15 Jul 2015

My Go-To Hand Lettering Tools

Tools don’t make an artist. Before we jump into this post, I feel obligated to reiterate that. None of the tools below are going to instantly transform your artwork, and not having them isn’t holding you back from improving your skills. Every single day, skilled artists make amazing work with Crayola markers on regular printer paper. Use what you have. Do more with less.

That said, are some tools superior to others? Yes, but it mostly comes down to personal preference. Some pens have higher quality ink, which translates to more easily achieving crisp lines and more even ink coverage. Some erasers smear the crap out of lead instead of erasing it. But with most basic supplies, skills trump the material. As you learn and try new tools, you will find some that become your standbys forever, and you’ll probably find some that have been recommended and simply don’t work for you.

When I first started lettering, I used art supplies I already had on hand — mostly leftovers from college. Since then, I’ve experimented with a bunch of different supplies, slowly finding which ones work best for me (and, let’s be honest, I’ve become addicted to JetPens and realized the checkout guy at Utrecht knows my name…).

Here’s what you might find if you opened up my tool bag on any given day: 

Sketching Tools

Lead Holder

This is definitely my preferred sketching tool, due to the ultra-sharp point you can get. I bought the cheapest lead holder I could find on Amazon (although I admit, I backed the Penxo Kickstarter and I am counting down the days til that sucker is in my hands!) and got some hand-me-down lead from my mom’s drafting days.

Lead holders tend to be heavier than normal drawing pencils — I like the weight of them in my hand compared to a pencil. If you get a lead holder, you also need a lead pointer to keep a sharp tip, which is key. And lead, obviously! I use HB for initial sketches and 2B for filling in and darkening.

Micron Pen Tools

Micron Ink Pens

Describing the many types of pens out there would fill an entire book, but let’s keep it simple for now. Micron pens are far and away my favorite pens for inking up a sketch. They are affordable and come in a great variety of tip sizes, which are great for outlining, filling, and adding detail. The ink has dark, even coverage, so it’s easy to get crisp lines at the weight you want. They dry very quickly, so the risk of smudging is minimal, and the ink doesn’t bleed on basically every papers I’ve tried. I find that they last quite a long time, if you don’t leave them uncapped when not in use. They also come in several colors, but I stick to black.

Notebook

Moleskine Notebooks

These are probably a little overhyped, but I love Moleskines. Their 5 x 8.25” notebook is my favorite size. I have to buy a new sketchbook infrequently enough that the price isn’t really a barrier, and it’s only a few dollars more than a more basic sketchbook. For me, it’s worth it for the portability – the elastic closure band and hard cover protect my work, and it looks nice on my bookshelf, which is where all of my sketchbooks retire.

Aside from size, these notebooks come in several varieties (including some fun cover colors and designs!) – I’ve used both plain and grid for sketching, and their watercolor notebook for my watercolor lettering pieces, and I’ve loved every single one!

I tried a lot of sketchbooks before I landed on Moleskine, and I recommend you do the same. Brands like Canson & Strathmore are consistently good options – try different ones out until you find the paper and features you like the most.

One quick note – be wary of no-name craft store sketchbooks. If you can’t open one and feel the paper first, I wouldn’t buy it. Most brandless craft store sketchbooks I’ve purchased have ended up being fairly useless to me because they are so fibrous and textured it’s difficult to get clean lines – drawings end up scanning very fuzzy. If this is the texture you’re going for with your work, buy away!

Other Tools

Erasers

Many people swear by kneaded erasers, but they’re not really my thing. The Faber-Castell Dust-free eraser gets the job done, and minimizes the huge mess I make when erasing large portions of a sketch.

If you’re going to do a lot of small detail work, I highly recommend an eraser stick and/or an erasing shield. They’re awesome for erasing tiny details without ruining larger parts of a sketch.

Ruler

There’s no magic ruler out there that’s going to instantly improve your eye for layouts, and any ruler that can guide a straight line will be great early on. But there are specific features of rulers I’ve come to love. I prefer the C-Thru ruler for a few reasons. It lays totally flat on the paper, it’s transparent, so you can see lines you’ve already laid out, and the grid on the ruler makes it much easier to line things up properly.

Compass

These are great for making guidelines for curved or circular layouts. If you don’t have one lying around from middle school math class, you can pick one up for a few bucks. I just use a basic plastic one that came in a geometry kit, and it does the job. If you want to get fancy, there are nicer metal ones that hold lead rather than a pencil.

Light Pad

Alright, so this won’t actually fit in the my tool bag, but I don’t know what I’d do without it. I’ve got a Huion light pad with about a 9×12 lit drawing area, and it’s great for tracing your sketch onto a fresh sheet of paper! It’s nice and thin, so it’s easy to trace on top of without having to rip sketches out of a sketchbook, since it doesn’t add much thickness to your setup.

Just Get Out There and Try Stuff!

The bottom line for finding the best hand lettering tools is to experiment, improve your techniques, try new tools, and decide what you like. You can read recommendations and reviews all day, but a tool you don’t know how to use is useless to you. As you branch out into new styles and techniques, you may find some tools just work more naturally for you.

What are some of your favorite hand lettering tools?

To help one of you get started building up your tool set and trying new things, I’ve put together a little giveaway below! Enter by next Wednesday to win a Moleskine sketchbook and a set of 6 Micron pens. I’ll announce the winner in next week’s post!

Hand Lettering Tool Giveaway

  • I am a fan of Moleskins too but it never even occurred to me to try the grid paper one! I didn’t even notice they had them but I need to grab one when I fill up my current books. I’m a long time Micron fan and used them a lot in my college days. I also have a lead holder and pointer but my illustrator boyfriend always knicks it and I don’t love the sound of the lead on paper when I’m sketching anyways. That said, those Penxo holders look amazing (and would make a pretty decent Christmas gift for the mister).

    • The grid paper is a little bit of a large grid, so it’s not ideal for guiding the thickness of individual letters (For that, I like the paper where it’s like, 1/8th or 1/16th of an inch) but it works really well for setting up your layouts. I’ll let you know how the Penxo holders are when I get them (I’m sure I’ll post a review on here as well) – they look wonderful and are so sleek! They should be an awesome gift. What do you use for sketching when you’re not using a lead holder?

      • I rarely use pencil when sketching but if I do, I prefer those clickable mechanical lead pencils in the smallest point size lead I can find. Usually .05 thickness. More often than not, though, I prefer to sketch with pens. Again, I prefer very thin tips. My current letting toolbag is filled with Stabilo brand 0.4 ink pens. Anything with a smooth, solid ink and a thin point makes me happy.

        • Ah, I’m so envious of people who are confident sketching in pens. My initial sketches are always so rough, my paper would be an inky mess by the time I’m done! Totally agree about thin/sharp tips though – they’re so key!

  • Jon

    I’ve tried handlettering on several occasions. Sometimes I like the results, sometimes I don’t. I love Micron pens for when I do though, haven’t found a better ink pen yet. Sounds like grid paper would be really nice for lettering…I never thought of it before. Looking forward to seeing more articles from you. 🙂

    • Grid paper is so great for maintaining a consistent width when you’re doing block lettering, and for easily setting up lines of a layout. Can’t recommend it enough!

  • Great list! I love your reminder that skills trump the material. The more I practice, the more I see that medium takes a back seat to the technique.

    I love using a lead holder and the Penxo looks awesome! I tend to use my Lamy fountain pen for thumbnail sketches but go to the Micron pens for the final drawing.

    How often do you fill up your sketchbooks?

    • I probably go through a sketchbook once every 2 months. I usually take my sketchbook when I’m traveling (which is a lot lately!) or out and about in the city, in case inspiration strikes – it doesn’t really contain EVERYTHING I draw. Sometimes when I’m at home I sketch on leftover printer paper I’ve had lying around for a while. It’s a little larger and so much cheaper than a sketchbook, so it’s nice for pieces I don’t feel are too precious. Sketching with a fountain pen is pretty boss! I’ve never tried it but my initial sketches are so rough, I think it’d be a mess!!