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The shelf gives you quick access to commonly used functions in Houdini.
Most tools create new nodes for you in the background.
Some items on the shelf and in the toolbox are more “actions” than “tools” – they do something immediately when you click them, and don’t enter into a “tool state” or show options on the operation controls toolbar.
Most tools will use the current selection if possible. Some tools will prompt you for one or more selections if the current selection is not relevant, or if it needs more information. For example, the Parent tool on the Modify shelf tab prompts you to select the child and then the parent.
After you make a prompted selection, press Enter to finish the selection. (You can also press ⇧ Shift + RMB or right-click and choose Accept selection).
Some tools have alternate action-like behavior when you hold ⌃ Ctrl and click them.
You can usually quick-place the object created by a tool at the origin by ⌃ Ctrl-clicking the tool. For example, when you ctrl-click the Sphere tool, it immediately creates a sphere at the origin instead of asking you to place the sphere in the viewer.
If you ⌃ Ctrl-click the light or camera tools, they create a light/camera from the current view, instead of asking you to place the new object.
Hold the mouse over an item on the shelf to see its label and a brief description of what it does. While the tooltip is open, press F1 to see the full help page for the item.