinetry. The book is a straightforward and helpful read, covering all aspects of cabinet design and construction, plus style variations to consider. It’s definitely a good one to add to your library.

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  • Scott Noyes

    I’ve used SketchUp for many years for various things. It’s not bad, especially if you remember rule #1 (Make Everything a Component). However, I’ve recently begun to learn Fusion 360, and it solves many of the things that SketchUp made really frustrating.

    – With SketchUp, the constraints are basically just snap points to use while drawing. You can draw line A perpendicular to line B’s midpoint, but then if line B moves, line A might not still be perpendicular. With Fusion 360, you can set the constraints so that line A and line B are guaranteed to always be perpendicular, or at a particular angle, or tangent to a particular circle, or whatever.
    – With SketchUp, the whole design process is linear. If you go through 25 steps, and then decide you wanted to undo step 12, you have to either undo all the way back to then (if you can) and then redraw all the steps that came after, or go delete whatever happened in step 12 and redraw it. With Fusion 360, the timeline means you can go modify early steps, and everything that you did afterwards gets updated automatically.
    – With SketchUp, fillets and roundovers and chamfers are difficult. You basically have to draw the arc perpendicular to the edge you want to round over and then use the Follow tool – and if you decide you want that radius bigger or smaller, it’s undo and try again. Yes, there are some plugins that make it easier, but the end result is still not easily editable. With Fusion 360, fillets and chamfers are built in, and you can go back later and change the radius or angle or whatever, and it’s just sooo easy.
    – With SketchUp, it’s hard to scale pieces of a drawing separately. You can’t just say, “I want this line to be 10 in. instead of whatever it is now” without also scaling the rest of the model by the same amount, or else drawing a guide line at the right place and then figuring out which bits need to be selected and dragging them to the mark. With Fusion, you just edit the sketch and say the line is 10 in., and now it is.
    – Fusion has parameter driven design. You can say, “SpindleRadius = 1/2 in., SpindleLength = 1 ft, SpindleSpacing = 3 in.” Then you draw the spindle and pattern using those labels. You later decide, “no, I actually want SpindleSpacing = 3.5 in.” Just change the parameter and the model updates in real time. SketchUp has nothing like that built in.
    – SketchUp fails when drawing at small scales. It doesn’t make much difference for cabinetry, but for 3D printing where part of the model might be just a millimeter or two, it makes weird holes and doesn’t close geometry properly. I end up having to draw the whole model 100 times larger, and then scale it down when ready. Fusion doesn’t seem to have any problems dealing with fractions of millimeters.

    The only thing I’ve found so far that SketchUp does better is printing scaled drawings. In SketchUp, you just pick one of the orthogonal views, resize the window to show the stuff you want, and you can directly print a scaled drawing. In Fusion, you have to create a drawing of the model, export to PDF, and then print that (at least, I think you do. There might be a better way, but that’s all I’ve found so far.)

    SketchUp has a free version and a pro version. The main difference as far as I’m concerned is that the free version takes away the “Solid” tools after the 30 day trial period. Fusion 360 is free for hobbyists, and as far as I can tell, the only difference is what happens if you need to use the Cloud for some heavy-duty computing (rendering photo-realistic scenes or doing stress analysis).

  • Gary Coyne

    In my head the best thing about Sketchup is the price. Otherwise I (personally) can’t stand it. I have played and worked with it for over 10 years and always come back to my standard MacDraft (there is a PCDraft from the same company). It’s only 2D, not three but if you’ve had 10 minutes of standard drafting three-view drawings (top, bottom, left/right) you’ll be fine.

    I got started with MacDraft some 27 years ago because at that time MacDraw (from Apple, long long gone) was not good for me because there was no scaling. MacDraft does have scaling. If, for example, you draw a chair at 1-1/2″: 1′ and then later make a table drawing at 3/4″ : 1′ and want to move the chair over to the table drawing to check size for legs on chair under table, just move the chair into the table drawing and it will be automatically sized to the new ratio.

    Also, I’ve spent days trying to figure Sketchup out. I can teach anyone the basics of MacDraft in an hour or two. If I could upload images, I could show you some of the things I’ve designed, but can’t. Sorry

  • David Madfes

    Check out ViaCAD Pro. Has woodworking “tools” such as dadoes and other joinery. Generates a bill of materials and cutting lists that optimize material. 2D and 3D modeling. Cost is around $250.

  • mdrisser

    Let me start out by saying that, for me, woodworking is a hobby; I work in I.T. to pay the bills, so computers, software, etc. is not something that I’m unsure about. That being said, I’ve tried SketchUp, and while it is nice, the learning curve can be a bit off putting. I still have a hard time getting parts to line up just right (probably something I’m doing wrong) and it get’s frustrating enough that I revert to pencil and paper myself. Although I took drafting and architecture in high school I default to a graph paper notebook to draw out my ideas. My advice? Use what is comfortable for you, and don’t worry too much about how you get the design from your head to a drawing.

  • Steven Dorst

    In listing the learning resources available for SketchUp, Rob missed what has been (for me) the most valuable learning resource, SketchUp’s User Forum:

    If you do go for SketchUp, the learning videos are quite good, but there is one critical piece of information left out: They all use the “Large Tool Bar” to pick their tools, but none of them tell you that, as installed, the Large Tool Bar isn’t visible! To have it in view, from the menus, choose View — > Toolbars then check the box next to Large Tool Bar. For some reason, on the Mac, they are called Tool Pallettes instead of Tool Bars.

  • davedaelda

    I’ve been using SketchUp since it came out 10+ years ago. It’s really not hard to learn and there’s tons of info on the web. I highly recommend it for designing and figuring the correct dimensions. And, the free version will fit your needs just fine.