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AutoCAD Deep Dive Series: Modifying Blocks

Continuing our Deep Dive look into AutoCAD – focusing on blocks – let’s take a look at editing blocks. [This is #5 so far in the series, if you are just joining us start here to see the other articles]

AutoCAD has three primary methods of editing a block after it is created: Exploding & Redefining, Editing In Place, and the Block Editor. Each has its pros, cons, and place to use. One of the great things of using blocks is that by editing the block definition (the recipe of what the block is) all instances within the drawing will update automatically.

On the chopping block - by WendyOn the chopping block” featured image courtesy of Flickr

Exploding & Redefining

Think of this as the wily old veteran who’s been on the team forever, maybe has lost a step, isn’t as fancy as the new boys on the team, but when it comes down to crunch time knows how to get the job done. Exploding the block back to its original entities and then redefining the block once the desired changes has been made is the first method of modifying blocks. It was, for a long time, the only way of modifying blocks.

PRO: Can be the quickest way to made a copy of a block definition

CON: You need to make sure you select the correct rotation, scale, and insertion point of the modified geometry otherwise it will negatively adjust existing blocks


  1. Use the EXPLODE command to explode one of the block instances into its original elements (aka lines, arcs, circles, etc)
  2. Make modifications or add new geometry using existing AutoCAD commands
  3. Use the BLOCK command to redefine the block by picking (or entering) the exact name as the existing block definition

Edit In Place

Think of this as your typical user, competent and been around long enough to know what’s going on. With Edit in Place you can modify the block contents without exploding. Its like opening up the block, temporarily disabling all other objects in the drawing, and working with the geometry contained within the block.You can add geometry, remove geometry, and you can also add existing geometry from within the drawing to the block or copy out geometry from the block into the drawing. You can modify and add attributes. You can also work with blocks within a block (nested)

PRO: Modify blocks without the need to explode. Can copy in or out geometry from the drawing or into the drawing. Provides a mechanism to select a block nested within another

CON: Does NOT work with Dynamic Blocks. No method to create a copy of a block definition


  1. Select the Block (so its grips appear), right-click, from the menu select Edit Block In-place
  2. In the Reference Edit dialog use the reference tree to select the level of block you want to modify. If there are no nested blocks then just click OK to proceed
  3. All other objects in the drawing will become ghosted (and locked). Make the necessary changes to the block
  4. The Edit References panel will be available in every tab of the Ribbon. Use this to either Save Changes or Discard Changes.

Block Editor

Although its been around for a number of years the Block Editor is still the new kid on the block when it comes to modifying blocks. Although intended for the creation and modification of Dynamic Blocks you can also use this environment to not only modify existing blocks but to create new block definitions.

PRO: Only environment for working with Dynamic Blocks. Block geometry is loaded into the editor making it clear what you are working on. Save As option to make a copy of the Block Definition.

CON: No method to copy in geometry from the drawing into the block or from the block into the drawing


  1. Select the Block (so its grips appear), right-click, from the menu select Block Editor. Alternatively from the Insert tab start the Block Editor (Block Definition panel) and select the desired block from the list
  2. Make the desired changes
  3. Save Block and Close the Block Editor


So you just edited your block, added an attribute and everything looks good. But when you save your changes and exit the block editor, the attribute does not appear, nor can you edit it. To further confuse the issue, if you insert a new instance of the block the attribute appears in all its glory! So what happened?

Take a look at a previous post Dude, Where’s My Attribute?

AutoCAD Deep Dive Series: Tool Palettes, Design Center, and Autodesk Seek

In the last post in this series we explored methods of sharing blocks to other drawings (WBLOCK & Sharing Blocks to Other Drawings), so lets continue this theme with additional methods and also an Autodesk repository of pre-built content.

Toolbox taken by Florian Richter

Photo taken by Florian Richter

Tool Palettes

Tool Palettes can be thought of your own toolbox, which if you are like me has a collection of many things. My toolbox has a hammer, tape measure, crowbar, various screw drivers, wrenches, a flash light, and a completely random collection of nuts, bolts, screws, and washers. Which reminds me, when will the rest of the world get onto the robertson bit?

AutoCAD Tool Palettes are the same idea in that it can contain whatever content you want… blocks, images, xrefs, and any command. Tool Palettes are like having everything and the kitchen sink!

The Tool Palette is a standard AutoCAD palette in that it can be docked, anchored, resized, and auto-hid. You can have as many tabs (palettes) as you want, which provides the ability to categorize your content. Palette Groups collect tabs into groups so that you can quickly enable or hide various groups (combinations) of palettes.

AutoCAD's Tool Palette

To create a new palette right click anywhere on the palette bar that runs down the side of the palette, select New Palette.

To add an object to the palette (say a block or a line) select the object in the drawing area so that grips are activated on the object. Click and drag (not on a grip point) the object onto the palette dropping it in the desired location.

The most important thing to remember is that the drawing the block is dragged-and-dropped from becomes the source drawing for the block insertion from the tool palette. This means that if this drawing is moved, renamed, or deleted the block link in the palette will stop functioning. Its a good idea to either use a template drawing for blocks or a drawing just for blocks. What I typically do is set up a “Tool Palettes Blocks” drawing and add all my blocks to it… and then use this drawing to build my blocks. One location – no worries about it disappearing.

Once the block is added to the tool palette comes the fun part. Right-click on any tool in the Tool Palette and select properties. With blocks you can adjust the insertion scale, rotation, and whether it should be exploded. Additionally you can tie the block scale to Auxiliary options Dimscale or Plot scale, meaning the block can scale accordingly to the active plot scale or dimension scale. You can even set the layer the block is inserted on or have it prompt for rotation after insertion. Very cool features, even consider having the same block in the palette multiple times but with different properties.

Tool Palette - Tool Properties

To insert the block simply select it in the palette and pick the insertion point in the drawing area. Right-clicking a block provides the Redefine option to redefine the existing block definition with the one contained in the Tool Palette.

Design Center

The Design Center is a tool to access drawing content. This content includes layers, blocks, Layouts, Dimension Styles and other drawing content. The Design Center may also contain application specific content, for example Layer Groups in AutoCAD Mechanical. The content can be accessed from drawings that are not open, one of the most important features of the Design Center.

AutoCAD Design Center

Using the Design Center you can navigate Folders as if using Windows Explorer browsing to the desired directory  of drawings. Select the drawing and the type of content to browse. From the right-side panel find the content you wish to add to your active drawing and either drag-and-drop it or double-click to add to your drawing. The other tab, Open Drawings, allows for the browsing of any open drawing, to copy the content from it into the active drawing.

Like tool palettes if you attempt to insert a block in which the block name already exists it will use the definition of the drawing, NOT the Design Center. This means you may get a different result than you were expecting if the drawing block definition and design center block definition geometry differ. To force the the drawing definition to update to match the one selected in the Design Center right-click and select redefine or insert and redefine.

Another Tip… right-click on the Blocks section of the drawing and you can generate a tool palette containing all the blocks from the drawing.

Create a tool palette containing blocks from the Design Center

Autodesk Seek

Autodesk Seek

A link in the Design Center launches a browser to Autodesk Seek. An Autodesk managed webiste of BIM models and AutoCAD drawings (DWG). The drawings are vendor supplied meaning access to accurate 3D models and 2D blocks. A great resource for the Architectural community… and its free, just need to sign in with your Autodesk account.

See it live

AutoCAD Deep Dive Series: Blocks & Attributes

Blocks and Attributes go together like Tom & Jerry, like Kate and Prince William, like chicken wings and beer, like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West…. ok, maybe not the last one, but hopefully you get the picture. Attributes is a method to have variable text with a block. It provides the ability to insert multiple instances of the same block definition but each one with different attribute text information. Inserting multiple toilets into your floor plan but each one is a different manufacturer, style, colour, with different capacities? No problem, why you need to add attributes?

Attributes additionally, are easy to extract. Extract to an external file or extract as a table in the drawing. Do you need to show how many doors of a particular size are in the drawing? You need to use blocks with attributes.

Defining Attributes

Creating attributes starts while you are laying out the block geometry, before you start the block defining process, you want to include the attributes as you are selecting the geometry to include in the block. Attributes are built with the ATTDEF command, found on the INSERT tab of AutoCAD’s Ribbon.

Defining AutoCAD Block Attributes

The Basics…

  • The TAG is the name of the attribute, similar to a parameter / variable within programming. The name cannot contain spaces nor special characters. It should describe what the variable will contain.
  • The PROMPT is what will be presented as you are inserting the block or editing the attribute values. The TAG is the internal name, the PROMPT is end user facing.
  • The DEFAULT value is optional. In some cases you might want to set the default to provide hints / tips on how the attribute should be completed. For example, if the attribute is for ‘Drawn By’, enter your initials to show initials are needed. Or if you prefer the date in a particular format set the default to something like yyyy-mm-dd.
  • Within the Text Settings area you select the desired Justification, Text Style, Text Height, and Rotation. Text Style will list the text styles available within the drawing, there is no option to define new.
  • Insertion Point sets the location of the insertion point for the attribute. Unless you know the exact coordinates to numerically enter enable Specify on-screen, which means you will pick the desired location within the drawing area once you click OK.

The Options…the Mode area of the upper left corner of the dialog are for additional options for the behaviour of the attribute. Many will be self explanatory, some will be easy to understand, some will seem odd but you have to remember that attributes have been in AutoCAD forever, so a couple are legacy options and not used frequently any more.

  • Invisible – Attribute does not appear within the drawing when the block is placed… why would you want this? When you want to extract the attribute value but do not need to see it on the drawing
  • Constant – this forces the attribute to a fixed value, so it cannot be changed.
  • Verify – Verify was used for important attributes, such as entering attribute values via the commandline, these attributes would prompt twice to ensure they were seen by the user.
  • Preset – When entering attribute values via the commandline, the attribute is set to the default value. The attribute value can be edited afterwards, just not initially.
  • Lock Position – the attribute is locked in position. It will still move with the block, but it cannot be moved independently from the block.
  • Multiple Lines – the attribute supports multiple lines if this option is enabled. Although it is not true MTEXT it does allow for more than one line of text.

When inserting a block with attributes you will be prompted upon picking the insertion point, to complete the attribute values. Whether this occurs in a dialog or via the command line is dependent on the ATTDIA system variable. ATTDIA = 1 means a dialog is used to enter the attribute values.

Editing Attributes

What is the easiest way to edit a block’s attributes after insertion? Double-click it. Or when in doubt, right-click! With the block selected right-click and select Edit Attribute.

AutoCAD Enhanced Attribute Editor

You might not only notice this is the Attribute Editor but it is also the Enhanced Attribute Editor! The Attribute tab is used to modify the value of the attribute. Here’s a tip; double click within the block on the attribute you want to edit and it will be selected automatically when the Attribute Editor appears. Another tip; use the Select block option in the upper right-corner to switch to another block to edit its properties.

AutoCAD Enhanced Attribute Editor

The Text Options tab is used to modify text properties of the attribute. Use this to make the attribute for this block instance different than the others , including adjusting the Text Style, Justification, and Height. The Properties tab is used to override the attributes properties for the block instance, including layer, colour, and lineweight.

How about modifying the attribute for all block instances? As in how do we modify the attribute for the block definition opposed to individual block instances? You use the Block Attribute Manager…. BATTMAN!

AutoCAD Block Attribute Manager

BATTMAN isn’t used to edit the value but to edit properties of the attribute itself. Adjust the prompt, the default value, and the order the attributes appear when editing. Select Settings to add other properties to the manager for modification. For example; add locked, rotation, and visible to be able to toggle the attribute between locked / unlocked, its rotation amount, and whether it is visible or invisible.

Although this covers a significant portion of working with Attributes, there is still more to see. In upcoming posts we will explore adding attributes to existing blocks as well as how to extract block attribute values quickly and easily… so in the words of BATTMAN, ooops I mean Batman, make sure to tune in, Same Bat Channel, Same Bat Time!

Review: Able2Extract PDF Converter 8

Its hard to believe that the PDF file format is over 20-years old. Over those 20-years it has become the defacto standard for the exchange of data.

We were presented with an opportunity to review a product from Investintech called Able2Extact. As Investintech is a Canadian firm I suppose who better to review it than me? Inc is a developer of PDF technology. Its flagship product Able2Extract converts PDF documents into a wide range of formats including Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint), images, html, and AutoCAD DWG. From their website they are “accountable, conscientious and we pride ourselves on delivering the best customer service in the business.”

When I try software I like to open it up and take a spin without reading any of the help. I then circle back after and use the help to become more familiar. I will admit that I never have had to use the help system with this product. The UI is clean, modern, and simple to understand. The ribbon is laid out in the order of operation… open the PDF, select the objects to convert, set the output type, and you create your document. Pop up bubbles aid in prompting the right step, which helped greatly the first time. These bubbles are easy to dismiss and simple to disable once you become more confident with the software.



able2extract bubbles

I was caught off guard when I took a PDF and converted it to Microsoft Word, in that not only did it convert the text but also the background images as well!. Here’s a short clip where I take the Solidworks MBD PDF and convert to Word. Notice not only is the selected text converted but also the imagery, very impressive.

Able2Extract also works as a simple PDF viewer with the ability to pan & zoom, search, and print. I will admit though to missing holding the spacebar (as in Adobe Acrobat Reader) to pan within the document.


Able2Extract has the option to convert PDF to DWG. From the Able2Extract website…

“the Portable Document Format is a tool frequently used by architects and designers, because it ensures that digital drawings are viewed by the recipient properly, without any misaligned graphics and text. Though obviously indispensable, the PDF is only a sort of intermediary between collaborators and cannot be worked in. So, when designers receive PDF plans that are the foundation for a new project, they need to extract those plans into original, editable drawings in order to start working on them. “

As a test I converted the 8-page drawing set of my house that I received when we built it. I know that it was not created using AutoCAD, nor a flavour of AutoCAD, but thought it would be a good test of the conversion process. Able2Extract was able to convert the PDF to DWG (or DXF) very quickly and extracted each page of the PDF into its own drawing.

An inherit issue with any translation to the DWG format is not with missing or inaccurate geometry, but how it deals with the “extra” things. How did it deal with annotation objects like hatch, dimensions, and text? What about layers?

With the translation of my house plan I received lines & polylines. Text was generated as individual letters and not as text, but as polylines with a solid hatch. Dimensions were converted to lines, polylines, and the same solid hatched polylines as with the text. Hatch was generated as separate lines, not as hatch. There were limited layers created, three to be specific, including layer 0.

When I used different options to convert the PDF I received off results, the objects were set to almost black. A white solid hatch was created in the background so the drawing appeared to be on a white piece of paper… why it didn’t do this the first time I’m not sure.

Next test, to make it a bit easier, I created a PDF from AutoCAD using the DWG to PDF pc3 printer. The results converting this back to DWG was no different than previous… no layers, no text, no hatch, no dimensions. I also noticed that lines with a linetype other than solid is converted to individual line segments. So the balloons that existed in the drawing on a hidden-line type layer, with a very small gap, came in as 1000′s of line segments. The PDF did contain layers as I included them when generating the PDF, but these layers were not created during the conversion.

In Review


  • Very clean, modern, easy to use interface and workflow process
  • Quick to convert PDF’s to other formats
  • Wide range of formats to export too
  • Extracts images, not just text
  • Previews the PDF with the ability to select the objects to convert
  • Available for Mac, Linux and Windows
  • Low cost ($99 electronic online purchase)


  • No recognition of dimensions, text, or hatch patterns
  • Lines with a linetype are exported as individual segments
  • Does not recognize layers, even if they are contained within the PDF


If you are receiving many PDF’s with data that you require in your AutoCAD drawings, this might help. Using Able2Extract in many instances will be faster to copy out the required geometry opposed to redrawing or drawing on top of a PDF Underlay. However, if the PDF drawing is “heavy” with text, hatch, dimensions, and non-solid linetypes then you might find it more time consuming to use Able2Extract..

My verdict? If you receive many PDF’d drawings in which you need access to the geometry then consider adding Able2Extract. With the low cost, the easy to use interface, and the quickness of the conversion, it is a tool to have in your toolkit.

Feature image credit: Cdr Aitch via photopin cc

AutoCAD Deep Dive Series: WBLOCK & Sharing Blocks to Other Drawings

Everything is Awesome,
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team
Everything is Awesome when you’re living out a dreams
Everything is better when we stick together,
Side by side you and I gonna win forever?
Let’s party forever

- from The Lego Movie

1960s lego adphoto credit – ricoslounge

So you’ve created the perfect block, one that generations will be talking about, one that takes your drawing from ok to a work of art…. now what? How do you take that and start using it in all of your drawings? How do you share this with others on your team or within your organization?

Love it or hate it but AutoCAD always has more than one way of doing things. Many times this is because of how long its been around, or how it had to do things 25-years ago due to technological limitations. Other times its just comes from the growth and maturity or from acquisitions of other technology. Blocks are a prime example of how there are multiple ways to do something. Different methods to create blocks, various features to insert blocks, and many options to share the blocks with other drawings and other people. With blocks we can build a symbol library of individual files, we can copy & paste between drawings, we can build tool palettes and we can use the Design Center to “steal” content from one drawing to another.

Copy & Paste

AutoCAD is fully integrated with the Windows Clipboard, in fact there are AutoCAD specific features wrapped around the clipboard.

Select the block (or objects) you want to copy, right-click, and from the Clipboard flyout select the desired option: Note: the standard Windows Ctrl + x, Ctrl + c, and Ctrl + p also work

  • Copy adds the selected object(s) to the Windows Clipboard which you can Paste into the same drawing or into a different drawing.
  • Cut removes the selected object(s) from the active drawing, adding them to the Windows Clipboard. You can Paste these objects into the same drawing or into a different drawing
  • Copy with Base Point is the same as Copy except that it prompts you to select the base point of the objects. When Pasted opposed to using the lower left corner of the extents of the copied objects as the insertion point it will use the point you select as the base point.
  • Paste to Original Coordinates does exactly as advertised, pastes the copied objects to the exact geometric location as the original copied objects, even into a different drawing.
  • Paste as Block takes the copied objects from the Clipboard and creates a block definition and inserts a block instance as the geometry is pasted. A random name, well as least what seems random, is set as the name. The RENAME feature works well to quickly adjust the name to something more appropriate. Careful with this feature as if you Paste as Block a block you will end up with a block within a block.

Block Library & WBLOCK (Kicking it Old School!)

Blocks within AutoCAD go waaayyyy back, we’re talking DOS, tablets, digitizers, and pen plotters. The first implemented method of sharing blocks was to create a folder of files, each file representing one block. These files can be inserted using the Block insert command. Your Blocks are organized based on folders and sub-folders of files. This also makes it extremely easy to build menu features, slide libraries or toolbar buttons to insert the specific blocks.

This is still a supported and valid method, in fact during my reseller days I visited many organizations that maintain their symbol library in this fashion.

Using the INSERT command you can Browse and select any drawing to insert as a block.

Use the WBLOCK to export (write) the drawing, a portion of the drawing, or a specific block to its own file.

Here’s a video on the process, with a bonus tip on using INSERT to add standard layers to a drawing!

AutoCAD Deep Dive Series: Creating Blocks

Before you can run you must learn to walk. Before you can master blocks you must be able to create them. Carving Chinese Block

Image “Carving a Chinese Printing Block” by Jonathan Kos-Read - Flickr

To create a block you start with creating the geometry. There isn’t really much of a limitation in that you can create any type of objects you want, except remember that the key is consistency. Blocks within AutoCAD serve many purposes but mostly to provide a convenient method to reuse content while maintaining consistency from drawing to drawing. Try to remember consistency as you build your blocks so that you get a familiar look and feel to everything you create. What about the layers the objects are on? Good question, and conveniently enough I’ve covered this before in our Deep Dive Series on Blocks, which you can read here. The key to working with blocks and layers is understanding the importance of Layer 0. If the geometry contained within the block resides on layer 0 this geometry will take on the properties of the layer the block is placed on. Therefore if the block is on a red layer with a hidden line type all objects within the block on layer 0 will appear red with a hidden line type.

Creating Blocks

To create a new block definition you use the Make Block feature. Make Block can be initiated by typing B (and pressing Enter) with the keyboard or by selecting Create Block from the Insert Tab > Block Definition Panel. Make New Block

  1. Specify the Name of the Block. The block name must be unique within the drawing. The drop-down lists all block definitions that exist in the current drawing. Use this to double-check your block name is unique or select an existing block name to overwrite (redefine) an existing block.
  2. Set the Base Point. The base point becomes the insertion point, as in the point on the block your cursor will be at when you insert the block into your drawing. The base point can be defined by keying in the coordinates, using the pick button to select a point in the drawing, or by enabling the Specifying on Screen option. Specifying on Screen means that you will pick the point after you click OK.
  3. Select the Objects. No point in having a block if it doesn’t contain any geometry. Click the pick button to select the objects in the drawing window or enable Specifying on Screen to select the objects after you click OK.
  4. Decide what to do with the original objects. The objects you select to create the block can become a block (Convert to block), can be deleted (Delete) or do not need to become a block themselves. and remain as is (Retain)
  5. Should the block be Annotative? An annotative block is one that will adjust in size as the drawings annotation scale is adjusted
  6. Should the block scale uniformly? When enabled the block must scale in the Y-direction the same amount as being scaled in the X
  7. Should we allow the block to be exploded? when enabled you will NOT be able to explode the block instance in the drawing.
  8. Select the Block Unit Type. Blocks can scale according to the drawing unit. For example if the block was set to inches and the drawing to millimeters when inserted it would be 25.4 times larger than originally defined Why? There are 25.4 mm in an inch.
  9. Add a Hyperlink (optional). A hyperlink is a link to something, whether it be a web page, an email, another document, or to a view in the drawing.
  10. Be Descriptive (optional). Not everyone will understand what your block is for from the name alone, by adding a description you make it easier for others to know what the block is for before they insert it.
  11. Open it in the Block Editor (optional). If you intention is to make a Dynamic Block (discussed later in this series) then you’ll want to open the new block in the Block Editor to add dynamic features.

When satisfied with the inputs click OK to build your block.

Inserting Blocks

So you’ve created your block…  now what? Insert your block into your drawing to test it out. The insert block feature can be accessed from the Insert tab of the ribbon or by typing I with the keyboard. AutoCAD Block Insert Dialog

  1. Select the Block you want to Insert
  2. Optionally Browse for a drawing and insert the entire drawing in as a block
  3. Set the insert point either by keying in the coordinates or enabling Specify on-screen to pick the point after clicking OK
  4. Specify the Scale either by keying in the scale factors or by enabling Specify on-screen to set the scale after clicking OK. With the example above the Y & Z fields are disabled as this block was created with the Uniformly Scale option enabled. With this option disabled the X, Y, and Z scale factors can all be set independently.
  5. Specify the Rotation either by entering the rotation angle or by enabling Specify on-screen to pick the rotation after clicking OK
  6. Block Unit reference lists the Unit of the block and the factor that will be applied with the block is inserted. The factor is based on the Block Unit compared to the units of the drawing
  7. Optionally Explode the block during insertion. By exploding a block the objects are returned to original form, ungroup, and not contained within a block

Block Manipulation

After the block is inserted you can make adjustments to it very similarly to other 2D objects. Blocks can be moved, copied, scaled, rotated, mirrored, and adjusted with grips. Blocks can be exploded to remove the block and leave the blocks geometry. Copying a block can be faster and more efficient than inserting another instance.

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