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 home >> educational resources >> getting started >> publications >> maritime folklife >> part 2

Documenting Maritime Folklife: An Introductory Guide

Part 2: How to Document

How to document:

Documenting Artifacts

The investigation of many topics is required for a full understanding of any item of culture within its natural setting. Documentation of items of material culture should begin with a review of published and unpublished information pertaining to the type of artifact to be documented. Although the nature of information sought will vary according to the goals of the project and the expertise of researchers, central topics to be investigated include distribution, design, construction, and use. Moving from the general class of artifacts to the specific example to be documented in the field, researchers should ascertain:

  • the date of its creation
  • the name of its designer
  • the name of its maker
  • the names of present and past owners
  • its uses
  • the materials of which it is made
  • its component parts
  • modifications to its structure or use
  • its significance to the community

The next step in the documentation process is the recording of physical properties. This can be accomplished through the application of techniques such as photography, drawings, field observation, and measurement of principal dimensions. Because boats and buildings are two of the most prominent types of artifacts to be found in maritime communities, additional comments about the documentation of their physical properties are in order.

Boats are an important and conspicuous class of objects in maritime culture, and they often exhibit regional differences in form, construction, and use as a result of adaptation to specific environmental conditions and use requirements. For example, the light "glades skiff" is well suited to the calm, shallow waters of the everglades of south Florida. Other types, such as the Maine lobster boat, the New Jersey sneakbox, the Lake Superior fish tug, and the Louisiana pirogue, possess forms that have evolved as builders attempted to improve their suitability to local contexts. Because of their importance to residents of maritime communities, boats are prime candidates for documentation.

In many cases, the documentation of the forms of boats requires specialized skills and knowledge. It is especially important to learn how to take accurate measurements by hand. Unlike buildings and other artifacts that possess straight lines and flat surfaces, boats often have complicated shapes based on complex curves. Such shapes, which generally vary greatly over the length of a hull, make the accurate recording of hull forms a painstaking and time-consuming task and call for the use of certain tools and techniques. In addition, to insure that component parts of vessels are properly identified, it is necessary to become familiar with standard terminology as well as localized terms. An excellent reference work for standard terminology is René de Kerchove's International Maritime Dictionary.1

If the goal of a project to document local craft so that exact forms can be preserved, then the desired end product of fieldwork is probably a set of accurate lines plans, and a table of offsets for each boat. In addition to preserving boat forms graphically, such data can be used to build replicas, and to study local design and construction practices. If the project requires the production of high-quality lines plans, it may be necessary to hire a naval architect to record the hull form and execute drawings. Alternatively, researchers may elect to learn how to "take the lines" of a vessel and supply these data to a naval architect or competent draftsman for conversion to a lines plan. For projects that do not demand professional-quality lines plans, it may be possible for fieldworkers to record hull measurements and execute adequate lines plans for small craft (under twenty feet).

Essentially, "taking the lines" is a process of obtaining measurements from an existing hull, recording these measurements in a standard table of offsets, and then using these measurements to draft (or loft) in two dimensions, the set of drawings that defines the hull form. The amount of time required to learn this process will vary, but it is probably safe to say that a person can acquire the basic skills necessary for small craft documentation in a week or less.

The best way to learn is to observe an experienced person take the lines of a boat, then imitate the lines taker's actions. If such an opportunity is not available, one may learn the basics by studying published descriptions of the process, then practicing with an actual boat, preferably a boat under twenty feet in length. Fieldworkers must bear in mind that no single methodology can be used for the documentation of all vessels. Lines-taking techniques must be modified in accordance which such factors as vessel size, shape, and location. Techniques are discussed by John Gardner in his articles "Taking Lines Off Bigger Boats," "Taking Off Lines Allows Duplication of Existing Boats," and "Triangulation Method is Well Suited to Lifting Lines," by Walter J. Simmons in his book Lines, Lofting and Half Models, and by David A. Taylor in his article "Taking the Lines."2 The lofting procedure is clearly explained in Allan H. Vaitses' book Lofting.3 A concise description of how the lines of a particular small boat were taken off in the field is given in Appendix B.2 of this book. If the project's goal is merely to record the general characteristics of local boats, then fieldworkers can record key measurements and other significant details. A "Boat Documentation" form which can be used for the latter purpose is included as Appendix A.5.

For a thorough documentation of a vessel, it is necessary to gather a variety of contextual data. These data include information about the history of boat building and boat use in the area, as well as information about the designer, builder, owner, and the uses of, and modifications to each boat to be documented.

Properly executed measured drawings are the most accurate record of a building. Unfortunately, exact scale drawings can be expensive to produce since they often require the services of an architect or draftsman. However, for the purposes of many projects, serviceable drawings can be produced by fieldworkers who do not possess formal training in architecture.

Before measurement activities commence, it is important to decide which buildings should be measured, how much time and personnel can be devoted to the task, and the manner in which the work should be conducted. Since it is essential to understand the structure of a building in order to determine what types of drawings should be made, it is beneficial to make a preliminary survey. Because it is seldom possible to record every detail of a building, the fieldworker must decide what features of the structure to record, the types of drawings and their complexity. As Harley J. McKee points out in Recording Historic Buildings: The Historic American Building Survey, several types of drawings can be made, including location plan (which locates the property with reference to highways, towns, and natural features), plot plan (which indicates the building's relationship to structures, gardens, or other features of the immediate environment), floor plan (which records room layout, and locations of doors, windows, stairways, and structural supports of each level of the building), and exterior elevation (which represents the facade of a building projected on a vertical plane).4

With regard to the measurement of the actual structure, best results are obtained by recording measurements by hand. This can be efficiently accomplished by three-person teams; two to take measurements and one to record measurements in a field notebook. Two can accurately collect data if one calls out measurements and the other records them. Because it is difficult to measure large surfaces without assistance, single fieldworkers cannot work as efficiently. To insure that field measurements are properly interpreted when it is time to use them to produce a scale drawing, it is helpful to sketch the feature to be measured in the field notebook before measuring begins. Then, as measurements are taken, they can be written alongside corresponding aspects of the sketch. Measuring devices employed by fieldworkers include steel tapes, folding rules, and straight rules. A profile gauge can be used to record the shapes of moulding.

In addition to other data noted above, measurements of buildings should be supplemented by interior and exterior photographs, and by inventories of furnishings and sketches of their placement. If particular artifacts found within the structure or on its property are significant, they should be fully documented. A sample "Building Documentation" form which can be used to record measurements and other data is included as Appendix A.6.


1. René de Kerchove, International Maritime Dictionary: An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Useful Maritime Terms with Equivalents in French and German. 2nd rev. ed. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1983.

2. John Gardner, "Taking Lines Off Bigger Boats,"National Fisherman 67, no. 1 (May 1986), 58, "Taking Off Lines Allows Duplication of Existing Boats," National Fisherman 66, no. 12 (April 1986), 44-45, and "Triangulation Method is Well Suited to Lifting Lines," National Fisherman 67, no. 4 (August 1986), 65-67; Walter J. Simmons, Lines, Lofting and Half Models (Lincolnville, Me.: Ducktrap Woodworking, 1991); and David Taylor, "Taking the Lines," Woodenboat, 19 (Nov.-Dec. 1977), 42-45. A detailed set of standards for the documentation of vessels, similar in rigor to McKee's Recording Historic Buildings, can be found in Richard K. Anderson's Guidelines for Recording Historic Ships (Washington: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Historic American Engineering Record, 1988). Several techniques for taking the lines of small boats are presented in Paul Lipke, ed., Boats: A Field Manual for the Documentation of Small Craft (Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, forthcoming).

3. Allan H. Vaitses, Lofting (Camden, Maine: International Marine Publishing Co., 1980).

4. Harley J. McKee, Recording Historic Buildings: The Historic American Buildings Survey (Washington: U. S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1970), 24-5.


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   May 15, 2015
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