Friday, December 7, 2012

Drafting Room Disasters, Part Two...Spray Fix & Spray Mount

Reminiscing about tape dots the other day started me thinking about other drafting room disasters in the days of hand drawing and architectural offices where pretty much everyone actually drew as part of their daily routine. Except for the spec writers. While tape dots mostly provided opportunities for drawing wounds of the self-inflicted variety, spray fix and spray mount really opened up the playing field for team efforts in trashing a drawing while also leaving the field open to the occasionally spectacular solo effort. Weirdly enough, the origins of almost all spray fix and spray mount disasters lay either in their flammability or the near identical appearance and labeling of the cans. Or both.
When pencils and vellum ruled the roost in most drafting rooms, aerosol cans of spray fixative next to a drawing board were a fairly common sight. Spray fixative has a lot of uses but was typically applied very lightly to finished pencil drawings on drafting vellum and tracing paper to prevent smearing and fuzzing of line work. The most popular brands were (and are) Krylon and ChartPak. For architects and draftsmen who still do many drawings by hand, spray fix remains a very useful and relatively safe tool. It's cousin (or bastard step-child, depending on what just happened to you) was spray mount, an aerosol can of supposedly low-tack adhesive primarily used to mount drawings, photographs and, more commonly, blueline prints to sheets of foam core board, usually with varying degrees of success. The "low-tack" qualities of spray mount varied from brand to brand and even can to can but the incredible flammability of spray mount and spray fix were rarely in question and often amply demonstrated. This at a time when you could smoke at your drawing board. Of course, at this same time, you could also smoke in restaurants, in bars, on airplanes, in taxis and, believe it or not, hospitals and elevators. Sometimes even in a hospital elevator.
There was one time when I was working in a drafting room where I had to quickly mount several blueline  prints to foam core board using spray mount. With larger prints and the usually futile attempts at a bubble or wrinkle free application of print to foam core, this was usually a two person job. But not for the ambitious or the lazy. You would put down a pretty heavy coat of spray mount on the foam core and then let it rest for a minute before applying the print, mainly to avoid bleed throughs. Sounds simple enough, right? So after applying a very liberal coating to a 2' x 3' piece of foam core, I took it out of the print room and put it on my drawing board to rest before applying the blueline print. As I went back to the print room to hose down another piece of foam core, out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the partners heading into the drafting room. A partner who also happened to be a heavy smoker, the kind that could smoke, talk, eat, drink, draw and criticize all at once and never touch the cigarette. Since I was mounting these drawings for him and he was heading towards my drawing board, paying closer attention might have been a good   idea.                                                                                                                                         

Right about the same time that I crossed the print room threshold I heard this "whump" noise followed by a "whoosh". You know, the same noises you hear when you throw a match from ten feet away on a barbeque grill that you doused with way, way too much charcoal fluid. Like maybe a whole can. This was all accompanied by a disturbingly intense flash of orange light. Well. The partner, with the ever present cigarette dangling from his mouth, had stopped by my board to see how his mounting was coming. Anyone who's ever smoked knows that what often falls off your cigarette isn't just ash, it's red hot little embers. And that's exactly what happened here. Basically, he dropped a tiny piece of burning coal onto a piece of paper covered styrofoam saturated with the aerosol equivalent of gasoline, producing predictable and momentarily horrifying results. After a second or two the partner, minus his eyebrows (fortunately he had already lost most of his hair), had the presence of mind to yank the burning foam core to the floor and start stomping on it while in the shadow of a "to scale" mushroom cloud we had both helped to create. But the best was still to come. Anyone who has ever seen styrofoam burning knows that, when on fire, it sticks like napalm. Especially when you stomp on it. Who knows, maybe styrofoam and napalm share the same DNA since they are both petroleum based products. Ultimately, I didn't know what was funnier; his missing eyebrows, our burning brogans or the fact everyone else just kept on drawing. The absence of a modern sprinkler system probably helped in this case, but at least we got the fire out before OSHA showed up.

That cans of spray mount and cans of spray fixative often looked and were labeled almost exactly the same (see photos above) always baffled me. This could really lead to problems. The necessity of spray fix as an essential drafting tool made a lot of sense given the instability of graphite as a drawing medium. It was usually applied as the final touch to a linework intensive drawing before running it through a diazo (ammonia based) blueline machine. Blueline machines had two sets of glass rollers, kind of like those cheap fluorescent light bulbs. You ran your drawing (laid over the print paper) through the first set for exposure, then ran the print paper only through the second set for developing. Imagine feeding a dollar bill into a coin changer or vending machine, except in this case your dollar bill is three feet wide. Blueprint machines were probably the single greatest source of drawing destruction in any office I ever worked for. Big, stinky, ammonia fueled destroyers of drawings that smelled like a diaper pail om a hot day. But add in a drawing mistakenly drenched with spray mount, as opposed to spray fix, and you can probably see where this is going.

At this same office with the now eyebrow-less partner, there was an older gentlemen who had taken me under his wing. By older I mean really old. His career as an architect had begun when FDR was president so he had a lot of talent and knowledge to pass on and that I was all too grateful to receive. Architectural drawing was both our shared passion and language so I would go out of my way to reciprocate in passing on to him the latest drafting room innovations. Like spray fix. At first my friend didn't "hold with it", usually with a muttered comment or two about "Rube Goldberg inventions". One day, after completing a particulary time and graphite intensive sheet of wall sections, I was surprised to hear my friend ask to borrow my can of spray fix. Without looking up from whatever I was doing I grabbed the can and tossed it over my shoulder. My drawing board was right in front of his, proximity being helpful in mentoring. Since I had seen his drawing develop over several days I also threw in "There's a lot of lead on that drawing. Better give it a really good soak." If only I had given him spray fix.

What I had given him was my nearly identical can of spray mount which he proceeded to apply very liberally all over his beautiful and about to be blueprinted drawing. He literally may have just used a paint roller dipped in model airplane glue. Since you always handled a finished drawing by the edges when printing, the coming disaster was not immediately apparent. My friend went into the print room and fed his drawing into the blueprint machine. And literally nothing came out. Courtesy of wayward tape dots, this was not an uncommon occurance but was usually accompanied by sound effects like the loud crumpling of paper (your drawing)and really colorful swear words. Never by, as in this case, complete silence. This time, what happened was my friend had fed into the print machine a drawing that was basically coated in glue which then proceeded to permanently laminate itself to one of the glass rollers inside the print machine. Nice, nice. Not only did a really beautiful drawing disappear in less than 5 seconds, so did the 40 or so hours it took to create it. I know this because that's how many hours of overtime (unpaid) it took me to do my friend's drawing over again, which seemed like an appropriate punishment at the time.

You would think that this might have led to an outright ban on spray mount in this particular drafting room, but it didn't. It did, however, lead to a few new rules and improvements, such as an outright ban on smoking in the office and, of course, a new blueprint machine. Even better was the installation of an automatic emergency defibrilator in the drafting room. Whether this was done as a reflection on the average age of the partners and their work force or in anticipation of future disasters (or both), I never really knew since it was quite awhile before either would speak to me beyond the occasional monosyllabic grunt. My older friend did remain my friend and his recounting this story later became a featured routine at office Christmas parties. But even now, everytime I pick up a can of spray fix, I think of my friend and smile.

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