Learning Curve: Pleasing to the Palette

6 Aug, 2006 By: Bill Fane

An introduction to tool palettes.

It was a beautiful clear sunny day, which was not much of a surprise because Captain LearnCurve was sitting in an airplane at 39,000 feet. It is nearly always a clear sunny day at 39,000 feet. He was on his way to Boston to see the next release of SolidWorks. As he looked down at the mosaic of mountains, fields and meadows, he contemplated the palette used to create the world below... that's it! Palettes! The Captain had a topic for this month's column!

AutoCAD's tool palettes are a very powerful weapon in our fight for better productivity. I'm sure most of you are aware of them, but I'm also willing to bet

Figure 1. The Hatches tool palette.
you haven't taken full advantage of them. Helping to confuse the issue is that they seem to change completely with each release. There is a fundamental reason for this, which I will cover a little later.

Your Results May Differ
Let's start with a basic introduction. Select Tools / Tool Palette Window in earlier releases, or Tools / Palettes / Tool Palette Window in AutoCAD 2007, to invoke the ToolPalettes command. Tool Palette window will appear (figure 1). Yours may not look exactly like figure 1 because of the aforementioned differenced between releases. On the other hand, if you click on the Hatches tab, you should get pretty close to figure 1, no matter which release you are using.

Let's sort out a bit of basic terminology. The individual tabs each bring up a separate tool palette, while the Tool Palette window gives access to the total collection of individual tool palettes.

Okay, draw a simple figure such as a circle, a rectangle or three lines that enclose an area. Now you want to apply a hatch pattern to it. You could do it the hard way, which is to select Draw / Hatch and then work your way through the dialog box to select a pattern, close the dialog box so you can select a definition point for the hatch and finally return to the dialog box to accept everything.

On the other hand, you can do it the easy way by using the tool palette. Simply click on a hatch pattern in the palette, and then click within a bounded area. The hatching is applied to the selected area. Two clicks and you are done!

Picky, Picky
Okay, you are saying to yourself (hopefully not out loud if other people are nearby) that took more than two clicks because you needed to start the ToolPalettes command first. Yes, but there are a couple of other ways to do that. Pressing the Ctrl+3 key combination, entering the keyboard shortcut TP or clicking the Tool Palettes button on the standard toolbar will also launch it. Okay, these methods still involve a bit of extra effort.

Now You See It...
The good news is that you can leave the Tool Palette window open all the time. It may seem as if it will take up a lot of real estate in your drawing screen, but you can use a couple of tricks.

First, you can dock it to either side of the drawing area like any Windows toolbar, and then you can click and drag on its outside edges to resize and reproportion it.

Next, notice the two icons at the bottom of the vertical blue bar along the edge of the window. The second one up from the bottom toggles Auto-Hide. When it is on, the window reduces to showing just the blue bar. If you position the cursor over the bar, then the window scrolls out and you can select from it. When you move the cursor into the drawing area, then the window retreats back into the blue bar whether you made a selection or not.

You can also adjust the display format for the palettes. Right-click in any blank area within a palette, then select View Options. Among other things, you can adjust the icon size and turn icon text labels on and off.

Finally, you ban make the window semitransparent. Click on the bottom Properties icon in the blue bar, and then select Transparency from the context menu. Use the slider to set the window transparency (figure 2).

Figure 2. You can make the Tool Palettes window semitransparent, so the drawing shows through.

Unfortunately, there is a bit of bad news. This feature only works when your graphics card hardware acceleration is turned off (Tools / Options / System ), which has an adverse reaction when working with 3D models, especially in AutoCAD 2007.

Pick Me, Pick Me!
You have seen how quick and easy it is to use tool palettes and how to set up their visibility. Now I suppose you are going to complain about the limited selection they contain. The hatches palette, for example, only gives 16 Imperial and 16 ISO (metric) choices.

Okay, now we come to the real power of tool palettes and why AutoCAD changes them so radically from release to release. Autodesk never intended that tool palettes would come preconfigured as a standard feature. Instead, individual users are expected to customize them, and the shipping version is just a sample that tends to highlight other features in the new release.

Before I discuss customizing, let's take a quick look at the Hatches palette again. Notice how three of them all contain the same icon and have the same Brick label. If you look closely, however, you will see that the third one is a dark reddish-brown color whereas the other two are black. Draw three circles, and then hatch each of them using each of the three icons in turn. One will produce a normal brick hatch pattern, one will produce it rotated 90 degrees, and the third will produce a dark reddish-brown pattern.

That's right! You can predefine a variety of properties for our hatch patterns, and each combination can have its own palette tool. This ability can go a long way towards improving your productivity and maintaining CAD standards.

Let's try a quick example.

Batten Down the Hatches!
Right-click in any open area of a palette, and then select New Palette from the context menu. It will default to the name New Palette, so let's rename it My Hatches.

Now draw several circles and create a layer called Hatch with a suitable color. Make the Hatch layer current.

Hatch each circle using the standard Hatch command to produce a variety of patterns, scale factors and rotation angles.

Now comes the cunning part. To create a new tool icon, all you need to do is to click on an existing hatching, pause, then click and hold to drag it onto the tool palette. That's it! You have now created your first custom tool palette icon. Note that you need to pause between clicks; if you are too fast, then AutoCAD interprets it as a double-click and invokes hatch editing. Repeat as desired for the other hatch samples.

If you change your mind, you can always edit things. Simply right-click on any tool palette icon and then select Properties. This brings up a dialog box that suits the type of object you are changing. Figure 3 shows the Tool Properties dialog box for a Hatch tool. As you can see, you can edit virtually everything about the tool.

Figure 3. This dialog box edits the properties of a Hatch tool.

If you think that was magic, wait until you see this one. Start a new blank drawing and create a circle. Now hatch it using one of your new hatch tools. A quick check will reveal that the new hatching is on the correct layer, and the correct layer has the correct color and other specifications, even though the layer did not already exist in your new drawing! AutoCAD created it on the fly to match the palette tool specifications.

This column was a quick introduction to hint at the power and versatility of tool palettes. Come back next time when I discuss how to use them with things like blocks, text and dimension style definitions, normal AutoCAD commands and LISP programming. You will also learn how to share them with other users.

And Now For Something Completely Different
When installing laminate flooring, sometimes it is difficult to get the tongue and groove arrangements to engage properly over their full length. The tongue will usually engage fully when its panel is nearly perpendicular to the groove panel, but problems can arise when you then try to lay the tongue panel down flat. Here is a simple trick: simply slide the tongue panel back and forth in the groove as you lay it down. This method tends to knock any fuzz off things and will lap the panels in as they go together.

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