An overview of the Overlay toolset

One of the most basic questions asked of a GIS is "What's on top of what?" For example:

  • What land use is on top of what soil type?
  • What parcels are within the 100-year floodplain? ("Within" is just another way of saying "on top of.")
  • What roads are within what counties?
  • What wells are within abandoned military bases?

These types of questions are answered with the use of overlay tools.

The Overlay toolset contains tools to overlay multiple feature classes to combine, erase, modify, or update spatial features, resulting in a new feature class. New information is created when overlaying one set of features with another. All of the overlay operations involve joining two sets of features into a single set of features to identify spatial relationships between the input features.


Apportion Polygon

Summarizes the attributes of an input polygon layer based on the spatial overlay of a target polygon layer and assigns the summarized attributes to the target polygons. The target polygons have summed numeric attributes derived from the input polygons that each target overlaps. This process is typically known as apportioning or apportionment.

Count Overlapping Features

Generates planarized overlapping features from the input features. The count of overlapping features is written to the output features.


Creates a feature class by overlaying the input features with the erase features. Only those portions of the input features falling outside the erase features are copied to the output feature class.

Erase tool


Computes a geometric intersection of the input features and identity features. The input features or portions thereof that overlap identity features will get the attributes of those identity features.

Identity tool


Computes a geometric intersection of the input features. Features or portions of features that overlap in all layers or feature classes will be written to the output feature class.

Intersect tool

Remove Overlap (multiple)

Removes overlap between polygons contained in multiple input layers.

Spatial Join

Joins attributes from one feature to another based on the spatial relationship. The target features and the joined attributes from the join features are written to the output feature class.

Symmetrical Difference

Features or portions of features in the input and update features that do not overlap will be written to the output feature class.

Symmetrical Difference tool


Computes a geometric union of the input features. All features and their attributes will be written to the output feature class.

Union tool


Computes the geometric intersection of the Input Features and Update Features. The attributes and geometry of the input features are updated by the update features in the output feature class.

Update tool
Tools in the Overlay toolset

Related tools

Alternate pairwise overlay tools for the Erase and Intersect tools are available in the Pairwise Overlay toolset. See Comparing classic overlay tools to pairwise overlay tools for more information.

Related topics

In this topic
  1. Related tools