Draw Your Own SketchUp Arabesques and Moucharabiehs

Introduction: Draw Your Own SketchUp Arabesques and Moucharabiehs

Arabesques are geometrical designs, which can be found anywhere in Islamic Architecture. They are fun drawing by hand (an ideal locked-up occupation), with just a compass and a ruler. What starts as a very simple basic form - a square, a triangle, a line, an arc - becomes in no time incredibly complex and disorienting, and (hopefully) beautiful. An arabesque decoration consists of rhythmic linear patterns of scrolling and interlacing foliage, tendrils or plain lines, often combined with other elements. Moucharabiehs are somewhat related, originally meaning a window with a wooden lattice using the same patterns.

I built several wooden moucharabiehs, using SketchUp for the drawing phase. Over time, my approach became more intuitive, productive (and addictive). SketchUp helps me to get precise dimensions and quantities for the multiple wooden components, as well as to print the template for assembling them.

This Instructable uses some examples, look for one you like on the Web (Pinterest is a good source), and then re-build it on your own. Your admiration for the countless craftsmen who created all these marvels with primitive tools will increase hundredfold.


Very basic. A PC (an iMac in my case), the free SketchUp software, and a printer. You should be familiar with the SketchUp tools and approach; if not, you can find some excellent tutorials on YouTube.

Step 1: Arabesques 101

Let's start with some all-too-easy baby steps, they will help you get through the basics in no time. The keyboard shortcuts are in [square brackets], e.g. [R] means 'Draw Rectangle'. Menu items are in Italic.

  1. Draw a square [R]. In the dimensions box, you can type the two dimensions, e.g. "40;40" - mm in my case
  2. Draw 2 diagonal lines [L] within the square, this will give you the center of the square.
  3. Remove the faces of the four inner triangles between the lines
  4. Select All [⌘A], from the Edit Menu select 'Make Component', and give it a name, e.g. "Square1"
  5. From the View Menu, select 'Components' to make the Components palette visible
  6. Drag and drop the Square1 component you just created on top of the original drawing, until they completely overlap
  7. Select the Rotate tool [Q], place the center of the Protractor rotating tool in the centre of the square, click, and place the second endpoint on one of the square's corners.
  8. Type in the angle field at the bottom right of the window "30", this will provide you with a 30 degree rotation
  9. Repeat the 3 steps 6-8, this time with a 60 degrees angle
  10. Select All, choose from the Edit Menu 'Components', and then the sub-item 'Explode'. This will result in all the individual pieces of your Arabesque ready for further processing.

Step 2: A Simple Arabesque : Create the Basic Component

Time to move on to some more fun stuff. The mechanical steps will be almost identical to the 101 intro above.

  1. Start with a fresh SketchUp file, with [⌘1] you get a top view. Draw a square [R], 360 mm x 360 mm
  2. Select the square surface, and with the [F] Offset tool, draw an outer border 4mm outside of the square
  3. Use the Rectangle tool [R] to draw four 130 x 130 mm squares in each of the four corners of the inner square. Remember, you can use the dimensions field to get the right size.
  4. In each of the four small squares, select the inner surface, and apply this time an inner offset of 4 mm with the [F] Offset tool.
  5. Do the same step 4 for the inner cross between the four squares, again an inner offset of 4 mm
  6. Draw the diagonal cross in the middle of the square, and with the Circle tool [C] draw a small circle whereby its center will later be a reference point. (You can also locate the center point by applying twice the Tape instrument [T] and create 2 guides)
  7. Cleanup time: eliminate the inner lines, the inner surfaces of the small squares and the inner cross surface, as well as the diagonal lines. You now have something that roughly resembles a window frame with 9 identical square panes.
  8. Select all [⌘A] and save as a component with the Edit Menu - Make Component. Name it e.g. "ArSquare1"
  9. Saving [⌘S] your work is never a bad idea

Ready for the next step! You now have a basic template of 368 mm (360 + 2x4) by 368 mm. Of course, you can adapt this size to your own specifications.

Step 3: A Simple Arabesque: Combine the Components

That was the hard part. Huh? Indeed, from now on it's easy:

  1. Select the ArSquare1 component from the Components palette (if you don't see the palette, go to the Window menu and select Components), and move the ArSquare1 to the workspace, right on top of the existing component.
  2. Use the [Q] Rotate tool to select the center of the drawing, click, select one outside corner, and start rotating
  3. Type 22.5 in the Angle field at the bottom right.
  4. Repeat steps 1 to 3 twice, this time with rotation angles of 45 and 67.5 degrees.
  5. Select the whole picture, go to Edit Menu- Components, select the sub-item Explode.

You just finished your first Arabesque! Well done!

Step 4: A Simple Arabesque: Variations on a Theme

Once you have understood the basics, you can start fooling around. Even with some small changes, the results can be incredibly different. For example:

  1. The width of the ribs (in the above example 8 mm) can be made larger/smaller. Larger rib widths will reduce the openings within the Arabesque, smaller rib width will look more like 'filigrane'. Experimenting shows you the right proportion to match the overall design.
  2. In the example, I used 9 identical inner squares. You can reduce/increase their size, thereby increasing/reducing the size of the inner "sun".
  3. In the previous example, we used 3 copies of the component at 22.5, 45 and 67.5 degree angles. You can increase the number of copies, e.g. 15-30-45-60-75 (Or decrease to 30-60 degrees). That makes the drawing more complex, and will generally require smaller ribs.
  4. You are not obliged to respect the square format, although that is easier in the beginning. You can experiment with a rectangle, or a trapezium.
  5. You can overlap two different arabesques, or use two different designs, e.g. one for the 0 and 90 degrees axis, and the other one for the 45 - 135 degrees axis. A brillant recipe to loose your head completely!

The nice thing about SketchUp for carrying out these experiments? If you want to try them out, do not Explode the group of components, or make an extra copy of the set of components. Double-click to Edit the original basic component, and any individual change you make there will be replicated throughout the whole drawing. Et voilà! What's more, with Edit- Undo, you can go back an unlimited number of steps to revert to the original state.

Step 5: What's Next: Get Real

In the beginning, I mentioned using SketchUp to design my own wooden moucharabiehs. They are made of individual pieces of wood - typically between 100 and 300, often in 10 different sizes...! That requires a few more preparation steps:

  1. Use the Bucket tool [B] to colour-fill each of the different pieces. Start from the inside, that is easiest. It will help you to methodically discover the pattern.
  2. Verify the over/under sequence of the crossings. I like when the wood ribs "wave" through the Arabesque, depending on the order in which you applied the components this may require some fine-tuning and fiddling
  3. Once you have your colourbook ready, copy and paste each of the individual pieces to a legend area to the right of your drawing. Leave ample space in between.
  4. Count ( and recount) the quantity needed for each piece, note it as a label next to each piece in the legend
  5. Using the Tools -Dimensions option, mark the length of each side of each piece in detail (the Dimension item is also available on the Tools palette) in the legend area. Essential for cutting purposes. Print the drawing and legend, true size ( see below on how to do this) in at least two color copies.

Step 6: Print Your Arabesque

The one thing I like least 🙁 about SketchUp is its printing routine. You only need it occasionally, and each time it is frustrating to remember the right settings. Here are some guidelines:

  1. Adapt the size of your drawing to the maximum size of the window, so that is the only thing visible. When you print your model, SketchUp takes your current view into account. If your view in SketchUp is zoomed out, your print will appear zoomed out.
  2. Select the Camera - Standard Views - Top[⌘1].
  3. Select Camera Menu - Parallel Projection. You cannot print a model to true size in the other Perspective view mode. Hide the Axes and any Guides in the View menu.
  4. Check the Page Setup from the File menu that it corresponds to your paper size.
  5. In the File - Document Setup menu, untick the 'Fit View to Page' checkbox to have a single printout across several sheets of paper (which you can then tape together afterwards). If you want your drawing to print on a single page, leave this box checked. In general, it is wise to indicate a width (or height) slightly larger than the actual model size, the other dimension will be automatically recalculated.
  6. You should now be able to change the two boxes of the Print Scale options.(If not, check point 3). The 'In Drawing' box is the measurement in your printout, and the 'In Model' box is the object’s actual measurement. Make them identical. You will notice that the Print Size will now change accordingly, and you will have an indication on the number of pages to expect.
  7. Select the File - Print Menu, or [⌘P]. With the Preview now available, you can check if you get what you expected. Narrowing the print margins may help to reduce the number of pages required.
  8. There are more 2D print options available using the related LayOut app, however these require to buy the SketchUp Pro version. Very nice, but expensive.

Step 7: From Paper to Wood

  1. Prepare a supply of calibrated ribs (their width has to be painfully accurate). Normally, I will work with 300 mm long ribs (12 inches). Sand carefully the sides, this is your last chance to do it the smart way. Don't skimp on the quality of the wood, given the amount of time you will spend.
  2. For cutting these ribs on e.g. the bandsaw, I use a home-made guide with fixed angles, e.g. 30-60-90, or 22.5-45-67.5-90. Take your time, each error at this stage will be repaid with interest later. Clamp your pieces to the guide, check and recheck the cut dimensions with e.g. a caliper.
  3. Glue or fix one color print copy on a MDF or particle board twice the size of the Moucharabieh. If you have a spray varnish can available, give it a quick shot around the drawing, it will help avoid sticking to the wood later on.
  4. Organize the pieces in small jars located on top of each piece in the legend. Mark the jars with the color code and e.g. a number.
  5. Start gluing the rib pieces together from one side, use glue sparingly (limit/avoid squeeze-outs). I use mostly Titebond III. Stick a piece of masking tape on top of the two pieces, continue with about 10 other pieces, and then check that they are all properly in place. Let the glue harden for 2-3 hours, then repeat. Typically, I would to this in between of other woodworking projects.
  6. Once complete, lift the moucharabieh from the template paper by wedging a wood chisel between them. It will be incredibly strong, because of all the glue surfaces in different directions.
  7. If you have been smart, you will not need to do a lot of hardened glue cleanup. Use a X-Acto-cutting knife.
  8. Not all ribs will be exactly plane, use an orbital sander to flatten the top and the bottom of the whole piece.

Step 8: Another Example

This is just another design I made ( and then subsequently built). The challenge is often, when you have a good example, to find the basic building blocks. In this case, it was a quarter of the full drawing,which I then copied and flipped along the axes.

Step 9: Running Around in Circles

Don't limit your imagination to straight lines. The above example, made of circles, was made in less than 10 minutes.

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