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Excel Fill Handle Explained

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Fill Handle | also see Creating a Custom List

The Fill Handle in Excel is possibly one of Excels most under utilized features. For those of you that don't know of it, it's the small black square in the bottom right of the active cell.

In it's simplest form it will increment any series of numbers. For example, if you type the number 1 in any cell and then the number 2 in a cell that adjoins it, you can use the Fill Handle to increment up to any number desired. To do this you simply select you two cells (Starting from the one with the number 1) and then hover your mouse pointer over the Fill Handle (until it changes to a small black cross), left click and drag in the direction you want the incremented numbers to show. You can also do the same by entering any Starting number in any cell, selecting the cell, holding down the Ctrl key and then dragging down with the Fill Handle. If you do not hold down the Ctrl key Excel will simply copy the same number.

The best bit about this feature is that we can alter the amount we increment by simply typing any two numbers we want eg 5 and 10 would result in 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 etc. If you wanted a blank cell between each number simply use the method below:

  1. Type 5 in cell A1
  2. Leave A2 blank
  3. Type 10 in cell A3
  4. Leave A4 blank
  5. Select cells A1:A4
  6. Drag down using the Fill Handle

The exact same principle applies to dates, after all dates in Excel are only numbers (Serial Values).

The other thing that you can do with the Fill Handle is drag it up or to the left to clear the contents of selected cell(s). You can even insert or delete rows or columns by holding down the SHIFT key while dragging the fill handle.

Lets assume you have a column of data in cells A1:A500 and you place a formula into cell B1. Normally you would copy and paste the formula down to row 500, but instead of this try double clicking the Fill Handle. The whole thing is done for you and will stop at the first blank cell in column A! The same thing happens if you put two different numbers in cells B1 and B2, select both cells then double click the Fill Handle.

The other little known feature is Excels pop-up Fill menu you get when you right click on the Fill Handle and drag. Try this.

  1. Type any number in any cell
  2. Select the cell
  3. Right click on the Fill Handle
  4. Drag down and then release
  5. Select Fill Series

By using this method you eliminate the need for the secondary number. Now repeat steps 1 to 4 and for step 5 select Series instead of Fill Series. The option here are:

  1. Series in: Determines whether the series is filled across selected rows or down selected columns. The contents of the first cell or cells in each row or column of the selection are used as the Starting values for the series.
  2. Type (Linear or Growth): Creates a growth series or geometric growth trend.
    If the Trend box is cleared, a series is calculated by multiplying the value in the Step value box by each cell value in turn. If the Trend box is selected, the value in the Step value box is ignored, and a geometric growth trend is calculated based on the selected values. The selected original values are replaced with values that fit the trend.
  3. Type (Date): Fills a series with dates. The type of date series that is incremented depends on the option selected under Date unit. Date unit is only available when working with dates.
  4. Type (AutoFill): Fills blank cells in a selection with a series based on data included in the selection. Selecting this option produces the same results as dragging the fill handle to fill a series. Any value in the Step value box and any selected Date unit option are ignored.
  5. Date unit: Specifies whether a series of dates will increase by days, weekdays, months, or years. Available only when creating a date series.
  6. Trend: Calculates a best-fit line (for linear series) or geometric curve (for growth series). The step values for the trend are calculated from the existing values at the top or left of the selection. Any value in the Step value box is ignored if the Trend check box is selected.
  7. Set value: Enter a positive or negative number to indicate the amount by which you want a series to increase or decrease.
  8. Stop value: Enter a positive or negative number to indicate the value at which you want the series to end. If the selection is filled before the series reaches the stop value, the series stops at that point. If the selection is larger than needed to fill the series, the remaining cells of the selection are left blank. You do not need a value in the Stop value box to fill a series.

As you can see this option allows many choices and is very useful for incrementing dates! The best way by far to familiarize yourself with this feature is to jump straight in and have a go.

You may also have noticed when we right clicked the Fill Handle and dragged we had many other options available on the Pop-up menu. The Fill day, Fill months etc will only be available if the cell(s) contain a date. But you can also Copy cells, Fill Values and Fill formats. This can be particularly useful, but there is another Pop-up menu that is better for this.

  1. Type any formula into any cell
  2. Right click on the cell border (not the Fill Handle)
  3. Drag down then release.

As you will see you now have 10 options to choose from. Some of these are short-cut methods of the Paste Special feature. If you hold down the Alt key while dragging you can change sheets by hovering over the sheet name tab! I find the Copy here as values only particularly useful when converting formulas to permanent values. Try this example:

  1. Type any number of formulas into any adjoining cells
  2. Select all these cells and right click on the border.
  3. Now drag down just one row
  4. With the right mouse button still held down drag back up one row to where you Start ed
  5. Now release and choose Copy here as values only

This method is far quicker and easier than using Edit>Paste Special-Values!

To find out what the other options do, just jump right in and try them.

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