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Drafting

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The thumb of the left hand is pressed tightly against the melamine surface of the parallel rule. The fingertips of this hand are pressed tightly against the face of an acrylic drafting triangle pinching it squarely onto the leading edge of the parallel rule. The hand is held tautly but not rigidly. The key is to clench the instruments firmly but flexibly, in a precisely fixed position.

In the right hand is a lead holder, a kind of primitive mechanical pencil. It grips a thin shaft of graphite, sharpened to a needle point. The right hand cradles the lead holder delicately between the thumb and first two forefingers. The hand is held tautly, pulling the tip of the lead holder’s graphite point hard against the leading edge of the drafting triangle. The key is to clutch the lead holder firmly but flexibly, in a precisely fixed position.

The right hand always lies on top of the left hand, crossing it so that the palm never touches the surface of the drafting vellum. Hands are rife with oil and perspiration. Vellum is absorptive and moisture of any sort distorts the drawing surface. Precisely drawn lines inscribed on a moist or oily surface quickly become fuzzy and imprecise. Small particles of graphite will smear, marring the illusion of a drawing’s presumption of exactitude.

The intention of drafting is to purge ambiguity. Imperfection undermines this intent and so, the right hand is always kept above the vellum by the presence of the left hand. The left hand is always kept above the vellum by the presence of the triangle and parallel rule. The hands are to never touch the drawing surface. 

A line is drawn by pulling the tip of the lead holder’s graphite shaft along the edge of the triangle. As the point of the graphite moves across the surface of the vellum, it will become dulled, its honed tip eroded into a flattened oval. If this dulling is not corrected within an inch or two, the mark it etches will become cruder and less precise. The remedy for this erosion, short of re-sharpening the graphite tip each and every inch, is to rotate the lead point as it moves over the drawing surface. As the tip is pulled across the vellum, the thumb and forefingers steadily roll the shaft of the lead holder, turning the still sharp edge of the graphite’s oval bevel back into the surface of the drawing. A line formed in this way remains precise and free of ambiguity. 

This is the way a single line of an architectural drawing is formed. A single drawing might easily consist of a hundred such lines. A set of architectural documents will contain a hundred or more such drawings. This is the work of drafting and its efficiency is a consequence of mastering each carefully choreographed step of drafting’s delicate finger dance. The hands are tensed, a line is pulled, the lead holder is gracefully rotated, the hands are relaxed and the instruments swiftly shifted to the position of the next line. The fingertips are again tensed and another line is drawn. This dance is repeated over and over, hour after hour without pause.

A skilled drafter will perform each of these minute operations without conscious thought in no more time than it takes to swallow. Even if you were to closely observe the work, you would likely never see any of it. You would witness only the steady transformation of a blank sheet of vellum into the persuasive illusion of an as yet unrealized work of architecture. This is the labor of drafting. It is also its magnificent pleasure. 

This is why I still draft, even in the age of computers. I still take great comfort in the mastery of this arcane skill. It is tedious, but in this tedium, there is solace too. There is comparable solace in the tedium of every kind of work, a recognition that in this technological age, we seem much too eager to abandon. The repetition of a single act for hours at a stretch assumes a transcendental quality, as surely as the chanting of a mantra. The conscious mind focuses intently on a single act. The heart rate slows. Inhalation deepens. The subconscious mind is released. Calm prevails.

Thoughtlessly, we rail against the monotony of work’s tedium, yet we cling to it too. We cling to it for the solace it offers. A factory worker fixing doorframes to a car body on an assembly line unconsciously sways to the recursive rhythm of his labor. A short order chef, working a sputtering grill of cheese steak and sausage, succumbs to the entrancement of his routine. A grandmother, knitting in the parlor of a senior center, relishes a tranquility that can only be induced by a patiently focused, all-consuming act, repeated over and over again, hour after hour.

And so, I will continue to draft, even though I know I could do all this more quickly and easily on my willing Mac. I do it because it is the only act of design that still offers me a certain and absolving contentment.

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