Run for the border: using borders in Word
You can create a wide variety of special effects in Word using paragraph and table borders. Use of borders, however, is often misunderstood. This article will attempt to clear up some misunderstandings and provide useful tips for using borders effectively.
Borders can be applied to:
If you have no experience with borders, it will be helpful to read the section on paragraph borders first, since the later sections build on it.
Users sometimes create a text box or frame when they want a paragraph or paragraphs to appear to be in a box, but a better approach is to apply a box border to the paragraph(s).
Borders can be applied to all four sides of a paragraph or to only one or more sides, as desired.
Not surprisingly, the button to apply a border or borders to a paragraph or paragraphs appears in the Paragraph group on the Home tab.
The default button face for this button is Bottom Border, and when you mouse over it in Word 2007 or 2010, it will display the “Bottom Border” ScreenTip. In Word 2013 and above, it more helpfully displays “Borders.” If you click on this button when one or more paragraphs are selected, you will apply a bottom border to the selection.
If you click the arrow beside this button, you will get the following dropdown menu:
If you click on any of the other buttons on the menu, it becomes the default, and the ScreenTip of the button in the Paragraph group in Word 2007 and 2010 will change to reflect your choice. In Word 2013 and above, the new choice becomes the default for the button, but the Borders ScreenTip does not change; for simplicity, therefore, we will refer to this as the Borders button.
The last selection on the Borders menu is Borders and Shading…, which opens the Borders and Shading dialog. This is what you will likely need for anything but the simplest box border or line. By default, Word applies a ½-point single line, color Automatic (that is, in most cases, black). If you want anything fancier, you need to use the dialog, where you can select the line style, weight (“width”), and color.
The operation of the dialog is pretty straightforward. There are several “presets” that, except for Box, are rarely useful. The Box preset applies the default (½-point single black) border to all four sides of your selection. If the None preset is selected and you change the line style, Word will automatically apply a Box border, which you can see in the Preview. Note that all four buttons (Top, Bottom, Left, and Right) are enabled.
The Shadow preset appears to apply the currently selected line and weight to the top and left sides of the paragraph and a heavier weight to the right and bottom sides. In fact, if you choose one of the dashed or multiple or thick-and-thin styles, you can see that a shadow is actually applied.
The 3-D preset is applicable only if you have selected one of the thick-and-thin line styles. All it does is reverse the thick and thin borders on the right and bottom sides. It’s not very impressive.
The last “preset” is Custom. This button will automatically be selected if you begin to select and apply different settings for various sides of the paragraph. We’ll get to that in a minute. First, though, let’s see what the dialog looks like when you have more than one paragraph selected:
In this version of the dialog you can see that a button has been added between the Top and Bottom buttons. This is the Inside Horizontal Border. (Although there are no ScreenTips for the Preview buttons, you can see the names of all of them on the Borders menu.) If you apply a Box border to several paragraphs, the border will surround all of them, as shown above. If you want a border between paragraphs, you must click the Inside Horizontal Border button (or click between the paragraphs in the preview). You can do the same with the other presets, but the results are not very pleasing.
At this point you’ve probably figured out that you can apply or remove any given border by clicking in the Preview diagram or clicking the corresponding button. There’s just one further secret to applying custom borders: Whenever you click on the Preview, you get the line that is currently selected, so you must select the line style, weight, and color you want before clicking on the Preview picture or one of its buttons.
So let’s say you want borders just at the top and bottom of the paragraph, but you want them to be the opposite thick-and-thin rules, one heavier than the other. For purposes of illustration, we’ll make one red, 3 points (the default weight for this style), and the other blue, 6 points. So we select the line we want for the top border (it will be 3 points by default) and select the color, then click on the top border in the preview (or the Top Border button). Then we select the opposite line style, change the color to blue, change the weight to 6 points, and click on the bottom border (or the Bottom Border button). The Preview shows these results.
If you make this experiment, you will find two things:
If you scroll through the Style scroll box, you’ll see that there are, toward the end, several styles that you are unlikely ever to use. In particular, the last two styles don’t appear to do anything at all (they seem to apply a Box border). Their default color is Automatic, but if you expand the Width dropdown (the default weight is ¾ point), you’ll see that all the lines appear grey. That could be because they’re not applicable to text paragraphs; they have a function only in tables, which will be discussed later.
In many, perhaps most cases, borders (especially Top and Bottom borders) will be closer to the text than you want. If you apply Spacing Before/After to the paragraph, it is added outside the border, which helps with spacing the bordered paragraph relative to those around it but doesn’t add any “breathing room” for the text inside the border.
In the bottom right-hand corner of the dialog is the Options… button. Clicking it opens the Border and Shading Options dialog, in which you can set the “From text” distance for each border individually. As you can see, the defaults are 1 point top and bottom and 4 points left and right. The maximum for any setting is 31 points (not quite half an inch).
As you change the settings, the Preview shows the results.
If you select just part of a paragraph before opening the Borders and Shading dialog, the “Apply to” setting will be set to “Text” instead of “Paragraph.” Although the presets are the same, only Box, Shadow, and 3-D can be used. You can select Custom, but as soon as you click on any of the buttons in the Preview, all are turned on or off. In other words, this border is all or nothing, though at least you do get the same selection of line styles, colors, and weights.
You will also see that the Options… button is disabled, meaning that you cannot adjust the border’s distance from the text. If you want to apply a border to just one or more sides of the text, see this article.
When your selection is in a table, the contextual Table Tools tabs are displayed. The Design tab has tools for working with table borders. (Note that in current versions this tab is labeled Table Design, and there is no Table Tools tab.)
If you have experience applying paragraph borders, you may be able to figure out how to use the Ribbon buttons (for line style, weight, and color) along with the Borders dropdown to apply borders to the table or selected cells as desired. If you find this frustrating or inefficient, you will want to open the Borders and Shading dialog:
When the selection is in a table, the Borders tab of the Borders and Shading dialog has a different appearance from what you saw when adding paragraph or text borders.
As shown above, the Apply to setting will vary depending on whether you have the insertion point in a table (or have the entire table selected) or have only one or more cells selected. The Preview will also reflect the selection of a single cell, two cells horizontally or vertically, or four or more cells.
The biggest difference, however, is in the available presets. As shown, when a single table cell is selected, they are the same as for a paragraph. But when the entire table or more than one cell is selected, the presets change to None, Box, All, Grid, and Custom.
None and Custom are self-explanatory, and Box works the same as for paragraphs: whether applied to a cell or cells or an entire table, it puts a box border around the entire selection. All is also pretty straightforward: it applies a border of the currently selected style, weight, and color to every cell in the selection.
The Grid preset is a little confusing, however. If you haven’t changed any of the default settings, it appears to do the same thing as All: it borders every cell with a line of the same weight. But if you select a heavier line weight before applying the Grid preset, you will get that heavier line around the outside of the table (or selection) and the default ½-point line inside, just as the preset picture implies.
The real fun comes if you want the inner borders to be something other than ½ point. If you change the line weight to ½ point, then you get that for all the borders again (effectively All). Instead, you must first select one of the inside borders (horizontal or vertical), which will give it the same weight as the outside border, select the new weight, and then click the same border again. At that point you can click the other inside border to apply the same weight.
You may have noticed that the Borders and Shading dialog for tables includes two buttons that aren’t in the dialog for paragraphs. On the Borders menu, they are labeled Diagonal Up Border and Diagonal Down Border, and they are the two buttons that are disabled on the Home | Paragraph | Borders dropdown menu when the insertion point is in paragraph text because they are usable only in tables. What those buttons do is create diagonal lines that intersect your text like this:
They do not actually split your cell diagonally; they just create the appearance of doing so. If you want to further this deception, you will need to format text accordingly:
Table border options
There aren’t any! You will have noticed that the Options… button is disabled. That’s because the “Distance from text” in tables is determined by Spacing Before/After (which is applied to the text inside the cell) and left/right indents. You can also add cell padding (which Word calls “cell margins”) through the Table Properties dialog (in the Table Options dialog for the whole table or the Cell Options dialog for individual or selected cells).
As you’ve seen, the group on the contextual Table Tools | Design tab that contains the border tools is called Draw Borders, and the line color tool is called Pen Color. This might encourage you to use the button labeled Draw Table. Don’t! At least not to actually create a table.
In order to create a table from scratch using Draw Table, you would have to select it from the Insert | Tables | Table or Home | Paragraph | Borders dropdown (since the contextual Table Tools are displayed only when the insertion point is in an existing table). I think if you give that a whirl, you’ll understand how you can get in a lot of trouble in a hurry.
I have yet to find a table that could not be effectively created using Insert | Tables | Table and then adjusting cell widths and merging or splitting as needed. And I have seen (and corrected) some horrible messes made by inexpert users using Draw Table (actually, even for expert users, it is very difficult to avoid making a mess of your tables if you use this tool). The Draw Table button does have a useful function, however: when it is activated, you can use it to click on a cell boundary and apply the currently selected border.
Care should also be taken using the Eraser. When you click on a cell boundary with this tool, the result is to merge the two adjacent cells. That result can also be achieved by selecting the two cells, right-clicking, and choosing Merge Cells. What the Eraser tool is best suited for is merging columns. If you select two columns and use Merge Cells, the two columns become one big cell. If you want each row of the two columns to be preserved, then you can activate the Eraser button and carefully drag it over the boundary between the two columns.
Compared to text and table borders, page borders are relatively straightforward. They are applied through the Page Border tab of the Borders and Shading dialog. You can access that directly using the Page Borders button in the Page Background group on the Page Layout tab of the Ribbon in Word 2007 and 2010; in Word 2013 and above, the Page Background group is on the Design tab.
The presets are the same as for text paragraphs (None, Box, Shadow, 3-D, and Custom) and the borders are applied to some or all of the sides in the same way as to text paragraphs, using the presets or the Preview buttons. There are, however, two aspects in which page borders differ from paragraph borders.
Page border options
By default, a page border is 24 points (⅓″) from each side of the page. For printers, especially inkjet printers, that can’t print that close to the edge (especially on the trailing edge—bottom of a portrait page or one side of landscape), this means that one side of the border will be cut off (see “The bottoms of my pages don't print”). The Options… button in this dialog opens a new dialog that, like the one for paragraph borders, is titled Border and Shading Options, but it has specific settings for page borders.
As with paragraph borders, the range of distance settings is from zero to 31 points, so the largest setting, which is less than half an inch, may still not be enough to get the border out of the nonprintable area. The trick is to change the setting from “Edge of page” to “Text.” This setting is a little misleading because the distance is not actually measured from the text itself but from the page margins (which define the outer limits of text). When you change this setting, the default measurements also change:
As can be seen, the default distances are the same as the default for text paragraphs: 1 point top and bottom, 4 points left and right. Again, you can set them as high as 31 points (almost half an inch from the margins).
The Border and Shading Options dialog also includes four check boxes. Three of these are available only when “From text” is selected:
The fourth option, “Always display in front,” which is always available, determines whether a graphic in the margin area displays behind or in front of the page border.
Border art originated in Microsoft Publisher. It seems to have been there pretty much from the beginning, offering 160 “art” borders that could be added to any text frame or graphic; it was introduced to Word in Office 97 but (thank goodness!) only for page borders. You may not have a burning desire to surround your page with apples or maple muffins or slices of cake or candy corn (the “art” shown below), but if you persevere through all 160 styles, you will find that there are a few that are actually useful and attractive. And, unlike in Publisher, where art borders are all-or-nothing, you can apply Border Art to a single side or several, not just all four.
On the other hand, the selection of Border Art in Word is limited. Unlike in Publisher, you cannot create custom Border Art. If you want a border using different pictures, you will have to create the border manually, anchored to the page header, as described in my article on “Creating Custom Page Borders.”
Where the page border appears
As shown in the screen shot above, the default is for a page border to apply to the entire document and appear on every page. But the dialog does offer other options:
Not really a border at all
One additional button on the Borders menus and in the Borders and Shading dialog is Horizontal Line, which inserts a thin grey line from margin to margin.
In Word 2003 and earlier, the Horizontal Line button in the Borders and Shading dialog opens this dialog:
This dialog offers a selection of plain and fancy lines that are actually graphic objects (the same graphics can be found by searching the clip art collection for “divider”). In Word 2007 and above, however, you get no choice about the line you want to insert, though you do get some formatting capability. If you right-click on the line and select Format Horizontal Line, you get this dialog:
As you can see, you can adjust the length and width (although in fact you can actually do this by dragging the sizing handles that appear when you select it), and you can change the color. Since the object is In Line With Text, you can adjust its position using Spacing Before/After in the Paragraph dialog, so it’s possible that the line has some utility. I'll use it here (in HTML, it’s an <hr> tag) to end the article!
*This shortcut runs the TableUpdateAutoFormat command. “Table AutoFormat” is the previous name for what is now called a “table style.” The default table style is Table Grid, and when you run this command, that style remains in effect. If you reapply it, you have borders again, so the style itself has not been updated. It is therefore not clear what this command is really doing except removing the default border, which is what you want.
This article copyright © 2017, 2023 by Suzanne S. Barnhill. I am grateful to fellow Word MVP Jay Freedman, who reviewed this article and made several helpful suggestions.