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JOEL Joel's Blog



My Leroy Lettering Machine
My Leroy Lettering Machine

When I was a newly minted college graduate, I worked in Black & Decker's industrial construction division, where we designed and produced high-end power tools. The factory doesn't exist anymore and the group that designed the tools has long either wandered off or retired. Everybody communicated using drawings. Every engineer had a drafting table, mine was left-handed, and we did pencil drawings on Mylar. I was crap at it. I wasn't even bad at it, I was at least two levels below bad. And trust me, this is not false modesty.

But because I was the least useful draftsman in the entire building, and because I had heard of something called computers in college, when the company decided to invest in CAD (Computer Aided Design) equipment, they decided I would be the guy to learn and teach other people. So I did. That worked out well - but the thing that we lost was the gorgeous drawings people did.

My first boss, a fellow by the name of Bob Moores, was not only was an extremely good engineer and designer, but his drawings were also works of art. I certainly didn't understand exactly what he was putting down on the page, but I could tell you it was gorgeous to look at, easily read and understood. Hand lettering was something I never came close to mastering. But Bob and a lot of other engineers and draftsman in the department were spectacular.

I never mastered freehand lettering. Later, when I wrote some books, I finally had to settle down and learn how to draft neatly and properly, but I used a Leroy letterer for all the lettering. The Leroy, of which I have the simplest model, worked by guiding your pen or pencil through a template with all the letters. There were giant sets with all sorts of fonts, but I never needed them. It was really meant to be used right-handed which was a problem for me as a leftie, but I managed to muddle through. I haven't actually used mine in forty years.

CAD drafting gradually took over from those pioneering days. I don't even think people are taught hand drafting anymore. What we have is a far more uniform a system of drawings, 3D models, simulations, and connections to CNC manufacturing which would be unimaginable in the 1980s. I would agree it's a big step forward from a manufacturing standpoint. Aesthetically, it's not so much fun. But here's the important point: the reason I was able to successfully teach people how to use a computer to draft was they already knew drafting. They understood the vocabulary you needed to transmit the elements of a design to somebody else. All I had to teach them was which button to push. And this is still true today.

Having a drawing, or a real model, is critical for successfully producing any bit of furniture or architectural work. In the world of cabinetry, the architectural drawings show what the customer will be getting, and how all looks like and fits into the space. Then there are the shop drawings which show joinery connections and how things actually fit together with real dimensions. The better you are at drafting the stuff, the fewer mistakes you will make. That really should read, the fewer expensive mistakes you will make. Because you'll make the same number of mistakes, but you'll work it out in the drawing before anybody notices.

The problem I'm seeing with electronic drafting is that full learning curve to produce a model of a box is pretty short. But the ability to design something that can be made efficiently hasn't actually changed. It's also important to be able to read a drawing accurately and understand what's missing or just erroneous. I recently did a project in which we outsourced some work, and the fabricator misinterpreted some dimensions. That was their problem. But our shop also made an error - we noted a feature once on the drawing that was actually needed in two places, so naturally the fabricator put it in just once. This was our problem. (I blame society.) Since I signed off on the drawings, it's my mistake. I should have caught it but perhaps I take the computer for granted? Learning how to review drawings, even your own, is almost as important as knowing how to design and do the drawings in the first place.

I'll leave you with two ideas: the first is that people aren't mind readers. If you draw up a box and expect someone to build it, but you leave out important details, and you haven't worked with the fabricators previously, you may be unpleasantly surprised. And that's just one thing that can go wrong. When you work on your own, there is a tendency to figure it out as you go. But as you get bigger and start spreading the work, even if you have someone working next right next to you, the better you are at communicating all the detail, the fewer mistakes will occur. The details have been figured out first or the larger contours have been explained properly. Even on your own, working things out in a drawing or CAD model saves tons of anguish later on.

The second thing I want to leave you with is a selection of beautifully drafted illustrations from the best book on drafting I know of: "Engineering Drawing" by Thomas French. My copy is from the 1940s. The book is a treat to look through and I still learn from it. I also threw in a page from the official Black & Decker book on Metric Drafting Practice. I still have my copy from 1980. The important thing that was drilled into me back then and still resonates is that a drawing is a communication. Anyone who consults the drawing should be able to completely understand what you are talking about, in an understandable fashion. That is as true now as it was then.

In other news I just want to remind people that on Friday, September 29th, we're hosting a free Osmo workshop with John Armfield of Osmo USA, 12- 2 at our showroom at 112 26th Street, Brooklyn. And on October 13th and 14th we'll be hosting Festool Fest.

Drafting 2
Drafting 3
Drafting 4
Drafting 5
Drafting 6
Drafting 7
Drafting 8
Drafting 9
The official Black & Decker book on Metric Drafting Practice. We were just entering the metric age and a global company like B&D was a pioneer.
The official Black & Decker book on Metric Drafting Practice. We were just entering the metric age and a global company like B&D was a pioneer.

B&D was also a pioneer in the introduction of GD&T tolerancing specification. We didn't use it much yet
B&D was also a pioneer in the introduction of GD&T tolerancing specification. We didn't use it much yet, but the idea that drawings that defined all you needed to know was as important then as now.
Join the conversation
09/27/2023 Rob Terry
I learned to do drafting by hand in college. After college, CAD was introduced, so I was in a good position to learn it and teach others. I've taught myself computer drafting and 3D modeling and made a career out of it. I am a self employed drafter/designer creating drawings, 3D models and renderings for commercial cabinet shops, builders, interior designers and stair builders. If I hadn't learned how to do manual drafting and understood the geometry of how to create drawings (specifically volutes and helical transitions in stairs) I would have had a difficult time, but because I knew how to create it manually, it was simple to learn how to do it on the computer. I've been doing this for over 30 years and am finding that there aren't many people who learned "old school" methods around anymore. I think it's important to learn the methods instead of just pushing a button to create a drawing. When I build projects in my shop I always start with hand sketches and drawings and only go to the computer to finalize the design and create my cut lists and material lists. The computer does speed the process and ensures accuracy, especially when using 3D models, but there is a disconnect. There is an artful element to hand drawings. The older I get the more I am wanting to slow down, use hand tools instead of power tools and connect with the process of creating something.
09/27/2023 Ken wortman
Very true and as man who spent many years on the ground building, I experienced that first hand. I am now retired and in my wood working i draw out all project to ensure i don't miss anything.
09/27/2023 Michael O’Brien
Thanks Joel. That was very interesting to read and to learn of a skill that is not in my abilities basket.
09/27/2023 Ross Brown
I finished my Ph.D in physics in 1975 at Univ. of Colorado and my dissertation, 400+ pages, was one of the last typed on a typewriter, word processors were just getting developed, and all the figures were annotated using the Leroy system I had borrowed from my place of employment, the Sacramento Peak Solar Observatory in southern New Mexico. Returning from my defense, I stopped overnight in Albuquerque to visit a colleague, where my car was broken into and my possessions were stolen from the interior, but the trunk with my dissertation materials, and that Leroy set went untouched to my extreme relief. I couldn't have afforded to replace it.
09/27/2023 Don Woods
Drafting was such an art years ago, both mechanical plans and topographical site maps. A good plan or map can really make you feel that you can see the subject in real life, not just on paper. I'm an older person and hope that we don't completely lose our ability and skills to do things by hand.
09/27/2023 Michael Kratky
Would like to see the Friday, September 29th Osmo workshop but living in the Adirondacks I'll never ever go near NY City will it be on YouTube?
09/27/2023 Alan
My Grandfather had a huge collection of these templates. I never understood his fascination but it allowed a physicist with bad handwriting to create his own technical documents.
09/27/2023 John Eugster
As a junior high school woodshop teacher, during the late 70's and most of the 80's I taught basic drafting to my students. Always stressed that everything they saw, someone probably drew it out first. My point was the satisfaction they would get from planning something in their minds, putting it on paper, and then creating it with their own hands -- many totally got that concept. To this day, I hand draft my work out before building it and still use a left handed Vemco arm! I've tried CAD but with actual pencil to paper I can work out construction details and visualize how things will look.
09/27/2023 Chris Kantarjiev
My father was a civil engineer and spent the beginning of his career as a draftsman. He made drawings for every home repair project, and I learned to read them as a small child - a skill that I value to this day, as it really helps with visualization and planning of project work.

I took technical drawing in high school (I'm old). I never got the hang of lettering, either - I usually cheated with a template on my homework. I definitely never figured out how to ink a drawing.

I'm happy to use modern CAD tools. But I'm also happy that I can knock out a design and working drawing at the bench.
09/27/2023 Bill Vogel
Wow, very similar story here!
I took a year of drafting in junior high. After college I went to work for Black & Decker in their McCullough division on the west coast. Each of us engineers had a drafting table equipped with a drafting machine. I'd only used a teesquare or parallel rule previously so this was a big step up for doing mechanical drawings.
I was the young guy, but my Dad had given me a desktop electronic calculator for graduation. I was the only guy in the building with one. IIRC it could only add, subtract, multiply, and divide and was about 10" x 5" x 3" high and plugged into the wall.
We needed to model the natural frequency of chain saw handles, so the division subscribed to an online service, accessed through a green-screen dial-up terminal. Since I was seen as "techie" they set me to work to use it. All input and output was numerical, no graphics.
I enjoyed drafting, but there was one guy on the floor that just couldn't do it. His drawings looked like they were done by a little kid, mostly because he had no understanding of line weight. It messed up the ability of his drawings to communicate!
CAD came along after I moved on, but I've always enjoyed it, too.
09/27/2023 E Miller
Similar experience in a Civil Engineering firm-I was passable, but we had several fellows on staff whose work was beautiful-including a semi-retired educator who worked with us because he loved to draw. His work, linear and regular as it had to be, always shone. He drew plats (legally-recordable divisions of property into building lots) that were so beautiful, I kept a page by my board as inspiration. IMHO, everyone who aspires to draft nowadays should be compelled to complete at least a semester of hand-drafting and lettering to learn a vocabulary of lines, note composition, etc. And although it was a bit of a hassle to use a Leroy set, I always enjoyed the fantastic way my drawings looked when I lettered with it.
09/27/2023 Bill Vogel
I meant to add that I've used a Leroy Letterer, but never owned one.
09/27/2023 Harlan Janes
I'm still using my Black and Decker Industrial Chop Saw. It is still sold without all the features as a DeWalt model today.
I always figured if I could make an orthogonal projection of an item I could make the item. All the thinking and planning was done with the drawing process. And I still write with my drafting style printing as my cursive was always unreadable.
The original chop saw was designed in our plant by our group under Bob. I didn't work on it but the guy at the next desk, did. In general the way it worked is that each engineer took a project from start to finish until is was handed over to manufacturing.
09/27/2023 Charlie Goedeke
I'm on the edge of those vanishing skills. I learned basic drafting in high school in the 60s. When I went to Drexel for an engineering degree, graphic skills were still a required course in 1968, but they had already decided that using ink was no longer needed. A pencil was good enough.

When I started working, I did put those skills to use, and even got to use ink! And you better believe that we made use of our Leroy kits.
09/27/2023 John Emmons
“ Having a drawing, or a real model, is critical for successfully producing any bit of furniture or architectural work. ”

I read this and immediately thought of the scene in Spinal Tap involving the Stonehenge stage set…

Good stuff.
09/27/2023 Jay Simmons
Identity with the comments and challenges of being a left hander. Everything was smeared.
I graduated as a ChemE in the early 1970’s and engineering drawing was no longer offered or required to graduate. In order to do my first job as a process engineer I often needed to make drawings to show piping modifications or new installations. Was a struggle for me. One of the facilities’ superintendents was a fellow alum but a decade earlier. When he saw my drawings he always asked “how the h**l did you ever graduate?”
09/27/2023 David Wiegand
Thanks for this Joel. It takes me on a trip down memory lane. Of all the comments E Miller sounds like he had the closest experience to mine. I was a surveyor who branched out into cartography and photogrammetry. Thank goodness I was able to fly airplanes because my drafting skills were subpar on a good day. Were it not for the Leroy tools my freehand lettering would have gotten me fired. However, I’m glad I learned drafting. Now that I’m retired every woodworking and gardening project begins with a drawing. I actually received a compliment from a landscape architect last week when I submitted a preliminary concept drawing for our property.
09/27/2023 Erik Saggerer
I used my Leroy set for several hours today! I have it rigged up to hold a paint-pen and I use it to label the controls for guitar pedals I build.

The pen holder is a commercial accessory I got with the Leroy in a box lot of old drafting equipment. I don’t believe it came with the set and I haven’t been able to find a picture of anything similar. It works well but I am nervous that if I ever broke it I wouldn’t be able to find a replacement.
I have the attachment for attaching a rapidograph pen to a Leroy. Is that what you mean?
09/28/2023 Jim C
Still have a copy of French and Vierck, Engineering Drawing have never seen a better book on drafting. At this point every time I open it may be the last, it is beat.
09/30/2023 Fritzer
I learned to draft while attending a well known technical high school across the street from Fort Greene Park. By the time I joined the work force I was well prepared to be hired as a draftsman while many engineering firms were just entering the new world of CADD. I became acquainted with the K&E (Keuffel & Esser) salesman who frequented the firms regularly selling drafting supplies. Leroy was the method of choice if one's drafting skills were not up to snuff as an entry level engineer. Upon entering the K&E store once in lower Manhattan, I saw a display saying that Leroy was used to prepare the surrender document in WWII signed on the USS Missouri where my dad served
10/03/2023 Jeremy Wright
I guess being in engineering for 25+ years I'm more old guy than young (even if young at heart) I came up through this bridge era as well. 4 years of drafting in High school in the 90's, learning the CAD for the new computers alongside the instructor. After tech school for drafting and design (and lots of hand lettering) I learned lots of geometric development etc and more early CAD. Then out doing ink & mylar and CAD and learning the pace of adoption in industry. I feel like this history gives me an unfair advantage in being able to SEE the geometry both in 2D construction and in 3D natively.

But honestly the biggest gap/loss in what is learned by new engineers (I work with my company with fresh interns/grads regularly from a world class engineering school) remains in GD&T (and drawing layout), where they get 1hr (!) of instruction in their 4 years, yet is the very language of mechanical engineering, imagine an English curriculum that allotted to punctuation, grammar and vocabulary one hour. (sigh) I get that GD&T is not sexy like CFD or FEA model results, but so many more issues are solved simply by being able to communicate what you really mean. Lots of money can now be made by high paid consultants, that 30yrs ago would have been caught/solved by mid-level detailer/checker that have been largely eliminated as drafting has been commoditized.
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