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
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
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
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.
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?"