Sketchup Blog - News and Notes from the Sketchup folks

Layers vs. the Outliner

Lots of people ask me how I keep my SketchUp models organized; there seems to be plenty of confusion about when to use Layers and when to use the Outliner. Both devices let you control the visibility of different parts of your model, but each has its own strengths and weaknesses.

First things first: Make groups and components

I always use groups and components as my primary means of organization. This is critical regardless of whether I'm using Layers or the Outliner. How come?

Using Layers doesn't keep geometry isolated; edges and faces on one layer can (and will) interfere with edges and faces on another layer -- UNLESS those edges and faces are protected as part of a separate group or component. Making liberal use of groups and components is the surest way to avoid spending hours repairing your work.

The Outliner (Window > Outliner) is basically just a hierarchical list of the groups and components in your model. Only these two types of things show up; "loose" geometry (ungrouped edges and faces) doesn't. If you want to use the Outliner to control the visibility of different parts of your model, you need to make groups and components.

Why I use the Outliner most of the time

I like using the Outliner because it's a straightforward way of seeing all the bits and pieces of my models: If I've been careful to name everything as I go along (the only place in my life where I exhibit tidiness), the Outliner makes managing everything relatively easy. I can hide and show groups and components by right-clicking on their names, instead of having to dig through the geometry in my model with the Select tool.

I tend to use the Outliner much more than I use Layers because I find nested groups and components to be a very logical way to organize objects in 3D space. Any given entity can only exist inside one group or component at a time. This means that when I hide a group or component from the Outliner, I can be sure that everything inside it is hidden, too. If I unhide a group or component and something inside it still isn't visible, I know that all I have to do is turn on Hidden Geometry to find it.

With Layers, it's possible for a group or component to be on one layer and the entities it contains (edges, faces, groups, components, etc) to be on a completely separate layer. Turning on one layer is no guarantee that everything it contains will become visible. When this happens, turning on Hidden Geometry won't help -- stuff that's hidden on a layer which is turned off doesn't show up, even when Hidden Geometry is turned on.

Using Layers to control the visibility of individual entities in your model can be very, very tricky. Layers have, on occasion, made me want to throw my computer through a wall.

How I use Layers

Their sometimes frustrating nature notwithstanding, Layers are a pretty important part of the way I organize complex models in SketchUp. I can think of two major reasons why:

To improve system performance

I use Layers to control the visibility of large sets of similar objects -- furniture, plants, scale figures, cars -- that I want to be able to turn on and off all at once, regardless of which group or component they're a part of. Generally, this is so that I can control the way my model performs on my computer. Turning off "heavy" stuff like trees speeds things up.

Suppose I have a building with three floors (see below). Each floor has some furniture on it. I model each floor as a separate group so that I can show and hide it easily via the Outliner. Each group contains the furniture on that floor. The building envelope is a separate group.

Use the Outliner to control the visibility of individual groups and components.

So that I can quickly turn on and off all of the furniture in the building (which will make the whole model easier to work with), I move each furniture component from Layer0 (the default) to a new layer called "Furniture".

Use Layers to turn on and off sets of similar objects that "cut across" groups and components.

Now I can easily control the visibility of individual aspects of my building independently. Being able to turn on and off the furniture all at once makes it a lot easier to get things done.

To keep some things really separate

As I mentioned earlier, turning on Hidden Geometry only shows hidden geometry on layers which are visible. I take advantage of this fact to make sure that when I'm modeling and I need to turn on Hidden Geometry for some reason (like maybe to unsoften an edge), I don't end up getting confused by every hidden entity in my model. I use Layers to organize big, unwieldy chunks of geometry that I don't need to see all the time, but that I can't delete. Examples of these are contour lines, imported CAD drawings, previous design iterations, and large amounts of entourage (trees, furniture, etc). I keep these things on separate layers (as part of groups, of course) and I turn them on only when I need them.


Plenty of modelers use Layers and almost never use the Outliner. Which system you choose is entirely up to you -- there's no right or wrong way to do things. As long as your big models aren't driving you crazy, you're doing fine.

Posted by Aidan Chopra, SketchUp Evangelist

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jeff said...

I found this very informative. I have never used the Ouliner before, but i'll try the benefit. thanks.

fmblog said...

Hi Aidan,

would be cool if i could print out that ouliner with a cool tree view.

does GE recognize components across different buildings?
and how many levels of hirachy make sense for GE?

Arthur Moniz said...

Interesting. Lots of very usefull info. Here some tips to avoid the 3D Administrative Nightmare.

Organize your model using Groups and Components, as Aidan said, then use "Hide rest of model" and "Hide Similar Components" instead of HIDE/UNHIDE.

It gives you "the ability to turn off the rest of the model while editing. This enables you to quickly examine a certain aspect of a complicated design easily without disrupting the rest of the model."
-SketchUp Essential Two Training Course No:3HIM04.

But to make it really work you MUST set shortcuts.

I set these two function commands to keyboard shortcuts.
H = Hide rest of model.
Shift+H = Hide Similar components.

After getting used, you are not going to use the generic HIDE too often neither Outliner.

Regarding LAYERS:
1-Don't be "Layercentric"! this is not AutoCAD.

2-Use layer to organize grouped objects only (Components,Groups, Images,Dimensions and Texts).

3-Normally Layers becomes really usefull in advanced fases of large models and before LayOut presentations.

4-Layers can be very powerfull when combined with Scenes.

I hope it helps,
Arthur Faria

Mary C said...

thanks, didn't even know about Outliner yet - sound great!

Justin said...

cad drawings are awesome and they help out a lot of things.

Rommel said...

Excellent article. I completly ignored...I mean overlook the chapter in on using Outliner. I will have to give it a second look. I have spent hours "house cleaning" models...very, very, VERY frustrating.Thanks for the tips.

dreamtime said...

For Outliner to be truly useful and not an incredible drain on my time, on a Mac, the UI needs to be totally revamped. Truly one of the worst interfaces ever conjured up on any Mac program.

One obvious example amongst many… visibility needs to be controlled (toggled) by a checkbox similar to the Layers palette.

Serban Streza said...

Everything in the article is helpful and it took me a while to get to the same conclusions. If I was to have a wish, I would hope to be able to organize the layers in similar ways as groups and components, not just a plain list.

Archrise said...

Great article, never used the outliner but maybe I'll give it a shot for smaller models.

One suggestion so that what layer individual entities (lines/surfaces) are on doesn't get confusing: ALWAYS draw on Layer 0 or the default layer. Then when something needs to be isolated make it a group and if it needs to be hidden give it a layer. This solves a lot of visibility issues since you never know by looking at it what layer an entity is on.

Flamejob said...

This is a great sanity check for me, because it is exactly how I use the outliner and layers.

I have to say that I disagree with the comment about the outliner. I am happy with the context menus for most things. The one thing that is slightly frustrating is the way the outliner window itself doesn't have pallet behaviour, it acts like a window. The same is true of the model properties window.

vdm said...

It strikes me that this usage of layers is very like the use of tags in or labels in Gmail.

It might help people shake off their AutoCAD baggage if the layers concept was named differently. AutoCAD layers don't work that well anyway; everybody uses byzantine naming conventions to simulate hierarchy, and these conventions have even been officially standardised for some domains. Its sick.

I agree with the comments above that the UI could be improved. Hierarchical layers/tags, and a column of checkboxes for toggling visibility would be a great start. It may also be possible to do away completely with the distinction between layers and the outliner if it were possible for an entity to have more than one tag. With careful design, this might even be a killer feature for Sketchup 8.

Thanks for a very helpful post. I think this material should be written into the Sketchup documentation, because I have struggled with when to use layers and the documentation was not helpful.

santafecanon said...

I started using outliner with components and groups early on as I am used to acad blocks. Once I explored their function and organization, there is no way to go back and I cant see keeping a project organized without them. The ability to drag a component to another group within outliner is a key function. Delete a component in outliner is useful. Select a group or component from the outliner is also key to speed. I have outliner open all the time.

Advice! Give your components and groups logical names as they can be easily found. Drag a group around within outliner so it doesn't get buried into the bottom of the stack.

Double click a group or component in the outliner and it is visible and isolated within the model! Slick!

This is a great article on model organization as it points out a method to keep model content "flowing" by spending less time keeping up with all the complexities.

cr said...

Who knew? (I guess that's what I get for not reading the directions) I'm in the process of setting up a default drawing with all my layers (and their appropriate colors), so I wouldn't have to recreate them. Yes, I am layercentric, but at least I don't use Autocad and their horrible naming system. I can see the advantage of Outliner in that I am grouping everything anyway, but I have grown to like the ablility to differentiate layers by color.

My question, how does one create keyboard shortcuts?

Christy said...

This is great validation. I have been using Sketchup since 2002/2003 and struggled with organizing my models for years. I recently read one of Dennis Fukai's books and he focused like a laser on using the outliner. I tried it and found it to be an incredible tool and productivity booster.

Jakob Hovman said...

To Serban Streza... I make a layer for each component of the roof, rafters, insulation and so on...and group them in a layer called ROOF, this layer will turn the whole roof on/off...

to cr...shortcuts can be set in preferences, you can import/export...there are a few good lists from some we "use the same"

José Manuel said...

I have done the tranlation into Spanish in my blog.If you have any problem, let me know.

Thanks in advance.

Luis Gioia said...

Muchas gracias. No conocía el Outliner y pude ver las grandes posibilidades. Lo probaré de inmediato. Disculpen que escriba en español, pero en inglés no me tengo fé

Artur Cordeiro said...

Hallo Aidan!

Great article!

In the version 7.0 when a hidden group/compenent is clicked in the Outliner window it was possible to see the hidden geometry of it, but in the 7.1 version it's not possible anymore. Do you know why? Is it a bug or a changing?

thank you!

rajat said...

the contents given r very informative.. i had never used outliner tool before. thanks for the knowledge...

sfd said...

Wish there was a way to save a given set of hidden elements (groups/components) in outliner - similar to the way visible layers are saved in scenes.

santafecanon said...


Outliner is a GODSEND! If you dont use it, you have no idea what your missing.

One of your closing comments was: Plenty of modelers use Layers and almost never use the Outliner. Which system you choose is entirely up to you -- there's no right or wrong way to do things.

No right or wrong, well perhaps. Not using Outliner in a complex model cause you dont know how is kind of like digging a long ditch with a shovel cause you dont want to learn to use a backhoe. I see many people with advanced versions of AutoCAD who still draft like they learned back in R-14. Why? Cause they are stuck on a learning plateau and stay where they are.

This is about "efficiency" and not getting caught up in the mundane. I work on very complex models and the Outliner is a godsend. I learned this and my efficiency sped way up, not to mention how much better SKP performs. I no longer have the confused, bogged down models I hear about from other SKP users. Not using Outliner cause your too busy to learn it or stuck on the treadmill is in my view "wrong" because it keeps you working slow and inefficient.

Neil said...

There is a MAJOR GOTCHA with this approach that users need to be aware of before relegating their use of layers to just homogeneous groups like furniture.

The outliner is tremendously useful during the modelling phase and helps to enforce the essential discipline of grouping everything, and naming your groups. I recommend keeping the Entity Info window open at all times!

BUT when you get to the presentation phase of your project you will likely want to create scenes to show different views of your model, and in those scenes you will want to have certain entities hidden so they don't obstruct the view. This is especially true if you're going to be using Layout - indeed the recommended way of using Layout is to prepare your model with scenes.

The gotcha is that scenes don't preserve the hidden geometry status of nested groups. Let me explain with a simple example.

Suppose you had a model of a room with three walls each one individually grouped and called Left Wall, Back Wall, and Right Wall, so they show up in the Outliner. You then select all three and create a group called All Walls. You do this because otherwise the outliner becomes fairly tedious if you have to scroll through hundreds of top level entities as your model grows.

Now you want to create some scenes so in the outliner you hide the group called Left Wall, then choose the Left standard view and create a scene called Left View. Then you unhide the Left Wall group and hide the group called Right Wall, switch to the Right standard view and create a second scene called Right View.

Now you're ready to present your model, right? Wrong!

Switch back to the Left View scene by clicking the scene tab - what you will see is not what you expect. Even though Hidden Geometry is one of the properties listed in the scenes window, it doesn't save the hidden geometry of groups if they are nested inside another group. So instead of seeing your scene with the Left Wall hidden and the Right Wall visible, what you see is actually the result of the last time you went to the Outliner and used the Hide/Unhide commands - in this example the Left Wall is visible and the Right Wall is hidden, the opposite of what you wanted.

These scenes would work if you hadn't grouped the three walls into the All Walls group. But as already mentioned keeping everything at the top level (not using nesting) makes the Outliner a pain to use, to say nothing of having to model without nesting.

So when you are structuring your model you need to keep in mind how you will present it and how you plan to use scenes - specifically think about what entities in your model you might want to hide in particular scenes, and work with Layers to achieve this.

In the example above the scenes would have worked if I had created layers called Walls Left and Walls Right and assigned the groups to the respective layers. Then I would turn on or off the appropriate layers before creating the scenes (or updating them). This will work even if the individual wall groups are nested into the All Walls group as described in the example. This way you can have the benefit of nested groups in the Outliner, allowing you to hide All Walls while editing other bits of your model, but still have scenes that work.

If you're not using the Outliner you should be, but it's not a "layers vs the outliner" situation as suggested by the unfortunate title of this article. You need to be using layers as well, and not just for furniture, trees etc, - adopt a level of granularity in your layer structure that gives you the flexibility to use scenes effectively.

Red said...


Thanks for the explanation - that problem has been driving me nutty! Would appreciate a fix from the Sketchup team for the visibility of nested groups in scenes problem as the method you suggest is a bit of a workaround...


Javacabecedarian said...

Beware the very frustratingly buggy relationship between the outliner and layers, even if all the components in your outliner show the correct layers they sit on, the layers window does not respect this at all! More often than not it likes to muck up organization with items supposedly on one layer actually hidden when another layer is hidden. For example, if I have component x on layer 1 and my entity information shows that component x is indeed assigned to layer one, if I then hide all other layers apart from one entity x can still disappear! Google like to think that most issues with sketchup are user ability related, sadly they are not, just look at the follow me tool. Beware the squeaky clean tutorials, there be trouble within

e_shirinyan said...

This issue is quite clear - sorry for short response - you could check little movie on youtube -

Rizky said...

I would happy if there are combination feature between two of them called.... Nested Layer, i think it is more useful.

Rizky said...

I would love if there is combined feature between two of them called... Nested Layers. It is more useful.

Grinder of Cogs said...

Why does this page open in Internet Explorer by default when I click on the link in Sketchup?

My default browser is Chrome.


If I wanted to open IE, I'd first slit my wrists, have a glass of wine and lie in a bath filled with ice...

Maybe a bit of Quality Control is in order?

Stuart said...

Scenes and hidden geometry are another powerful way to structure your model, but not without there limitations, albiet a limitation that is not documented anywhere, that I've found, including Mr. Chopra's great book Google SketchUp for Dummies.

Scenes and hidden geometry are not as straight forward as you would think. There is a relationship to groups also. Here's an example, if you make a group within a group (nested) then create a scene1 where you can see all the geometry, then you go into the top level group and hide the nested group, then make a second scene2, checking the Hidden geometry check box...there you have it - the limitation of sketchup - it will only recognize whether the main "outer" group is hidden or not, it does not have the ability to recognize whether or not nested groups are hidden.

This, in my humble level 1 opinion is something that would be great to address in the next revision of sketchup, as nesting groups and components for the purpose of structuring a model well is essential to an efficient work-flow.



d.square said...

@ vdm ,

yes you can apply multiple tags to components via the 'name' function in the entity info window.

just type the tag ....give a space ..type another tag.....

thats it.

now you can search for the first or second tag via the outliner filter .

Hermie said...

Thanks, I've been looking for a better way to organize my drawings.