Lately this question of “art or craft” has come to mind. One of my best friends has vast knowledge of the Italian sculptors and painters. His life-long profession has been the restoration and preservation of art objects, and I would think if there were guild craftsmen, he would be one.

In training of my survey apprentices, I encourage them to locate details at sites such as possible works of art, gravestones for pets, bird houses (if there are not too many) to name a few. In the course of surveying the properties of wealthy land owners, I will often find what I think the owners might believe is a piece of art. There will be topo shots labeled “ART” and the office staff know I want it shown some way on our plan. Using my cell phone, I snap pictures of these and sometimes will ask my friend “Is this art, or craft?” Then I wait for his reply. 

Today, I ran out to find more monuments to resolve a survey boundary. The accompanying photo is a limestone monument that was on the plan of survey.

This stone is a beauty and sticks up out of the ground about 6 inches. Notice the hole in the stone and the lines radiating off the center of that hole. In my opinion, the drill hole was made using a star drill. How many apprentices today have ever held a star drill? It was once a standard item in most survey trucks. This hole was deep and must have taken time. While my wife thinks of this as craftsmanship, I find this to be “art.” The surveyor who set this was practicing the art of land surveying. The surveyor who made this drill hole and set this monument was the real deal. 

With the current run to technology, much of the “Art of Land Surveying” is disappearing. Fifteen years back, there were people still hand-drafting plans. I always enjoyed seeing a beautiful plan and took a few minutes to appreciate the care and precision that went into the drafting. 

I recall being at a surveyor’s office with my boss. He looked at a mylar sheet and softly said, “I wonder who drafted this plan, it’s really well done.” Then he asked around their office and found out it was one of the owners, a man who knew how to keep a pencil sharp. He was using those old ‘lead holders’ and the sharpener you stick the pencil into and rotate it to get that needle point for fine lines. 

The lead holders were replaced by Pentel pencils which could hold 0.03, 0.05, 0.07, etc. lead and colored lead and keep a uniform line weight (width). The 0.03 lead was incredibly thin and broke often. 

Back then, there were draftsmen who were artists on survey drawings … and then there were craftsmen. You could see the difference. 

While in the office of the general manager of the company, I had the pleasure of a hands-on lesson in the art of drafting. He was picking out the fonts and Leroy guides for me to lay out the title sheet for a set of perhaps a twenty-sheet plan set. He explained that it was the most important sheet of the set because it is what the client and municipality would see first. If it looked impressive then it would follow the rest of the work was impressive. I felt the truth in what he expressed.

This approach to plans has been continued into my computer drawings. If mine is a detailed plan of survey, then it inspires confidence in the viewer. When I go the extra tenth of a mile, it might seem like twenty. 

We all want to create nice plans, but every beginner needs the help of an experienced person to teach them the art and the craft of their profession. When older professionals can instill this in trainees, it continues the excellence. 

Driving Quality

When the vice president of one of the very large Philadelphia engineering firms worked as a young engineer in Virginia, the office staff complained about the picky and demanding drafting manager. In one instance, the hand scribbling to indicate concrete did not have enough scribbles and dots. They were ordered back to the drawing board to fix that plan. Angry young engineers drew in very tiny curse words among the dots and squiggles and laughed to themselves. The next day they all received a lecture about quality drafting. This engineer, 20 years after that event, smiled broadly as he told me the story. Those various types of hand shadings were soon to be replaced by “craft” with sheets of ‘sticky paper’ with preprinted hatching. The fine Leroy lettering was replaced by Kroy lettering machines, and silt fence lines by thin rolls of preprinted “line types.” Any competent computer draftsperson knows about line types and a computer and plotter make them all exactly the same. This also applies to the hatching and shading. 

I don’t think that current plans are nearly as attractive as the older plats. The newer plans seem to look more like craft. Craft does not mean they are full of errors or mistakes, but they rarely look to me like art.

Back to the Drawing Board

Do I want to go back to the drawing board? Heck no! But, there are ways we can distinguish our work and show the art of land surveying by the information shown on our drawings. For example, the plan I had which showed the stone in the photo never told us where on the line the stone existed. Graphically, it was not the right-of-way line. I explained to my draftsperson who was trying to make use of the stone, concrete monument, and pipes she found, that it was poor work to show the stone but no tie distance and that perhaps the surveyor wanted to keep that information secret. I want other surveyors to know and understand how I came to boundary conclusions. In teaching the apprentice, I explained how and why I always hope to show the relationship of stones found to the right-of-way line and then end of the line when the stone is on the sideline. 

Another way I have seen this is when there is an old plan and it shows “PIN SET ON LINE” with no distance to the ends of the line. Perhaps they thought it would bring in more work since pins get covered up and must be found and thus there is a charge for surveying services. A work-around I teach people is to scale the distance to the pin and stake out to it in hopes it was drafted correctly. I want surveyors who follow my work to find my pins, which will point to the monuments I used to make my decisions, in hopes that arguments rarely happen about who is right and who is wrong. To do that, I have to leave trail markers using sub-distances on my plans. 

We have all come across surveyors who produce comics rather than art, and the nature of bad work is it’s neither art nor craft. I’ve known party chiefs who would sit in their truck and sketch the topo from the driver’s seat. They had a good eye for perspective and making the picture look good and understanding of the shape of contour lines, but this was false work and though it saved money, it was wrong. 

There are still people who use fences with road centerlines to set up the boundary of a topographic survey plan and just don’t care about doing things right. In this area of the country, our building setback lines are often based on the street right of way and the property lines. Architects need to know precisely the relationship of the features to the setback lines and that cannot be assured by fences, rock rows, telephone poles, or simply splitting the road width. 

There are times when a client thinks they know better and want to tell me to not tie the topo into the boundary, they don’t care about it. One way or another, I will try to use the same care when surveying even if the client won’t let me charge enough. It’s my pride in my work that drives me to prepare a good product as I suppose it’s the same with other surveyors. We each must decide if we want to compete with low bidders who create a poor product or keep our own personal standards of what should be on a survey plan. Our employees will be watching us and follow our lead. 

When an apprentice and I go over the plans found in the process of researching jobs, I like to make mention of the surveyor or engineer whose name is on the plat and remind them first to go to the title block and see who is responsible for the survey. From there you know the quality of the work. When I see nice work on the plans of others, I like to let my people know so they understand why I think it’s art. 

I know people who invest in art because of its value, and because, well, its art and they love to look at it. My personal investment in the art of land surveying has been paying off for some time now. I see it in the apprentices I teach and their work. I find it on my old plans and the records I’ve kept. It has also saved me money by avoiding possible mistakes while making neighboring surveys easier. 

The experience and wisdom licensed land surveyors possess, along with engineers and skilled party chiefs cannot be taught in school. There would be too much territory to cover. For that reason, even the brightest student in a four-year surveying degree program cannot take the test in Pennsylvania until they have five years of practical experience. If young apprentices are in surveying for the long haul, the things we teach them today and the art and craft we pass along will pay dividends for generations to come.