Water Lines…They need some space

It’s not you, it’s them. They just need a little bit of space right now. In fact, the more space they get the more space they need.


First, let’s appreciate the magnificence of some outstanding examples from our forebearers. Here is a snapshot I took of a big varnished old wall map of Michigan townships that I found at a place called “Turkeyville.”

The linework is incredible. And see how the lines have an increased separation with each ring? This, in mimicking the appearance of an actual water ripple that might emanate from a tossed pebble, also serves to create a dropshadow effect. The edge of the water feature has a denser spacing so it gives the coastline an edge that, when seen at a distance, has an appealing dimensionality.

Here’s an other example I saw hanging on the wall of the Petoskey, Mi, library. It’s a Cram’s sectional map from 1883. These water lines are also iteratively increased in their separation. This spacing rate is more than the map, above. Pay no mind to the alarmingly hastily applied watercolor tinting.

So let’s think about that rate of water line spacing. If the spacing were the same for each water line ring, that would give it a spacing of 100%. If the distance doubled with every ring, that would be a spacing of 200%. How much or little the spacing changes is wholly up to you, the cartographer. Daniel Huffman, a mighty-thoughtful cartographer, has written a paper in Cartographic Perspectives on this. If you have a couple minutes, it’s welllll worth the read.


Water lines could be a really interesting way for you to bestow a beautiful crafted quality to your maps. And it’s a pretty straightforward process in Arc GIS Pro, using the Multiple Ring Buffer tool.

With any feature type (though, in this regard, polygons make by far the most sense), you just define a set of distances around which you’d like to add the buffer rings. If your layer is water bodies, then the buffer distances will be negative (inner rings, for your water features) so they render within your polygons. If you are buffering land then distances should be positive so the water lines appear outside the land.

One tip for the Multiple Ring Buffer tool. When you define your distances, you have to do it one at a time. Add a distance, then when you hit tab or give something else focus, a new empty text box will appear for another distance. C’est la vie.

But wait, how did I come up with these arbitrary looking distances?? I’ve carefully and tenderly crafted this handy dandy water line distance calculator for you (and me)…

You could also use this calculator to set up pixel-based line offsets in a graphic design program, if you so choose.

How Far?

Just far enough, that’s how far. Daniel Huffman likes a spacing of 120%. I lean closer to 130%. But I am also pretty intrigued by the rather trippy phi-inspired offset of 161%. Let’s take some looks together…

100%. No increase in spacing. Booooorrrrriiiiing…

110%. Slightly less Booooorrrrriiiiing…

120%. Ok, these are some professional looking offsets!

Oh but I like 130% a bit more…

This one is pretty erratic, but the more I look at it the more I dig it…

When you were making cookies as a kid, did you ever want to just see what happened if you made ONE GIANT COOKIE instead of a bunch of little ones? Here is the cartographic equivalent. This is all of the above offsets shown at once…

And I like it! It sort of reminds me of a cross-section of an agate.

Steal This Style

Say, did you notice that these water line examples have sort of a sketchy hand-drawn stroke? That’s because I tried to make them look like they have a sketchy hand-drawn stroke. It is a multi-layered symbol that uses dashes and picture strokes to look like pen or graphite on a textured surface. I mean, if you are making water lines, why not go all the way?

You can download my ArcGIS Pro style file here. And here are instructions on how to add the style to your project for crafty use on your buffer polygons.

So that’s that. Water lines via the Multiple Ring Buffer tool in ArcGIS Pro and the crafty little distance calculator spreadsheet. Also the hand-drawn stroke style.

P.S. If you are really into the retro hand-drawn aesthetic, you might like this post on a coastal stipple effect. It’s a bit like water lines but…you know…something else. And if you are into THAT then you will certainly be intrigued by this series on creating a fantasy map aesthetic in Pro.

Happy Water Line Mapping! John

This entry was posted in Analysis & Geoprocessing, ArcGIS Pro, Cartographic Design, Mapping, Oceans & Maritime, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply


  1. davidshuey says:

    The link to your instructions appears to be broken…

  2. atothgwe says:

    Thanks John! I was just playing with multi-ring buffers on the Great Lakes myself. I had referenced this older blog post (https://blogs.esri.com/esri/arcgis/2009/03/05/symbolizing-shorelines/) by Aileen Buckley for inspiration. However, she did not provide your handy-dandy water line distance calculator, which is a real time-saver when playing with multiple spacing effects to find what looks best for your project scale. And I love the idea of being able to see the point distances in your table before running the tool on your entire dataset!

    • John Nelson says:

      Oh, I’m glad you found it helpful! It’s been a handy resource for me so I thought I’d share it out. I forgot to mention in the post, do you think this would be a useful little web utility that gave a better preview? Could be a cool secrete ninja project.

      Thanks for sending the link to Aileen’s post! I actually hadn’t seen that one. Aileen is an excellent cartographer and has a wonderful way with instructive communication.

      • atothgwe says:

        Yeah, that sounds sweet! The points are good starting visualization to get a feel for scale, but if you could create a preview that showed short line segments or that allowed you to zoom, that could even more awesome!
        I tried the dotted and dashed vector lines that Aileen provided in her sample but found that attempting to replicate that effect in Pro is currently difficult given the hatch fill options available. If you could get Esri to allow more customization of patterned fills, that would be great! ;)

        • John Nelson says:

          Thanks for the feedback! I’ll think about what a simple coastline reference utility would look like. You know, something better than a spreadsheet and hacked chart!
          I have been really impressed with the symbology rendering capabilities in Pro (my waterlines were rendered in Pro). Play with the dash options for strokes, and also multi-layered symbols (add them via the little wrench in the symbology panel). You can get some magnificent effects going. In the meantime, take a look at the style file I provide to get a head start on playing with the stroke symbols.
          Consider playing with this coastal effect, too, if you are feeling dangerous: https://blogs.esri.com/esri/arcgis/2017/11/07/mega-easy-coastal-stipple-effect/
          Once I found that you could use images as a stroke symbol a whole new world opened up to me.