Learn AutoCAD and Start Your Journey to Drafting Superstardom!

autocadUpdated by John Karl on February 26, 2014

It wasn’t that long ago when a designer could use the phrase “draft this up” and that meant grabbing a pencil (maybe a ruler, possibly a protractor and most likely a compass) and spending several hours creating something magical on paper. Then that designer would change their mind about what they wanted and where they wanted it. That meant finding an eraser, removing part of your magical drawing, and then spending several more hours fixing it. Thankfully, at least for most sane people, those days are gone. The reason that they are gone is because of AutoCAD, who has turned the art of creating lines, circles and squares into a science.  Can you learn AutoCAD, and become a drafting scientist too?  YES!

AutoCAD, however, is not something that you can master in a weekend.  It takes knowledge and mental sweat to learn how to use it, and even more to become proficient. The good news is that finding great help and crash courses on AutoCAD can make the learning process a LOT easier for those new to computer-aided drafting.

Here are the top 10 “Need to know” items for AutoCAD rookies:

  1. “First Impressions”                          Know where to go on the screen
  2. “Point, Click”                                      Using the mouse to work the program
  3. “Cheater, Cheater”                         Using keyboard shortcuts for commands
  4. “Where Am I?”                                                 Learn the AutoCAD coordinate system
  5. “The Layer Cake”                             Use AutoCAD layers to make your drafting life easier
  6. “Shape Up”                                        Create lines, circles and polygons
  7. “Aww, Snap!”                                    Object snap saves you time!
  8. “Into Another Dimension”           Know how to add dimensions to your AutoCAD objects
  9. “Make It Look Pretty”                    Paper space lets you set up your finished product
  10. “Plot That Baby!”                             Show the world your awesomeness!

“First Impressions” – The AutoCAD interface

The basic user interface for AutoCAD should be familiar to anyone who is used to working with Windows-based programs. Take a look at the image below for an overview of the AutoCAD screen and its various components. At the top of the screen, like most programs, are menus (such as Home, Insert, Annotate, etc.) that can be accessed with a mouse click. Simple. Directly below that menu line are icons for the commands available on the currently-selected menu. These, again, are easily accessed with a mouse click and we’ll talk about some of these commands in the sections below. You can’t miss the big black space in the in the center of the screen — that is AutoCAD’s working space and the area where you will create your masterpieces. At the bottom of the screen is a dialog box, which keeps a history of the commands that you’ve entered into the program.  We’ll talk about it later, too. On the left side of the screen is the properties window which shows the various properties of any element that you select inside your drawing. Currently it says “no selection” because nothing has been drawn yet.


2“Point, Click” – Using the mouse

Using the mouse and clicking on icons is a good way to start using AutoCAD.  Why?  Because you can see the different types of commands available in the program as you navigate through the buttons.  For example, AutoCAD’s home menu contains a majority of the commands that you will be using on a daily basis while you are drafting. The buttons on the menu contain fly outs (check out the figure to the right for types of circles) which allow you to select from a number of options for each button.  To get a simple, concise overview of the interface and learn AutoCAD buttons, take an AutoCAD crash course that provides a quick way to get you up to speed.

“Cheater, Cheater” – Keyboard shortcuts

3Once you become proficient in learning the different types of AutoCAD commands the next step is to learn how to use keyboard shortcuts. Using these shortcuts will speed up your drafting considerably and also keep you from having to move the mouse all over the screen when that you want to do accomplish something with the program.  As a general rule, it’s better to keep the mouse in the “black screen” while you are working and use the keyboard to handle the commands. To enter a line command all you have to do is type it and hit enter on your keyboard. AutoCAD will show the command that you just entered at the bottom of the screen inside the dialog box. In some cases, entering commands will trigger AutoCAD to ask further questions about what you want to do. In the in the screenshot provided I typed in “c” (the keyboard shortcut for circle) and hit enter. This gives me several options:

  1. I can use the mouse to pick a point on the screen and click to place the center of the circle
  2. I can type a “3” or “2” or “T”  to pick from a 2-point, 3-point or tangent-tangent-radius circle placement
  3. I can specify coordinates and set an exact point for where I would like my circle located (coordinates to be discussed below).

There are tutorials regarding AutoCAD’s keyboard shortcuts that can provide easy ways to learn keyboard shortcuts and master these essential tools.

“Where am I?” – A look at AutoCAD’s coordinate system

4Any type of object that is created in AutoCAD contains coordinates that are part of the program’s user coordinate system (UCS). When working in two-dimensional (2-D) mode in AutoCAD you will utilize X and Y values to determine positions within the UCS. For example, see the image on the right.  If you look in the bottom left-hand corner of the image you’ll see the coordinates 2.1784, 4.2512, 0.0000. This means that the cursor (indicated by the crosshair) is currently located at those coordinates. The orientation of the x and y axes is shown in the lower left-hand corner of the black space. In this case, the y-axis is up-and-down and the x-axis is oriented left and right. One of the primary uses of the UCS is to place and move objects within AutoCAD. For example you may have a circle with a center located at 5, 5 and you wish to move that object to coordinates 10, 10.  Using the move command (“m” for move on the keyboard) you can select the center of the circle and then type in 10,10.  This will drop the new center of the circle at 10,10. Piece of cake. Have a look at AutoCAD 2014 – 2D Fundamentals to provide more details on the 2-D coordinate system.

autocad53-D is all the rage, right?  What’s cool for televisions can be even cooler in AutoCAD. AutoCAD contains a three-dimensional (3-D) coordinate system that comes in handy for a variety of uses. Learning the system is a bit more complex but once it’s understood it is invaluable. One example of its use is in topographical surveying. Surveyors will take ground shots that store an X and Y coordinates correlating to northing and easting values (it’s like marking a point with a GPS unit). However, these ground shots also contain an elevation. So, a survey point could be located at 266486.2546 northing and 584332.4867 easting and have an elevation of 2000.25 feet above sea level. The coordinates of this point in AutoCAD are X = 584332.4867, Y equals 266486.2546 and Z equals 2000.25.

Lines and shapes can also have 3-D coordinates. If shapes are set with the Z value, the drafter can use orthographic projections of the drawing and anything with an elevation will show up in 3-D. In this way the drafter can have a working two-dimensional drawing, but also have the ability to project in three dimensions if needed to provide a graphical representation of how the project will fit together. 3-D work in AutoCAD can be a little tricky and a lot to absorb if you haven’t had a chance to develop significant experience using the program.  To help you get up to speed in a hurry try Learning AutoCAD – 3D Modeling and Rendering.

“The Layer Cake” – Working with AutoCAD layers

6Learning to use layers is one of the most crucial skills for an AutoCAD rookie.  Look at is as the AutoCAD equivalent of learning to tie your own shoes. If you are one of the few superstars who knows how to do everything perfect the first time, then you can skip this section. But if you ever need to go back to make changes to your work, layers are your friend. Think of layers as an enormous stack of pancakes. You can name one of these pancakes “mechanical” and you can set that as your working layer. Any time that you draw mechanical components you put them on that layer. If you have to switch tasks and draw electrical components, you pick a different pancake from the stack and put the work on that layer.  The cool thing is that the pancakes are transparent, so even though they are in a stack, you can see everything on every layer that is set to “ON” (indicated by the lit light bulb in the image above). There are two reasons for doing this. One, if at any point you want to isolate a specific type of component or discipline, you can turn off all of the other layers but that one. Second, if you have a multiple types of drawings (such as electrical, mechanical civil) you can set up viewports (which we will cover shortly) to turn layers on or off so when you print you will only see specific portions of the design.

The colors of objects on layers can be modified to help you visualize different types of disciplines, such as setting the electrical work in red and the mechanical work in blue. You can turn specific layers off when you are working to clear up your workspace or work on one specific component. You can freeze layers which basically takes “OFF” one step further.  Layers that are frozen are not selectable and are considered not part of the drawing until “thawed”. It is a bit confusing at times but AutoCAD 2014 – 2D Fundamentals can clear any confusion up quickly. One of the most useful commands in regards to layers is “lock”. Locked layers cannot be modified unless the drafter actively unlocks the layer. This prevents layers such as property lines from being moved during the drafting process.


“Shape Up” – Drawing AutoCAD elements

8AutoCAD is a vector graphics program. What does that mean, you ask?  It means that AutoCAD uses lines, points, curves and shapes to create visual elements.  Let’s cover some below, because drawing is really what AutoCAD is all about.


9Lines are likely the most commonly used AutoCAD shape, one of the most simple, and when you learn AutoCAD, this is usually the first shape that you tackle. Lines begin at one point in the coordinate system and end at another.  They can have a color and they can have a width. The basic appearance of a line is established by setting its linetype, either by directly modifying its properties or by setting the properties of the layer that it is on.  Lines can be dashed, dotted (or both) and have certain symbols inside that indicate power lines, sewer lines, property lines, etc.  Lines are created by clicking on the line icon or by typing “l” followed by the enter key. You will be asked to enter a start point (remember coordinates???) or you can click in the black area on the screen to place a start point that way. You then pick the line’s end point by entering coordinates or you can simply click your mouse on the screen.


Rectangles are created by clicking on the rectangle icon or by typing “rec” and hitting enter.  Similar to lines, AutoCAD asks for a start point location which can be typed in or clicked in.   You then pick the opposite corner by the same method.


Circles are created by…you guessed it: clicking on the circle icon or by typing “c” and hitting enter.  There are several options with circles, and you don’t have to necessarily pick the center and call out a radius or diameter to make them. You can make them tangent to existing lines or points if needed, and have them size themselves accordingly.  How do you make sure that the contact with other objects is at the spot that you want?  We’ll cover that next.

 “Aww, snap” – Use object snap to ensure drawing precision

11Object snap is a quick, easy way to move or place objects within AutoCAD and an important way to draft efficiently. Object snap works by forcing an active object (one that you are currently drawing) to gravitate towards certain points when approaching another object.  By “certain points” I mean the endpoint or midpoint of a line, the center of a circle, an intersection…there are more, but you get the picture. The image to the right provides a list of the object snaps available in AutoCAD.  You can set all snaps to active or choose whichever ones that you want to use. For example you can drag a line near the corner point of a rectangle, and objects snap icon will appear and if you let go of the mouse the line will snap automatically to the corner.  Again, object snap is a very important concept and it is covered in detail within Section 5 of AutoCAD 2014 – 2D Fundamentals.

“Into Another Dimension” – Add measurements to objects

11Spending a lot of time creating pretty drawings is great, but without the addition of dimensions these drawings are sometimes useless.  Have no fear, dimension man is here! Actually, dimension man retired. You‘ll have to go ahead and use the dimension function in AutoCAD. Not to worry though, it’s easy!  Basically you pick the fly out menu with a dimension symbol on it and then pick the type of dimension that you want to show (see the image on the left). You can choose from dimension types like radius, diameter, linear, angular and so on. This is where snap comes in really handy as dimensions are almost always from a specific point to a specific point. You click your dimension snap towards the point you want to start with, snap to the point that you want your measurement to end, and your dimension appears. You can grab the handle on the dimension itself and move it towards or away from your object if you would like to change the placement. Items like arrow size, offset line properties and dimension text size can be set with the dimension options button. If you would like to change the units of the dimensions will have to go into the options for the project and change them there.  Section 9 of AutoCAD 2014 – 2D Fundamentals is all about dimensions.  Check it out and turn your drawings from gorgeous to gorgeous AND buildable.

“Make it Look Pretty” – Working in paper space with viewports

13When you’re working in AutoCAD, you work in one of two types of spaces at any one time: paper space or model space.  Model space is the big black area that we’ve been referring to above. The majority of the work in AutoCAD is done in model space. Paper space is primarily used to prepare the work that was done in model space for printing. In paper space the drafter places title boxes and then creates “viewports”. The viewports create windows in paper space which allow the program to look into and manipulate model space. Think of it this way: model space is like the real world and paper space is like a camera screen. The scenery in the real world (your drawing) doesn’t change but you can zoom up, zoom back, change color and change focus in order to get the picture to look how you want. For example, the drafter will draft the details of a construction site in the model space but we may want one plan sheet to show the overall project and another plan sheet to show a detail that is scaled up for easier viewing. The drafter doesn’t have to make a separate detail in model space.

In paper space we simply create a viewport and scale up the portion of the project that we want to see.  This topic is a lot to cover here, and there are excellent tutorials for providing a more comprehensive understanding of AutoCAD presentation.

“Plot That Baby” – Put your work on paper

Once you get your pretty title block set up and your viewports in order, it’s time to print out your drawing. Before you print, however, there is something we have to talk about. Plot styles. Remember we talked about setting colors for lines? Well, that’s not just to make the drawing easy to read. The plot styles can tell the printer to give certain colored lines specific line widths. So you could set red lines to narrow and blue lines to wide. This gives you the ability to assign importance to different parts of the drawing, like showing a building perimeter with a dark line and assigning faint gray lines to existing features on a map. The goal is to make a readable drawing for anyone who sees it.

Tutorials rock!

Learning AutoCAD can be difficult but it doesn’t have to be. Please take some tips from above and check out the tutorials at the links below. With a little time and a little work you are quickly on your way to AutoCAD superstardom!

AutoCAD 2014 – 2D Fundamentals

Learning AutoCAD 2014 Drawing Essentials

Learning AutoCAD – 3D Modeling and Rendering

Learning AutoCAD 2014 Editing Essentials

Beginner tutorials on AutoCAD