Lettering Gear: A Quick Guide to Get Started
In an effort to consolidate the sharing of my thoughts and experiences with lettering into one archived, searchable resource, I’ll be reposting entries here from my column on The Industry. The following was originally published here on October 13th, 2012.
With platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Dribbble and the like, designers and artists are able to share their work to so many more people and so much faster than ever before.
Given that my particular line of work is so heavily based in the analog, at least at first, a lot of what I post on Dribbble and such ends up being a sketch (I’ve also found that sketches are substantially more popular than finished vector art, but that’s a topic for another time and place). And in my undying quest to share process, I sometimes place the tool I used to accomplish that particular sketch in the shot.
Two or three times a week via email and Twitter, and nearly every time I do this on Dribbble, someone asks what these tools are that I’m using (seriously, here’s the first eight I could find – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8).
So for our first real post on Industry R&R, I figured what better way to kick things off than with a solid look at some of the best tools out there to really dive head-first into practicing your lettering? Also, I’ve come to the clear realization that getting these posted on a weekday is probably as far from feasible as you can get, so instead of delivering these to you late, let’s call it Saturday from now on, okay? Cool.
Before we do, though, I should start by saying that you absolutely do not need a single one of these things. You can do literally anything anyone else can do with a simple sharp #2 pencil and a piece of printer paper. In many cases, what these tools really provide is convenience, greater efficiency, or even just a different way of doing the same things.
Alright, now that the lecture part of the post is over, let’s get to the gear!
Like I said, there’s nothing wrong with a good ol’ wooden pencil. But if you’re looking for precision, a little heft, and the ability to get a perfect, needle-sharp point every single time, a lead holder is the way to go. These tools use a clutch mechanism that holds a special 2mm lead at whatever length is most comfortable for you. There are countless brands to choose from, but some are much more accessible than others. Personally, I’m a big fan of Staedtler products. They’re easy to find, inexpensive and quality-made.
Most good lead holders include a small sharpening mechanism in the cap on the opposite end, but honestly, you should only use it in extreme emergencies, and only after you fail at gnawing it to a point with your teeth. To get a truly proper point, you’re going to need a lead pointer.
These come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but probably the most convenient and effective option is a rotary tubstyle pointer. There are guides to get your lead extended to the perfect length for the exact point you’re looking for. Then, you insert the entire end of the holder into the hole, and rotate it with the top of the tub to move the lead around the sharpener inside. Some times it’s a rough sandpaper-like surface, and others, it’s a circular blade like this one here. Either way, you’re left with that needle-sharp point every single time.
You can also find a desk mountable version like this that just tacks on an additional layer of convenience, since you then only need one hand to sharpen instead of two.
Sidenote: There are very few things I’ve come across in my practice that has made as profound a difference as an extremely sharp pencil. Whether you’re using the classic wooden variety, or a $100+ Rotring lead holder, a sharp point will not only greatly improve your precision and capability for detail, but your curves will also be smoother. I haven’t figured out why this is, exactly, but I’m working on it. I’m thinking it has a lot to do with how much freer your pencil is to go where you don’t want it to when it has a dull point, and a sharper tip grips the paper more. Just a theory.
When I first found this dude, I was ecstatic. Ninety percent of the eraser shields you find in stores are the exact same shape and look and are pretty standard. They’re made of a thin, solid aluminum, and the cutouts are all the same. This guy, however, has tiny holes throughout the areas that are typically solid, so you can see your work ever-so-slightly through the shield. After posting this on Instagram one day, a friend of mine told me he got one of these in a drafting kit in college and never knew what the hell it was—so now he was going to go erase some shit.
Eraser shields, if you too aren’t familiar, are typically used for technical drawing, often found in drafting kits, like I said. But guys, these are great for lettering! If you accidentally smudge into the counter of a letter, make an upstroke a bit too heavy, whatever. This bad boy has all the cutouts you need for precision erasing and cleanup. Plus, they’re like a dollar, so do check these out!
When you’re working with high-detail stuff like lettering, using a big rectangular eraser can be less than optimal for cleaning up tight spaces without ruining your hard work. An eraser holder like this one can help a lot. It’s not the finest-point eraser you can find (Tombow actually has a 2.3mm eraser holder that I’ve yet to try out, but I really want to), but even just having something that you can control in the same way as a pencil goes a long way, I’ve found.
General’s Sketching Pencil (or any flat carpenter pencil)
I first saw something like this used in the magnificent House Industries trailer (if you haven’t watched this, take a few minutes to do so, I’ll wait), and I just had to try it. This is a really cool alternative for quickly sketching out lettering concepts with a little contrast as opposed to working with a thin line and having to build out your shades. Sharpening these can be kind of tricky, but you do have a few options. You can use a sanding block or even just regular sandpaper, but it can be a bit messy.
I actually came across this little gem at Hobby Lobby, and it’s specifically for perfectly sharpening a flat pencil like this. One side tapers the broad side of the pencil, and then you turn it around, and the other side is set up to fine-tune your tip in the other direction. Give this a shot if you get a chance.
Pentel Color Brush
When I’m not laying graphite down to rough out ideas for a lettering project, you might catch me with my trusty Color Brush from Pentel. Guys, this thing is amazing. As opposed to brush pens (more on that in a minute), the Color Brush has an actual synthetic-bristle brush tip, fed with ink from the body of the brush.
This thing is incredibly helpful for quickly concepting brush-script style logos and letterforms. The best part is that you can really saturate the brush with a ton of ink, and not only will it not bleed through your paper, but it lasts forever. I just retired my first one after a solid six months of regular use. Seriously.
Tombow Brush Pens
I’m also a huge fan of the brush pens from Tombow. I’ve been using the Dual Brush model that has a large soft-point on one end and a finer firm tip on the other. No bristles on these, but the felt tips give by far the best control and versatility of any brush pen I’ve ever used. And like the Color Brush, there’s virtually no bleed, unlike a good majority of other comparable pens on the market.
There are a few other things I like to keep around for various reasons, but that maybe I don’t use as regularly or that are more easily substituted.
The dot grid books from Behance’s Creatives Outfitter are a great alternative to lined or gridded paper. The dots don’t get in your way as much, but give you the perfect points of reference when working on something technical or for when you’re particularly concerned with balance. I just find myself using plain old Staples copy paper just about as much of the time, so that’s why this guy’s down here.
A good scanner can also be a huge help, not only for scanning in your finished sketches, but also for iterating quickly. I plan to touch more on this in the coming weeks.
I’ve probably forgotten about half of what I regularly use, and I’ll try to bring this stuff up as much as possible in future posts, but this should give you a pretty good head start on your way to doing some seriously fun and creative new things with lettering.
You should follow me on Twitter to keep up with the tools I’m using at any given time, as they change frequently.
Several of the items listed here can be found and purchased through my "Things" page where I link to products people ask me about the most.