So, Minecraft. You may have heard of it. You may have even played it. And you may have then said, “Man, I love building stuff, but sometimes I wish I could plan out a structure before building it.” Or maybe you haven’t said that. But wouldn’t it be cool if you could?
As it turns out, Google SketchUp, a free modeling program, makes building Minecraft models pretty easy. In this article, I’ll walk you through the basics of building your first model.
(Castle Creeper model courtesy of choolfool.)
If you haven’t yet, go ahead and install SketchUp. We’re going to start of with a template that has predefined components for most of the block types. This is a modified version of the file provided by Stardog on the Minecraft forums; I’ve added a few more block types, resized the textures so that they don’t get blurry when SketchUp tries to smooth them, and cleaned up the door models a bit. I also changed the length snapping; I’ll talk about this later. Once you download and extract the template, run SketchUp. To load the template, click Window -> Preferences, select Template, then Browse… and select the .skp file you extracted. Click OK, then File -> New.
You should now be staring at a bunch of blocks. Each of these is a component, a collection of geometry that’s treated as a single unit and can appear multiple times within your model. An important aspect of components is that if one copy of a component is modified, all other copies of it within the model are updated. If we ever want to modify one of these components, we’ll either make it into a new component or a group so that the original is unchanged. (A group is similar to a component, except that it’s unique; modifications to that group won’t change anything else.)
Before we start building: there are couple different ways to build a Minecraft model. Since we have components defined for each block type, we could just stack a bunch of them together, exactly like you would in-game. This is conceptually simpler, but it has some disadvantages; first of all, each block has six faces; multiply that by the number of blocks in a good-sized structure, and that’s a lot of geometry that SketchUp has to keep track of. Also, placing a whole bunch of blocks manually can get pretty tedious, although SketchUp does have tools to automate things. Still, placing individual blocks can be easier in some cases, so feel free to do it as necessary. For the rest of this tutorial, however, I’ll be discussing the alternative approach.
We’ll start off with a grass base. Click Window -> Components and click the home button in the window that appears; this brings up a list of all the components in the model. Select “Block_Grass”, then click somewhere behind where all the blocks are laid out to place it. This is the starting point for our model. In order to prevent the textures from getting misaligned in the next step, we want to align this block to a whole number of meters. Select the move tool (bound to the M key by default), and click on the lower left-hand corner of the block (closest to the origin); it should now follow the cursor around. To place it in an exact position, you can type in the coordinates surrounded by brackets, which shows up on the far right side of the status bar at the bottom of the window. Type in “[30,30,0]” and press enter. The block is now positioned where we want it.
Next, position your camera so you have a good view of the block we placed. Click and hold your middle mouse button to rotate your camera around, hold shift at the same time to pan the view, and double-middle-click to center your view on a given point. Use the scroll wheel to zoom. (You can use all of these camera controls even if you’re in the middle of another operation, like moving a block.)
Now we want to take our one grass block and turn it into many grass blocks. Remember, the block we placed is a component, so we don’t want to edit it yet, since it would affect any grass blocks we placed in the future. We’ll change it from a component into a group; we can then modify it all we want. To do this, right-click on the block and click Explode. This splits the component into the individual pieces that make it up. All the pieces are still selected, so right click somewhere on them and select Make Group. If you accidentally deselect them while they’re exploded, you can reselect them by using the Select tool (spacebar) to click and drag a box around them.
With the grass block converted to a group, we can start modifying it. In order to make changes to groups (or components), you have to open them. This lets you select the individual faces and edges that make up the group, and fades out everything that isn’t part of the group (or hides it completely, depending on your settings). To open it, right-click on the block and click Edit Group, or use the select tool and double-click on the block; a bounding box and new set of axes will appear. We want to expand the block by extending some of the faces outwards, or extrude it. In SketchUp, this is done with the Push/Pull tool (P). Select it, then click on the block’s right face. You can now move the cursor to expand (or contract) the block.
Note that the extrusion moves in one-meter (that is, one-block) increments. This is because we have length snapping set to one meter; this is configurable through Window -> Model Info, Units. All of the operations (moving objects, drawing lines, etc.) will use this, so we don’t have to worry about precise positioning. You can also type in a value; if we wanted our grass to be twenty blocks wide, you could type in 19 and hit enter to extrude it that far. For now, just extend it until we have a nice wide base (repositioning your camera if you can’t extend it far enough), and click to set it. Now we want to extend it backwards; rotate your camera until you can see the back face, click it (still with the Push/Pull tool selected), and pull it out a bunch.
Our base looks good, so let’s close the group; right-click outside the bounding box and click Close Group. (If you activate the Select tool, you can left click outside the bounding box or press escape to close it.) Now if you select it, the whole group is selected as a unit; the Move tool will move the entire thing, and tools that operate on individual faces (like Push/Pull) can’t be used.
At this point, this whole SketchUp thing probably doesn’t seem all that exciting; it would have been just as easy to just build this in Minecraft, after all. Let’s build something a little more complex.