Shopping for CAD Software

Some insightful commentary on choosing the right software (if any) for the kind of cabinet work you do. October 15, 2009

I am a one man custom cabinet shop currently doing scale drawings and cut lists by hand. I'm looking for a software program that will mainly enable me to develop floor plans, elevations and cut lists fast. Colored 3D renderings are not as important and it will be a long time before I go CNC. Is a CAD based program like Microvellum the way to go? Are there more affordable, easier to learn programs that would better suit my needs? Or should I just stick to drawing with a pencil? Again, I'm mainly looking to efficiently develop floor plans, elevations and cutlists.

Forum Responses
(CAD Forum)
From contributor K:
I am also a one man shop and I can only speak for what I know. I am a Cabnetware user and have never used anything else. At the time I purchased it I was going out of business for two basic reasons. First, I was so busy I couldn't do the drafting and woodworking both so I decided to hire an independent draftsman to do all my drawing. If I had changes or he made a mistake, I paid more. He cost me about 10% of my job. After he was done I still had to write cutlists by hand and in that, I would screw up about 10% of my doors or face frames or drawer boxes etc due to math errors. So by the time I was done I wasn't making any money.

I went to a woodworking show where both Cabnetware and Cabinet Vision were showing. I decided on Cabnetware and basicly love using it. The great thing about using a program like this is that once you are done with the drafting end, you automatically have a cutlist ready. If you want to tweak the drawing, just do it and the cutlist will change with it or you can change the cutlist only and not change the drawing. My whole point is Cabnetware not only kept me in business but I'm still in the business. It took the drafting fee I was paying out and let me keep it. Also, the program is setup so that once I prove it works the way I want it to I don't get doors built to the wrong size because of math errors anymore. I don't build anything to the wrong size anymore!

You can't rely on us to tell you what to buy into. Some love the free stuff out there, some like Cabnetware and others like Cabinet Vision etc. You need to contact every cabinet software company you can find and make them come to you and give a presentation/demonstration of how their software works and compare them to the others and what you want it to do for you. I know very well about the cost of this stuff because every year I deal with paying for updates etc. but don't let cost be the primary factor to your purchase. You first need a software that will perform the tasks you want. But you don't want to spend a week designing a $10,000.00 job that you can do in less than a day or even a few hours with another program. Programs like Cabnetware allows you to put cabinets with predetermined design characteristics on the walls in very little time but still be able to customize them if you want or need to with the click of a few key strokes.

On the other side you have AutoCAD which if I understand it correctly (and someone will if I'm wrong) you virtually draw every line you want on the page where you want it. Someone proficient with it can draw the same elevation as Cabnetware very fast but I don't think as fast as Cabnetware can and you still need to write up cutlists.

All programs will require a dedication to them. AutoCAD is intense on learning key strokes and commands where Cabnetware is intense on creating accurate parameters that you use as the predetermined design criteria to design a kitchen or home theater etc. You make it as simple or as complex as you want but you still need to know all aspects of creating even the simple ones.

Cabnetware has several levels you can buy into and as you grow or if economics allow, you can move up. If at some point you do want to go CNC you can at that time buy into it and simply upgrade. Everything you have programmed to that point can still be used in the upgrade. It's a worthwhile investment whoever you decide on.

From contributor M:

I would not recommend Microvellum. I'm a small operation as well, and went down the Microvellum road. The reason I give you this advice without even knowing the type of work you do, is time. When you are a small operation and having to wear every hat, time is something you don't have a lot of. Pay attention to the warnings about Microvellum's learning curve. The investment and resources that Microvellum requires, in not only time, but money, is difficult for smaller shops to absorb. Microvellum's salespeople won't tell you that...they are all about the sale. Do your homework, and find the right software that is a good fit for your business.

From contributor J:
I went to a Microvellum week class convinced it was a good program. I came home convinced it is a very complex and difficult program to learn and implement for a small shop. I would not recommend it unless you are a big millwork outfit doing tons of casework.

I've been in the millwork industry for 20 years as a cabinet maker, project manager and draftsman. I stick to AutoCAD, especial if you are a custom shop, you can do anything you dream of with AutoCAD. There is no other program out there as versatile as AutoCAD, no matter what everyone says. All those library based programs have their limitations, and unless you only do straight forward cabinetry, it will not cut it. You run into radius, high detailed projects and unless you use AutoCAD based software, you are in trouble.

In my opinion, the less expensive and most effective way for a small shop is to go with AutoCAD 3D and add Smartlister for cut list and CNC output, if you need it. AutoCAD is very easy to learn, but not from books. I volunteer at a local jail to teach AutoCAD to inmates as part of a vocational program to reintegrate inmates into the work force and I have these guys drawing basic AutoCAD in four to six lessons. Another three to four lessons and they are drawing 3D. If you are going to spend the time to learn any other software, I strongly encourage you to learn AutoCAD.

From contributor I:
AutoCAD is the way to go. Not necessarily 3D, but contributor J is right, basics of AutoCADd are relatively easy to learn. Accuracy of your drawings are depended more on your drafting and engineering abilities than on performance of software program.

From contributor L:
Take a look at Pytha. It is affordable and will meet your basic needs of simplicity for drawings and cutlisting. You can add on other modules later such as CNC information and colored renderings. The learning curve is very small, so it will not require a lot of time to learn, and you can get good results the first day you use it

From the original questioner:
To contributor K: will Cabnetware handle radius work and other custom forms or just boxes? I have heard of AutoCAD being used in many different industries, is there only one program or do I need to find an AutoCAD that is tailored specifically for cabinetmaking? Is there a website where I can get more info? I've never heard of Pytha but I'll look into it.

From contributor L:
I am not as familiar with Cabnetware (it has been a long time since I used it), but I do know that it does cabinets very well. AutoCAD is great software for drawing. You can draw literally anything you can dream up. The problem is that by itself, it does not give you a cutlist for items drawn. You will need additional software that is designed to work in AutoCAD for cutlisting, such as Microvellum. Pytha can also let you draw anything you can dream up, but it cutlists each part as it is drawn. It will do radius, tapered, or anything else you may come up against - cutlisted as you go. Based on what you say your needs are, this is why I suggested that you look at it since I have used all the other software listed in this thread. Pytha seemed to me to fit your needs the best as you explained them.

From contributor I:
AutoCAD is only one. There are other satellite programs based on AutoCAD for different industries, but not specifically for woodworking. AutoCAD is pure drafting tool, and as contributor L said, it not going to generate cutlists or draw by itself. On other hand, none of the automated and parametric programs, such as Microvellum or Cabinet Vision are giving you anything by itself. You first need to input the parameters and then it collects and generates cutlists based on your input.

From contributor J:
Like contributor K and L say, AutoCAD by itself will not do the cutting lists. That way you need the full version of AutoCAD to be able to do the cutlists. One thing I know, if you become good at AutoCAD modeling, that will be the only program you will ever need don't matter what size you will grow to.

I've been in engineering/project management for 14 years in the NY/NJ area working for big outfits and assisted at many demos from all the companies through the years and even went to some classes. After comparing pros and cons, trying and buying different software from simple KCDC, 20/20, e-cabinets, cabinet vision, Planit, Microvellum and more, I came to the conclusion that simple is best.

All these programs are very good at one thing, but will let you down at another, and there is always that project that will take you back to the drafting board, either paper and pencil or, if you know it, AutoCAD. So, I figure that sticking with AutoCAD and learning it well will answer all my problems as far as drafting/engineering.

Remember that when you draw 3D models in AutoCAD, it is like if you are building the piece in the shop. You will have to work all the issues in the model before they reach the shop where they will cost you your profits. Also, the model has to be built with accurate dimensions, tolerances, etc. I hope this helps. I wish you the best in your search. Always remember, simple is best.

From contributor K:
Yes Cabnetware can do radiused casework and some other shape configurations but it doesn't do everything you can imagine like with AutoCAD. I have had C-ware for a long time and have not ever wanted or been asked to do curved work so I have never explored it.

I would like to ask those of you that are promoting AutoCAD to this one man shop, can you give the rest of us some ideas of the time it takes for a skilled draftsman to layout in AutoCAD. As an example, a simple 12' x12' 'L' shaped kitchen with a 6' island and the standard sink, dishwasher, range and refrigerator all in floor plan and three elevations, a color woodgrained perspective view with crown moulding, frame and raised panel doors and drawers with hardware and a window over the sink, all with an accurate cutlist.

I have no knowledge of AutoCAD to this degree and have always been curious how the design time between AutoCAD and the Cabnetware I use compares. To me this is a more important aspect to my choice of software than whether I can draw any shape imaginable because unless a one man shop is specializing in unique or unusual designs of cabinetry, the value of a program that does anything and everything is not worth its investment if it can't be time efficient to design the bulk of the common every day work we actually do. I can produce this kitchen in 3-4 hours with common kitchen features spec'ed.

From contributor I:

Of course parametric programs like MV, CV and probably C-Ware (I'm not familiar with it) can do it fast. The problem is that when it gets to complicated millwork, with every cut and curve different and every cabinet different, those programs are not able do it at all. So the choice is to do just simple staff, standard cabinets with normal face frame, or overlay doors, then probably C-Ware saves lots of time. Beyond that, AutoCAD is going to provide you with great tools to draw anything you can imagine of, but thinking is up to your brain not parametric program.

From the original questioner:
I too would like to know how long it would take in AutoCAD to layout a kitchen like the one you described with complete cutlists. Three-four hours sounds great (I know you're really proficient at it and it would probably take a beginner a long time to get that fast). Cabnetware may be the best option for me since the majority of the work I do is somewhat standard (frameless boxes) and it will do radius work. Can AutoCAD generate the information that fast?

From contributor I:
To the original questioner: you misunderstand one thing. AutoCAD cannot generate anything. Simply put it this way: it is sophisticated electronic pencil and drafting board in your hand. It makes drafting easier and faster, but you are the one who is generating drawings not AutoCAD. C-ware and othe parametrics are generating cabinets and part lists based on your numerical input but are limited in their creativity. So make a choice what you need and buy software accordingly.

From contributor K:
Contributor I is right on, Cabnetware is pre-programmed through a file system called parameters that you setup based on how you want or need to build cabinets. When you want to create sink base in the kitchen, you chose from your files the parameters that fit the need best. You may have one or 10 files for different construction methods of sink bases. Once you select the one you want you locate it on the wall and poof, it's there.

Now you fill the rest of the kitchen with the desired cabinets, make any modifications needed such as door designs, drawer sizes, cabinet heights or widths or depths, end panels, etc. You’re on your way. Here's the hard part of every software program and some are tougher than others as I understand from this forum in the past. You will have to learn the in's and out's of that program and how it's designed to let you move about and find and use the functions it has. Also, in C-ware the parameters are not hard to fill but you have to learn their way of speaking and when it asks you to enter a numerical value for some feature, you may have to spend time researching what they want or mean by that value. To learn all this for any one program will take time and effort. Be prepared to spend the time to do it once you make the commitment or you will never realize the full potential of the program or your investment.

As contributor I said, C-ware and programs like it do have limitations and C-ware annually comes out with "updates" which if you want to buy it keeps you current with the latest and greatest features to do more, and different things. Is it a money pit, well most will say yes but I am basically computer illiterate and I don't want to become a geek, I want to be a woodworker and spend every free moment cutting and wasting wood! That said, I'm willing to pay for the product and wait for the company to come up with a fix for the design feature I want that the program can't do right now.

C-ware can do a great job for high end cabinetmaking but not overly complex. If you want serpentine shaped cabinets once in a while you could also simply sub that design work out once in a while to serve the need and rely on a program like C-ware for the bread and butter work most of the time.

From contributor K:
If you aren't having problems with how you are doing it now, why change. As I said early in this forum, I went with C-ware because I saw it as a make or break situation for me.

From contributor D:
I used C-Ware/Works between 1988-1995, extensively. I used it because I needed cut bills I could distribute across many work centers, quickly. Other than that most kitchen cabinet designers and commercial submittals where handed to me as pencil/pen created information. As far as we we’re concerned, that was all that particular department personnel needed and the graphics where tossed.

From contributor K:
To contributor D: are you still in the business, if so how are you doing it now?

From the original questioner:
If it was fun that would be nice. I'm concerned with speed. I write down every single part in pencil now and it works, I just think it could be faster. I got a good amount of information and help from this and I thank you all. I will definitely see the software in action before/if I make a purchase.