Woodworking with CAD

Woodworking With CAD Index

What do I use?

The King
In 1988 I started using the PC for making drawings; one of the first CAD programs I used was called Generic CADD Level 3 (GC).  This was a drafting program that came out in 1986 and finally matured to a version 6.1. When it first started gaining a following it was fairly innovative and sophisticated. It was considered low priced (the version 6 release costing me about $280) and in it's market of low end 2D software, it was remarkably capable to the point that it could successfully compete against AutoCad in many cases. The "TurboCad" grade of software that it competed against at this time was fairly pathetic by comparison, (this grade of software is enormously more capable today). GC had three main qualities that endeared it to its followers. It was fairly straightforward, simple, and fast to operate. It also had a clean uncluttered interface with a large drawing area. Another unique feature was its use of 2 letter keyboard shortcuts to command operations.

Two Letter Commands
To the uninitiated, this two-letter shortcut command system may seem cumbersome or archaic; let me assure you it is NOT.  For one, the 2 letter commands allow the operator to draw with both hands. Most drawing software today only allows a user to draw with the mouse hand, the other hand typically holds the desk down until text or similar entries need to be made. Using these commands, a typical GC operation would go something like this: A line would be started by left pressing the mouse to start a line at the desired point, zoom all (ZA) would be used to gain a larger view of the drawing, zoom window (ZW) used to see detail in the desired area to end the line, and the end point snapped (placed) at the midpoint of another line (SM). It takes longer to describe than do, it goes: L Click, ZA, ZW, SM, L Click, faster than you can say it. Both hands moving almost at the speed of thought to accomplish a task. The smooth operation of the 2 letter shortcuts and easy to use interface offered a proficient user something that is usually only attributed to electronic games, that is, immersion. Once a user became familiar with their commonly used 2 letter shortcuts, the actual drawing process became secondary to the design / thought process. To this day, no CAD software I know of allows the user to achieve immersion, users are too burdened by operating the tool for this to happen.

The King is Dead
AutoDesk later purchased Generic CADD and in 1996 and killed it to remove competition for their own new product, AutoCad LT. The problem was that LT was not a true successor to GC (having nothing in common with it at all in fact), the first version of LT was effectively not even useable. That left a lot of orphaned GC users out there. With no real successor, GC users continued to plod on in DOS. As time went by however, Micro$oft slowly made GC obsolete through new Window$ operating systems. Users either maintained old DOS computers and printers for CAD work, made an arduous jump to another program, or were promoted out of the need for the program. The last operating systems I was able to operate GC on was W98 & NT and could only directly print from NT.

Pretenders to the Throne
Sometime after the untimely demise of Generic CADD, a new program tried to lay claim to the kingdom of the many thousands of GC loyalists, this was Visual CADD (VC). This usurper suffered a troubled birth, was sold into slavery, nearly killed by its new master, and finally put on life support by TriTools. This program continues to languish mainly because (among other things) its command interface is not as close to GC as the loyalists demand. Visual CADDs long running failure to conquer the GC kingdom created an opportunity for another usurper. In 2002 General CADD Pro (GCP) launched a campaign to lay claim to the ever-diminishing GC Empire.

Both the pretenders allow GC users to open their original GC files, the only programs (I know of) that are capable of this. VC is a true Window$ program retaining many GC features and commands while adding new ones as well. GCP is also a Window$ program but GCP has gone to enormous lengths to make it look, feel, and operate just like the original DOS product also with a few enhanced commands thrown in. GCP is true to the original DOS program to the point of being detrimental in some areas as it uses an incoherent mish-mash of DOS and Window$ style menus and dialogs. For example, the printing controls are both old DotPlot (the Generic Cadd printing program) commands with an additional almost Window$ compliant dialog to cover the additional  printer options available through Window$. In addition, the makers of GCP believe you will steal "their" software so they have added a hardware security lock (a dongle) to the program to prevent this.

Because GCP is so close to the original, a GC user will have minimal (operational) trouble migrating to it. On the other hand, although VC will allow a GC user to step into the program quickly compared to any non-GC type program, some conversion pain is involved. This is because some of the GC 2 letter commands and interfaces have (unwisely) been altered from the original. Both these programs are specifically targeted towards old GC users, they are not seeking new converts.  VC offers a printed manual, GCP does not; neither offer any sort of multi-media tutorials.

What I Use (finally)
What do I use? I get asked this almost as often as "what do you recommend?". I use several types of CAD and graphics programs for a variety of tasks. Up until recently, I preferred to use Generic CADD for precision 2D work. I have started using SketchUp with some success however it has some operational issues as well as not being able to produce the kind of quality shop drawings I would like to have.  Since Sketch-Up has these problems, I have found that I continue to do precision engineering in GCP with concepts and area / volume studies in Sketch-Up.  If the drawings are not complicated, I will do measured drawings in Sketch-Up, sometimes imported into Adobe Illustrator as an EPS file to add more controlled annotations.  If the drawings are complex, I will use good old GCP.

I would actually like to use Sketch-Up as the primary tool but find that it just is not capable of producing the output I would prefer to have in addition to having a couple of irritating behaviors.   If the product improves or I find another 3D product that is about as easy to use and operates better, I would prefer to switch over completely into 3D.

What I Recommend
It is universally true that the data generated by software is more valuable than the software itself. The problem is that it takes software to get to that data. If the company that supplies that software goes belly-up or decides to discontinue support, it is only a matter of time before access to that data will be lost; new computer operating systems will see to that. That is why it is important to choose a provider who is likely to be around in the future. This type of software takes a lot of effort to learn and it is quite unpleasant to switch programs when your favorite goes under.

Although I would like to, I can't in good faith recommend either VC ($395) or GCP ($599) for the following reasons. For personal use they are exorbitantly expensive for simple 2D software. Neither company seems to be dominant enough to predict their long term viability and GCP goes a step further by requiring a barbaric hardware lock.

If I were only able to recommend ONE program it would be SketchUp.  That may seem at odds with what I stated previously - here's why I say "SketchUp".   Most woodworkers are not as picky as I am when it comes drawings; also, the technical requirements for woodworking deigns & drawings are fairly light and this is an almost perfectly adequate product that has the twin saving graces of being 3D and cheap.  There are currently two versions of this program, one which is free and a "pro" version going for $495. My recommendation is to try the free version and if the additional functionality of the pro version is needed, upgrade to it later.  The future is in 3D and since CAD programs tend to be difficult to learn, learning the one that does 3D makes more sense to me. There are versions of SketchUp for both the PC and Mac.

For 2D work on the cheap and not considering the background of a specific user, I generally recommend AutoSketch ($120). It is backed by a dominant creator (thus likely to have a longer life), allows access to the industry standard file format (DWG), and is not too difficult to learn.

Note: All prices effective 09/2005

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