Back in the Day Part I: Making Paper Maps from Scratch

Map making back in the dayIllustration by Chelsea Ellis
Back in the day, roads and other line features in gazetteers were often traced from source maps and scribed by hand using a variety of line weights and fills.

I left college with a degree in Fine Arts with a concentration in printmaking.

Yes, that’s right, printmaking.

Although I didn’t ever have to ask “do you want to supersize that?” I was somewhat concerned about what employment opportunities would be available to me in the real world with my specialized degree. In my last year at school in 1992, students were advised to pursue opportunities in this new-fangled computer graphics industry. I wasn’t convinced this was the wave of the future, so I settled with the commercial printing industry. I became a map technician for a well-known publisher of traditional atlases and gazetteers.

What’s a Gazetteer? A great question that seems funny today. Nowadays you can go online using your map service of choice (Google Earth, Bing, OpenStreetMaps) type in a place name or an address, adjust your scale and POOF! You can basically produce a map for almost any purpose with just a few mouse clicks.

Wikipedia defines a gazetteer as:

‘‘A geographical dictionary or directory used in conjunction with a map or atlas. They typically contain information concerning the geographical makeup, social statistics and physical features of a country, region, or continent. Content of a gazetteer can include a subject’s location, dimensions of peaks and waterways, population, GDP and literacy rate. This information is generally divided into topics with entries listed in alphabetical order.”

A good analogy might be: a gazetteer is to an atlas as attributes are to features in a GIS database.

Creating a gazetteer involves a fantastic amount of gathering source data, analysis and research, and many waves of mind-numbing proofreading. You need people with surgical attention to detail and an aversion to burnout to make a successful gazetteer. Fortunately, I wasn’t involved in the research or copy editing portions of the process. I was there to make the actual maps, and what fun that was.

Back in the day, roads and other line features were often traced from source maps and scribed by hand using a variety of line weights and fills. I was hired as a map technician, I think, mainly because of my mechanical drawing skills. In the hiring process, the publisher had me take a “scribe test” in which I used sample pieces of scribe coat and a scribe tool to produce lines for a map.

Scribe tool illustrationIllustration by Chelsea Ellis
The scribe tool has a sapphire tip that scrapes clean lines in the scribe coat for map features, essentially creating a negative from the scribe coat.

Scribe coat is a heavy film coated with a material that is easily scraped away using a specialized scribe tool. The scribe tool has a sapphire tip — a real gemstone — that is meant to be dragged along the scribe coat to scrape clean lines for map features, essentially creating a negative. It takes a certain touch to manually scribe: too heavy handed and a gouge could be made in the film underneath; too light handed and a clean line wouldn’t be rendered.

I must have done well in my scribe test, because for the next two months, I hand scribed all of the roads for the Maine state atlas in production and duplicated sheets for printing.

To create “dupes” of my sheets, I dutifully taped a protective cover of newsprint over each corner of the scribe coat sheet (one false move and a dropped sheet could ruin my day) and transported my work to the vacuum-frame room.

The vacuum frame, an essential part of any conventional mapmaker’s work, is an exposure machine that has a large bed fit with a heavy, hinged glass lid.

In the large bed of the vacuum frame, I would lay a sheet of blank, yellow duplication film emulsion side up, lay my work over the film, and close the glass lid. Turning the vacuum frame on, I would hear the vacuum remove the air in the bed, creating a close contact between the original scribe sheet and the duplication film. A timed UV exposure would then create a duplicate image by exposing all of the road lines I created with my scribe tool onto the yellow duplication film. After the dupe was “burned,” I would then run it through an ammonia processor that would transform the dupe film into a layer that would be used in the printing process.

Next … stripping layers into CMYK “flats” and the joy of negative corrections!

To be continued …


Kris Berglund

Kris Berglund is currently the Vice-President of Sales at Blue Marble Geographics and has been with the company for over fifteen years. Kris has been involved with digital mapping technology for over twenty years, and demonstrates a diverse level of experience in cartography, geomatics, technical sales & marketing and business development.

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