This beginner-friendly post is a comprehensive guide on how to use the Shape Builder Tool in Adobe Illustrator. The Shape Builder Tool in action

What is the Shape Builder Tool?

Adobe Illustrator Shape Builder Tool is hands down the most intuitive way to create new shapes out of existing shapes, simple or complex. If you need any refresher on how to create basic shapes in Adobe Illustrator, this post will bring you up to speed on the fundamentals of creating shapes, like how to use the rectangle tool, etc. The Shape Builder Tool can provide immense help when drawing because it offers you a new perspective to see shapes. Instead of drawing a complex shape from scratch, and wrestling with unruly anchor points for more accurate results, you can just simply use the Shape Builder Tool to create new shapes out of existing ones. It saves a lot of frustrations a beginner (or seasoned artist, really) may face getting into a vector illustration. And visually, it delightfully prevents adding a bunch of unnecessary additional anchor points. It's a game-changer for sure. Shape Builder Tool is located in the Tools Panel, and the keyboard shortcut is SHIFT + M.

illustrator shape builder in the tool panel

illustrator shape builder in the tool panel

Use Case 1: Joining or Merging Multiple Shapes

By default, the Shape Builder Tool is in merge mode, where you can lump all the shapes together by click-and-dragging.

  • Step 1: Select all the overlapping shapes you want to work with using the Selection Tool (V)
  • Step 2: Activate Shape Builder Tool (Shift + M), Click and drag. You will notice a plus sign appears on the lower right side of the pointer, and each sub-region you hover over gets highlighted with shading. This gives you visual cues to identify the final combined shape."
pointer with plus sign

pointer with a plus sign

note: The newly formed shape will inherit the last selected fill color, which may or may not be the color of current shapes.

GIF Using the Shape Builder Tool to merge_1

GIF Using the Shape Builder Tool to merge

note: the Shape Builder Tool only works with overlapping shapes. In other words, the shapes have to touch other shapes, or at list with aligned edges like the example below. Think legos pieces, they have to touch to build new shapes, right?

Shape Builder Tool combines only overlapping areas_1

Shape Builder Tool combines only overlapping areas

 

 

Use Case 2: Erasing/Deleting Regions

The process of erasing or deleting regions of multiple shapes is very similar to merging, except it works in erase mode.

  • Step 1: Select all the overlapping shapes you want to work with using the Selection Tool (V)
  • Step 2: Activate Shape Builder Tool (Shift + M), Click and drag while holding the Alt key (Windows) or the Option key (Mac OS). A minus sign appears right next to the pointer the hotkey is pressed.
GIF Using the Shape Builder Tool to erase img

GIF Using the Shape Builder Tool to erase img

It works like a very efficient and accurate eraser or a super-fast pair of scissors. If only we could have this tool in real life when sketching on paper.

GIF Using the Shape Builder Tool to erase

GIF Using the Shape Builder Tool to erase

Use Case 3: Extracting a Region

Sometimes what we need is just one sub-set from a complex combination of shapes like this one below. The Shape Builder Tool is great at letting you take what you need. Say that you only want the intersection of the two shapes:

Extracting a region using shape builder tool

Extracting a region using the shape builder tool

  • Step 1: Select all the overlapping shapes you want to work with using the Selection Tool (V)
  • Step 2: Activate Shape Builder Tool (Shift + M), simply click the target area. Boom.

If you need multiple sub-regions from the shape, just click away until you have cut them all, then use the Selection Tool to pick them out at the end, or take out the areas you don't need.

 Tip: As long as the Shape Builder Tool is active, you can do all 3 use cases at the same time. Just have your Alt or Option key handy.

Use Case 4: Working With Paths and Line Segments

By now we have seen how this tool weaves through complex shapes, overlapping sections, multiple objects to create new shapes. But did you know the Shape Builder Tool works with multiple paths, too? Let's take a look. Oftentimes, my work looks like this: a group of objects mixed with paths and shapes. As much as I like perfectly aligned geometric shapes, I also freehand-draw a lot to add personality to my body of work. The Shape Builder Tool is a great option when you need to delete edges of selected shapes. It's pretty much doing a digital haircut for your drawings. Just use the Shape Builder Tool over selected shapes while holding the Alt or Option key to trim the stray paths.

deleting shapes in one go

deleting shapes in one go

Here is a fish illustration I did for my Skillshare Class Unflat: Make Vector Textures from Scratch in Illustrator CC. As you can see, there is some clean-up to do. Use the erase mode as we have covered above, and just trim trim trim to your heart's content.

Resources and Next Steps

If you want to keep the learning momentum going, I have several other resources to recommend.

Related Articles

Adobe Illustrator For Beginners: How to Draw and Edit Basic Shapes Next Steps I hope you now have a better understanding of how to use the Shape Builder Tool, because, seriously, it's somebody you want to hang out with a lot when using Illustrator. If you are the video tutorial kind of person, I have a few places to recommend

On-demand Skillshare Classes

Esther offers 20+ classes on digital illustration with nearly 1 million watched minutes among 25,000+ students. Join the Skillshare community with this one-month-for-free link. If you like what you learned from this post, you will probably love following along with Make Geometric Shapes in Adobe Illustrator CC Class on Skillshare. For starters.

Tutorials on Youtube

Esther also shares her design process on Youtube. For example, this post was adapted mainly from my original video tutorial: Make Simple Shapes in Adobe Illustrator for Beginners | Quick Snack Series Season 1 EP1. At the time of writing, two full seasons are available to help you get started in Adobe Illustrator.

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Esther is a licensed Illustrator and designer, a Top Teacher on Skillshare.com. She shares her creative process using some of the most industry-leading programs like Adobe Illustrator and Procreate on iPad. Click here for her regular portfolio.

What’s the difference between Pathfinder, Shape Builder, and Reshaper Tool in Adobe Illustrator?

You are in luck, I have made a lesson just for that! This lesson is a portion of my Skillshare class Adobe Illustrator Nuggets For Surface Designers: Level Up Your Art Skills (-> grab this link to get a 30-day free trial)