What Happened To All The Drawing Boards?

I’ve been in engineering a while and can remember when every mid- to large-size company had a “drafting department” with everyone using drawing boards. And it was often common for engineers to have a drawing board in their office.

But you hardly, if ever, see those anymore - obviously almost everyone creates drawings on computers.

But how did this change come about? Did companies have a single day where they wheeled out all the drawing boards and brought in computers? Did they fire all the draftsmen or re-train them?

I would assume it was some transitional process, but I can’t remember how it happened. What do others recall?

“Nostalgia - I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now.” - Lou Grant

AutoCad drafting came about with the intrtoduction of it and similar programs on desk top computers and gradualy transitioned into full blown dedicated workstations to accomplish what draftsmen did with pencil and/or ink on paper and/or vellum. In time the work stations replaced the old system except for hand drawn sketches to provide fodder for them.

I took advantage of the Navy selling all theirs off at DRMO auction, so I have a seriously nice one =)

I also have the nice magnifying light in white, though I am wanting a new one in LED instead of the funky round fluorescent bulb.

I also have one, currently in my basement. The ad agency I worked for sold all theirs off for something like $10 each.

With the current trend toward nostalgia, who knows, maybe in the future people will go back to the drawing board.

I still have mine, an animation board that I bought when I was at Sheridan College. My first job after college, I worked in a drafting deparetment doing drawings of welding controllers in ink on frosted mylar.

A couple of years ago, I went to try and find the old-school drafting supplies. Many of them are surprisingly-difficult to locate. India ink and masking tape is easy enough; set squares, T-squares, curves, and stencils are only a little more difficult. I had to special-order technical pens. Then there are things like lettering guides, which I do not have. There’s a green vinyl that we used to put on the drawing board; that is very difficult to get. And try to find a drafting machine!

I think the o.p.'s question bears more toward how the transition came about. The use of computer aided drafting/design (CAD) started primarily in the aerospace and automotive industries in the early 'Sixties, with companies developing internal drafting codes and tools in conjunction with hardware manufacturers. These originally used mainframe computers with ‘advanced’ dumb terminals, and the drafting was performed with a combination of typed commands, a panel of dials (think of a Pong controller multiplied by a dozen), sometimes using a light stylus or other primitive GUI input tool. Because of the cost of the station and expense in training, these were generally implemented on a by-project basis, usually for programs that were small in scope, while the rest of the company continued to draft on vellum with graphic pencil or ink.

As standalone workstations became more powerful in the 'Seventies, the use of CAD became more widespread both in the above industries and in other areas, like civil construction and architecture. However, engineers and draftsmen/designers still kept drafting tables both to modify existing drawings and because they were a useful work surface for handling large plotted CAD drawings for checking. Many times for smaller projects or modifications to existing designs it was just easier to spend a day ginning up a hand drawing rather than trying to make a fairly clunky CAD system generate a working print. However, making major changes to a CAD drawing was far easier than having to redraw an entire part and dimensions on vellum, analogous to the difference between writing a paper on a word processor and typing it on a typewriter.

In the 'Eighties, CAD became nearly ubiquitous as workstations became cheaper, viable wireframe 2D CAD programs became available for the less expensive personal computer, and the software itself became more user friendly. Although AutoCAD, mentioned by the previous poster, became very popular (in part because the company had the foresight to provide it to high schools and colleges at low or no cost, ensuring familiarity) it was by no means the only choice; I personally learned to use half a dozen CAD systems on both the PC and Unix workstations. Many companies would maintain two or three different and completely incompatible systems as preferred by individual managers or programs. It was at this point that drafting tables, which take up an enormous amount of space, started to disappear from individual workspaces and instead became common shared work items. Tables and the expensive hardware attached to them for formerly high tech drafting were sold for pocket change or given away just to get them out of the office.

By the 'Nineties, the drafting table was an anachronism. Nearly all new drafting was done on computer, and most systems were now capable of 3D wireframe, with many able to render surfaces or solid primitives. For mechanical drafting, parametric modeling, using complex solids and relational dimensioning (such that changing one dimension will update other dimensions that are subservient) started to come into vogue. Drafting tables were no longer just an anachronism; they were completely unnecessary except for handling older drawings. In addition to facilitating the production of detail drawings, it also became possible to export the design geometry directly to other analysis programs for finite element analysis or computational fluid simulation. While in theory this made the design process faster, what it really did is let the analyst make more detailed predictions.

The technology of computer aided design has only improved incrementally since then; the analysis tools are markedly better, but the drafting and design software is still at the same basic functionality with modest enhancements. The major focus in the last decade has been to improve design automation and “enterprise wide integration”, with questionable effect. The next up and coming thing in CAD is the ability to handle the models "directly by virtual simulation, as you see Tony Stark designing the Iron Man suit. Such technology is still a good eight to ten years from being ready for production use.

I haven’t seen a working drawing board in years; whatever may have remained past the 'Eighties was likely junked when companies made cubical workspaces smaller and smaller to cram more [del]livestock[/del] workers into a workspace. I couldn’t even fit a full sized drafting board into my office today, and on the rare occasions that we need to go over a full-sized D or E drawing we have to take over a conference room and use the table.


The newspaper I used to work for sold all the artists’ tables, and staffers got first crack at the goods; we scooped up a solid maple drafting table for $10. Then they opened the sale to the public, but nothing good was left, just some battered metal file cabinets.

I was in architecture school at Waterloo University in 1981-2. I left at the end of 1982 to study electronics. We were doing all our drawings on paper then, either with pencil or ink. I heard later that CAD started to appear at the school in around 1984.

In electronics at Sheridan College, I was in the technology course, not engineering, so we didn’t have as much theoretical material. This was 1983-1985, the last two years of a three-year program. We had a little exposure to CAD in 1985 for doing circuit boards, but we did most of that by hand as well. I think CAD really got going at the school a few years later; they had a “CAD-CAM Institute”, but I’m not sure whether that’s become more integrated into the main program. Certainly in 1985 we weren’t exposed to the likes of SPICE for circuit simulation.

These days? I presume every student has a laptop…

I haunt a lot of junk shops and thrift shops. Sometimes you see one pushed back in a corner, all dusty and uninteresting. I suspect eventually people lose parts, accessories, and they eventually get junked or whatever.

(Or made into some kid’s fort).

Mine is the really nice adjustable kind, and it is fantastic for using as a sewing table, I put a huge sheet of cardboard down to protect the top and for sewing large projects it is great. Plenty of space to spread out. Well, we also use it for other projects as well, my roomie painted a huge leather project, a pair of saddle bags for a friend and I use it to spread out and do large project beadwork.

How about a computerized drawing board? My company makes window glass, and sometimes customers need panes that are irregular ovals and arcs (designed that way, or when houses have settled unevenly and warped the frame, etc.).They’ll Fedex a template on brown paper, which I plot out like a table-top size game of Battleship, then go onto AutoCad and replicate, print out and adjust. Sometimes it makes for a long day.

I went to visit another plant in our corporation, and discovered they had a large drawing board with a computer interface, and a stylus with an umbilical attached to AutoCad. They just flatten out the brown paper on the board and trace it with the stylus.

I was tempted to start a diversionary fire and sneak out the back with the whole assembly.

I probably would have helped hold the door open. :slight_smile:

For a long time I’ve wanted one of these. Just draw straight into Photoshop, Illustrator, AutoCAD…

The next logical step is the sculptural interface.

that’s a standard device, called a digitizer table. About $2000, and your Autocad software is already built to be used with digitizers.

My boss would get mad at me if I played Battleships at work :slight_smile:

$2,000 would be much less over the course of a year than my hourly wage for plotting by hand…

…If I were hourly, not salary :frowning:

One terminal that was used a lot on timeshare environments for certain types of CAD-like tasks was the Tektronix storage tube:


Those allowed quite detailed drawings to be produced in a timeshare environment. You could basically draw / erase line by line, nothing sophisticated. But this was all that was needed for a fair number of jobs. Circuit designers used them a lot.

The last two places that I worked at only had them in conference rooms. I suspect that they aren’t cheap and so it is hard to get them for an individual office.

When I was in High School, in the early 80s, we had a class trip to a few industries that used computers to see how they were being used, and one of them was an engineering firm that made the machines that made whitegoods like fridges and washing machines. They used at least one CAD workstation, with a funky special keyboard/trackball input device thingy, but there were also plenty of drawing boards in most of the offices.

I know that when a friend of mine was an apprentice draughtsman in a civil Works office in the late 80s, designing roads and highways, he was still using pens and paper, but there were CAD stations available too.

The Wacom tablets with the built-in LCD panel are as much as $2,000, but they have ones without the display for much less. That’s the sort we had when I worked at an engineering firm in the 1990s.

I have a small one without a display. I’ve used it instead of a mouse for a long time. You can get them from about $100 on up.

The thing about the ones with the display is, you could draw right into Photoshop like it was a piece of paper. Or so I hope. (I wonder how strong the glass panels are?)