Drawings are like Onions, they have Layers!


Layers are deeply integrated in each and every aspect of AutoCAD and its respective verticals. Layers help us manage and classify our objects at the surface, but are also embedded within our styles, blocks, and commands. With their ever-present existence, it’s important to understand how to use them to your advantage.

In this article, I will peel the DWG environment back to reveal its many layers, as well as discuss powerful workflows you can implement to effectively manage them. I will explain where layer assignments can be found and show how deeply they are integrated. I will touch on tips for building templates that automate layer allocation to increase efficiency. I will then highlight  tools/procedures that can be leveraged in day-to-day production to significantly reduce overall effort such as the Layer Properties, Quick Select, and other layer-centric workflows. Finally, I will share procedures for promoting standardization and increasing quality with the use of Layer Translations, States, and Groups.

Layers Layers Layers (or tiers)

All objects within AutoCAD and its respective verticals have a layer or layers assigned. At its most basic level, you have a line or polyline, set to a specific layer. Other objects like annotation, circles, rectangles, etc., work in a comparable manner, one object, one layer, assigned through the object’s properties (Figure A) (or through the active layer/object defaults, more to come on this).

Figure A

If the above objects could be grouped as one or single tier layered objects, then the next in order of complexity would be two or double-tier objects like blocks. For blocks, you have the layer the object is assigned through its properties (Figure B), similar to polylines, but in addition to that, you have the layers the objects within the block are assigned (Figure’s C & D). The layers that make up the block’s contents are theoretically limitless and can extend into several visibility states as well. Is the tier concept making sense? One tier for the object, one tier for the contents within the object.

Figure B

Figure C

Figure D

Fun Fact: Layer 0 is a tricky one, when objects within a block are placed on layer 0, they will act as if they are on the same layer the block is on.

Similar to blocks, yet more complex yet, are styles. In the case of styles, (continuing with the tier theme) you have tier one, the objects assigned layer in properties (Figure E) (whether it be an alignment, surface, corridor, etc.). Next, you have tier two which is within the style’s settings (Figure F), how this looks will vary based on the object.

Figure E

Figure F

Additionally, we also recognize that each Civil 3D object also has label styles, which are multi-tier in nature as well!

Take an alignment label style for instance, where you have tier one being the layer the labels are assigned via properties (Figure G). Next, you have tier two being the layer assigned within the style under the General tab in Label Style Composer (Figure H). Lastly, you have a third tier which includes the components within the style (Figure I).

Figure G

Figure H

Figure I

Standards and Templates

So how in the world do you keep all this straight and ensure you are getting the results you’re expecting? CAD Standards and Templates! HDR, similar to other organizations, has recognized the importance of CAD standards and invested in their development and implementation. The further your objects are defined across all tiers, the more efficient the development of a higher-quality project you can expect within your organization.

CAD Standards in the case of layers includes well-developed templates (DWT’s) and plot files (CTB’s and STB’s).

Within your templates you can first define/setup the layers themselves, which would be the starting point. From there, you are ready to assign your layers to the various objects that require them. Next, build blocks that leverage your standard layers and setup styles with thoughtful layer assignments (at all levels of their components). Lastly, define Object Layers within your Drawing Settings (Figure J) so that each time an object is created it is placed on the desired layer regardless of what layer is active.

Figure J

Additionally, within your plot files (Figure K), you can further define what placing an object on a layer really means to the end deliverable (presumably a PDF). Red could plot black, or blue for that matter. Green could plot bold, Magenta thin, and White might not plot at all.

Figure K

Layer Control

Now with all these layers developed, defined, and assigned, how do you control them efficiently on a day-to-day basis? There are several tools/procedures to help with this within AutoCAD including Layer Properties, Quick Select, your active layer, and other object-specific options.

First, let’s look at the Layer Properties window (Figure L), the obvious hub for layer transactions. Within Layer Properties, you have the ability to create (A) and edit layers, but you are also afforded the ability to control your layers. You can toggle them on and off (B), freeze and thaw (C), in paper, model, and specific viewports (D), and even lock them all together (E). You can select which ones are active (F), as well as which ones to delete (G).

Figure L

Also don’t forget to check out the Layer Settings by simply right clicking a layer in the Layer Properties, where you’ll find additional controlling functions there!

Next, let’s take a look at Filters, these Filters can be Groups (manually added layers) or Properties (defined by one or more of a layer’s properties).

To create a Group Filter (Figure M), simply select New Group Filter (A), name your Group Filter, then drag your layers in.

To create a Property Filter (Figure M), select New Property Filter (B), name your Property Filter, then define the properties to be filtered by. For instance (Figure N), we can create an ENVIRONMENTAL Property Filter by defining the Name field as “C-ENVR*”

Figure M

Figure N

Lastly within Layer Properties is the Layer States Manager (Figure O). This is a powerhouse when discussing layer control. With this tool, a user can save the current settings of layers as a “Standard” State, make modifications to the layers (perhaps for a specific deliverable), save that as a ”Deliverable” State, then easily toggle back to “Standard”. In addition to that, if those layers were wrongfully edited, you can quickly toggle back to “Standard”, rectifying any accidental adjustments.

Figure O

Now, let’s move over to the Ribbon. In the Ribbon (Figure P), you get many (not all) of the same options found in Layer Properties, just in a more condensed view. You do however get a few new tools like Layer Walk (B) and Copy Objects to New Layer (A). Layer Walk is a unique tool in that it allows the user to dynamically isolate objects by layer through selection in the LayerWalk dialog box (Figure Q).

Figure P

Figure Q

Other things to keep in mind are keeping the layer active that you wish to place the object you’re creating on. For instance, if you want all your annotation to be placed on the G-ANNO layer, you will then want to set G-ANNO active prior to creating text, dimensions, leaders, etc.

Your active layer can be found in a few locations (Figure R).

Figure R

Dimensions have a twist of their own of course.

On the Ribbon (Figure S), you can define what layer a Dimension is placed on.

Figure S

Although there are many other layer control command settings ( e.g. -LAYER, -LAYMCH, XREFLAYER, etc.), we’ll finish thoughts on layer control with Quick Select.

Quick Select (Figure T) is a powerful tool that allows you to select objects based on their properties. And, as we covered previously, all objects have layers, making this  a great Property to use for selecting objects.

Figure T

Layer Standards

Finally, you’ve put your best foot forward, your templates are flawless, and your users are rockstars at layer control, how do you ensure drawings coming in are up to snuff? How do you efficiently check them and, in turn, efficiently revise them?

First, prerequisites, in order to leverage the following tools, you will first need to set up a Standards File (DWS). To do so, simply take your template file (DWT) and perform a save as, changing the file type to DWS.

With your Standard File created, let's first look at an Autodesk program external to an instance of AutoCAD, the Batch Standards Checker.

The Batch Standards Checker allows you to check multiple drawings at once as compared to your predefined Standard File. You are also given the ability to check specific plug-ins like Dimension Styles, Layers, Linetypes, and/or Text Styles (Figure U).

Figure U

Once the Batch Standards Checker has run, an HTML report will be generated for your viewing (Figure V). The report contains information on the Standard File used, the drawing(s) checked, and the problems encountered. This can be a great asset in determining the overall state a group of drawings may be in.

Figure V

Next, let’s look at the Check Standards tool (Figure W) within AutoCAD. This can be found on the Ribbon under the manage tab or by keying in CHECKSTANDARDS.

First, you must define a Standards File to check against (the DWS you previously created from your template). Then you can define your desired plug-ins, just like the Batch Standard Checker.

Figure W

From here, you can then toggle through each problem identified in your file and choose to fix or ignore the issue (Figure X).

Figure X

Saving the best for last, I will now touch on the Layer Translator, also found in the Ribbon under the Manage tab.

The layer translator (Figure Y) in my opinion is one of the more powerful standard-related tools when it comes to layers. It allows a user to quickly take a non-standard layered drawing (A) and translate the layers to standard per a pre-defined Standards File (B). The Layer Translation Mappings (C) can then be saved and used in the future, perhaps on something like reoccurring survey deliverables.

Figure Y


In conclusion, the power of a layer is not to be underestimated, nor is the importance of a thorough understanding of them. In addition, proper setup of layers within templates and in turn Standards Files can pay dividends down the road. Their application to objects can affect production efficiency as well as deliverable quality. Taking the tips mentioned in this article and a better understanding of where layer assignments can be found, you can develop (or enhance) your templates, take control of your layers in day-to-day activities, and globally manage your layer standards, increasing quality and efficiency for you and your practice.

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