How to Use the Illustrator Pathfinder Palette
User Rating: / 0
Written by Craig Watkins   

Many people find the Pathfinder Palette or Tool in Adobe Illustrator to be a little bit confusing because, if for no other reason, there are so many little buttons and different actions that it can be hard to remember what each one does unless you are using the Pathfinder all the time. While I do use the Pathfinder very often, I find that I tend to use the same actions over and over, so I am reposting this tip (originally posted in October of 2005) as a reference / breakdown of the different Pathfinder Tools in the Pathfinder Palette and what each one does. (Probably mostly as a quick reference for myself, but I hope this post is useful for you too!)

How to Use the Illustrator Pathfinder Palette

or Making Sense of the Pathfinder Tool (In Layman's Terms)

by Craig Watkins

Using the "PATHFINDER" to perfom actions can simplify and greatly increase your efficiency with Illustrator! The following are brief examples and explanations of each action you can perfom. First, make sure you have the PATHFINDER PALETTE open (WINDOW > PATHFINDER)


PLEASE NOTE: This tip is set up using Illustrator v.10, but should work well in other versions for learning the basics of the PATHFINDER. The PATHFINDER actions can also be found in your menu bar under EFFECT > PATHFINDER > (effect you choose).


A few of things to note about using the PATHFINDER actions:

The PATHFINDER works best if your objects do not have STROKES applied to them. Using the PATHFINDER will work on objects with strokes, but you may get unexpected results. Do the strokes later if possible.

In most cases, after you have performed a PATHFINDER action, the result will take on the attributes of the object that was on top in the stacking order before you performed the action, such as the color of the top object, so you may have to make a few adjustments afterwards.

Always make sure you select all of the objects you want to be affected by the PATHFINDER before performing an action.

In some versions of Illustrator, after you click a PATHFINDER BUTTON, you may have to hit EXPAND in the palette for the action to be applied. Hold down OPTION(Mac)/ALT(PC) to expand the action automatically.


Okay, first up, the SHAPE MODES...



Use this button to unite two objects into one object.



This action will SUBTRACT or remove the top shape from the bottom shape. (The top shape will disappear after this action is applied.)



This action traces only the OVERLAPPING shapes in two objects and eliminates the rest.



Just the opposite! This action traces the NONOVERLAPPING shapes.





(Kind of hard to explain, but very useful!) Basically, this action divides everything into it's own COMPONENT FILLED FACE (object). For example if I have two objects and I select them both and then DIVIDE, every open area becomes it's own object. See below:

I have two objects, a star and a box.

I select both objects and DIVIDE and then can use the DIRECT SELECTION or GROUP SELECTION TOOL to choose and delete or edit the newly created individual objects. In this example, each different color you see is now a seperate object. I selected all of the star points outside the box and deleted them for a cropped effect.


Removes the part of a filled object that is hidden. Will not merge objects of the same color.

I select both objects and TRIM and then use the GROUP SELECTION TOOL to choose and delete the object on top, leaving the parts of the bottom object that weren't hidden.



Removes the part of a filled object that is hidden. Will merge objects of the same color.

I select both objects and MERGE and the two objects become one.



Divides everything into it's own COMPONENT FILLED FACE (object) and deletes everything outside of the TOP object.



Divides objects into their COMPONENT LINE SEGMENTS (edges). Useful for trapping for printing.



Subtracts the back objects from the front (top) object.

There you have it! The basics of using the PATHFINDER PALLETTE and TOOLS.

Try out these actions and I'm sure they will add a lot of efficiency and creativity to your artwork!

See the Pathfider Tools in action in these tips:

Interlocking Rings

Recreating Objects

Brief Tutorial on Apparel Design

Beautiful Vector Illustration

Further reading:

Illustrator Quick Tips #1 - Complex Symbols with Pathfinder

Easily Make Complex Shapes with the Pathfinder Tool in Illustrator

Easily Manipulate Shapes with the Pathfinder Tool in Illustrator, Part 2

Using the Pathfinder and Align Tool in Illustrator


blog comments powered by Disqus

Take A Poll

What Are You Most Interested In?
What Version Of Illustrator Do You Use?