From the Drawing Board
Occasional ramblings from
a Small Craft Designer

by John Welsford

On Plans

What are plans? A dictionary might give a definition along the lines of “Information , sufficient to complete the construction or manufacture of the item described”. Yes? Well! That statement would contain a number of huge assumptions. For example, people in the Engineering trade go to Engineering School to learn how to draw and read plans, they have a specialised notation system, standardised layout and methodology, particular systems and location for measurements and ways of differentiating one part from another by shading and cross hatching. It's all very complex to the outsider, and the outsider has a snowballs chance in a very hot place of understanding a drawing so produced.

Add to that the fact that there are in this fractured world several different standards for engineering drawings, and you will see that although these systems are used by trained persons with considerable understanding of the subject, and are designed and intended to avoid any possibility of misunderstanding and the expensive consequences of that misunderstanding, that the best laid plans of Mice and Men can indeed “gang aft agley”.

So, when dealing with a subject such as small craft which are often quite complex, and which are not covered by a formal discipline ( although the Naval Architectural one would work), few of those building small craft know the “language” and there are areas of the boats not covered by the formal drawing methodology. It is necessary though, to convey information to the client/builder in an accessible manner.

But how much information? We have to assume a few things. First, that the client is literate (I kid you not) . Second, that they can measure with a degree of accuracy -again, not kidding. Our school systems are producing graduates who can work wonders with a computer but who are totally dependent on them and who, when faced with a “manually operated analogue measuring device”, are completely lost. I was going to say that they would be completely at sea, but that’s where an aspiring boatbuilder is aiming to be, but in the case of the disenumerate is not where they are likely to make it to.

We have to assume that each of these literate and numerate types is familiar with certain tools. I work on the basis that these include basic hand tools like handsaw, hand plane and spokeshave, drill and screws, hammer and nails plus a couple of power tools like a cordless drill with drills, screwdriver bits and countersinks, a hand held power jigsaw, (sabre saw in some parts of the world) . In fact if one of my small boats requires more tools than a couple of hundred dollars can obtain in a good second hand shop, I look hard at the construction. But I do have to assume that the builder will be familiar with and able to use those tools.

Another assumption, is that the tyro shipwright is able to use the adhesives that I specify. Local (within NZ) purchasers of my plans get a little user manual supplied by a local producer of marine glues and paints (thanks Epiglass), so my plans do not have to tell people how to use the stuff .

I still need to assume many things are already in place: knowledge of wood and plywood, of metals and fastenings, and of how to apply paints for example. On the latter, I do try and give a few hints as to what to use and how to apply it, but must again, assume that the builder has some clues in this and other respects.

So in drawing a set of plans, I am looking to base the plans upon the existing knowledge of the plans buyer. I take it as given that a person with a desire to do their own building will have learned the skills needed to build before they buy the paper and black lines that I supply. I can, by making that assumption, keep the building guide and drawings down to what is necessary to show that person just how to apply those skills, that collection of tools and that hard won knowledge to the materials that I specify and achieve a result that we can both be proud of.

But even so, we have a problem of language. This is not the issue of a native Swahili speaker faced with a set of “English” plans, or even the misunderstandings that exist from one side of the Atlantic to another within “English” (I take the stand that the English invented the language so should get it right most of the time, but even that is shaky as there is huge variation in speech and accent within those islands). It is the formal method of drawing, the layouts and the measurement systems, the nomenclature and methodology that is so clear to the trained person, and so impenetrable to the Engineering illiterate.

So I don’t use it!

I do, though, study the drawings of others in “the trade” (thanks to Phil Bolger among others for many wonderful books and the drawings that they contain). I talk to my clients and listen to the problems and misunderstandings that they have. I try hard to anticipate what information is needed and just how to present it so inexperienced eyes will be able to translate the drawings that are my interpretation of a vision in my head (no jokes now) and the vehicle with which I try and make that vision achievable by others.

Drawing scale drawings of components is a goodie! Given a clear picture of each major component, and a written guide of how it goes together most people are comfortable. Drawings showing the sequence and location of assemblies and sub assemblies are helpful, and of late I have included full scale drawings of how fastenings such as screws are used, how overlaps and joints go together, how, for example, the centreboard pivot pin is made and fitted and how neoprene “o rings” are used for sealing bolts.

A set of plans is information; information which is only accessible if the designer and the builder speak the same language. In this case the client is often a complete beginner at reading plans while I, the designer, am, at least in theory, a trained person who can use the language of draftsmanship. In fact, though, I must learn by a process akin to osmosis a language that my clientele can understand.

Not easy.

To illustrate my point, the people who most often come to me for additional information or clarification of some point or another, are either those trained to speak the language of engineering who have a hard time coping with the drawing system that I use because it is not the language that they “speak”, or the person at the other end of the scale who has not got some of that basic information that I have had to assume. (am currently having a battle with a guy who has a PHD in Mechanical Engineering Design - I’d swear he can’t read; he certainly can’t read what I have written!)

I have tried to address the issues by writing a book giving a lot of the background information. I can tell you that although the book has been pretty successfu,l the hourly rate for book writing is very poor indeed! That said, I’m working on a new edition with several new chapters and some new designs. The extra chapters are to address several regular questions that come up suggesting that the skills that I assume are common, may not be.

But in the end, plans are a medium of communication. Like any language, they assume that the reader is familiar with things that may be left unstated, has skills that do not have to be taught or described within the planset, can read the instruction sheets and user guides that come with items such as adhesives or otherwise obtain specialist information from outside the plans. It would be possible, of course, to include all of this but the plans would then require a semi trailer to deliver them, a university course to decipher them, and a fortune to pay for the time necessary to develop them.

Plans are not complete in themselves; they are in practice a synergy, a combination of the designers drawings and words, with the skills and knowledge of the reader which together form a workable whole. Anything missing on either side can leave a question mark hanging there.

So, when you are browsing over those plans that you use to dream with on dark and stormy nights, and you are puzzling over some detail, ask yourself, “What knowledge has this man assumed that I already know, what language is he speaking here, and where in my life’s experience can I find the other information that will complete the set of information that this plan, and my knowledge, represents?"