October 19th, 2016 ~ Vol. 85 No. 41
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Once I Was a Draughtsman
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
Obsolete instruments of a bygone era
That is the original old English spelling or variant of the term “draftsman”, a profession that I was trained in back in the late 1960’s. It is defined as: “a person who practises or is qualified in mechanical drawing, employed to prepare detailed scale drawings of machinery, buildings, devices, etc”. Another old English variant I have come across on an ancient linen drawing is the word ‘shewing”, an archaic spelling of the word showing.

My training was as an architectural technologist and I followed in my father’s footsteps so to speak. He trained in the same field from 1931 to 1934 at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art in Calgary. He graduated during the great depression and promptly went stooking wheat on my great uncle’s farm south of Calgary. There was just no work back then. He eventually became a mine draftsman and surveyor and got to use his talents for many years in the coal industry.

I attended the same institute thirty some years later but by then it was called the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology or SAIT for short. It was a wonderful place to be able to go in a time when our local teachers used to warn us that we had two choices: “University or the coal mine.” Ironically when I graduated job opportunities were very limited and I wound up working for a time as a mining draftsman with my surveyor/engineer father at Coleman Collieries.

There were a lot of reasons I chose SAIT over university back then and one of them was cost. My first year’s tuition at SAIT was a paltry $65! Today the same course for the 2015/16 season is almost $6000. There were wonderful student loan programs offered back then and portions of your loan could be forgiven if you placed in the top third of your class. Another reason was class size. I spent three years with the same 20 or so classmates which beat the hell out of massive university classes when it came to intimacy and one on one opportunities.

During my training 5mm mechanical pencils did not exist, nor did calculators. We used wooden pencils sharpened to a wedge point with sandpaper mounted to a small paint stick. This gave a nice clean line but required a lot of continuous sharpening. Mathematical calculations for things such as structural steel sizes, concrete strengths etc. were done with a slide rule, a device that no doubt would cause a modern student to wrinkle up his nose and say: “A what?” We were religiously trained in lettering techniques and I did hundreds of lettering assignments (1/8th inch vertical Gothic caps) to the point where the finished product looked like it had been done with a lettering template. The unfortunate thing about this regimented approach taken back then was that architectural students didn’t get a chance to develop their own distinctive and interesting architectural lettering style so typical of older drawings.
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As I said earlier I moved into mining drafting after about a year of looking for work and introduced my father and his co-workers to some more modern drafting techniques. They were still using dip nib ink pens and hand inking in their penciled survey field notes. Once a survey had been crunched (calculated) and proven to be okay, only then could the notes be inked-in for future reference.

By this time the cartridge ink drafting pen, known as the rapidograph, had entered the field as well as what was known as the Leroy lettering system. Ink drafting pens came in various fine line widths and had to be meticulously cleaned to keep them running. I can recall my father’s cursing as he shook a cranky .003mm pen up and down to get the ink to flow.

Leroy was a method of lettering that used templates and a special scribing tool to create machine-perfect lettering. It took a lot of practice but when one was proficient it produced a concise clean series of letters that reproduced well. The scriber was designed to hold rapidograph pens of varying line thicknesses. The template was slid along the edge of a set square or t-square which kept the lettering level. Lettering sizes went from 1/16th of an inch to about a half an inch in height and it was a tedious but rewarding process.

These drafting tools were later supplemented in the industry by what was known as Letraset, Letratone and Letrafilm, rub-on lettering and coloured and patterned films that could be superimposed on drawings (rubbed or stuck on) to produce high quality lettering of many sizes and styles and patterns that gave important contrast to a drawing’s appearance and readibility. They were expensive and time consuming and maintaining a stock of various sizes and patterns was necessary. One inevitably ran out of certain letters on a sheet which I suspect was deliberate by the industry to sell more pages. Just look at how many e’s there are in this particular sentence (16) and you will see that if there is the same amount of each letter on a page things go bad real quick. With these tools came another game changer, that being letratape. These were rolls of fine black or coloured tape in varying thickness and patterns that all but eliminated ink pens. They had adhesive on one side and some types were flexible enough to be curved and bent into the desired shape.
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Drawing reproduction techniques also evolved drastically through the time I was a draftsman. In my father’s office in 1965 they had an ultraviolet machine that exposed the original translucent drawing and an ozalid treated bond paper laid over top of it to its eerie blue rays. The process was known as blue printing and as it ran through the machine the lamp would expose and turn the yellow ozalid light sensitive paper white except for where there were drafted lines and text drawn. The unexposed ozalid chemicals (diazonium salts) left on the paper were then exposed to ammonia fumes and reacted forming a blue line or letter. Early blueprints were a reverse process with the final product being all blue with white lines. Later blueprinting was a lot easier on the eyes with blue lines on a white background.

Early printing machines required that the drawing be rolled up and inserted into a steel tube and very strong ammonia poured into the bottom so that its fumes could develop it. Later machines combined the exposure and ammonia process into one machine but despite venting there was always a strong ammonia smell and a lot of complaints from other office staff. My father, knowing how strong it was, challenged me one day to take a whiff of that special thick plastic bottle. I naively did so and I can tell you I thought the top of my head was going to come off.

In generating drawings there was a wonderful variety of old drafting tools I was exposed to and used until CAD (computer assisted drafting) made them all obsolete. Pantographs for enlargening or reducing drawings, proportional dividers, compasses and protractors, templates for all kinds of shapes, T-squares, drafting machines and literally dozens of other fascinating devices were summarily set aside when CAD took over. Drawings nowadays roll off of computerized plotters in brilliant color with charts and photos superimposed on them. The world of hand drafting has all but faded away. It seems that in industry now everyone is a draftsman.
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October 19th ~ Vol. 85 No. 41
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