My Top 5 Low-Tech Survey Gear Tips

Indiana Sarah - pool survey training, London

A couple of weeks ago, I let you all in on a little secret. I broke one of my golden rules, played favourites, and it seems you liked it … a lot.

So, I am going to do it again. This time, however, it’s a bit less whimsical and lot more practical. Today, I’m going to share with you my top 5 low-tech survey gear tips; tried and tested by yours truly.

I’ve used this equipment almost daily, for more years than I’d care to remember, on sites from the Bronze Age to the Modern; underwater, on land and in the intertidal zone. I’ve ditched the stuff that doesn’t work (there is plenty!), and used and abused the stuff that does.

Oh, and just in case you are wondering, I haven’t been paid to write this. I’ve personally picked, poached and paid for, every last thing on the list.


1.   Hultafors Folding Rule


Hultafors is the stuff of legend. It is a Swedish hand-tool company that started in 1883 when a young engineer, Karl-Hilmer Johansson Kollén, invented a measuring device that would facilitate Sweden’s conversion to the metric system. That device was the folding rule. Not just any folding rule; the Hultafors folding rule … my all time favourite archaeology tool.

Why? The Hultafors Folding rule is made from fibreglass-reinforced polyamide, affording increased resistance to moisture. It is bright yellow (easily seen underwater), sinks (doesn’t float), and the scale is written in black on both sides and the print does not come off! The rule has metric along the bottom edge and British imperial along the top edge, which is great when you have to record in metric, but understand and interpret something built to an imperial scale, like an historic shipwreck.

The best bit? There are no metal parts. There is also no sticky-outy hinge in the corner, to get in the way. It won’t rust, cease, or fall apart, and is seemingly indestructible! I know because I’ve tried to destroy mine and I just couldn’t do it.

The 2-metre Hultafors G61 (below) that I bought in Nordiska Kompaniet on a wintery Stockholm morning in February 2005, is as good as new 11 years later. It has been to 30 countries, suffered countless abuse from my field school students, been bashed about in horrendous conditions, and still looks like it did the day I bought it! Love.

Indiana Sarah - Leslie and Sarah recording finds using the Hultafors folding rule during the 2005 Mary Rose excavations


2.   Oversized PVC Survey Boards


Oversized A4 rigid polyvinyl chloride (PVC) survey boards are an absolute must for writing, drawing or sketching underwater. Make sure it is oversized so that you can easily fit an A4 recording form on the board, and there is space to tape it down without getting water underneath. There is nothing worse than trying to write on something with moveable water bubbles underneath; it’s inefficient and annoying − particularly when narked!

Make sure your board is made from 5mm thick PVC, as it provides (in my humble opinion) the perfect combination of weight and rigidity; has rounded edges so you don’t stab yourself in the eye while kitting up; and has a hole in one corner, so that you can attach it to yourself (see below) or a pencil.

The boards have no metal or mechanical parts, so they won’t rust or break. They sink, so when you put it down, it stays there, and like the Hultafors folding rule, they seemingly last forever! I may have lost a few to light-fingered students, but I’ve never broken one. In fact, it’s the perfect underwater accompaniment.

You can buy these in both A3 (perfect for illustrative sketches or measured drawings) and A4 from the NAS, although now I live in Sydney I have my own made up from a local manufacturer as it is cheaper than paying postage.

Remember, if you are going to get some made, please make sure they are PVC as other resins float and becomes brittle in the water and break, so if you don’t want to be replacing your board every third dive – PVC is the way to go!

Indiana Sarah - Sarah ascending from the Valiant shipwreck with her survey board attached


3.   Surgical Tubing


Sounds like a weird thing to be using in maritime archaeology, right? Well, like the MasterCard advert says, this stuff is priceless.

Surgical tubing is cheap, super elastic, doesn’t break down in water, has major gripping power (which is great for gripping the pencil attached to your PVC board), and retains its elastic memory even after repeated stretching. The tubing is also smooth, which doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the unique dipping process eliminates die lines and seams, which makes it last longer, grip better and bounce back time and time again. Oh, and make sure you get the latex kind or it won’t keep bouncing back.

I use mine in all manner of ways. I use it to attaching my trauma shears (which I use instead of a knife) to myself, or my Buoyancy Control Device (BCD), but in this instance it is perfect for tying one’s survey board to one’s pencil. It won’t knot, stretches amazingly and you can pop one of the sharpened ends of your pencil inside the tubing, so you don’t poke yourself with it. Better still, if everything goes to pot on the dive, you can also use it as a tourniquet band.

Looking for some? You can buy it online from Dive Gear Express, Scuba Doctor, or your local medical supplier.


4.   Wood-free Pencils 


I know this sounds like a bit of a misnomer, but if you are trying to write underwater, you don’t want anything that is going to rust, break or go soggy, so no metal, no moveable parts and no wood – capiche!

A genius invention, wood-free pencils are normally plastic, resin or polymer and are often called eco-pencils as they are manufactured from recycled materials. They don’t split, splinter or break; have no metal or mechanical parts to rust, cease up or break; they sharpen to a fine point, stay sharp for ages; and are good for the environment as they don’t precipitate the killing of trees.

If you can, buy the hexagonal kind. They are easier to handle in gloves or cold water, and this shape is gripped well by the surgical tubing used to attach it to your board!

Please don’t buy one with an eraser on the end, as this has a metal attachment, which holds the eraser to the pencil. The bad news is that the metal will rust and you’ll lose the eraser. No big deal, I hear you say. Unless, of course, this happens underwater, as the eraser is the perfect size to choke a fish who thinks he has just found dinner.

Also don’t forget to sharpen these at both ends before you get in the water. The end you are not using can be tucked up into the grip of your surgical tubing so you don’t poke yourself in the face!


5.   Permatrace


Permatrace is possibly the best thing since sliced bread! It is effectively clear ‘paper’ that you can write on underwater. In Australia, it’s called waterproof drafting film. In Canada they call it Mylar.

The trick here is to buy it double matt and precut to A4 for three reasons:

  1. so you can run it through the printer to make template recording forms;
  2. to enable a 5-metre site drawing to a 1:20 scale on a blank sheet; and
  3. so it fits on your oversized A4 survey board!

Another top tip – make sure you buy archival quality (75 micron), so it lasts forever, and if not buying ‘Permatrace’, make sure its waterproof!!!

Looking for some? You can buy it from the NAS or Past Horizons or a drafting supplier near you.

Indiana Sarah - Kizzy and Hannah considering their permatrace recording forms during a training exercise at the London School of Diving

That’s it for my top tips, so, tell me, what’s your top tip for underwater work? I would love to know!  

Connect with me on FacebookTwitterInstagramPinterest and Google Plus and don’t forget to leave your thoughts below.

Until next time,


About Sarah Ward

I’m Sarah Ward, a maritime archaeologist, commercial diver and factual presenter with 16 years experience, both in and out of the water. I’ve investigated sites ranging from the Bronze Age to the modern, across more than 20 countries. A Visiting Professor at Dalian Maritime University and MIT Ocean Discovery Fellow, I am on a mission to bring archaeology to a broader audience, helping people to connect with the past in a meaningful way.

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(c) Indiana Sarah 2019