An Architect’s tool bag

August 20, 2012 — 115 Comments

Architects have their own tools of the trade – many of which are each worthy of getting their own individual attention – but today I felt like going “big-picture” on you. All of the items I list today were used by yours truly in a two-day window. I tell you that so you don’t leave here thinking this is the end-all-be-all list because it’s not, it’s just my list (although I am pretty sure most of these items will appear on the lists of most architects.)


an architects' desk

Big Ass Desk

While you don’t need to have a big ass desk, it sure helps. Since I work on a bunch of jobs at once, I end up creating project stacks on my desk. Every Monday my desk is mostly cleared and by Friday I’ve got loads of stacks again – it’s a never-ending process for me. In my office I have approximately 20’+ of desk to use and each surface is 36″ deep. We made the desks this deep so that full size drawings would fit on our work surfaces and still give us some room to work.

(all of the pictures in today’s post (except for 1 which should be easy to spot) were taken in my office using an iPhone camera. In fact, most of the items I feature today are already in the picture of my desk.)


architect's sketch paper

Tracing Paper

At any given moment in time, I have 10+ rolls of tracing paper in my office. I use this semi-transparent paper daily and can’t imagine doing my job without having some on hand. It goes by many names, onion skin, bumwad, trash paper … call it what you will, I call it awesome.


architect and engineering scales

Architectural and Engineering Scales

For some reason, I have a ton of scales laying about my office. Architectural, Engineering, Metric … I’ve got them all. The all white scale in the lower left-hand corner of this photo I got (stole) from my Dad – it’s the one he used when he was in college so it is at least 300 years old (give or take a few years). I don’t need this many and I can’t really explain why I have so many other than they secretly get together at night and reproduce (architectural scale +engineering scale = metric scale … I think.)


Nikon D90 Camera

Camera – Nikon D90

I love my camera and I use it all the time (except when I need a picture of my camera.) I originally got my camera just before I went off to Paris a few years ago and it has turned into my constant companion. I don’t doubt that writing a blog and only using your own photos has something to do with how heavily I rely on this beast of burden but it is rarely out of reach. I’m pretty sure that the partners in my firm consider it the office camera since it gets used to take most of our project photos.


site measuring tools

Tape Measure, clipboard and a Fluke 416D Distance Meter

We measure a lot of houses in the course of doing our jobs – even if we get architectural plans of the project we are going to work on, we verify everything. Having an assortment of measuring devices on hand makes the job go a lot smoother. I received the Fluke 416D Distance meter from my sister (she is the president of Fluke) and it is awesome.  We use it to verify overall lengths on the outside of our projects because it is a lot more accurate and doesn’t suffer from “tape sag”. (too bad you don’t have a sister running Fluke or she would send one to you as well)


architectural reference books

Architectural Reference Manuals

Possibly the most boring thing on this list but an important part of the process. Between code books, City requirement development code books, framing manuals, flashing guideline (SMACNA) manuals, etc. half of the books on the shelf in my office are technical in nature. The pretty coffee table books typically live at my house.


shop drawings and a calculator

Measure Master 5 Calculator

Calculators. Boorrrrrr – iinnnggggg. Guess what? I use mine all the time to add up dimensions. (really?) I used to do that sort of thing in my head  but once I realized that making a simple addition and subtraction mistake could cost a lot of money to fix, I don’t do it anymore. Enter the Measure Master 5.


an architects' pens


Architects are nothing if not particular about the pens they use … and I am no exception. I originally took this picture when I moved a large set of construction drawings on my desk and all of these pens fell out from inside the pages. With the exception of two duplicates, I use each sort of pen shown here for a specific purpose. Yes, that is a zebra pattern on my pencil … part of my swagger.



Smart phone

This phone has changed how I go about doing my job and I am always amazed by the architects I see who are proud as they announce that they don’t use a smart phone … and that makes you sort of a dumb-ass (pardon my language.) I mentioned it earlier but it bears repeating – every picture except this one was taken with my iPhone. It is a handy, convenient, and powerful tool … maybe not in designing architecture but at the very least in its physical creation. This is not a phone that does stuff, it is a computer that makes phone calls.



Sennheiser T60

My wife got these for me many years ago and I still have them. Since I have my own office, I don’t really need to use them as a courtesy to others who don’t want to listen to what I am currently listening too (although my musical tastes are so fantastic it would be their loss.) When I was in a communal work space, headphones allowed everyone to find their own “zone” and get down to some serious production work. I listen to a lot of music while I work but I don’t actually hear it very often, it just becomes white noise.


drafting dots

Tape Dots

What can I say … I love drafting dots. When I was in college and barely had enough money to buy an egg roll, I used a role of masking tape to hold down my drawings. Now that I make enough money to eat all the egg rolls I want, I splurge and get drafting dots. This is my brand of choice for no reason other than it’s tradition.


Logitech computer mouse

Cordless Mouse

If you work on the computer all day and you still have a cord attaching your mouse to your computer … well, to put it nicely – you are a caveman.


design magazines

Magazines – Inspiration

I get a million magazines delivered and despite not having the time to look through 90% of the them, the 10% I do look at I find very rewarding and inspiring. Getting to take a look at the work of others, new products, techniques, and technologies is a productive way to spend 30 minutes a day. Too bad I have 2 hours worth to go through – just think of all the stuff I am missing out on [sad face]. For some reason, there seems to be some sort of magazine subscription critical mass because I literally get magazines that I have no reason getting (I’m talking to you … Chemical Engineering.)  I got myself on some list and as a result, I think I get every Architecture/Engineering/Construction related magazine / trade periodical printed.

It’s madness.




Lastly are the toys – things that serve no purpose than as diversion follies whose singular role is to keep your brain from creatively locking up. In my office I have Lego’s, basswood fish, robotic bugs, etc., and etc., and Cubebot (as shown above). Cubebot was a white elephant gift at the company Christmas party – except I bought it and Scott Taylor in my office ended up with it. I used to steal Cubebot and put him in … “compromising” positions but it drove Scott crazy so I went out and got my own.

Cubebot is awesome, I highly recommend you picking one up for yourself.


So that’s my list of tools that I use. I could have added a picture of AutoCAD software since I use it extensively but I didn’t. I also didn’t include a compass, french curves and an eraser scumbag – I’m quite sure that there are people out there still using those things.

So how about it – what would be on your “Tools of the Trade” list for architects?

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  • I used cordless mice since they first came out, but I grew tired of their tendency to absolutely go nutty. For whatever reason Logitech writes crappy drivers. When I finally went back to a corded mouse, all my problem vanished. Sometimes newer is not better.

    • Luck of the draw I imagine – I’ve never had a problem with any of the cordless mouses I’ve used. I’ve had a Logitech cordless in my current office for over 3 year – works seamlessly.

      • Har, har… I love your sense of humor. I’ve been drawing with cordless mice for over 10 years. I’ve used AutoCAD since version 1.1. My problem is that the last several Logitech mice I used all died (or went nutty: jumpy all over the screen or scrolling randomly) within 3 years. I even tried a CADmouse, but it was also screwy. The corded mice work great. Kind of like pencils.

        • can’t argue with you there – pretty solid position

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  • Vivek Choudhury

    Amazing article…
    Here we call tracing a butter sheet
    Also i guess android wins over iOS; )

  • Ursula

    Where do you purchase the tracing paper rolls? We can’t buy them off the shelf in South Africa – I would like to order some on line…

  • archigirl

    Measure Master has an app! You have to pay for it, but instead of buying a new $40 calculator (and extra “thing”to own) when my old one crapped out, it’s on my phone now for $10!

  • This was so helpful! I’m writing a book where my main character is married to an architect and I needed to know what tools they use. So, thank you!!! I’m sure I’ll be back as the need arises. BTW, shared for others to enjoy, too. There are a lot of writers in my world. Who knows, maybe they need some architect info. too.

    • Lucky for me I happen to know a thing or two on the subject!

      Good luck on your book –

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  • Sean Palmer

    Your website is killing it. One of your posts successfully distracts me nearly once a week. I’ve read this same post about 3 times over the past year or so. I’ll search for something completely, and it has just about nothing to do with your blog, but somehow, someway, there’s “lifeofanarchitect” and I just have to click. I finally bit the bullet and signed in to leave a comment to say what you already know, you really have something special here. Thanks for taking the time to keep it relevant, interesting, and personal.

    I also wanted to say that I’ve never heard the eraser bag called a “scumbag” before, but I love it! It reminded me of how a professor of mine used to call tracing paper “bumwad.” I’ve heard it a few more times since then but it always makes me chuckle.

    • Thanks Sean – thanks you finally bit the bullet.

      I am also from the bumwad era but I never cared for the phrase … just because your tracing paper might be down on its luck, no need to make it personal by calling it “bumwad”.

  • Brooke Grayson

    This post made me laugh out loud several times! Thanks for that. I am an architecture tech student (on track to be in an architecture design program, hopefully) and I am working on my own blog about my learning experiences. It’s good to see that my student-office isn’t too different from a professional’s. Thanks for the toolkit!

  • Lucas

    “This is not a phone that does stuff, it is a computer that makes phone calls.” Such a greattttttt quote!! Haha

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  • Ian Sokoloski

    I love my Surefire E-1L flashlight for being able to safely stand on the floor and get some very bright light on the underside of a 24′ high roof. Less than 4″ long and extremely bright. Like a lot of our other favorite items it’s expensive enough that I make sure I don’t forget where i left it.

    • I’m with you on that, it does seem like the sort of thing I would set down and leave behind. I am going to have to look for that flashlight, it sounds awesome.

  • Garvey Cola

    I really like this list. In addition to the pens and trace paper, I am looking at a new stylus to add to my writing implements. I’m learning how to use my tablet for work, more and more efficiently.

  • Dennis O’Kelly


    Curious if you have ever done a post on what specific technical books you use? Still trying to grow my collection. A year or so back you recommended Rob Thallon’s Frame Construction book which i have found (despite its fairly small size) to be supremely helpful.

    Anyhow, as always thanks for putting this stuff out there.

    • interesting …maybe that would be something worth putting together. At the very least, it would be a call to others to leave comments about the reference books that they find most useful. I’m sure we could build a decent list.

      I’m going to put that on my to-do list.


  • Bob, what a great blog! My tools include a 3D “L.A.S.E.R.” scanner and of course whatever CAD platform my client (B2B) is using. I can certainly relate with the need to really listen to a client’s needs as you pointed out earlier. Since most of my clients are other businesses, I often find myself working with whatever workflow they have in place and assisting with the integration of point clouds to their CAD software. As a service provider for laser scanning and geometry extraction to create as-built models, it is an interesting space to reside. I typically serve architectural firms. Some have adopted the tool I offer and some have vehemently rejected it, with not just a little foam in their mouth, for a number of reasons – in the beginning, it is my opinion that I did not adequately prepare them to face the ever spinning hourglass of Windows OS attempting to process this sort of data requiring an enormous amount of hardware processing power. Nor did I inform them that it was going to take more than a simple button click to go from point cloud to 3D model. I can honestly say that I’ve learned my lesson and make it a point to ensure they know exactly what they’re getting into these days. I suppose learned with them. Now, I’m deciding to take the leap to go back to school for a degree in architecture at over 40. Crazy?? Perhaps. I am looking forward to learning design with my background in software, art, and construction. I’m committing to be that guy in the corner during DAYLIGHT hours, home asleep by 1am – that’s the intention anyway…