Refining a Lettering Piece by Hand

Building off of my previous article on sketching, below I am going to answer some questions and explain my process for refining a lettering piece. 

First off, what does refining mean?

Refining is when I trace over a rough sketch and finesse all of the details. This step comes after I have gotten all my initial ideas out, and selected a concept sketch (or multiple sketches) to focus on.

There can be a bit of a gray area when it comes to sketching vs. refining. Sometimes I'll be sketching, and then I start refining an idea, then I move on and keep sketching other ideas. However, I try to keep them divided into two separate stages because I find it to be hindering when I'm trying to think creatively (sketching/ideation) versus analytically (cleaning up/refining).

Why refine a sketch by hand?

I can't speak for everyone, but I'm never satisfied with the first sketch of a lettering piece, so it's pretty obvious why refinement is such a crucial step. But why do I choose to do it this away from the computer?

Simply put, I make better, more confident decisions when working with my hands. It's just easier for me to solve the problems well by hand than having to start dealing with anchor points in Illustrator.

That's not to say I have never used a computer for refining my lettering. Sometimes I'll draw the skeleton for my lettering crooked by accident, so I'll scan it in and correct this in Photoshop. But then I typically print it back out and keep working by hand. I use the computer for what it's good for, and use my hands for everything else.

Sketching and refining by hand also tends to result in more happy accidents that really enhance the piece.

Sure, I'm not able to undo or tweak things as easily with my hands, but sometimes it's best not to have a million options. Also, drawing letters by hand helps me to better understand the letterforms and how they were created in the first place.

How do you know when a sketch is ready to be refined? In other words, how do you select the concept(s) to move forward with?

With dozens to choose from, how you know which one to refine? Well, a lot of it is intuition but I'll try to break it down. 

I choose the sketch that best enhances the content of the lettering. If I'm not sure, I will refine multiple ideas to figure out which one is working/looking better. It's basically a lot of trial and error until I find something I am satisfied with. 

I also love a good challenge, so I like to try out styles that I've never done before for my personal work, just based on my mood.

What tools do you use for refinement?

I try not to focus too much on the tools I use, but for refining I think it's important to have a certain level of precision, for which some tools are just better. So here are are a few of the most important tools I use for this step:

Mechanical Pencils - I use several widths of mechanical pencils (0.3 to 0.9mm) for no other reasons besides they save me the time of sharpening and they always produce a consistent line.

Blackwing Pencils - These are a pleasure to use, and are great when I don't need the perfect precision of a mechanical pencil. They never break like cheap pencils, and the big rectangular eraser comes in handy quite frequently.


Retractable Eraser Stick  - A thin, retractable eraser is a great for precise edits. These things last me weeks when I can chew through a pencil eraser in just a couple days.

I'm always building my collection of tools and trying out new ones. I use a variety of felt tip pens used to do the final drawing (micron, copic, sharpie — there's not much of a difference here). Obviously, a ruler and compass come in handy for checking alignments and drawing straight/curved lines with precision.

Sometimes the tool has a big influence on the design. This is anything from fine point microns, brush pens, chisel tips, paint brushes, paint markers, and even homemade instruments. Anything you can dip in ink or paint works as an instrument. I like to experiment and see what kind of line each tool inherently makes when tracing over the letters. More on that later.

How do you refine the composition and make everything flow nicely?

At this point, there's a rough sketch that looks like a worth-while direction to take the piece. I like to scan in my sketch and make it a bit larger so I have more control in this stage.

A simple thin line pencil sketch sets the stage for where each letter will go and roughly how much space it will take up. I get all the letters in place before focusing too much on adding decoration.

Then I lay a piece of tracing paper and draw out a few lines to guide my letters into place. I'm already thinking about what to improve from the rough sketch, and the guides help me plan out how wide letters will be, as well as the spacing between them.


Moving relatively quickly, I redraw each letter in the containers I set with the guides. I will often draw outside the lines on purpose to see how it looks, just continually erasing and retracing until I'm satisfied.

What are you thinking about or looking for when refining your lettering?

Refining lettering is just as much about observation as it is about the actual making process. It's impossible to fully teach this in a blog post. It takes tons of practice to train your eye and your hand to make good decisions when refining.

The goal is to create balance, harmony and flow between the shapes and throughout the piece. To do this, I look for all of the inconsistencies between the letters and negative spaces, and try to make them work together as one whole.

Defining The Variables in Lettering

When it comes down to it, each lettering piece I make abides by a set of "rules". In other words, this means repeating the same treatments and patterns to establish uniformity between the letters.

This doesn't mean that the rules can't be broken. It's just harder to break the rules effectively unless they are acknowldged in the first place. 

I'm sure you've noticed when you look at a cohesive lettering piece, that all of the letters are treated similarly. So let's break it down. Here are some of the variables that are taken into consideration:

  • Letter Style - Based on calligraphy styles and typefaces. Ex. Copperplate script, Didone Modern, blackletter, etc.
  • Height/Width proportion - Long and skinny, short and fat, or square?
  • Contrast  - The amount of variation between the thin strokes and the thick strokes of a letter. This can be high, medium, low, none (monoweight)
  • Weight - How heavy or light are the thickest parts of the letter?)
  • Color - In the context of designing lettering and type, this word does not mean actual color. It means the amount of black vs. white in a letterform and the space surrounding it. Ex: a big bold letter would have a darker "color" than a light whispy one.
  • Slant/angle/arc - Are the letters leaning forward like an italic? Backward? Straight up and down?
  • Stress - Where do the thick strokes go? On the verticals, the horizontals? Or diagonals?
  • Terminals - how are the ends of the letters treated? Round? Square? Angled?
  • Sharpness/roundness - When strokes in the letters curve, is it an abrupt corner angle, or does it round out smoothly?
  • Size variation - Do all the letters line up on a baseline and x-height? Or do they vary in size?

This could be a whole post in itself, so i'll stop there for now.

It takes a ton of practice to really train your eye to notice the inconsistencies things. Regardless, I acknowledge all of these factors when creating a new piece of lettering. It usually happens without thinking about it to much though, just by drawing letters boldly, or on a slant. However, sometimes I'll write out these variables and define how I want to sketch the letters in the first place.



Adding weight with different brush pens/calligraphy pens

After I have all the letters in place and the compositon is looking nice and balanced, I like to trace over the piece using various tools and angles to see how I can add weight to the letterforms. 

Because I spent the time refining my composition, this becomes so much easier to do, and less thinking is involved. All I have to do is trace over the letters, and worry about adding the weight. One task at a time — It's almost like an assembly line in this way.

The less thinking you have to do in each step, the better.



Adding flourishes to enhance a composition (harmony and balance)

Once all of the letters are in place, I lightly pencil in any extra flourishes or decorations, to see where they should sit. If I am feeling unsure about this, I will take another sheet of tracing paper and sketch the flourishes on there so I can repositon and rotate them as needed. Like most of this process, it is all done by eye — essentially trial and error. It's a bit difficult to explain, but here it goes.

When adding flourishes, my goal is to enhance the overall look of the piece without distracting from the lettering itself, and to balance out the piece if it seems to be heavier on one side. As a bonus, it also adds a little more personality and to the piece and makes it more ownable. However, sometimes it doesn't need any kind of decoration becuase the lettering has plenty of personality on its own.

I used to think there had to be some formula for adding flourishes in. Unfortunately there isn't. However the more I practice, the better I get at achieving that harmony and balance we are seeking. 

If there is a larger/heavier element on the left side (capital letter), perhaps there should be something on the right side to balance it out. Or if there is an awkward space created between the two lines, a flourish line could fill that in nicely.




Pro Tip: Turning the lettering upside down or looking at it in a mirror helps to notice the inconsistencies. This takes legibility out of the picutre, and helps to focus on the relationships between the shapes.

Getting to the Final Drawing.

Essentially I just keep going down the funnel and making changes until I'm satisfied (taking breaks along the way to refresh my eyes). 

I like to have a really clean sketch before I do a ink drawing. This helps with what I mentioned before — doing as little thinking as possible in each step. I don't want to have to make decisions at this stage. All I should be focusing on is tracing with a clean line.

I still make mistakes all the time, and I used to just clean them up in Photoshop. But lately I've started using a white out pen to achieve the precise curves that I am looking for by hand. Sometimes I will go over with whiteout, then ink over that, then whiteout again until I find the shape that I'm looking for.  You may see the ugly white smudges if you look up close, but the scanner doesn't see the difference.

One last note:

As you can see, this is a pretty laborious process. Not every lettering piece I make goes through this entire haul, but I wanted to spell all the steps out for you just to be thorough. Hopefully you got something useful out of it. If you did, definitely let me know. Or if you have any other questions, feel free to email me at

Eric Friedensohn