Design Guide: Understanding and Using Scale.
Updated: Oct 4, 2022
I spent 10 years as a college and university lecturer teaching Garden Design and Horticulture. One of the concepts that students most commonly struggled to grasp was how to understand and use scale in drawings. This is an essential tool for the designer and once mastered, it is something that you will use on a daily basis.
Here is a guide on how to use and read scale in drawings designed to make the process as easy as possible and enable you to master this invaluable skill.
The first thing to understand is that Scale is a tool designed to make things larger or smaller in order for you to be able to resize something (anything) to a handy, workable size. In most cases, a ‘handy size’ means a sheet of paper. That way, we can take something as large as a garden and convert it uniformly down to something the size of a piece of A1 paper.
As a designer there are two key ways in which you can change drawing scales. One is to enlarge or reduce on photocopiers, which can be inaccurate and should always include a visual guide like a Scale Bar (see below) to assist the reader. The other is use a scale ruler to produce drawings. Therefore, to be able to use scale, one must be able to read and interpret a Scale Ruler.
There are many predetermined metric scales, which can be found printed on scale rulers, e.g. 1:1, 1:2, 1:5, 1:10, 1:20, 1:25, 1:50, 1:100, 1:500, 1:1000, etc. Where dimensions are in Imperial measurements different scales may be required.
It is possible, (though not recommended) to make up your own scale factors, though be aware that it may prove impossible for anyone else to rescale your drawing to life sizes. For example, 1:4.37 is completely impractical and such scales do not appear on scale rulers.
The scale ruler (pictured above) has predetermined scales printed on it. These scales allow you to for example scale one (1) printed cm to equal one real life metre (1m). This scale is called 1:100. Look to the far left of the image to see the scale printed on the ruler. 1:100 on the top and 1:1000 beneath it.
When drawing an object that is only a few cm long and wide, like the workings of a watch for example, we can generally draw at a scale of 1:1 or an inverse scale like 2:1, 5:1 or 10:1. 1:1 scale means one (1) drawn cm or mm is the same as one (1) real life cm or mm. 2:1 scale means that two (2) drawn cm on the page is the same as one (1) real life cm, effectively enlarging the item (watch) to twice its real life size. For greater detail 5:1 or 10:1 scale could enlarge it by a factor of 5x or 10x its real life size.
Scale is there exclusively to make our lives easier when we design fitting an image on a sheet of paper accurately and precisely, but most importantly at a size we can handle. Most Garden Design drawings are scaled at 1:100, 1:200 or 1:500 for large gardens, 1:50 for smaller gardens and 1:20 or 1:10 for detail drawings, though one should be flexible and choose the best size to fit the paper you are using. It is very important that you include the scale/s that you have used in your drawing in your explanatory notes on that drawing. If you have used multiple scales on several drawings on the same sheet of paper, make sure that each scale is clearly written next to the drawing it relates to. Without this information anyone reading the drawing will struggle to accurately interpret measurements. Equally, any drawn elements that are not drawn to scale should be acknowledged as such on the page. This is normally done by writing N.T.S or Not To Scale by those elements.
The image below includes a Scale Bar as well as a written scale in the notes. The 3D image includes a note stating that it is Not To Scale.
Scales Broken Down
Printed/Drawn unit - Real Life unit
Example: 1 drawn cm - 20 real life cm.
Scale: 1 : 20.
Example: 1 drawn cm - 10 real life m.
Scale: 1 : 1000.
Example: 2 drawn cm - 100 real life mm.
Scale: 1 : 5.
To work out a suitable scale factor you need to know the longest side that you will be required to draw (Note, this could be a diagonal rather than a boundary edge and if the garden is relatively square, consider both dimensions as paper will be an ISO standard size in order to be able to reproduce it in a large format photocopier).
If, for example, the longest side of the garden you are drawing is 25m long and you are using fit an A1 sheet of paper, you can either look at your ruler and find 25m and see how comfortably it looks on the page or do a calculation like below.
This calculation can be undertaken by considering the longest side of the garden and the length of the page on which you are drawing it. (The length of an A1 page is 841mm long). As such a measurement of 25m (In mm i.e. 25000) can be divided by say 800 (Leaving sufficient room (41mm of page) around the drawing), to give, in this case 31.25.
25,000/800 = 31.25
We obviously can’t use 1:31.25 as a scale, so the nearest scale that is common on rulers and fits is 1:50, in which, 1cm on paper equals 50cm in real life.
1:50 fits the page comfortably allowing the garden to be drawn to a suitable size to display all basic information while still allowing sufficient space around the page to include other forms of information, such as text, sketches or detailed drawings etc.
The best way to learn how to use scale is to get a scale ruler and read it. Then use some drawings produced at scale and try to measure from them. From there, you can try to redraw the image to accurate measurements and following this, redraw it at a different scale.
Scale Rulers technically are used for measuring rather than drawing, though most people use them for both.
Practice makes perfect.
When using a ruler with many scales on it, be sure to use the same scale throughout to avoid confusion. Often designers mark the scale they are working on on the ruler as a reminder while drawing. Most scale rulers use colour coding to separate scale groups, which can help.
Don't make up scales, use widely available scales. Change your paper size if it doesn't fit the drawing well.
Try to make your drawings as large as possible on the sheet. Small drawings are harder to produce accurately, hard to read accurately and less appealing to the viewer.
Always think of the person on site on a frozen February morning trying to read the drawing for technical detail when producing drawings. If it hard to access information, mistakes will be made!
Be clear and write your scale on your drawings.
You can include scale bars on your drawings too, though it isn't essential.
If it isn't to scale, then write Not To Scale on the drawing.
Make sure that the scale you start a drawing with is the one that you use throughout. Mark the ruler on this scale if necessary to aid your memory.
Graph Paper can be helpful to use as a guide or for practicing drawing to scale. 1:1, 1:10, or 1:100 scale;
Or 1:5, 1:50, or 1:500 scale;
There are endless Scale Rulers available for sale. Some with outlandish scales, not widely used and therefore problematic. This one has the most common metric scales needed for Landscape/Garden Design drawing in my experience.