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1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences

1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences

Richard E. Carter
2707 Noyes
Evanston, Illinois
Tel: (708) 328-5930 

Charles Ruedebusch
Tel: (708) 524-4618

Carolyn Kenney
WonderCat Graphics
2408 North 73rd Street
Wauwatosa, Wisconsin 53213
Tel: (414) 476-0705



This basic introduction to map making is intended to give stewards the tools and confidence they need to make maps of the sites they are managing. Information is presented on sources for the materials and tools required for production and reproduction of maps.


The ABC's of Map Making was conceived as an experimental workshop to meet a perceived need of site managers, volunteers, and stewards of restoration sites for a few basic map making skills, and to encourage them to develop their own maps. We recognize that most people who have done little mapping or artwork are intimidated by the process, and may suffer from "cartaphobia". This is the same fear that we all feel in committing ink lines to a blank page, whether we are writing or drawing. We hope to get you past that fear and into creating your own maps, once you see how simple it is.

The following is a comprehensive overview of map making, including basic procedures, resources, tools, tricks of the trade, and applications of mapping techniques for field work. As a city planner and geographer, Mr. Carter has worked extensively with maps. Mr. Ruedebusch, as an intern for The Nature Conservancy, has had hands-on experience in making maps of plant inventories and plant grouping classifications. Ms. Kenney is a graphic artist with many techniques and materials for use in improving the quality of map design and reproduction.

THE PURPOSE OF A MAP    back to top

Why, personally, should you go to the trouble of making a map of your site? There is a whole list of utilitarian reasons you might think of, but one overriding reason is that, having gone through the process, you will understand your site as never before. You will have a more intimate knowledge, a new perspective, and fresh insights concerning your site. It is worth taking a little time to specifically define the purpose of a map before jumping into your project. Consider the following questions:

  • What are my reasons for making a map?
  • What will be the final form?
  • What is the map to communicate? and to whom?
  • Will the map need to be reproduced?
  • Does it need to be reduced and printed in quantity for a report, or will it be a single, large, hand-colored wall map?
  • If reproduced, will it be in black and white, or color?

All of these questions have a bearing on how you will proceed to make the map.


Since you are not a surveyor, how do you go about making your own maps? What are the sources of information for doing this? What you are looking for is a reasonably accurate "base map", one which includes such elements as boundary and property lines, drainage, roads, paths, other man-made features, and perhaps even tpopgraphy. The base map serves as a form on which to plot specific information for restoration work.

There are several good sources for base maps, including: (1) the local sponsoring agency, such as a soil conservation district or forest preserve district; and (2) county highway departments, planning departments, and other local governmental agencies who create maps as part of their normal operations. In the Chicago region, both the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC) and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County are excellent resources. If your local agencies do not produce good maps, air photos are a good substitute, and readily obtainable. In this area, NIPC has full metropolitan coverage; elsewhere the Soil Conservation Service can usually provide photos. If all that fails, you can always work with a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) quadrangle of the local area. Indexes to such maps are available from your state geological department or the U.S. Superintendent of Documents in Washington D.C.

A WORD ABOUT SCALE  back to top

It is easy to get a little confused about scale if you don't work with the concept. Scale is simply a ratio of units of measurement between the map and reality. It is expressed in different ways, such as 1:24,000 on a USGS quadrangle covering several townships, or 1" = 40' on a landscaper's plan for a single property. A large-scale map is one where the site represented is closer to actual than one called a small-scale map. Large-scale maps cover smaller geographic areas in more detail for a given page than small-scale maps, which show large geographic areas in less detail. The globe is the ultimate small-scale map. So, even though the numbers on a USGS map are more extensive than on a site map, the site map is called a large-scale map because the more limited areas it shows are closer in size to reality.

Although there is no ideal scale with which to work, generally the larger the scale, the better for detail. There may be handling and paper size problems on a really large site if the scale becomes too large. The ultimate choice of scale is a compromise between our real need for greater detail and the ultimate sheet size on which the map is to be made. Some adjustments can be made to increase or decrease scale and size through photographic enlargement or reduction. Great reductions are possible with large maps, but if your map will be reproduced to fit a standard page, you may want to do your final drawing on a sheet size closer to the final one to improve the map's readability.

One final comment: If you do intend to reduce or enlarge the map, be sure to include a bar scale rather than a ratio. The bar will stretch or shrink with the map, giving you an accurate measuring device, no matter what the change; but the ratio (e.g., 1" = 40') will be inaccurate with even a slight shift in size.


Perhaps the easiest way to make your own base map is like learning to draw: by tracing something you like. There are two straight-forward ways to construct a base map: 1) Make a photographic enlargement of your selected area from a USGS map (to enlarge the scale), and trace the features you want from that. Be sure to include a bar scale, and ink in all the blue drainage lines first, because the camera will not "see" blue items. 2) Trace directly from a black and white aerial photo. Remember to put registration marks (little crosses) on both the aerial and the tracing paper, so they can be re-positioned if needed.

Use a good quality drafting paper on which mistakes are more easily corrected. The simplest way to trace is to tape both pages to a picture window, then use a fine line pencil to capture all the features important to the map. At this stage, you will probably want to pick out any vegetation patterns seen on the aerial by outlining them for identification. Once you have picked out all the features you want, transfer the drawing to a table, where it will be easier to do the inking. Use inexpensive permanent marking pens in perhaps three varied widths for emphasis. (Technical pens are awkward to use for most novices.) If you are nervous about putting ink to paper, make a few throw-away practice runs. Get more comfortable before working on the final copy.

Now that the basic framework of the map has been completed, think about naming special features and lettering the title block, agency name, etc. -- anything you would want repeated on all subsequent copies. "Rub-down" lettering of various styles and sizes, available from artist supply stores, can give an elegant and professional touch. A mechanical lettering set can be used; and even freehand lettering is acceptable, if nicely done. Some computers and word processors have a wide variety of type fonts and sizes with which labels can be simply printed, then pasted onto a map if it is going to be reproduced photographically. Labels also can be created on a typewriter and changed in size with an enlarging/reducing photocopier.

Before proceeding with the lettering, however, a decision has to be made about reproducing the map. If your original is large, likely to remain in that format, and multiple copies are required, then the best choice is to have "black line" prints made from your tracing at a drafting shop. This process is the same one used to make blueprints, and is fairly inexpensive. The disadvantage is that any errors have to be erased and corrected first, since correction fluids will show up as blobs, and lettering pasted up on opaque paper will not show through. If the map is to be reduced for a document and reproduced in substantial quantity, it is better to do partial reduction with a photostat camera, and then ddo the lettering at that stage, when paste-ups and "white-out" can be used.

Generally speaking, it is better to use the black line process for large maps and a photostat camera for the smaller ones. No matter how the size of the base map is reduced, line weights, letter sizes, and textures -- and minor flaws in drawing -- will be proportionately smaller as well. So if your working base map is 150% of final size, those elements should be one and a half times as heavy or large as you want them to appear in the finished piece. If you are uncertain about your choices, you can preview the result of your work using the reducing feature on a photocopier.


Once you have a base map with all the principal location features, you can add special information to a print of that map, whatever that is: vegetation types, planting zones, burn areas, specific tree locations, density, interrelationships or associations, etc. In most cases where multiple copies will be made, this is best done using symbols, grids, or patterns in "line artwork", so that your map can be read and reproduced economically in black and white printing or on a photocopy machine. "Spot color" for emphasis can always be added by the printer, or by using the color change features on a four-color copier. Individual maps can be embellished with colored pencil, marker, or color overlay sheets. One-of-a-kind display maps are, of course, an exception where adding complex color may be appropriate.

Specific zones, such as areas of vegetation, can be set off with hand-drawn textures (repeated lines, squiggles, or other doodles), parallel line or cross-hatching, or sheets of rub-down or cut-out overlay textures such as those made by Letraset, Format, and Chartpak -- the same companies that make rub-down lettering. Wide range of line widths and textures is also available on flat sheets and as tapes.

Use design curs to lead the eye over the page and through the information. In selecting a hierarchy of lettering sizes, line weights, and patterns, you can create visual emphasis, interest, and order. Vary the line widths, and make the design textures you choose distinctively different. Major headings and identifications will need a larger type point size, while lesser categories should be smaller. You can also differentiate with the use of bold weights and/or italics within a type style. Once again, think about making your map interesting, attractive, and easy to read when it is reduced for printing or placed on display.

With all these opinions, the style and information is up to you. However, if you really want the map to communicate, follow the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle. Make the map bold and as simple as possible, grouping data and simplifying contours. If you need to show more complex information, consider creating an overview map to orient the reader, and sectional maps to give additional detail. No graphic trick can counteract the confusion of having too much data on the page. 

Don't let map making graphics intimidate you. The work you will be doing does not require the skill of a surveyor, draftsman, or artist. The design process is merely one of making small, compatible choices. And the mechanics are mostly a matter of copying, tracing, and cut-and-paste. If your maps will be professionally printed, a wealth of advice is available from the design and production staff at most print shops. The sales persons at your local art or drafting supply store are another valuable resource. Most of them are artists or design students as well, and will help you pick some basic supplies and show you how to use them.

Take time to warm up, practice drawing lines, familiarize yourself with the curves and shapes before you work on your original. In tracing the features of your site, you will also get an enhanced sense of its landforms and contours. Enjoy experimenting with your new materials and tools, and don't expect to feel comfortable with them right away. Relax -- you can make changes and corrections at most stages of your project.

Sources for the basic materials and equipment you will need are listed in the Yellow Pages listings under "Artists' Materials and Supplies" or "Drafting Equipment and Supplies." Larger art supply stores have their own catalogues, as well as those for specialized products, such as press-on type and patterned overlay sheets. You can also order from mail order concerns, often at lower prices, if you don't need to begin your maps right away.

Some of the basic items you may need include:

  • a drawing board or table, or a smooth surface with a straight, square edge (to slide a T-square)
  • a T-square suitable for inking lines, i.e., with smooth, beveled edge, or with tape or cork underneath to prevent ink from being pulled under the blade; a ruler/scale
  • a plastic/Plexi triangle, also with smooth, beveled edge (Orange or smoke colors are easier to find on a cluttered desk. Triangles come in 30/60-degree or 45/45-degree shapes in a range of sizes
  • a simple set of plastic/Plexi French curves with beveled edges for inking rounded contours. Another option is a rubber Flexi-curve, which can be bent to match curved lines and used to guide your inked lines. A small combination template with a variety of small geometric shapes and arrows is also useful
  • Fine-line permanent markers in several line weights, such as those made by Pigma, Sharpee, and Stylist. (Technical drawing pens are more difficult to control for most beginners, but something to consider for future work.)
  • Lead pencils, a soft or kneadable eraser and liquid white-out for making changes
  • Tracing vellum or parchment paper. (Smoother is better, but costs more.)
  • Clear or white removable tape for positioning elements and overlays, such as Scotch Magic Tape
  • Adhesives for use with paper, such as a glue stick, Spray Mount, or rubber cement (plus thinner and a "pickup" for the excess)
  • Typed, computer printed, or typeset labels; press-on or rub-down lettering sheets, and patterned film overlay sheets, such as those made by Letrset, Format, or Chartpak. A wood, plastic or Teflon burnisher is helpful, though you can also use a thumbnail for smaller areas.

Just which items you buy will depend on your budget and the amount of map making you plan to do over time. Don't hesitate to ask for advice from a local graphic designer or sales person at the art supply store. The only other thing you need is the courage to plunge in.


Now that you have a base map, what can you do with it? Your base map can be used to help you: 1) find out more about the area you are interested in, and 2) plan activities at the site. 

Before anything else, you will want to become familiar with the natural area of interest. This means walking the site and taking note of its topography, vegetation, and wildlife. You can, of course, get a general sense of what is out there by getting out of the car and just hiking around. However, having a map of the site along helps put its natural features in perspective, relating them to one another.

Take along a clipboard and several copies of the base map to write on. Make lots and lots of notes. Bring a compass, so you can orient the direction you're walking to the map.

Now, start out in the field at or near some reference point indicated on the map. Write down where you start in relation to ... a road intersection, a parking lot, a building, a bend in the river, the top of a hill ... anything which shows up on your map. You can start to walk in any direction you find interesting, keeping track of that direction with your compass. Your notes may say, "I walked north from the parking lot into the woods, down a gently hill, and eventually across a creek which was running east to west. I followed this creek downstream for a while, passed an old dam site, and soon saw a smaller creek enter from the northeast. Here I traveled south a ways into a small clearing. Walked through a nice patch of Thismia, and noticed a pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers flying over." That hill, creek, dam site, and clearing may already be indicated on the map you're using, so, even without precisely noting the distances you cover, you'll be able to record pretty accurately where you saw the Thismia and the ivory-bills.

More often, you may want to get a sense of the general plant communities occurring on a site. Starting again at some reference point shown on the map, you can begin walking in a certain direction, taking note of where (in relation to hills, water, roads, etc.) some assemblages of dominant plants start to give way to others. You can divide up a site by walking back and forth along different lines, always recording where things seem to change. When you have covered an area of interest in this way, a surprisingly sharp picture of the extent of different habitats can emerge. Zones of highest biological interest or great management challenges can be identified and placed quite clearly on your map.


If you've taken a basic map of the area and added some of the above information to it, you've got a great tool for management of the site. The map can help in the preparation of burn schedules, brushes cutting plans, seed introduction projects, and a host of other planned tasks. You can get a perspective on the acreage involved in planned activities, and gauge the potential speed of progress toward your ultimate goal realistically.

Burn scheduling, for example, is aided tremendously by the use of maps. As the management of the natural area continues, you will want to keep a record of the zones burned (and not burned) in each particular burn season. An accurate map is virtually essential to noting which areas may need greater burn frequency, and which areas should be left alone for a period of time.

The above are just a few examples of the benefits of preparing a good basic map of your natural area of interest. The main benefit, of course, is to bring perspective to interpreting the observations you make out in the field. Once you are comfortable with mapping a site, you can readily translate what you see in person into two-dimensional information you can easily use and communicate to others.


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