The Illustrator Pathfinder Explained

The Illustrator Pathfinder PalleteThe Illustrator Pathfinder pallette is a simple and Powerful set of tools for manipulating shapes and creating other shapes from multiple shapes. I use illustrator on my Job all day; I find myself using the Pathfinder at lease once for each job I do.

I will first take you through the general information on how to use the Illustrator Pathfinder Pallete. I will then list all of the buttons with a description and a visual before and after.

Illustrator Pathfinder Basic Tutorial:

The Pathfinder palette is very simple to use. Each of the buttons interacts with 2 or more shapes. Each button has a very specific action. These buttons can be confusing because some of them do the same thing. I show examples later in this tutorial which aim at showing the differences between each button.

To begin, I will show you how to use the first button “Add to Shape Area” to make an obect out of a number of different objects.

1. Make a new Illustrator document and draw a circle, a long rectangle and then 2 smaller rectangles like the object you see below (The idea here is to make a simple “key shape” from multiple objects, using the pathfinder)

Basic vector shapes to form the key

2. Click the “Add to Shape Area” button.

The "Add to shape area button"

3. Click the “Expand” button. You will notice that all of the shapes are merged, but when you select the object you see all of the shapes that were there before. Clicking the “Expand” button permanently joins all of the shapes as one. You don’t have to press “Expand” after using the Pathfinder tools, only use it if you want to permanently join the shape so you can do other pathfinder operations with it (Which we will be doing in the next steps).

Click the "Expand" button on the pathfinder pallette

The shape will now look like this:

Result of the merge button being pressed

4. Draw a smaller circle inside the large circle (or handle) of the key shape.

Key shape with the circle added

5. Select both shapes and press the second pathfinder button “Subtract from shape area”.

Resulting shape from the subtraction

Now we have a key shape made from various simple shapes. It’s a pretty simple shape — but this is a start. I will publish some advanced pathfinder tutorials in the future.

Final tutorial image: vector key shape

I am including the tutorial file here for those who don;t want to draw the shape, just do step 2, 3 and 5 with this file:

  Illustrator Pathfinder Tutorial File (1.1 MiB, 731 hits)

Examples of each button in the Pathfinder:

Add to Shape Area:

All selected shapes are combined into one shape with the top shape’s style (All style attributes from the top shapes i.e. color, stroke, etc)

Add to shape area example

Subtract from Shape Area:

Bottom most shape is eaten away by any number of shapes above it. Bottom shape keeps it’s style and all top shapes dissapear.

Subtract from shape area example

Intersect Shape Areas:

Intersects 2 overlapping shapes to leave intersected area as a shape. Resulting shape keeps the top shapes style. This tool does not work well with more than 2 shapes. If more than 2 shapes are used all shapes disappear after clicking the “Expand” Button.

Intersect shape area example

Exclude Overlapping Shape Areas:

Works with 2 or more shapes. Any overlapping areas are removed and any areas not overlapping are kept. Style of topmost shape is applied to the resulting shape.

Exclude overlapping shape areas example


All of the buttons in the second row “Pathfinders” create multiple objects grouped together. In my examples of these buttons, I have ungrouped the shapes and moved them apart so you can see the resulting shapes.

The Divide button of the pathfinder divides all of the overlapping shapes. This button can be used with 2 or more shapes. All divided shapes keep the visible style of the top overlapping shape.

Divide is a Pathfinder tool that I personally use a lot.

Divide tool example


I am using more shapes here to show the difference between “Trim” and “Merge”.

Trim keeps all of the top shapes intact while trimming all overlapping shapes out of the bottommost shape.

Trim tool example


Merge does the same thing as trim with the exception that any overlapping shapes that have the same style as the bottom shape are merged with the bottom shape. Any overlapping shapes above the bottom shape that are not the same style as the bottom shape are kept in tact and are trimmed out of the bottom shape.

Merge tool example


The crop tool only interacts with the topmost shape and the bottommost shape. If you selected 5 different shapes, this tool will only leave the intersection of the topmost and bottommost shapes with the style of the bottommost shape. In addition to this, it will leave the non-overlapping section of the topmost shape (with no stroke or fill).

Crop tool example


Outline can work with 2 or more shapes. Outline takes all shapes and cuts each shape at the intersecting points. This results in no overlapping lines. All lines are separated at the overlapping areas. I suggest trying this one out, un-grouping it and then separating the elements.

Outline tool example

Minus Back:

Minus back only works with 2 shapes, the topmost shape and the bottommost shape. It minuses the bottommost shape from the topmost shape. This button seems like it should be in column one with the “Shape Modes”.


7 thoughts on “The Illustrator Pathfinder Explained”

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  2. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

  3. THANK YOU, this is the first place I’ve actually found a straight, clear answer to my question about the Pathfinder tool. It was such a simple, little thing (Hitting “Expand”) like I was 100% sure it would be, but no other help article I looked at gave me any real help. You are utterly amazing.

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