SketchUp FAQ 03 – How to Model Terrain in SketchUp

Ever wondered how to model terrain in SketchUp?

We will show you how!

Giving your building design context is really important when it comes to 3d modelling. Your building needs to stand in its surrounding landscape in order to give it a sense of scale and demonstrate its relationship with the environment. However, some of us may find it fairly straightforward to model our house/building design, but things tend to get a bit more tricky when it comes to terrain, landscapes, and topography!  

SketchUp has a variety of ways you can model terrain and topography. Sometimes beginners in SketchUp find it hard to get to grips with working on terrain.  

In this post we are going to look at the different outcomes that can be achieved with the Sandbox Tools which come as standard in both the free and pro versions of SketchUp.  

We will look at creating terrain from scratch, and also from contour lines that we have imported into SketchUp. After this, we will then get to grips with adding objects to our terrain.   So, let’s get started.  

Sandbox Tools


The sandbox tools can be found by opening up the View menu ==> Tool Palettes ==> Sandbox   This will bring the Sandbox tool palette onto your screen.

From Contours

 The first tool we will look is “From Contours”. This tool allows us to import (or draw our own) contour lines, and then create a terrain from those contours.   This process is pretty simple.   Import your contour drawing from cad (this is a SketchUp pro feature only I’m afraid) – you can learn how to import files from CAD by checking out this post.  

Your import should contain contour lines, that are at relevant heights.  

Make sure your contour lines are not grouped together. If they are, they need to be exploded. To explode a group you can select the group, right click, and select ‘explode’.

Contour lines grouped

Contour lines ungrouped

Before proceeding, I recommend you save your drawing as creating terrain from contours can sometimes result in SketchUp crashing as it is a resource intensive task.   Now select your contour lines, and click “From Contours” from the Sandbox Toolbar. Your contours should now be connected together by surfaces.  




From Scratch and Smoove

It is also possible to create your own terrain from scratch using the “From Scratch” tool. Activate the “From Scratch” tool by clicking on the icon from the Sandbox toolbar.
You are then to draw a grid as a starting point for your terrain. Notice in the left hand corner of the screen a grid measurement is specified. It is possible to amend this number by typing in the grid size you want and hitting enter before you start to draw the grid.

Once you have drawn the grid you can activate the “Smoove” tool to start creating your topography. Now the Smoove tool is activated, you will have the option of amending the radius of the tool to your requirement. In this example you can see the radius of the Smoove tool is larger than the grid I have created, so I want to amend the radius – to do this I type a new radius, 2000mm and hit enter. I can then start working in a similar fashion to the push/pull tool to create my landscape.


The stamp tool allows us to place objects onto our terrain. Lets imagine we have created a setting for our building to be positioned. We can use the stamp tool to create a flat surface for the building to be placed. Start by positioning our building over the terrain where we would like it to be placed. We then select our building and click on the Stamp tool to activate it. A red line will appear around our building, we can now click on the terrain we would like our building to sit on. SketchUp then gives us the option of how we would like the platform to be positioned. Once we are happy, we click to complete the process.




While the Stamp tool lets us create a flat surface on our terrain with a transition from the terrain to the surface, the Drape tool allows us to transfer edges from a face onto a terrain. One of the most common examples of this is a road or path. To drape a surface onto the terrain you need to draw your surface and position it directly above the terrain. A good way to check if it is in the right position is to go to Camera ==> Standard Views ==> Top.   Once your road/ surface is in position, you select your surface, then activate the Drape tool, then you click on your terrain that you want the surface to be ‘draped’ over.


  You can also explore using the “Add Detail” tool and the “Flip Edges”. These allow more control over the editing of your terrain. So this concludes a basic introduction to working with terrain in SketchUp. There is so much more you can do, and lots of plugins available both free and paid that will help enhance your terrain modelling and make the process easier. For now, hopefully this will help you get started. As always, if you have any questions comment below, or if you found this helpful I would love to know, so drop me a comment 🙂  

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