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Hand Lettering

Updated on February 4, 2018

Hand Lettering

If you examine any type face, regardless of its size or particular style, a number of characteristics will become apparent. For one thing, you will notice that the letters M and W are wider, and that the I and small 1 narrower, than any of the other letters in the alphabet. In the case of the M and W, the width is slightly more than the height, particularly in the lower case letter (not capitals).

Another important point to note in examining type faces is whether the letters are thick evenly throughout, or whether they are thicker in some parts than in others. Most type is of the latter variety. The letters are shaded and are called Roman. The down strokes are all heavy and the up strokes are all light. This shaded effect is shown in the Roman alphabet page 63. Note that all the up strokes, such as the left side of the capital A, the up stroke on the K and M, etc., are never heavy because they are going up at an angle. The down strokes, however, are always heavy.

In the case of circular strokes, such as those seen in the letters C, D and O, etc., the thickness varies with the maximum in the center. This also holds true for the lower case letters.

Roman letters are distinguished by what are known as serifs—little cross-lines projecting from the ends of the main lines of the letters, as the top and bottom of the capital or lower case M. Most type faces used in books, including the type in this book, are Roman and bear serifs. Examine the bottoms of any of the letters (except O) of the type you are now reading, and you will see little horizontal lines extending out beyond the vertical lines.

There is another kind of type known as sans serif, or Gothic, which has no serifs and also is not shaded. It is uniform in thickness, and gives the appearance of a regular block letter. A sample Gothic alphabet is shown on page 63.

We now have two classifications of lettering. The first kind is shaded, and is distinguished by serifs; the second has no shading, and is without serifs. For the draftsman, sans serif letters are by far the easiest to master.

When you are lettering a working drawing or a plan and you have a certain note to put in at a given place, it is inefficient and a waste of time to try to imitate a shaded serif type face. The simplest thing to do is to use a lettering pen and to make all strokes of even thickness, without considering serifs. If, on the other hand, you are doing a piece of display lettering, such as the title page of a job or the name of a firm, you will want a good display lettering which is fairly large. Naturally you would want to take more time for the job and would probably choose the Roman lettering with serifs.

Lettering on plans and shop drawings must always be done freehand. Never use a ruling pen for small lettering. There are special kinds of pens known as Speedball, made by the C. Howard Hunt Pen Company of Camden, New Jersey, which are designed for this kind of lettering. These pens may be purchased at any art store and are obtainable in various thicknesses. Your choice will depend upon the thickness of the lettering which you require.

Hand lettering—particularly the kind that the draftsman and engineer do—is separate and apart from type, and must not in any way be an imitation of type. It is a distinct, free-swinging letter made quickly by quick strokes of the Speedball pen. Anyone can do this kind of lettering and, with a little practice, can do it extremely well. No knowledge of design or type faces is necessary.

To do display lettering by hand is quite another thing, and a study of display letters is far beyond the scope of this book. For the draftsman who wants to specialize in fine hand lettering we suggest a study of specialized books in this field because it is a subject which requires concentrated attention and application.

In hand lettering it is necessary to rule only two horizontal guide lines at equal distances apart; you then use your lettering pen to form the letters between these guide lines. You do not need to resort to your triangles or other mechanical devices. Hand lettering is decidedly a matter of practice, and the more you practice the better able you will be to do it successfully.

Let us now consider the rapid kind of freehand lettering which the draftsman must be able to do. In the simple, freehand, sans serif lettering you can choose between the vertical and the italics, or slanting type. Most draftsmen find the italic lettering more convenient and quicker to do well than the vertical kind. One excellent method of learning to letter in this way is to draw between two horizontal guide lines a number of rough ellipses, all the same size and equally spaced. This is, of course, done lightly with your 2H pencil, and is shown on page 66.

With the exception of the letters i, k, 1, t, v, x, and z, these ellipses form the basis of the entire alphabet. For example, a is an ellipse with a small line at the right of it, as indicated in the drawing; b is the ellipse with a long vertical line on the left; c is the ellipse three-fourths completed; d is the ellipse with a vertical line to the right, etc. The formation of these letters is clearly shown here. You can see at once how simple and easy it is to rough out any word you choose by this ellipse method, and to quickly ink in the outline of the letter you want. Of course you must remember the straight line letters. If you have an i, 1 or t, you must leave less space than you would for a k, an x, or a z. Note also that the lower case letters m and w are two intersecting ellipses wider than the other letters.

Practice making a number of different-size alphabets by this system and you will be surprised to find how quickly you will be able to form good, clear, well defined letters, and how easily the words themselves will form.

We have said that hand lettering is a matter of practice, and if you practice by this system you will soon be able to produce good, clear, simple line-italic lettering in lower case. The capital letters are somewhat different; they are formed in blocks and not in ellipses. A system for making capital letters is shown.

Obviously, if you do not want to do lettering in italics but prefer the vertical letters, then all the ellipses which were your guides in the lower case lettering become circles. These can easily be made with the pencil bow compass.

It may be obvious, but it is nevertheless important, to point out that most of this kind of lettering is done in two or more strokes. The letters c and o are an exception. The method of drawing these strokes is shown by the arrows in the alphabet.

In the case of numerals, there are no set rules or regulations. You can use the method shown here and follow the arrows carefully, or you can choose your own method. If your numbering is clear, that is all that is necessary because numerals appear mostly on dimension lines and seldom if ever occur in groups the way words do.

One of the most important characteristics of good lettering is the ability to space carefully. This ability can only be acquired through experience. It is up to you to judge by your eye the pleasantest spacing for letters in a given word. For example, if you have the word "lettering," naturally you do not require the same size space for the two t's and the i as you do for the n and the g. Single stroke letters like i and 1 and, to a certain extent, t, require about one-fourth as much space as the average lower case letters, while the letters m and w require about three-fourths the space. The space between words should be a little more than the width of the letter m. Again, this is up to you to judge. You must decide whether your words are too widely spaced or too close together. You have seen enough type matter to gauge the spacing of words.

Always bear in mind that the kind of hand lettering which you will be doing is entirely different from hard, cold type. Your lettering should be free and loose; type is tightly cut and precisely made. Your spacing may be a little freer than the spacing of type. Your main object is to present a pleasing appearance and, at the same time, keep a loose, free style.

There is one other style of hand lettering which is important to draftsmen. It is most used in architectural drafting, and is in typical architectural style. An alphabet of capitals and lower case letters is given below. It is best to use this style for single words, such as PLANS, ELEVATIONS, etc., and to space the letters widely as shown in the words following. Sometimes dots are placed before and after each word. Note how condensed and thin all these capital letters are, with the exception of the C, G, K, O, Q, and R. The C, G, O, and Q should always be circular, while the tail on the K and R should be slightly exaggerated in length. If you are interested in doing architectural drafting, you should know this architectural lettering. Of course, when making notes on plans and elevations, free italic lettering, which has already been discussed, should be used.

The double spread on the last two pages was done by Ross F. George, a leading specialist in hand lettering and author of many books on the subject. He is also the inventor of the SPEEDBALL pen, mentioned previously. If you study the pages carefully, following the tiny arrows as they form the letters, you will soon be able to do excellent vertical lower case and capital letters to any degree of thickness. The Hunt pen is shown in various positions; it is ideal for good, clear speed lettering, of the kind shown here.

Here is a sample of very loose, free-hand lettering - the kind you should learn and be able to do quickly and neatly. Notice how free and easy it is and how different from hard, cold type. It makes no difference if your letters are not all exactly even - the object is neatness and legibility.

The vertical lettering is more difficult to do but some draftsmen prefer it. It is best to try both styles and choose the one that you find you can do the best.


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