From the curly-swirly Spencerian Script to the quirky condensed serif found on your local coffee shop sandwich board, handlettering has saturated the design landscape in recent years. However, the art of hand-drawn letterforms has been practiced for hundreds of years. Before the invention of the Gutenberg printing press (around the year 1440 CE), the written word was transcribed in manuscripts and public works by hand. Post-printing press, the art continued to live on in the form of calligraphy and, later, type design. Today, handlettering has become a trendy design motif among many graphic designers and artists.
As a lover of letterforms and avid art supply collector, I am constantly searching for the perfect tool or method to execute hand-drawn letters. I’ve experimented with an entire file cabinet worth of materials and have found six trusty, unwavering tools that are essential to my own process.
Papermate Sharpwriter #2
Must have. Non-negotiable.
The Paper Mate Sharpwriter #2 has been the ol’ reliable of letterers for decades. Why? The magic is in the twist-to-advance tip. The springs that hold the lead container within the body of the pencil allow for subtle shifts in pressure which lets the wielder achieve varying line weight and contrast. In short, this pencil does what your $70 iPad stylus boasts — at a fraction of the cost.
The Sharpwriter and tracing paper are the letterers sword and shield.
Tracing paper allows you to draw over, and over, and over, and over again without sacrificing previous iterations of letterforms. It’s an additive tool. The original Photoshop layer. Don’t like the weight of that sans you just drew? Slap a piece of tracing paper over it and fatten up those letters.
Tracing paper’s only downfall is it’s ability to fall out of any and every sketchbook you’ve ever owned. Find a way to organize it and you’re golden.
(I don’t discriminate when it comes to tracing paper. I’ve never met a brand I didn’t like.)
Bienfang Graphics 360
Now that you’ve got a sketch you like on tracing paper, it’s time to marker-in those letters. Pencil on tracing paper can appear endearing in sketch form, but fleshing out those forms with a pen and marker gives you a truer sense of the end result. Graphics 360 is the perfect paper to do so. It’s a 100% rag paper, tough as nails, that won’t bleed. It’s lightfast and will maintain the integrity of your sketches for years to come. Pens and markers were made for this paper. Or perhaps it’s the other way around…
My personal favorite and a classic here at the TOKY office.
The Pilot Fineliner, with it’s felt tip and yes, fine line, is an invaluable tool when outlining letterforms and sketching out those hairline serifs. The ink is true, rich, and opaque and will render sharp and contrasted forms — useful for scanning and sketching! I keep about 5 on my desk, one in my purse, and one in my car at all times.
Tombow Dual Brush Pen
The TOMBOW Dual Brush Pen may have 2 ends, but it has countless uses. The brush tip gives you ability to create high-contrast, brush-drawn letterforms — channel your favorite signpainters and go to town! The brush tip also allows you to color in outlined letterforms, on the Bienfang 360 of course. The narrower tip can sneak into any little crevices and edge the narrowest of ink-traps — use this end for your finer details that you missed with the brush end. To boot, the TOMBOW comes in a rainbow of colors. Black is my personal best, but if you need to add a little color, TOMBOW has you covered.
Remember this stuff? The gooey white substance you may have once used to revise a misspelled word on a written essay is the very same stuff you’ll find in a letterer’s toolbox. That’s right, pen is not the end! If you make a mistake, “white it out“, and the scanner won’t know the difference. A word of caution to the impatient: if you need to draw over the Wite-Out be sure to let it dry completely or you’ll have a bigger mess than your initial mishap!
I suggest the bottled or liquid kind over the tape form. The liquid allows for more control during application.
Use a good scanner and keep the glass clean.
Digitizing your work can make or break your final product. It’s important to have a scanner that gives you the ability to scan large sizes (if needed) and at high resolution. These capabilities can be extremely helpful when vectorizing or preparing your work for digital use.
Before you scan, make sure your ink is dry! If your ink is still wet, it could stick to your scanner’s glass and, if not cleaned, could leave a blemish on your glass. Caution: permanent inks!
Must-Have Inspiration Resources for All Skill Levels
Typography Sketchbooks by Steven Heller and Lita Talarico
If you’re fresh out of ideas and you just can’t doodle anymore, look to Typography Sketchbooks for inspiration. This book features everything from scratches on looseleaf to beautifully illustrated letterforms by well-known and celebrated designers. From Sans to Scribble, “Typography Sketchbooks” is an excellent inspirational lookbook for designers of all levels of experience.
For a more how-to resource, check out Skillshare’s library of handlettering classes. The library features a wide variety of topics such as handlettering, calligraphy, vectoring, and Photoshop tools. If you can’t find time to attend an in-person class, Skillshare is a great way to learn more about the art of lettering and drawn type on your own schedule.
Whether you’re a veteran typographer or a curious beginner, I find that it’s always nice to experiment with new tools and tricks. Most of the aforementioned are classic ol’ reliables, and a few are personal favorites, but there are literally thousands of tools and resources at the letterer’s disposal. My advice: try as many tools as you can and find what works best for your own design practice.