Pin cushion or no pin cushion?

I know that two pins are not much of a pin cushion. I like about five to really make for a confusing corner. When I saw these two, I thought, “Pin Cushion!” The feeling of disappointment was filling my heart as this was the first place I looked for a corner.

Take a look on this page at the photo of the project I was working on in Montgomery County, Pa. I had surveyed this very lot 20 years prior, so I knew the deeper pin existed. Had another surveyor been there, he or she might have stopped at the pin with the metal cap. Doesn’t it look impressive? There is no punch mark or center on the top. Observing the cap, it appears someone really beat it into place with a great deal of difficulty. They meant business. I do not recall seeing this type of pin cap used in this area of the country. That meant a person who might not be familiar with the region set the pin and cap. Naturally, I distrusted the pin — especially when it was new and an old pin existed nearby.

Since I had opened up my old CAD file and prepared for this survey, I knew pins existed and so knew just where to dig. Finding the pin with the cap in the photo, I was not about to accept it before looking deeper. I normally question monuments I find and look for others close by. If I had recognized this type of pin cap, would I have looked deeper?

On other corners of the lot, I found extra pins with caps near the pins I previously found. So, I located them all and took my facts back to the office to sort things out. I liked my former pins, which were set by others, and back then I was retracing a survey locating pins set years prior. I calculated to match the old pins and returned to the field to topo the lot.

The owner came out to talk and mentioned that he had his lot surveyed three years prior, but could not remember who did the survey. I was listening carefully because I had to know who was using those pin caps. Where they cost more than plastic caps, the person setting them was really marking his point well.

Talking at length with the client, I was told the recent survey involved only wood stakes and they did not set pins, so he placed rebar and caps. When asked where he got those caps, he said, “On the Internet.” I tried not to show it, but was upset by his actions. I don’t know how, but he missed the fact that there were pins and they were flagged. The pink flagging was a few years old and probably tied on by that surveyor.

In an effort to be kind, I began to explain that the problem with what he did to mark his corners was that he set markers with a similar material to what a surveyor could be using. He was unintentionally setting a fraudulent corner marker. After more discussion, he was going to remove his caps and rebar, and drive a short piece of white PVC pipe over the pins. Future problem solved! I went on to explain that I plan on surveying in this area for a long time and, had he sold his lot and not passed on the information of his self-made corner markers, future land surveyors would be scratching their heads needlessly.

We find field evidence and make our locations, and follow them with calculations and then look again. When property owners take matters into their own hands and use reasonable materials like rebar and steel pipe, it could lead us down a wrong path. I hope this homeowner follows through and pulls his pins.

So, in this particular case, it was “no pin cushion.”


Ten years ago, while surveying an urban half-acre lot, I had a similar experience that was more frustrating. I was hired to stake a property for fencing. The owner was out when I started and saw me locate his pins. I went on to find monuments for the surrounding lots. When I calculated my field locations and entered the deeds, problems began appearing. Things did not measure up and there were so many monuments.

When I was returning to set his corners and the line stakes, my client came out again. I explained that I had located many monuments and his did not fit the neighborhood and were incorrect. All of the pins found around the neighborhood worked with each other, except for those surrounding his lot. Would moving his pins be the right thing to do? Or should I start a new pin cushion? I did notice that, although the markers at his corners were all rebar, they were not like the others in the neighborhood, but rather like some materials other surveyors use around here.

After listening to me explain why the pins were wrong, he then told me that he set them himself, and just wanted to see how close he was and so did not tell me that at the start. Had he told me that when I began, it would have saved four hours in the field and office. With him standing there, I pulled out his homegrown pins and set my own pins with my pin cap, having my license number on top along with my name. I want to point out that these were not the type of pins that the original surveyor had used. These were instead half-inch rebar probably purchased at a hardware or home supply store.

Some other markers I find less than reliable are pins with a plastic cap that say “Survey Marker” and “Property Corner.” Why purchase caps without your name and license number unless you don’t want anyone to find you? Here in Pennsylvania you cannot set a property corner unless you are licensed as a Land Surveyor in Pennsylvania or working under the supervision of a licensed land surveyor.

It is my opinion that contractors are having construction layout personnel set these pins. I have seen sites where the construction crews set corners based on the information on the CAD drawing. I knew this because I had done some wetlands locations for an engineer who used a previous survey for the base of the new subdivision. As is typical for me, I took a short time and found some of the tract boundaries, so I knew there were problems and wondered if the designing engineer would adjust things with my new locations in mind. He did not. So, when I surveyed a parcel adjoining the large subdivision with the bad boundary, I did a boundary survey on my client’s property and could set his corners with full assurance.

Having set the corners where they ought to be meant, there was a gap between the boundary line I retraced and the line of the contractor’s corners. My knowledge of the site, the designing engineer, the contractor and the developer helped me to survey my client’s property with confidence. Where all of our pins should have been on a common line, but not at the same place on that line, I was not creating any pin cushions. The “gap” was a false gap created by construction layout personnel following poor survey work.

What Next?

Currently, I am working on a topographic survey to be used in a design for a residential swimming pool. The subdivision has almost all of the property corners set with concrete monuments having metal caps with a punch mark at the changes in direction of the right-of-way, and pipes with plastic caps at property corners. They were all set in the last 15 years by the same land surveyor.

In this subdivision of half-acre lots, I find distances to be plus or minus 0.14 feet, which seems like a lot to me. On one lot corner at the side of the road, which is now owned by the municipality, there exist two pipes 0.20 feet apart that have the same surveyor’s name on top. They are both on the property line.

I believe the survey crew working for the original surveyor should have left the old pipe in place with a clear conscience. Since they were both on the property line, and on a 50-foot-wide road right-of-way, nobody was going to challenge the small difference. In this case, one survey company had started its own pin cushion.

We would say that the original pipe was set by the original surveyor, but more likely it was the original survey party chief who may have been a junior party chief who set these pipes with poor accuracy. I suppose the chief who set the second pipe did not trust his own company and only that party chief knows which one was the original corner set by his company. I have to think they did not enter into the field notes, “Second pipe set at correct corner location,” with their supervisor telling them it was the right thing to do. I have not completed the survey, so I do not know if either is on the right-of-way line.

In general, I expect the particular company whose name is on all the pipe caps to perform accurate surveys. The firm has existed for many years now. The small distance variations in the neighborhood make little practical difference in the lives of the residents. I am glad that, in this situation, I know the markers are all set by the same company and do not plan on starting pin cushions at other corners.