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.

The Myth of Free GIS – A Lesson from Nelson

Car broken down
Like a car, GIS needs to be fueled and maintained to keep it running smoothly.


S everal years ago, while attending a small regional GIS conference, I happened to overhear a snippet of a conversation between two local government officials:

“How much did your town pay for its GIS?” asked the first. “Nothing. We got it for free” came the reply.

Much as I wanted to interject myself in the exchange, decorum prevailed and I was left to mull over how a functional spatial data management system can be established and maintained with no monetary outlay.

I was reminded of this experience early last year when my son turned 16 and, in what is apparently a rite of passage for today’s youth, informed me that he needed a car. Bear with me, there’s an analogy coming here. Several weeks scouring Craigslist eventually turned up a 2000 Hyundai for which the asking price was only a few hundred dollars. This inevitably led to the price verses cost discussion.

“While the purchase price might be within your budget,” I reasoned, “how much will it cost to keep it on the road? You have to consider insurance, fuel, maintenance, and the inevitable and unforeseen repairs that a well-used car will need.”

We bought the car anyway. More on that later.

In a similar vein, a GIS needs to be fueled and maintained to keep it running smoothly and while upfront cost savings might be appealing, the long-term productivity of the system needs continual investment. That’s right, investment.

According to Wikipedia, an investment is, “… an allocation of money (or sometimes another resource, such as time) in the expectation of some benefit in the future.”

GIS is, by its very nature, an investment in which the return on the initial and ongoing disbursement can be seen in many ways: increased productivity, improved efficiency, or in some cases, financial rewards from the sale of GIS derived products or services.

I have to assume that when the aforementioned conference delegates inferred that their GIS was free, they were factoring the initial price of the software and not any of the prerequisite or subsequent cost considerations. Had I decided to join their discussion, I would have suggested that they consider the bigger picture.


While many GIS fundamentalists might argue that a functioning Geographic Information System can be developed without computing technology (location-based data management predates the advent of the personal computer by several centuries if not millennia), in today’s world, GIS is a computer-based discipline. Specific hardware requirements will vary depending on the volume of data and degree of processing required and there is a fairly consistent correlation between the capability of the hardware and the performance and efficiency of the system. For most applications, however, the requirements are relatively modest and in most cases, an off-the-shelf computer will suffice.


GIS software runs the gamut from freeware to highly complex data processing applications costing tens of thousands of dollars. The decision on which level of investment to make will obviously depend on budgetary constraints but must also factor the value that the software provides. An assessment of the options must consider the minimum functional requirements, ease of use, and the support for appropriate data formats. More expensive software will typically offer more robust processing and analysis tools but these high-end functions are often not necessary or applicable to basic GIS workflow. In this light alone, it is entirely appropriate that the two officials whose conversation I overheard had selected an open-source alternative. Why pay a premium price for tools that you will never need.

Parcel data in Global Mapper
Working on parcel data in Blue Marble Geographics’ Global Mapper software.


Over recent years, there has been a significant increase in the availability of public domain data, usually administered by government departments or agencies. High-resolution imagery, elevation data, vector files, and even LiDAR data are often readily accessible on public data archives or through online data portals. While these sources provide a solid foundation for many GIS projects and workflows, they seldom offer a complete data solution in a local, project-specific context. To bridge this data void, GIS administrators must have the wherewithal to collect or create the requisite layers for a specific situation. Furthermore, maintaining data currency and ensuring accuracy and quality is a time-consuming and often a financially burdensome process.


Application Specialist Katrina Schweikert leads a Global Mapper training class at the Blue Marble Geographics office in Hallowell, Maine.

Usually the single most expensive component of a GIS is the person or people that are required for the development and maintenance of the system; the human resources. Larger agencies or departments may be able to afford a dedicated GIS technician to perform the day-to-day GIS tasks however an organization with more modest means will usually have to depend on existing staff or may be forced to outsource certain GIS operations, which ultimately costs more. Training can also incur a considerable financial outlay especially when the software requires an extended period of instruction before it can be effectively used.


In a perfect world, which conventional logic dictates, is an inherently unattainable fallacy, software never fails. In the real world, in which you and I reside, it does. The cost saving derived from open source software is a boon until the point at which something goes awry and without a structured support system, a project may come to an inglorious halt. At the other end of the GIS spectrum, annual maintenance fees that are designed to ensure the smooth operation of high-end software, usually add a considerable amount to the overall cost of the system; much like the cost of maintaining a car.

Ah yes, the car. In what would turn out to be the final eight months of its life, Nelson, as it was inexplicably christened, needed a new radiator, several hoses, and an exhaust overhaul. And in what may have been a prophetic attempt to convey its impending demise, the check engine light appeared just a few days before the Bureau of Motor Vehicles inspection service concluded that it would cost three times as much as the original price to maintain its roadworthy status.

Does this sound like your GIS?

When considering the implementation of a GIS, emphasis should be placed on the letter S in the acronym. The system is more than software and consequently, the cost of the system extends beyond the upfront price of the chosen application. Ultimately, a more important consideration should the value derived from the investment. Low-cost commercial GIS software such as Blue Marble’s Global Mapper maximize this value by balancing cost, functionality, and usability.

David McKittrick is a Senior Application Specialist at Blue Marble Geographics in Hallowell, Maine.  A graduate of the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, McKittrick has spent over 25 years in the field of GIS and mapping, focusing on the application and implementation spatial technology. McKittrick has designed and delivered hundreds of GIS training classes, seminars, and presentations and has authored dozens of articles and papers for a variety industry and trade publications.