Blueprinting, reprographics, large format, and other names
I interviewed Ewan Tallentire, owner of Denver-area reprographics shop Albion Repro & Graphics, about the changes he’s seen over a couple decades in the blueprinting industry, and the history before that. Yes, I know, reprographics doesn’t sound like an exciting topic. But it’s related to both architecture and printing, so between great buildings and Johannes Gutenberg, there's a lot of related history.
Reprographics goes by many names, such as blueprinting, large format printing, wide format copying, digital publishing, and document printing. The name changes because the product changes, as new technology comes into use. It’s always been about those drawings you build from: construction plans, blueprints, architect drawings, house plans, home plans, engineering drawings, floor plans, landscaping plans, etc. But as the drawings went from pencil to computer, how they got copied also changed. What hasn’t changed: the job hazard of paper cuts!
Real blueprints, or not?
Reprographics industry trends - less space, price, and smell
Reprographics became a business independent from architecture because architects and contractors didn’t want big, noisy, smelly machines in their offices, not to mention the training, experience, and money the machines required. Recently, printers, plotters, and other reprographic equipment have become small, cheap, and non-toxic enough to fit many offices. Today’s prints are usually black-and-white printing on bond paper, most often the 24x36 size. There’s no need for the variety of media and printers that existed in the past, and the shelf life of supplies is much longer. As a result, many architecture firms and contractors do their own printing, and many reprographics shops have gone out of business or changed focus. Like blacksmithing after cars replaced horses, reprographics is changing as an industry, but it still has its uses.
The search for the ideal: reprographic media and printers
To understand where things are going in reprography, you have to look at how it got where it is today. From the beginning, it’s been a search for the fastest, easiest, and cheapest solution to three problems:
- something to draw on
- something to make copies on
- something to keep for a record
The following timeline shows some of the types of printers and media used for copying, and what order they came in. I do wonder what the first architects of the US Capitol would have thought of AutoCAD and floor plans that could be emailed rather than engraved.
A timeline of reprographics
What originals were on
What cheap prints were on
Hand-traced to linen
Diazo process blueprints (mid-century?)
What copies for record were on
What kind of plotter
Color inkjet plotter
What kind of printer
Sunlight and ammonia in a can?
Analog bond copier
Digital bond copier
Plans of famous buildings
- Thornton's East Elevation of the Capitol, ca. 1796
Drawing of the US Capitol, probably watercolor on paper, 1796. In those days, reprographics meant the draftsman would draw another set of drawings by hand.
- United States Capitol - Thornton-Latrobe-Bulfinch - Great Buildings Online
This site shows a collection of buildings worldwide. Note that if a building is famous enough, floor plans, rather than being boring, can even become a tourist gift shop item!
Architectural originals: the need for stable and reproducible records
Once you’ve designed a building, you want to keep the records for very practical reasons of knowing where you can make changes or how repairs will affect it, but also for historical reasons to show future generations what you did. So it would be nice if the original plans could last as long as the building itself. You don’t want to expose the originals to the wear and tear of the construction site, so you want copies made for actual use.
You also may want what I’ll call semi-originals; copies of all or part of the original printed on something stable enough to treat like an original. That way an architect in Denver can keep his originals while sending the semi-originals to a building site in Kansas City, without fear of losing everything in the mail.
Before the digital age of large-format printing (which didn’t really arrive until this millennium), there were several processes for copying. All these processes were variations of shining light through the original onto a print which was treated with chemicals so shadows turned a different color from light areas. So for fastest and best results, originals needed to be transparent, or at least as translucent as possible.
Architectural originals: linen
Two hundred years ago, linen was often used both for the original drawings and for hand-tracing the plans from the original onto a copy for record. This linen was the same stuff that's used in high-quality old books: it looks like paper but it’s actually a thin woven fabric without the acidic wood pulp of regular paper. It had a paraffin-based coating to make it easier to draw on. Ewan tells of a linen original brought into his shop which was dated about 1872 and was probably drawn on with a quill pen.
Architectural originals: vellum and paper sepia
Linen tended to shrink slightly, so the standard for originals became vellum, which, like linen, is fairly translucent. This is not true vellum; real vellum is made from animal hide stretched and scraped (rather than tanned, which makes leather). What is called vellum now is made of 100% rags (as opposed to the wood pulp that regular paper is mostly made of).
Vellum was the standard drawing base for 50 years or more, starting in the early 1900s. In the early years of vellum, part of the drawing might be copied to paper sepia (in a diazo process which exposed the sepia to light then developed it with ammonia). Paper sepia was vellum-based with a sepia-colored emulsion. The sepia was then a semi-original that could be copied from and/or kept for record. Another use of paper sepias was to save time and effort by copying the base floor plan of a multi-story building onto paper sepia, then drawing in the details of each floor separately.
Paper sepia was still being used in the 1990s; a floor plan might be drawn on vellum, then the electrical plan filled in on the paper sepia. Since architects can now draw on a computer and print directly from the file, vellum has gone out of general use for drafting (though some colleges teach hand drafting on vellum so students aren’t completely dependent on computers). Artists still use vellum, for tracing over a pencil sketch and transferring it to canvas.
Watch how you stretch an animal hide to dry for vellum
Tissue paper sketch of landscaping
Architectural originals: tissue paper
Ewan’s shop scanned some prints, dated from 1932 to 1936, from a mansion in Denver. These were the landscaping prints, and they were on tissue paper (also known as sketch, or tracing, paper). While buildings would have been drawn on vellum, landscaping was usually just one plan, a quick sketch drawn while talking to the customer, so it was reasonable to use something as fragile but cheap as tissue paper. See this HubPage for a picture of what landscape designs look like today (hint: it's sure not a quick sketch!)
Architectural copies for record: Mylar
Mylar was, and is still, used as semi-originals, as copies for record. Mylar was developed in the 1950s, and is used in many applications (such as balloons). Its value in record-keeping is that it doesn’t rip easily, and doesn’t fade or change color as other kinds of copies do. Bluelines and paper sepias tend to go on changing when exposed to light or heat, so lines fade or images get transferred to the next paper in the stack. Mylar was first used in reprographics as Photomylar; the original was literally photographed onto the Mylar film (I'll eventually explain what kind of camera makes poster-sized pictures!) But it was a messy, expensive, wasteful, and time-consuming process. And though the result was fairly stable, it wasn’t durable: the emulsion was so soft you could scratch the image off with your thumbnail.
Eventually Mylar was developed to run through printers in a xerographic process like paper. That way, the emulsion is actually infused in the Mylar instead of sitting on top of the film. Modern Mylars have mostly replaced Photomylar, but there are rumors of municipalities around the country that still require Photomylars for records, assuming (and I can't say I blame them) that an older process must be more trustworthy than something digital.
Architectural record-keeping issues
One question record-keepers have to face is the value of the records compared to the expense. Ewan says Mylar prints cost about 6 times more than bond paper prints, and he questions whether their advantages over bond paper are really worth that cost. The main point of a Mylar was to be a stable translucent base to copy bluelines from, and since bluelines have been superseded, translucency in an original isn’t important anymore. Ewan also points out that reprographers dislike Mylar since the edges are tough enough to scratch the glass on printers.
On the one hand, he would like to see all Photomylars scanned to file and stored digitally on disks, but on the other hand, there is a reason record-keepers trust older formats more. Who knows what digital storage format will be in 10 years? It may be worth more to print expensively now than to convert files to a new format down the road. Physical copies are comfortingly compatible with the real world. Ewan likes to say he’s never seen a pencil be incompatible with another pencil.
The copies and copiers
There is much more to say, about the copies (blueprints, bluelines, and bond) themselves, and the printers, plotters, and giant cameras that did the copying.
Read Part Two to find out which is a blueline and which is a blueprint.
Read Part Three to find out how big a room-sized camera is.
Useful Wikipedia sites related to reprographics
- Architectural reprography - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Overview of reprographics
- Blueprint - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Detailed description of cyanotype blueprints and the chemicals used to create them
- Whiteprint - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Details on the production of bluelines a.k.a. whiteprints
- Floor plan - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Description of how floor plans are made
Other articles in the series
- Architecture Plan Copying: A History of Reprographics, or, Why Blueprints Aren't Blue Now - Part Two
Details on how and why the types of paper used for making copies have changed.
- Architecture Plan Copying: A History of Reprographics, or, Why Blueprints Aren't Blue Now - Part Thr
Details on the process and performance of the types of printers used for large-format copying.
- In-House Blueprint: Comparing Xerox, KIP, and Oce Printers
Comparison of Xerox, KIP, and Oce printers based on 18 years of experience in wide-format printing
John Dove on October 17, 2017:
A very informative Hub. I learned a lot -- even though I have used the very products and techniques described. I had never thought about the historical timeline aspect of changes in reprographic technology in such an analytical way.
When talking timelines, though, there is one medium that you never mentioned -- parchment. Is parchment simply the archaic term for what you call vellum? I am particularly reminded about parchment having just finished reading "Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic," by David Howard (2010) -- The true and amazing story of an original copy of the Bill Rights. A limited number of these copies were painstakingly hand-written on parchment for each of the states and the federal government.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on June 05, 2012:
Thank you, mirandagoodenough; it's really one of those things in life there's probably no reason to know about unless you really love paper and printing, or just like knowing things other people don't!
I guess both of those things are true of me.
mirandagoodenough from Sydney on June 05, 2012:
I learned more about architecture plan in this hub more than the many so-called bestsellers. I applaud this blog for educating people like me. I don't even know a word like "reprographics" exist. Much appreciated!
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on May 31, 2012:
Mary, maybe you will find what you want in Part Two or Part Three of the series. I don't seem to be able to put the links in this comment, but the links are not far above the comment section here.
Mary on May 31, 2012:
Thank you for the answer, but you have not give me what i want. Am asking for types of Reprography process.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on May 19, 2012:
toyin, my understanding is there are three types of reprography: blueprint, blueline, and digital (including inkjet, pen plotters, large-format laser printers, or anything else that works from a digital file.)
Printing banners and signs is considered "large-format printing", but the term "reprography" seems to be for architectural printing.
toyin on May 15, 2012:
i dont really get what i want, i mean , i want to know the types of reprography and you are giving me another thing.
Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on May 12, 2012:
If I had one I would "make a copy" and send it to you. MY grandfather dies about twenty years ago but several boxes of his papers were in my father's basement. I did not know this until two years ago when my father died. My brothers and I went through those boxes carefully and there were no blueprints...although I imagine security was very tight, so I doubt he got to causally bring home such things.
But if he had managed to, what a find that would be. :)
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on May 12, 2012:
phdast7, thank you for the comment and the share. I would LOVE to see a real aircraft blueprint.
Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on May 12, 2012:
This was absolutely fascinating and so full of interesting and little-understood information. MY grandfather was a sculptor by training, but he supported his family by working for Lockheed-Martin in the "blueprint" division where they were designing all kinds of aircraft.
What a great read! SHARING
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on April 18, 2011:
Thank you, Simone. I have another article half written about why nobody knows what "reprographics" means, including most reprographers! I think it has a specific meaning, but it's become one of those management words like "empower" and "actualize" which people use to mean "copying" because they've heard it from other people, and it sounds more educated than the plain English.
Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on April 18, 2011:
Wow, how fascinating! I was not even familiar with the word reprographics before reading your Hub. I've learned a ton! Voted up and awesome.
aethelthryth (author) from American Southwest on April 18, 2011:
Thank you, Londonlady. I certainly learned a lot from writing it.
Deya Writes on April 17, 2011:
"Why aren't blueprints blue anymore?" You know...this was a great topic to make a hub about! Very informative, voted UP! :)