The drafting table, sometimes called the architect’s table or the drawing board, is a work surface that’s served many different types of people over the years.
Whether someone is an animator, painter, calligrapher, seamstress, architect, or engineer, there’s a significant chance they’ve used a drafting table at some point in their career.
This is a tradition these people have shared with their professional predecessors for centuries. Developments have been made over the years, of course, but the core characteristics remain.
Perhaps the most distinctive of these is the tilted & adjustable nature of the surface.
Sure, one can technically draw on a flat table, but artists working on those surfaces can end up skewing the perspectives in their work, with things getting vertically exaggerated. With the tilted design, the chance of these exaggerations diminishes greatly.
It also helps keep our spines in check. Since your work is closer to your face, you don’t have to bend down to see it and risk back pain further down the road.
In the 1700s, when they were first available in their modern form to the elite, they were made of brass and wood of the utmost quality. They were very heavy, kept in the home, and the angle & height were adjusted using a lead weight.
As they became more commonly available in the mid 1800s, many began to be made out of plastic and steel. Given the Industrial Revolution, these materials were becoming more and more standard, and the tables themselves became fixtures in offices and shops.
Today, steel has come out on top as the primary material for the drafting table, although you can still find models made from wood or plastic.
Given its nature as a large surface with adjustable height and angle options, it’s no surprise that it was once a core part of an artist’s, architect’s, or engineer’s career.
Anyone who needed a strong base to draw an expansive landscape, plan out the next great landmark, solve vast equations, or draft a new design bonded over the same tool.
Recent developments in technology, however, have presented a foe to this once-uncontested staple appliance.
Specifically, advances in the field of Computer Aided Design, commonly shortened to CAD, have attracted many of the same professionals that utilized drafting tables in the past. Architects have been especially receptive to these new technologies.
CAD, in short, refers to the use of software programs that allow one to create, alter, and specify designs. As these programs have developed over the past few decades, they’ve come to allow for increased precision & accuracy, along with expanding the limits of what one can design.
In fact, it was the introduction of Sketchpad, the CAD software made by Ivan Sutherland in 1963, that brought about the first graphical-user interface. This advancement allowed users to interact with computers through the visual aids we now know as icons, as opposed to text.
Nearly everyone was still using drawing boards then, but ground continued to be broken from there. As the technology became more widely available and allowed for 3D modeling, people slowly migrated away from the table & toward the screen.
Not everyone made the shift, though, especially Michael Graves. The late Post-Modern architect was such a proponent for the drafting table that he penned an article titled “Architecture and the Lost Art of Drawing.”
In the piece, he claims that the designs produced by CAD programs were overly parametric and grounded in convention, going as far as saying that they lead to “blob architecture.”
He also explains earlier in the article tha, for him at least, idea formation is assisted by the physical act of drawing.
“The drawing is a reminder of the idea that caused it in the first place. That visceral connection, that thought process, cannot be replicated by a computer,” he says.
All this being said, there are key advantages and setbacks to either method.
Nothing’s perfect. This especially goes for a design’s first draft. You’ll want to switch a measurement here and there, add a new element, or delete whole sections.
A CAD program allows you to accomplish these things with ease, especially in comparison to manual drafting.
A real-life drawing requires time, erasers, and a careful hand, since a poor adjustment attempt could set back a drawing significantly.
Speaking of erasers, those going back to the drawing board will need to bring a lot with them, including pencils, rulers, triangles, scales, and sometimes drawing machines. We’ll discuss those more later on.
When you’re working with a computer, though, all you need is the computer, or maybe a stylus if you’ve got the right program and device.
Given the digital nature of designs in these programs, you only have to hit a few buttons to back up your work, send it to a friend, or make a copy.
Of course, trying to show them an analog version of that work, or make a copy for them to keep, could take hours or days.
Thanks to easily-produced backups, physical damage to a digital device doesn’t have to spell disaster for your work.
If you’re working with paper, though anything from your morning coffee to your morning cigarette could toss your designs into the void.
Our hands, as useful as they may be, aren’t the fastest things in the world. The art they make can be beautiful, depending on whose hands they are, but it can take a while.
CAD programs, on the other hand, offer perfect shapes & lines with a few clicks, and related tasks can even be automated.
With human error mostly out of the picture, digital design programs are able to measure things down to the smallest degrees conceivable. But even when mistakes are made, you can view those designs in 3D and find errors that much quicker.
Speaking of that, 3D rendering is a recent development in this type of software, but it’s one that can give architects a special advantage in terms of visualization and perspectives, since you can rotate designs and view them from different perspectives.
When you set out on a design with pencil in hand, you have to think about the scale of the view you’ll be depicting before you make the first line.
CAD tools, however, only require you to know which units you’ll be working with before allowing you to draw a 1:1 scale model, if you so desire.
If you’re an analog architect working on a building, you’ll need to carry the overlays showing each component to give a clear picture.
In a digital program, however, you’d be able to keep these layers in the same easy-to-access project file. You could switch between them, lock a certain one in place, and do various other things with just a few clicks.
If you’re involved in a design where certain industry or company standards are enforced, a CAD user would be able to save these templates in the software of their choice & use them for future projects when needed.
A hand-drawer would hopefully be able to keep these sort of standards in mind, although a lapse in thinking or accuracy could lead to you violating the standards of a government or client.
As CAD technology has developed, the quality of computer-generated designs has increased exponentially; not only is it more pleasing on the eyes, you’re also more likely to notice mistakes if you can see your design clearly.
While many of these factors point in the favor of the digital route, there are a few things to keep in mind before investing in that solution.
Depending on the capabilities of the software you need, there can be a hefty cost attached. Basic programs can range from anywhere between $100 and $1000 dollars, not to mention the computers required to run them.
CATIA, a company that makes program designed for experts, sold a basic license for its 3DEXPERIENCE application with an estimated price tag of $11,200. That doesn’t even include the $2,000 annual maintenance fee.
If that’s a bit too steep, you could get a quarterly lease for around $1,700.
Additionally, many of these programs require yearly subscription fees that regularly fall between three and four figures. They also tend to require training as you switch between programs and updated versions, costing more time and money in turn.
For those looking to keep their wallets in tact, we have three words: Pencil and paper. While costs for art supplies can stack up to impressive heights, they don’t come anywhere close to those racked up when your operation involves a CAD program.
Even if you have the means to hop the financial barrier, you might not be in for a perfectly smooth ride. The failure of technology is normal, but if your computer breaks down or catches a virus while you’re working on a design, you might not have a design left to work on.
Someone working on confidential plans by hand would only have to make sure that the plans were with the right people in order to ensure safety.
In contrast, if that same person was working on a computer & didn’t have sufficient security, their system could potentially be infiltrated, resulting in those plans being found by hackers interested in the information.
Want to go work on some handwritten designs in the park? Go for it! It’s a beautiful day out! All you need is a portable drawing board, some measurement & angling tools, and a pencil.
If you’re trying to get some digital design work done, though, you might not have as good of a time moving everything around in the great outdoors. Good luck finding an outlet, too.
In his aforementioned piece, Graves advocates for the analog in two of what he sees as the three main types of architectural drawing.
During the early stages, in the “referential sketch” and “preparatory study,” he claims that the interaction between the drawing hand and working mind is a formative act that can bring joy.
Since these types of drawings don’t have to follow exact protocols, he says that emotional expression should be strongly encouraged.
As far as what he calls “parametric design,” the emotional expression is lost to digital precision. He concedes, though, that said precision is appropriate in the final “definitive drawing” stage.
Lastly, responding to a question posed by Arch Daily, senior freelance designer Paulo Armi discusses how manual sketching came into play during his career.
He says that while doing creative direction at an architecture-focused CGI company he founded, sketches done by hand were the foundation of every project.
He offered a simple reason for this: in the early stages, alternative paths needed to be developed for clients so they could decide on the project’s direction.
Hand drawing these sketches allowed for his team to create these quickly, resulting in saved time & money for him and his customers.
If you’ve decided to take the classic route, the first thing you’ll need for your table is paper to draft on. Depending on what you’re doing, Artists Network & The Architect’s Guide suggest a few options:
For those in architecture, tracing paper will likely be your best friend for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you can use a decent range of writing utensils, including felt pens & charcoal, without anything bleeding through.
The transparency is also a big advantage for those working on larger projects. Since you can stack a good amount of sheets on top of each other while being able to read each one, overlays are that much easier to hande.
Whether you’re drawing for business or pleasure, paper made from wood pulp is a cheap & effective option for those who want to flesh out early-stage ideas and practice
A paper made from cotton rag, although more expensive, is the recommended choice for those working on a project for display or sale.
Several variations exist, and depending on whether you’re working with wet or dry media, the weight, texture, absorbency, and color are important factors to consider.
A paper with a softer texture, for instance, is perfect if you’re working with a pencil. When you decide to switch to pastel or charcoal, though, you want something with a rougher surface that’ll catch the particles.
For your work that deserves the best of foundations, hand-made & mould-made 100% cotton rag papers, which have been produced the same way for centuries, are the premier option.
When you’re using a softer media like pastel, a cotton paper can work fine if it has the right texture, but coated papers are specifically engineered for that type of work.
Several companies, such as Sennelier, Ampersand, Amalfi and Hahnemühle, produce their own types of coated paper.
Those focused on precision, such as engineers, architects, and DIY builders, will need the help of a nifty device known as the drafting machine.
These are mounted to a drawing board and consist of a protractor head that can rotate at different angles & two attached scales arranged in a right angle on the table. You can see a classic one here, and the modern update here.
Charles H. Little invented the device in 1901, a couple of centuries after the dawn of the drawing board, and within a couple of decades they had spread to offices all around Europe.
Even as digital design has made it professionally obsolete, the device’s utility for those at the drawing board means it’s still in use today, albeit with some adjustments & new equipment added over the years.
DoItYourself, the appropriately named DIY blog, recommends several essential accessories to complete a drafting table setup.
For starters, while standing up to work is becoming increasingly popular, you’ll have to sit down at some point. As long as you have decent mobility, any office chair you have around will do.
Your equipment might need to sit down, too. For that, a taboret can be a lifesaver. They come in many different sizes and materials so you can stay organized with whatever setup you’ve assembled.
If you’re in a rolling chair, quick movement between either side of your project can make the design experience that much smoother. Your carpet or other flooring will thank you as well.
When you’re planning on staying up to complete a project, or just want to take it easy on your eyes, a light box can be a figurative & literal glimmer in the darkness. On the go with a smaller & portable setup? Need to illuminate the whole table? There’s a light box in the right size for you.
For a little more help from above, DoItYourself also recommends an adjustable & flexible table lamp.
Saving your completed work by folding it up in your bag will only get you so far. Whether you want to roll it up or lay it flat, these accessories are key in making sure your work stays organized and protected from the outside world.
As you finish up your work, you’ll want to maintain & clean up your trusty base. The different makeups of drafting tables mean you have a few options for your approach.
For wooden tables, you’re going to need liquid detergent, furniture wax, some clean cloths, and warm water. After you test the detergent on a small non-visible part of the table and don’t see any damage or discoloration, mix up the warm water & detergent in a bowl.
Dip a warm cloth in that solution, and rub down the table with moderate pressure. After you’ve rubbed down the whole table with the detergent solution, get another cloth, dip it in warm water, wring it to get rid of the excess, and rub down the table again.
Once you dry off the table with another cloth, finish it off with some furniture wax. To prevent buildup, be sure to wait anywhere between three months and a year before applying wax again.
When the surface has taken a beating as far as dirt & grime, a video we found recommends dipping a cloth in mineral spirits & rubbing in circular motion. As long as you don’t damage the finish, this is the most effective solution at your disposal outside of bringing in a professional.
If your setup has a glass surface, UltimatelyEco owner Kate Belcheva, whose operation cleans office spaces in London, has various environmentally-friendly tips.
For her, microfiber cloths are key in getting rid of messes & polishing. After sprinkling some water on the glass & folding your cloth, she highly recommends cleaning and polishing in one direction, rather than wiping back and forth.
A tea towel, or even newspaper, she says, can do the job as well. With either of these, just spray some vinegar and rub down the glass using circular motions.
If you’re a plastic table owner trying to clean dirt from their surfaces, she suggests you use a solution of still water mixed with carbonated water or vinegar.
No matter what surface you have, the most effective cleaning solution is prevention. The use of a table mat, which can come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and price points, is one of the most surefire ways to prevent scratches and dirt buildup.
Even as technology continues to develop, the drafting table, and the art of drawing, will remain dear in the hearts of many for years to come.
Coming with special advantages and difficulties, like any innovation, it’s served people of many walks of life, and reigned in the industries it did for a reason. There are many more nuances that could be discussed, but we hope we’ve covered the basics.
Now that you know (almost) everything about drafting tables, check out our buying guide to see some of the best ones available on the market today.