Is It Worth Learning CAD?

This isn't one of those "which cabinet drawing app is best?" threads. This is a discussion of the difficulty of learning AutoCad, versus the relative ease of use but lesser flexibility of the cabinet-specific alternatives. June 4, 2012

I have been building cabinets full time for six years now working by myself, and I am finding I would like to learn to do drawings. My plans are to open a showroom and offer some design assistance to clients. My thought is that I will want to be able to provide conceptual drawings to the clients, as well as construction drawings for my shop.

Over the past couple of years I have tried learning on my own in my spare time, which has failed. I also hired a teacher to work with me regarding learning AutoCAD one evening a week for a while, but I honestly wasnít putting in the time to really pick up the learning.

So my questions:

1. Should I first learn AutoCAD, then move onto cabinet specific programs, or start with the latter?

2. Where is the best place to learn?

I have a tech school in my area that teaches AutoCAD, and the course is a full year. This seems too long to me to learn this, but if need be I would do it that way. I see there are some training courses when I search on Google, but I donít know anything about these, except again that they are for AutoCAD. With the expansion that I am looking at doing, I may begin selling a stock line of cabinetry alongside one of my custom built cabinets. Again, right now I work alone building custom kitchens, built ins, bath cabinets, etc. I appreciate any advice on this.

Forum Responses
(CAD Forum)
From contributor S:
If you are a cabinet maker who primarily serves the residential market learning CAD will be a waste of time. CAD and the industry specific design/engineering solutions are very different things. Most cabinet design software does not require you to draw cabinets. You program or set the construction settings to match your practices and then the face sectioning and interior parts are automatically engineered/drawn for you through an easy to use interface.

The difficulty arises when you have to design/build something that the software will not do out of the box, or if there are details about your construction process not covered by the basic interface. Some programs allow very little customization over the basic concept of a cabinet, while others allow lots of flexibility. This flexibility tends to make the software more complex. Generally the lower cost products are simpler to use and require less effort to get started. The expensive titles allow for a lot (some are practically limitless) of customization.

If you are flexible about your construction techniques (most of us are not) life with a new design package will be a lot easier. If you are stubborn about certain details you want the software to reflect it can be frustrating. CAD sucks for cabinet makers. Drawing a cabinet one line at a time is tedious and error prone. Also CAD will not give you the production information, material lists, or optimization.

From contributor W:
It all depends on what you do and hope to accomplish. If you are doing submittals to high end design firms and architects and/or want professional grade drawings, then CAD is the only answer. CutList and manufacturing information can be achieved through third party add-ons, whether you are using a parametric approach in CAD, as used in the off the shelf cabinet packages, or in a data extraction/feature recognition method with a true design-build approach. The latter is less prone to mistakes for custom configurations and is as flexible and easy as it gets, while maintaining virtual infinite ability.

From the original questioner:
Contributor S - I had a feeling that was the case with AutoCAD. I am not sure then which way to proceed. If I look into cabinet specific software, do some of the company's offer training of their software? Being a small one man shop, I donít know how much I can afford for this, but I do know it is important.

From contributor S:
I do not want to knock CAD as I use Inventor (3D AutoCAD) for custom furniture items that cannot be done in CV. It is tough to have to redraw a CAD job that needs to be built "as drawn" by the client, but you canít reasonably re-use the clients drawings even in the same CAD program. I believe all the industry solutions offer training. There are no books written for any of the packages except eCabinets, as far as I am aware.

Expect to spend $1,000 for a limited program that will not be exactly compatible to your construction techniques and give limited bidding options or renderings. $3,000 will get you a nice solution that will revolutionize your business if you integrate it into your process. $6,000 to $15,000 will give tremendous power to design, price and build jobs with great accuracy and ease. Add 1 to 2K for CNC patches if you need that.

If you are not sure what to do, buy one of the lower end products from a big company. Or perhaps better get Cabinet Vision for free. It is a great program. If you are going to use CNC based fully nested production in the near future it is a no-brainer. For shops that rely on saws, boring, and more traditional methods it lack a lot of the reports that make life easier in the shop.

I will say that the most unexpected benefit I derived from using software based designing/production is bidding. and good bidding software is expensive. Spend a lot of time looking at the bidding parts of the products you investigate. $3,000 is not a lot for what the software will do for you. I would rather my panel saw crash than my computer.

From contributor Y:
To contributor S: You wrote "Or perhaps better get Cabinet Vision for free." I might be wrong but I think you meant eCabinets for free. We have spent ten's of thousands on Cabinet Vision over the years. I am not a big fan of eCabinets but this might be a good place to start for the questioner. Itís a good place to get your feet wet and learn without bias as to how a program should work.

From contributor S:
Yes I meant eCabs. I have CV on my mind as I am thinking about upgrading to R11. I started with eCabs a few years ago and I still like some of the things it did, but it simply cannot supply me with the production info I need. CV did a brilliant job developing the various reports for production - system hole locations for hardware, hinge boring distances per door, saw instructions, and more. Now that I am running a Euro-shop the ability to snap hardware and internal components on the 32mm pattern is very important.

From contributor W:
You will never regret learning AutoCAD. No matter what cabinet design system you go with they all import dxf files to program custom tools and shapes. You need to know how to create your own dxf files or modify someone elseís. AutoCAD is the standard for architectural woodwork. I was of the same opinion five years ago that I did not need to learn AC, but starting day one my clients sent AC files to be cut or to be reviewed, modified, and returned for approval.

From contributor C:
"I have a tech school in my area that teaches AutoCAD, and the course is a full year. This seems too long to me to learn this, but if need be I would do it that way." AutoCAD isn't a program (and drafting isn't a skill) that you can learn in a few weeks or months and be proficient. In actuality it takes much longer unless you have an aptitude for it. AutoCAD is probably the most difficult to use CAD program. I agree with Contributor S's advice.

From contributor J:
Any software that you decide on will take time to learn if you want to be time and cost efficient. The issue I have seen with one-man shop is that they never have consistent time to dedicate to learning the software due to the time you are away from it building and installing the job.

Before you go spending money on software and school you should sit down and figure out a realistic schedule of your time. Look at the jobs that you did for the last year and see how many hours a week you averaged. Then do the math to see how many hours a week you could spend learning something new. Be realistic about it and include some time off and include adequate time for sleep. This will tell you if you can do it or not.

The main issue learning software is retention. If you learn some things then you are away for a couple of days of a week when you come back you will have to spend time remembering what you forgot. I donít mean to be against what you are trying to do, but I have seen this before and the results were not good.

From contributor R:
If you only need software for presentations then I would suggest that you try Google Sketchup. It is free and the easiest program to learn. I didn't care much for e-Cabs, it is too hard to learn. I self-taught myself AutoCAD but was lost with e-Cabs. Sketchup is an open program that allows you to import many drawing that others submit. Sometimes this can eliminate time that would be spent drawing them yourself. You can also download a cutlist program and a photorealistic render program such as Kerkythea that will work with Sketchup and is also free.

From contributor G:

As a professional CAD Designer, I have been using CAD systems for over 25 years. Before you can reasonably use any CAD system, you need to understand drafting principles. You can build all the great 3D models in the world, but until you can put dimensioned lines on a drawing, itís all useless, especially in a woodshop. I see this almost daily with engineers coming out of college. They donít seem to teach drafting anymore, just 3D Cad systems.

Personally, I would start with drafting courses, even buy some old books and learn to draw on a drawing board. Once you have a good handle on that, then move on to CAD. AutoCAD has been around as long as I have been using CAD (almost) and is used for a very wide range of applications, but it is only a tool to create the ultimate goal - drawings. For me, once you understand how to create or at least interpret 2D drawings, I would go to working (creating geometry - parts and assemblies) in the 3D world and skip the 2D AutoCAD drafting world all together.

From what I see is available on the market, I would also lean towards software dedicated to your area of expertise like eCabinets or something similar. While AutoCAD may be the architectural standard, as I mentioned earlier, it has a vast application base from machine design to highway use, and you need to create everything you need to use up front (or at least go find it). With dedicated programs many, if not all, of your day to day operations (cutlists, drawings, etc. ) are built in upfront and are "pick and place" type features.

From contributor S:
When architects send me CAD files I simply build the job in CV and send it back to them. Maybe once or twice I have had them ask me to submit it as a DXF that they could modify. I explain to them that my drawings include structural and process related details that could not be "touched-up" by anyone else who did not have the detailed knowledge of my production and cabinetry engineering in general. Further I draw exact to their drawings (unless they say I have leeway to use my standards), so I tell them to modify their original drawing and I will make those changes to mine. I say all this nicely and with respect, they never had an issue. Usually all they needed changed was a simple elevation detail.

From contributor C:
"Before you can reasonably use any CAD system, you need to understand drafting principles. You can build all the great 3D models in the world, but until you can put dimensioned lines on a drawing, itís all useless." Using a CAD program doesn't make one draftsman. I am constantly amazed at the very poor quality CAD drawings we receive that are indicative of a complete lack of drafting skills and standards. Using a word processor doesn't make you a novelist.

From contributor M:
Like Contributor S says, if you are primarily doing residential cabinets, just get a cabinet specific program. AutoCAD will not really help you with any of these programs. I do mainly residential cabinets, for the odd time my software wonít draw something, I simply resort to pencilCAD.

From contributor O:
A "good" drawing clearly (without any other way to interpret it) defines the dimensional constraints of a part (with tolerances). Or, in the case of an assembly, all parts and quantities of parts with their locations and orientations and any other pertinent data required (a bolt torque spec for instance) to assemble something.

This is accomplished with the proper use and placement of views and dimensions. There are many global standards that define these things so drawings can only be interpreted one way no matter where they are made. Many drawings for component parts are actually legal documents and are interpreted as such in courts of law.

From contributor F:
I totally agree with you. I come from Germany and I went to school for three years to become a drafter. I did it the old way and I think that you should learn the proper way to do drawings as well. Iíve used AutoCAD for many years and it makes it easier, but you still need to know what you do. Today there are many who think with a computer and AutoCAD they are an engineer and drafter.

From the original questioner:
I agree with all that is said. Many years back I took mechanical drafting at a tech school, and although I may not remember all the details, I do feel I remember enough to produce a decent drawing. I totally agree that learning basic drawing is very important, as is reading drawings to build from on a regular basis.

I fully agree that it is difficult for a one man shop to find time to wear yet another hat, however with the expansion that I am planning I would no longer be a one man shop, and would end up spending more time designing and selling, and less time building. That is where the need to learn a cabinet design type software comes into the picture.

I will look into the programs mentioned, and hopefully I can find the right fit. I believe that proper training is crucial, as I am sort of old school, drawing with a pencil, and I am not really up with technology, even though I have a computer and using it for my business.

From contributor S:
When professional draftsmen (I agree that 3D modeling is killing that skill) discuss proper drawing it is like an Audiophile critiquing your Sony sound system - it just doesnít mater to most of us. The architects are not the ones going to build the cabinets, we are. They just want to know what it will look like and the cost.

I think too much emphasis is placed on the presentation aspects of software. The production info and the bidding are number one. Nice renderings are good and that helps but I suspect most of the jobs that people claim were won due to their amazing renderings where mostly won by salesmanship, price, and overall design.

From contributor W:
There are plenty of times when I will not bother to draft an issue. It can take over an hour to properly describe a problem or concern by drafting it, and even then, it can be very ambiguous. It seems to work to just leave it blank in the drafting and the bench will have to ask. Show them a model, takes 30 seconds, handled. I am just saying that drafting is important and nice, but it is enhanced with 3D modeling for manufacturing purposes.

The sheer number of companies making 3D manufacturing software is staggering, so the economics back it up. Unfortunately, their costs and profit, your machines, training, education, and maintenance strip away to value added by 3D modeling fairly quickly. I have taught many people to draft and model. It only takes a few days to get an average person up to the point where they can do something useful and profitable in an established environment.

From contributor Y:
I use CV to do my drawings but what I am really after is the production information. I am a cabinet maker using a tool, I am not a trained draftsman. I have learned to use symbols and keep drawings clean and organized by reading books and studying Architects drawings we receive.

Just because you draw does not make you a trained draftsman Just because you sell cabinets and have a showroom does not make you a trained designer. Just because you sell things made from wood does not make you a cabinetmaker! In my time I have become very good at all of the above, but when asked what I do for a living I am still a cabinetmaker the only one of the group I was ever trained to do. My advice to the questioner is still to pick something that will work for your shop, then become the best you can at it.