I started my aquarium hobby back in December 1999
and quickly found a home at Reefs.org and on #reefs in the evening hours. This
was the first place I was introduced to 3D modeling aquarium objects. I was
amazed at what could be done with the right software. I was also frustrated
at how technical the software was to use. Because of the technical aspects
of it and my lack of time to teach myself the ins and outs of the software,
I put my interest on the back burner. My frustration changed when I
recently tried Google SketchUp. It was easy to use and it made decent
models of items I wanted to create. It wasn’t as pretty as the other
software programs but it got the job done to my satisfaction. This article
will deal with the latest version of Google SketchUp, which at the time of
this writing is version 6.
What is SketchUp?
SketchUp is a basic 3D modeling
package from Google that allows you to create 3D models of objects. You can
make models as small and simple as a nail and as big as the Empire State
Building (or bigger). Google has a site dedicated to showcasing user
generated 3D objects called 3D Warehouse and one can
find just about any object there that you might be interested in modeling.
A quick search for “aquarium”
in the 3d Warehouse shows that the software can easily be used to model all
sorts of items for aquarium projects. It should be noted that there is a
Pro version available that has a lot of additional features, but
the Pro version is not free.
There are other software products out there that will do similar things
with some being more expensive and complex than others. The most popular
open-source software would probably be Blender3D. It is free
and anyone can download and it
has an active online
community. The model gallery is
impressive as well as the documentation.
Non-free software would include Maya, Lightwave, 3D Studio Max, etc.
Any of these software packages can be used to make some amazing
renderings but the added beauty also comes at the price of the
complexity of the software in addition to cost in the case of Maya,
Lightwave, and 3D Studio Max. SketchUp is nowhere near as powerful as these
other software packages but it is probably by far the easiest to become
productive with in a short time period. One thing to note is that SketchUp
6 files are not directly compatible with any of the aforementioned 3D
rendering packages. It looks as though some conversion programs/scripts
exist (google: Blender3D,
but the use of them is problematic and obtaining a clean conversion is not
without its limitations. If you want to convert your SketchUp files you
will need to buy the Pro version of SketchUp to obtain these features.
Where do I get it?
SketchUp is available for download from its website. Windows and Mac OS X
versions available are. Choose the one for your operating system. If you
use Linux, it should be possible to get it working under Wine based on information in
the SketchUp Pro forums although I have not personally tried it. Note that
you need to be running either Windows 2000 or XP or Mac OS X to use
SketchUp per Google’s FAQ on the subject.
Download the software package for your OS and install it per the
installation instructions. During the install, I opted to set SketchUp so
that it defaulted to Woodworking 3D Template user interface but you can set
it up however you want.
Once it is installed, run the program. If you were not presented with
selecting a default template to work in when you are using the program,
select Window –> Preferences –> Templates and in the dropdown menu
select “Inches (Woodworking) – 3D.” This is the template
that will be used in this article.
Familiarization with the Interface
SketchUp’s user interface is basic compared to the other software
packages (above) but what it does have allows you to create some pretty
interesting and detailed models.
Below is a brief description of what each tool does from left to right
on the toolbar:
- Arrow (arrow icon): Select an object/region
- Line (pencil icon): Draw lines
- Rectangle (rectangle icon): Draw rectangles/squares
- Circle (circle icon): Draw circles
- Arc (arc icon): Draw an arc line
- Make Component (3d box icon): Make the object you’re working on
into one complete selectable object instead of a series of surfaces
- Eraser (grade school eraser icon): Erase your mistakes or items you
want removed from your model
- Tape Measure (tape measure icon): Measure distances
- Paint Bucket (paint can icon): Paint/fill your surface with various
- Push/Pull (box icon with arrow coming out of the top): Extend the
surface of the object clicked on
- Move/Copy (4 way arrow icon): Move an object
- Rotate (circular arrow icon): Rotate an object around a central
- Offset (double arc + arrow icon): offset an object
- Orbit (3d spherical arrow icon): Orbit around your model (see all the
- Pan (hand icon): Move your view up/down/left/right
- Zoom (magnifying glass icon): Zoom in/out
- Zoom Extents (magnifying glass + arrows icon): Zoom out to the full
size of your object
The final 5 icons are for working with Google Earth and getting/sharing
your work online with the SketchUp community. There are additional Toolbars
that one can select and they can be found by clicking View –> Toolbars.
For this particular article, I will be focusing on the Getting Started
toolbar that is checked by default in the software.
Create a Simple Aquarium
For this exercise, let’s model a simple 120-gallon reef-ready aquarium.
Tanks are an easy starting point as it’s essentially a box made out
of five panes of glass. This particular one will also have an overflow in
the back left corner with a couple of holes drilled for bulkheads. SketchUp
makes creating an object like this very easy and I found that I could
create the below model in under three minutes knowing the dimensions of
each object ahead of time. I’m going to take you through this tutorial the
way that I found to be the easiest for me, but there are other ways of
doing the same thing. You’ll find a style that works best for you by
working with the software. You can also download and view a screencast of the tank construction in
You may download the completed model used in
this article for review. It will allow you to pan around the finished
object to see how everything is placed.
The standard 120-gallon has nominal dimensions of 48 inches long x 24
inches wide x 24 inches high and uses 3/8 inch thick glass. The overflow in
the back left corner will be 7 inches wide by 5 inches deep by 22 5/8
inches tall and will be made out of 1/4-inch material. It also has two
holes drilled in the tank for bulkheads. One hole is 1 1/4 inches in
diameter (feeds tank from the sump) and another one that is 2 1/2 inches in
diameter (overflow to sump).
The first step in the process is to draw the footprint of the tank.
Select the Rectangle tool from the toolbar (see Figure 2 above). Next,
place your cursor at the intersection point of the red, green, and blue
lines (X, Y, and Z axes), click there with your mouse and
“pull” a simple rectangle across your work surface.
Now before you click to permanently place your rectangle, type the
following into your keyboard/number pad:
At the bottom right of the screen, you will see these dimensions appear.
Hit RETURN and your rectangle will be resized to 48” x 24”.
This is a very easy way to make shapes to the dimensions you want
without much trouble. Note in the above image that I removed the
carpenter’s square from the view by selecting it with my arrow tool
and hitting the DELETE key.
Now either use your Zoom tool or your wheel-mouse and zoom in on the
rectangle you just drew. Select the Push/Pull tool from the toolbar and
click on the top surface of the rectangle. Pull the surface up and type
into your keyboard:
This will make your rectangle into a box that is 3/8” high (i.e.
the thickness of the bottom pane of glass). You’ve just drawn the
bottom pane of glass for your tank.
The Aquarium Walls
Now we need to draw the inside perimeter of the aquarium in order to
create our tank walls in a later step. The glass thickness is 3/8” so
we need to make a rectangle that is 3/8” smaller all the way around
and center it inside the rectangle we just drew. To do this, select the
Offset tool from the toolbar and click on the surface of the rectangle that
you just drew. Pull your cursor into the rectangle a bit and then type:
This will create a rectangle that is 3/8” smaller inside the
Next we will make the overflow box. We will make the overflow box in the
back left corner and has dimensions of 7 inches long x 5 inches wide x 22
5/8 inches high and uses 1/4-inch thick material. First use your Orbit /
Pan / Magnify tools to navigate to the inside back corner of the modeled
Select the Rectangle tool and place the cursor in the back corner of
your aquarium. Click and drag your tool and then type:
This makes the outside of your overflow box. Next, place your cursor
again into the back corner. Click and drag and type:
6 3/4″, 4 3/4″
This draws the inside of your overflow and it should now look something
The Bulkhead Holes
Next we need to draw the bulkhead holes into the bottom pane inside the
overflow box area. As mentioned above, our bulkhead holes are 1 1/4 inches
in diameter (feeds tank from the sump) and another one that is 2 1/2 inches
in diameter (overflow to sump). Select the Circle tool and make a circle
with radius of 5/8” (type 5/8” as done before). Make a second
circle with a radius of 1 1/4″. Use your Move/Copy tool to move each circle
around the bottom until they’re positioned where you want them. You
should end up with something like:
After positioning, select your Push/Pull tool and select the center of
each circle and for each one push the tool/surface down a bit and type:
This makes a hole in the bottom of your tank.
Raising the Aquarium and Overflow Walls
Next let’s create the aquarium walls. Select Push/Pull tool and
click on the outer perimeter of the aquarium where the walls will go. Pull
the tool up the screen a bit and then type:
This will pull your outside walls up.
The next step is to click your Push/Pull tool and select the region
between your drawn rectangles for the overflow and pull the surface/tool up
a bit and type:
This extends the overflow wall up to just below the top edge of your
tank that will be created in the next step.
For simplicity sake I have not gone into how to draw the notches in the
top edge of the overflow to make the overflow teeth. This is a bit tedious
but you can do it by zooming in on the tops of the overflows and drawing in
squares with your Rectangle tool (spacing appropriately) and then using
your Push/Pull tool to drop every other square down by 3/4″ – 1″. It’s up
Here is what your completed model should look like up to this point:
Adding Color and Opacity
Now let’s apply some color and opacity to the surfaces to make it
look like a glass aquarium. The one thing to note here is that SketchUp
doesn’t have a “specular reflectance” option where a
person can make surfaces reflective/glossy. There is a 3rd party
plugin for SketchUp called RPS Ray
Trace that can achieve this effect, but it is not free. That will be
one limitation to your modeling ability.
To apply a glassy look to the surface, select your Paint Bucket tool
from the toolbar. A “Materials” window will pop up. From the
dropdown menu on that window, select “Translucent” and then the
Now click on your surfaces to “paint” them with the texture.
Make certain to click on both sides of all of your surfaces to paint them.
You will need to use your Pan, Orbit, Zoom, and Zoom Extents tool items to
move around your object. Do not paint your overflow at this time, as we
will do that in the next step.
Now, go back to your Paint Bucket / Materials window and select
“Colors” from the drop down menu. Select a black color and
paint your overflow surface (inside and out) black again using the Pan,
Orbit, Zoom, and Zoom Extents tool items to move around.
Once that is done, use your Orbit and Pan tool to rotate to the front of
your object and click the Zoom Extents tool.
That’s it. You’ve modeled and textured your first object.
This is just the beginning of what you can do with SketchUp for
modeling. You can make sumps, skimmers, stands…the sky is the limit.
There is a very detailed Users Guide (Windows / Mac) available
online in case you get stuck on any projects you wish to try out with
There are a number of models available for download at the
new Reefs.org website:
- Lumenarc III Reflector
- Various sized tanks
- Schedule 40/80 piping
- Durso standpipe
- Deltec AP600 Skimmer
- Eheim 1260 pump
- MaxiJet 900/1200 powerhead
- various PVC fittings
The website states that the models are free for personal use but if they
are to be used on another website or used commercially, permission will
need to be obtained from the author(s) first.
UltimateReef.com based out of the UK has a number
of models available as well, some being the same as the ones that Dave
has for download. Note that you need to be a member of this site to view
and download the SketchUp files. These are also free for personal use. I
recommend you check them both out.
I’m also including links to online resources for learning more
about how to use SketchUp:
- Official Site
- 3D Warehouse
- Online Community
SketchUp encyclopedia for SketchUp users
If I had a “pie-in-the-sky” wish, it would be that
manufacturers create their own SketchUp models and make them available for
download or that one could create an online SketchUp model repository
specifically for aquarium items. Reefs.org has one setup on their website
and items could be added if there is interest.
If you’ve found this article interesting and create models based
on what you’ve learned here, I’d like to hear from you. Email a
screen capture, 2D Graphic (File –> Export –> 2D Graphic), or the
SketchUp file to firstname.lastname@example.org. If there’s
enough interest, I might feature it in an upcoming article.
Have fun modeling!