Harriett Zilch wrote that the old cowboy song Goodbye Old Paint was “a melancholy hymn of farewell to an aging American paint horse.” It could be applied to many things in land surveying such as the transit, dumpy level, alidade and plane table, and the gun that impressed me most, the Wild T-2. Those tools might never be used again. They now live in closets and on office shelves, even though they were once the workhorses of the industry.

The line “goodbye old paint” also reminds me of the points we set in the field now. This being fall in Pennsylvania, the white stuff might not be long in coming. Snow will fall, be plowed up along the curbs and roadsides, and will freeze. It might take up residence until mid-March and torment us surveyors as we press on and get some winter work done.

This time of year, I remind party chiefs to think ahead and get ready for layers of snow and ice by trying to mark their points well. So, it’s time to feel free with using up the old cans of pink and orange paint we use on our control points and marks. Yes, I know we should not use the orange because the utility owns the color, but the truth is we buy and keep the orange as an alternative.

There are times when I will use the paint and flagging sparingly. In the spring and summer, I may not want to bring any or too much attention to my control points or the pins and monuments I find on the lands of adjoining property owners. In good weather, I could put a tiny bit of pink on a branch or a wire flag on a found point, and then locate it and remove my wire flag, leaving only flagging on the pin itself. I do this so I do not raise questions by neighbors as to “What are you doing?” or “Who are you working for?” or “What are the owners doing?” Neighbors can become worried needlessly if we leave marks that trumpet our presence. Also, we may locate a point that looks like a duck and acts like a duck, but after careful calculations turns out to be nothing at all. A well-marked bad point may lead neighbors to fights and arguments, and we don’t want that. Whereas, the tiny bit of pink on a wire or twig will sing out to a skilled professional land surveyor’s eye.


Weather Changes The Game

If in warmer weather I have a freshly dug pin, it need only have the wire flag until I locate the pin, even if it’s a day later. But in the winter, the weather person seems to lie and a clear day can turn into a snow day, and my freshly dug pin disappears making it hard to find again. The mag nail in the pavement may drown in slush or be buried under a glacier of hard-packed plowed snow. We are at the mercy of the elements.

Where once I put a tiny dot of pink or the smallest triangle of orange, I now lay down a thick coat of paint. It has to endure heavy wear, salt, and the freezing and thawing of the season. For control points set just off the pavement, I will paint a long line from a spot where I think the plow will clear the blacktop and run the paint line over to the edge of pavement toward my traverse point. This is also good for mag nails at the edge of pavement or in the seam of curbing. Like many of the homeowners who tell us, “I know right where my corner is,” we surveyors will find ourselves within 10 feet of the point unless we prepare for the worst.

The control point we set today may not be revisited for months. The long line of paint we leave might save hours of field time and keep the job in the black during shorter winter daylight hours. Another way to mark our nails near the road or in safer areas would be to assume that the lath next to it will disappear. It is then that the small piece of pink flagging on a branch or fence will remain and point the way back. Keeping good mental notes of how we marked a point will help also.

A wooden fence can be a good blackboard on which we can leave notes about the location and number of a nearby control point. Wrapping flagging around the fence is a great idea unless the fence is to keep in horses, hogs or other livestock that might ingest the bright tape. I’ve watched a hog eat flagging while fighting off another hog equally interested in the plastic delicacy. Bored horses can take a keen interest in our lath and flags, too. These winter flags might best be made small so they are less appetizing. In a wooden fence, a tiny piece of pink flag can be pushed into the cracks of a post and rail fence or into the bark of a tree. Wire hog fence will let us tie on a mere knot of flagging, which we will know is there waiting to point the way when we return in a snow-covered world.


More Paint, Please

I remember a survey of a lot where I wished I had used more paint. It was of a property on a small private lane; it might be better called a glorified driveway. Monuments were not easy to find, and I used little flagging and paint on my mag nails so that the other owners on the lane did not easily notice them.

Unfortunately for me, 8 inches of wet snow fell, a private plow company came, and the road became a narrow lane with 3 feet of hard frozen snow running down the side of the drive on which I had set my control points. I had stayed on one side so that cars could pass without destroying my instrument. Of course, my side of the road had since become a waist-high frozen ridge. It would take a pry bar to bust up the ice.

Like an old farmer, I had arrived at the site and was sure my point was “right here” and got to work on the frozen drift of plowed snow. After clearing more this way, and more that way, I realized I would have to do it the only guaranteed way. Moving up the road, I set up on a distant point, found a back sight, and traversed down to what should have been my starting point. It was 5 feet from where I had been digging. Had I put a small piece of pink on the hedge by the roadside, or the long paint line to the middle of the lane, I would have found it with my first dig.

A closing thought about the coming winter is the idea of a white elephant gift for your employer. How many times have you gone home after a day of hard work and emptied your pockets on the dresser or table and out comes the magnetic nails, plastic tabs, lumber crayon, concrete nails, magic markers, tacks, flagging rolls, etc.? You or your spouse takes that stuff and puts it in a drawer, and you plan on taking it back the next work day. Years later, it is in coffee cans in the basement, boxes in the garage and odd drawers. Why not take up a company-wide collection of the survey junk? See who brings in the most. Then, put it all together in a box and give it to your boss. My guess is he/she could bring in a box, too.


Jeffrey P. Turner, PLS, began his career in surveying in 1971 and became licensed in Pennsylvania in 1987. He was co-owner of a surveying firm for six years before launching his own firm in the Philadelphia region in 1995. He is passionate about leaving footsteps for future generations of surveying professionals. He can be reached at qj57@verizon.net.