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Manual Comic Book Lettering

Updated on February 19, 2016

Tools of the Trade and letters

Speedball set you can get anywhere.
Speedball set you can get anywhere. | Source
Actually a Hunt 108, but 107 is very similar..
Actually a Hunt 108, but 107 is very similar.. | Source
Great little diagram about the Ames.  Check out Warmland Calligraphers for even more cool stuff about the Ames lettering guide.
Great little diagram about the Ames. Check out Warmland Calligraphers for even more cool stuff about the Ames lettering guide. | Source
These are the actual instructions from the fabulous Ames.
These are the actual instructions from the fabulous Ames. | Source
Still available at the Alvin website.
Still available at the Alvin website. | Source
Figure 3 Leroy lettering on stickyback mylar.
Figure 3 Leroy lettering on stickyback mylar. | Source
Figure 3A Computer printed lettering on stickyback mylar.  Using word processing program of your choice to print on mylar.
Figure 3A Computer printed lettering on stickyback mylar. Using word processing program of your choice to print on mylar. | Source

Sometimes Old School is the Best School

So before computers... There were T-squares, Crowquill pens, Ames lettering guide, French Curves, Ellipse templates, plunger pens and markers. And most importantly hands to use them.

So in a nutshell here is the process:

1 - Find the white space, or the non-dominant space. As mentioned before, letters accompany the story, they are secondary to the artwork of the panels.

2 - Pencil in or blue line guides with your Ames lettering guide. Set your guide to around 3-3.5 for proper line spacing. Then block in your lettering lightly in pencil or blueline lead so you can properly center your letters.

3 - Letter. Use your T-square to hold either your Ames or favorite triangle to use for vertical strokes if you like to. Not required, but it may speed up the process until you develop consistent vertical strokes.

4 - Draw your bubbles. Use your ellipse template for the main bubble and french curve for the tails to show who's talking.

The Letters

The greatest tools known to comics are the Crow quill Ink pen and the Ames lettering guide. These are two primary tools ($2.95 Ames, $6-10 for pens) needed in your arsenal to conquer the lettering trade along with your T-square and table.

That and a few hundred hours of practicing your lettering for hours a day. Manual lettering takes lots of practice to develop your characters and style. The great thing that hand lettering has over computer lettering is that letters have more character since they are not all identical and slightly random. Which is funny because computer letterer's try to achieve the slight randomness of hand lettering, go figure.

It makes for interesting reading if you can BOLD or BOLD ITALICIZE words that express emphasis in the phrasing of the character speaking. This is something I often forget. But it really does break up the monotony of the letters.

Pen tips

You'll undoubtedly read that particular pen tips have to be used for lettering, Hunt 107 being the primary tip used by professionals.

But I tend to use the "whatever's in my box" attitude towards lettering. I have a box full of about 30 or so pen tips and I just grab whatever seems to be working for me at the time.

I have a heavy hand so I tend to use a tip that will support this tendency like a 512 or 513, and yes I use a Hunt 107 also. I prefer the type B larger pen holder though because I have a weird way of holding pens with both my index and middle finger bent into pen as opposed to just a dominant index finger over the top of the pen which has a much softer touch.

Therefore I have a slightly different chiseled end for pen lettering. What I mean is that I sand the tip of my lettering pen tip at an angle so that horizontal strokes are bolder than vertical strokes.

Chiseling is the secret that you don't hear about too much. Just a little bit of sanding with a 400-600 grit sandpaper makes all the difference, not only for lettering but for some inking applications too.

It is also helpful to do some light sanding on your tip flat surfaces to remove the machining oil and coating on the tip to break in your tips in without getting frustrated with a good tip that will not drop a solid line. Remember LIGHT sanding! Sand a bit, test, clean, sand a bit more, test again.

I have also used an ink pen lettering machine to letter like old school EC Comics. It provides a consistent lettering but can be difficult to fit letters occasionally since they are a fixed size.

You can find Alvin and K+E machines at garage sales here and there. Amazingly Alvin still sells them new. I've had mine since my board drafting days doing civil drawing in the 80's.

The Bubbles

There are two basic methods generally used for drawing bubbles for comic panels. You can letter and draw bubbles directly on the pencilled drawing board (Figure 1), or you can draw them on other blank strathmore stock and cut them out and glue them to the inked pages (Figure 2).

Actually I've used a third method where I draw the bubble lines onto the pencilled page and then lettered on sticky back mylar sheets (translucent mylar with adhesive on the back), cutting out the letter area and then sticking it onto the page (Figure 3).  This is the one I like best. It allows for correction if needed like the bubble glue on method but without the sticky wait to dry time.

And back when I couldn't afford graphic arts software I had a hybrid computer/manual method where I would format letters with a word processing program and print on stickyback mylar to cut and place on pages (Figure 3A).  

Of course the fastest method is to letter and draw bubbles directly onto the pencilled page. If you make a mistake you can fall back on the glue bubble method to cover over your mistakes. White out sometimes does it, but lettering over whiteout is generally a mess. Remember though that more whiteout is not better. Thin coats are easier to re-letter on.

The bubble and caption panels are usually drawn with either a Koh-i-nor Rapidograph pen (my favorite) or a Micron fine tip marker both work well. The problem with Rapidograph pens is they need to be cleaned regularly. The problems with markers is that they dry up. So pick your poison.

Use an ellipse template to draw the main bubble or a french curve, and then draw the tail with a french curve. Thought bubbles are easiest drawn with the ellipse template, but I've found that freehanding it works quite well.

My favorite Charlton books and most golden age books were done with everything freehand. However neat and clean you want to be. Any letters and bubbles will tell the story.

If you are publishing in color you can also color the bubbles and captions inside to help emphasize the lettering. Even in grayscale you can tone them for emphasis.

There are many other methods I'm sure I have not covered. These are just the basics I have personally used. Working with your hands at least for a short time will help you to understand proper placement of lettering elements and the value of supplementing and not overpowering the comic artwork you are creating.

Thanks for reading this Hub, stay tuned for Digital Lettering Coming soon!

Your Friend and Fan,

Mike Rickaby
CE Publishing Group

© 2011 Comic Enterprise Publishing Group


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    • CEPubdude profile imageAUTHOR

      Michael Rickaby 

      7 years ago from Centennial, Colorado

      Thanks, Matt. Should have some photos up soon. Your Mortal Combat review was Great. I really liked the commercials I saw for that game.

    • Matt in Jax profile image

      Matt in Jax 

      7 years ago from Jacksonville, FL

      Really nice Hub.

    • CEPubdude profile imageAUTHOR

      Michael Rickaby 

      7 years ago from Centennial, Colorado

      Thanks Uncorrectedvision,

      Yeah I've got boxes and boxes of dinosaurs. I sometimes feel as though computers have single handedly killed a large portion of the jobforce. And in the process killed some of the real skills one had with their hands. At least transitioned them to a new media.

      Stay tuned. I'll have more scans I just didn't have time to get into this hub.

    • uncorrectedvision profile image


      7 years ago from Indiana

      I have, in a shoe box in a closet, every arcane drawing instrument you have described. I also have a slide rule. It is like owning dinosaur bones. The delight one feels about the accomplishments, attachments or pleasures of our youth is priceless. Thanks for a hub that brought back my days at the drawing board.


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