If you are into construction, there are certain pertinent skills you ought to possess. One of them is the ability to read structural steel drawings. It shows that you know your stuff and prevents you from being ripped off by your employees or colleagues.

Apart from this, as a regular homeowner, learning how to read structural steel drawings can also come in handy.

Well, if you do not yet know how to, we can easily solve that. In this article, I’ll give you a crash course on how to read structural steel drawings. Hop in for an enlightening ride.

What is Structural Steel?

A good place to start is the definition of structural steel. However, even before that, we need to take a step back to understand what steel is and its importance during construction.

Steel is the primary material used for building. It is preferred above wood and concrete because of its durability and consistency.  Additionally, it is relatively easy to create other building parts using steel. You can shape and reshape steel into the final product that you have in mind.

All of these factors make it the material of choice for those involved in construction. You can scarcely find any building without steel materials.

One variant of steel is structural steel. Structural steel simply refers to steel shaped for construction. It is made from steel that is formatted at a specific cross-section.

The average structural steel is composed of carbon and iron. These two elements are responsible for the strength of structural steel. This also means that increasing them would further strengthen the material.

Structural steel can come in various shapes. Some of the most popular are the L-beam, Z-shape, structural channel, etc.

What are Structural Steel Drawings?

Again, let’s begin by defining structural drawings.

A structural drawing is an engineering plan that spells out how the building will be erected. It is sort of like a road map, providing guidance while you go through the construction. An architectural drawing typically precedes the structural drawing. Also, in some cases, the structural drawing is based on the architectural drawing.

I bet you can already guess what a structural steel drawing is. This is a drawing that shows the connections of the steel materials used in construction. This will guide contractors while they pick out materials for the building. Essentially, a structural steel drawing shows the position of each structural steel material used in the building.

A structural steel drawing has some key components. The first is the building’s elevations. This shows the external walls of the building.

Another is the structural plan. The structural plan shows the positioning of the floors, foundations, and roofs of the building. It could also indicate where the structural elements —in this case, structural steel— are found.

The sections part of the drawing provides clarity to the drawing. It identifies certain innovations that the contractor may not immediately be aware of. Thus, it covers innovative ideas such as a cut-through in the building.

How to Read Structural Steel Drawings

The engineer and the architect typically work together while designing the structural steel drawing. This synergy is to ensure that the intentions of the architect —who sets out to design the building in the first place — is achieved.

To successfully read and interpret the drawing, you need to know what to look out for. Else, it would all seem like nonsense to you. In this section, I’ll show you what you should bear in mind if you want to understand the structural steel drawing. Brace up, and let’s get to it!

1. Learn How Scale Works

The scale is a ratio on the sheet that translates to the actual dimension of the building. Thus, every unit of measurement on the drawing translates to something bigger in real life.

The scale tells you how large or small certain structures in the building will be. Generally, most people use inches per foot in determining the dimension of the scales they use. However, this is used mostly for small buildings.

Scales vary and can be a bit confusing for a newbie. More so, there could be several scales used within one drawing, too. You then have to be careful to interpret the scale correctly, as this would invariably translate to how the building will turn out.

To get the scales correctly, the first step is to understand the scale type. This is usually stated at the beginning of the document. If it isn’t, you could then speak to the engineer directly to have it sorted out.

More so, you may want to get a scaled ruler. A scaled ruler or architectural scale interprets the scales for you, even when there are multiple depictions within one drawing.

2. Learn the Meaning of Symbols

You will find tons of symbols in the average structural steel drawing. This is because engineers are familiar and comfortable with numbers and symbols. Hence, infusing it into their drawings is simply a way for them to utilize their knowledge.

Furthermore, symbols save time. This is especially if they have to be repeated several times within the same work. For instance, the symbol that stands for sections or elevations could be used multiple times. Thus, inserting it, as opposed to writing the full word, saves both time and stress.

Popular symbols include circles, rectangles, triangles, etc.

Most symbols have uniform interpretations across the various fields of engineering. They have preset explanations. Hence, to be good at deciphering symbols, you only need to learn their interpretations.

  1. Identify Callout Symbols

This is a special type of symbol that deserves specific mention.

Callout symbols draw your attention to other parts of the drawing. They are icons, and you’ll find them sometimes on the margins of the drawing.

When they draw your attention to specific parts of the drawing, it is to give more information regarding the construction. For instance, you can use a callout symbol to indicate where two steel materials should meet.

4. Look Out for Circled Numbers

This is also something curious you may find in a structural steel drawing. There is, however, a simple explanation as to why engineers circle numbers in their drawings.

Circled numbers flag the information on the page in question. It merely informs you that there are further details discussed in a separate part of the drawing. The scales used in drawing are usually so small that details cannot be explained within the pages of the drawing. Hence, it makes sense for any detailed explanation to be done somewhere different. A circled number draws your attention to this.

When you see a circled number, you ought to follow it to the exact page with the details.

5. Identify Abbreviations

Abbreviations are almost as abundant as symbols in structural steel drawings. Engineers use abbreviations much for the same reasons they use symbols, too.

It might be impossible to learn all the abbreviations and what they mean. However, you can learn the common ones. When you run into unfamiliar ones, you could consult an engineer for guidance (that is, if you aren’t one yourself).


All of these may seem like a lot, but that is because it is still theoretical at this point. Once you get into the heart of it, putting to work all that you find here, you will be a pro in no time. The ability to decipher and read structural steel drawings correctly is one you cannot take for granted. Follow the steps here to hone your skills.