LEARNING CURVE: In the Beginning Was the Template

11 Apr, 2006 By: Bill Fane

The power of templates lies in their ability to save you time and effort while standardizing your drawings.

It was a dark and stormy evening. Captain LearnCurve and his gorgeous wife were just about to embark on an arduous fact-finding mission to determine if Dominican Republic rum tastes as good at the bottom of the bottle as it does at the top.

Suddenly a voice rang out: "Your column is late again!"

No, not the editor's voice, the other one; that of the distraught user. "Man, I sure wish I could find the time for a Caribbean vacation!"

Fear not, distraught user, for in this column you will learn how to easily find enough time to let you take a whole week off.

Three Ways to Start an AutoCAD Drawing
A quick check reveals that the last several releases of AutoCAD look quite different from each other when they initially start up. Compounding this problem is the fact that each release has two or three startup appearance options. You may have to dig a bit to find them, but they are there.

In spite of all these variations in appearance, you only have three ways to start a new drawing.

First is the Start from Scratch option, which means almost exactly that. You get to choose English or metric units to set up some rudimentary settings, but other than that it is a completely blank drawing. Unfortunately, this mode was the default in earlier AutoCAD releases.

The next option, Use a Wizard, leads you through a series of dialog boxes that do a crude setup. Even AutoCAD admits that this method is intended for panicky first-time users. Real users ignore it, and you have to set the startup system variable to 1 instead of the default 0 (zero) to even access it in later releases. Hardly sounds like something a first-time user would even find, does it?

Finally, we come to the template option. This method is the true power user way to start a new drawing, so much so that it has finally become the default mode.

That said, it is still true that many users still do not make full use of this mode's power and capabilities.

Let's start with a bit of background information about templates. A template file simply is a prototype drawing. Whenever you start a new drawing from a template, AutoCAD actually starts your new drawing as a copy of the template.

In current releases, the default action when you start a new drawing is for AutoCAD to present a dialog box that lists a number of predefined templates. These include ANSI, ISO, DIN and JIS standards as well as plotting setup alternates. These templates typically include a title box and border set in paper space along with one big viewport into model space.

The real power of templates comes from one simple fact. A template file simply is a drawing file in its own right. It can contain anything that you can include in a regular AutoCAD drawing:

  • You can predefine layers and the current layer set.
  • You can predefine text and dimension styles and set the current ones.
  • You can preset snap, ortho and other settings.
  • You can include title blocks, borders and standard notes.
  • You can include anything else you want.

That's right! You can define your own templates to include things like company logos and title blocks as well as all the items listed above.

Do the Math
Okay, here is how you can find the time for a tropical vacation. A typical new drawing usually takes about 30 minutes to set up. Oh, you may not do it all at once, but by the time the drawing is finished, you will have usually spent about this much time in the setup operations.

Let's see: 30 minutes per drawing means two drawings per hour or 14 per day or 70 per week. If you spend 30 minutes to configure a standard template file, then you only need to start 70 more new drawings from that template to save enough time to take a week off.

On top of that, your drawings will be more likely conform to company or client standards in areas such as layer names, text styles, etc. This means even more time saved by not having to check for and correct deviations from standard. What the heck, take two weeks off!

Two Ways to Create a Template
The first way is to start a new drawing and set everything up the way you want. When you are done, select File/Save As. This brings up a standard File Save dialog box. A Save As Type scroll list is at the bottom, which has the Template File option. When you invoke this option, it saves the file to a particular template folder. Now, here comes the cunning part. When it saves the drawing, it saves the drawing in a normal DWG format but uses the extension DWT.

That's right. The only difference between a template and a drawing is that a template has the extension DWT while a drawing has the extension DWG. So why the difference? It is to match Microsoft standard terminology. How many Microsoft employees does it take to change a light bulb? None; they don't change the light bulb. Bill declares dark is the new standard.

This method leads us to the second way to create a template file. All you have to do is to use Windows Explorer to rename any existing drawing file.

"I did that, but my template files don't appear in the template list!"

Not a problem. As suggested earlier, AutoCAD looks for template files in a specific folder. The default location of this folder depends on your release and other variants such as Mechanical Desktop, Architectural Desktop, etc. To find the exact location for your installation, invoke the Options command. You can type it in at the Command prompt or you can pick Tools/Options.

Click on the Files tab in the Options dialog box. Expand the Drawing Template entry to see the full path, which varies with the release and variant. In earlier releases, it will look something like

  C:\Program Files\\Template

but 2004 changed it to something like this:

  C:\Documents and Settings
    \<user name>
      \Local Settings
        \Application Data

Whew! The change was made to accommodate Microsoft standards, which now require that each user can customize everything independently of other users on the same machine. So much for standardization. To top it all off, this folder usually is a hidden folder, so won't appear in a Windows Explorer listing unless you change its default action.

If you want custom template files to appear in the standard template list, then save or move them to this folder. Conversely, you can delete or move any of the supplied predefined templates that you will not use to reduce clutter.

On the other hand, your best option is to browse to a custom folder of your choice. Better yet, you can use a network folder, so now everyone in your office can start from the same templates. Hey, with the total office time savings, you can take early retirement soon!

"How do I set a specific template to be the default?"

Easy. If you start a new drawing from a template, then next time you start another new drawing, the last-used template becomes the default. As mentioned previously, earlier releases give users a choice of starting from scratch, starting from a template or using a wizard. If you use a template, this method automatically becomes the default startup mode until you select another.

AutoCAD 2004 and later versions make it easier by defaulting to use a template, and you have to dig a bit to find the other options (hint: click the down arrow beside the Open button).

Here is a little trick to save even more time. When you first launch AutoCAD, it defaults to opening a new drawing. It normally uses ACAD.DWT as the template, but you can use one of two ways to change it.

The first way is simply to edit ACAD.DWT to incorporate your standards. The second way is to start the Options command again. Under the Files tab, expand the Template Settings item. Expand the Default Template File Name item and then browse to your desired template. This file will become the default whenever AutoCAD starts up.

As you have seen, a bit of work setting up suitable templates can accomplish two things. First, it obviously saves a lot of time on each subsequent new drawing. Using templates is the simplest and most cost-effective way to customize AutoCAD. Second, it is the first step to automating standardization. Humans by nature tend to be lazy. I find it an interesting paradox that virtually all human progress, accomplished through a great deal of hard work, was primarily aimed at making it possible to avoid hard work. Anyway, if the correct layers and styles already exist whenever a new drawing is started, then it rapidly becomes easier for users to comply with the standard. To deviate, they would have to deliberately go out of their way to create new, nonconforming items.

Come back next time when you will see how you can use custom template files along with AutoCAD profiles and custom desktop icons to greatly simplify switching from client to client or from discipline to discipline.

And Now for Something Completely Different
Here is one lesson my late father taught me. If you develop a taste for the licorice Jujubes, then you will get more than your fair share of the candy. When the candy is divvied up, the people who don't like licorice won't count them, but you will still get your share of the other flavors.

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