The Ins and Outs of PDFs and AutoCAD: Tuesday Tips With Frank

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Screenshot of importing PDF to AutoCAD

When using PDFs in AutoCAD, your work can be classified into two categories. Quite simply, you’re either bringing them in or writing them out. For this Tuesday Tips, we’ll go over all the “ins and outs” of PDFs and AutoCAD.

The “Ins”

OK, I’ve got two more categories for you. Bringing a PDF into AutoCAD, also known as Importing, can be done in two ways. One is importing the PDF as an underlay. The other is to import the geometry of the PDF, turning it into editable lines, arcs, and circles in AutoCAD. We’ll look at importing as an underlay first.

To get started with how to import a PDF to AutoCAD, go to the Insert tab of the Ribbon. There, you’ll find the Reference panel containing our target, the Attach command icon. Let’s back up a step. When you attach a PDF as an underlay, it is not actually part of your file. It’s a reference to the PDF itself. So, it’s very much like an Xref (external reference). As such, it will also have a path, so if the PDF is ever moved from where the path can find it, it won’t appear. Since this is a tips blog, I’ll have a workaround tip for you at the end.

Screenshot of AutoCAD ribbon

You can also access the command (the actual command name is PDFATTACH) from within the External References Palette. Use the attach pulldown menu to choose Attach PDF, and you’re off and running.

Screenshot of AutoCAD to access ATTACHPDF from within the External References Palette

Either method will prompt you to select your desired PDF and subsequently display the Attach PDF Underlay dialog, as shown below. If it’s a multi-page PDF, you can choose one or more pages from the thumbnail menu. Set the path type, scale, rotation, and location, and you’re done!

Screenshot of AutoCAD to attach PDF underlay

So, that’s a brief overview of importing a PDF as an underlay. There’s one more way to do it, which can sometimes be a game changer for you. What if you needed more than just an underlay to reference? Maybe you need to edit it too? Perhaps your client can only provide PDFs of as-builts for your project. Don’t waste your entire budget recreating them when AutoCAD gives you a better way.

If the PDF was generated via a CAD or other vector-generating program, AutoCAD can import its geometry into your drawing, ready for you to modify and edit. To access a PDF file, you get started again in the Insert tab of the ribbon. In the Import panel, you’ll find the PDF Import tool. It’s a pulldown, so it might be set to Import DGN or just plain old Import. The command will display the Import PDF dialog, as shown below. There are lots of controls in it. I won’t go into all of it here, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have you covered in this previous article.

Screenshot of PDF import in AutoCAD

If the PDF you want to import is already attached as an underlay in your drawing, select it, right-click it, and choose PDF Import as Objects from the contextual popup menu. You’ll be prompted to select a rectangular area of the PDF to import. After a few moments of processing, you’ll be asked whether you want to keep, detach, or unload the original PDF. As usual, choose wisely.

The “Outs”

That’s it for bringing PDFs into your drawing to work with them. But there’s also the concept of creating a PDF, which is the second category we’ll look at today. Again, there are a couple of ways to do it.

The first is to use the EXPORTPDF command, which can be found via the application menu shown below. You’ll give it a name, and the command will create a PDF of either the current layout or model space – whatever you’re currently in. That’s pretty easy.

Screenshot in AutoCAD to export PDF

The other way to create a PDF is via the plotting mechanism. I phrased it that way as it also includes publishing. But I’ll concentrate on the plot command first. The plotter selection pulldown menu has five different built-in PDF pc3 files for you. They offer varying degrees of quality.

Screenshot in AutoCAD of how to create PDF with plot

Choosing one of these (or an existing page setup that points to a PDF driver) will display the PDF Options button. This dialog is where you can specify the PDF quality and the data that the PDF will contain, such as layer info, hyperlinks, and fonts.

Screenshot of PDF options button in AutoCAD

The publish command generally works the same way, but it gives you one very important additional option: the ability to generate a multi-sheet PDF. When the publish to PDF option is selected (or a page setup that points to a PDF driver), the Publish Options button will take you to the PDF Publish Options dialog. Here, you’ll find the same controls as the plot command, but you’ll also get a checkbox to let you create a multi-sheet file.

Screenshot in AutoCAD of publish options

Wrapping It Up

Remember back when I teased a workaround tip for underlay paths? If the reference path is problematic for you (like maybe a company logo in your title block), there is a way to do it. Open the PDF – or any image file – in an external graphics program, such as MS Paint. Select all and copy all. Now, go back to AutoCAD and paste the copied image into your drawing.

It will come in as an OLE object with no path. No, it’s technically not a PDF now, but I did say it’s a workaround. It will now be a part of your drawing, not a reference, so beware of file size if that’s an issue.

Now that you’re armed with the “ins and outs” of how AutoCAD handles PDFs, you’re ready to go. Whether you’re importing them into your drawing or generating them as electronic output, you’ll find that you have a lot of flexibility.

More Tuesday Tips

Check out our whole Tuesday Tips series for ideas on how to make AutoCAD work for you. Do you have any favorite AutoCAD tips? Tell us in the comments!



Frank Mayfield

Frank has worked in various design and CAD Management roles with AutoCAD and Autodesk software since 1986 (v2.62). He is currently a Design Technology Consultant in Tulsa, OK. He also serves as Vice President on the AUGI Board of Directors and is a member of numerous Autodesk user panels. As a top-rated mentor for trial users of AutoCAD 2018 and AutoCAD LT 2018, he has provided live, real-time guidance and support for over 2,500 new users in more than 50 countries worldwide. He currently serves on the AUGI Board of Directors and is a member of numerous Autodesk user panels.

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