Goodbye Type Builder

Type Builder ran out of gas, and I decided to leave it sitting on the side of the information highway. The lessons, which are viewed daily by people all over the planet, will remain.

What's next? Something more spontaneous, less planned.

Why? Creative work is process oriented, step by step, but the process yields mistakes and unexpected revelations that are both captivating and difficult to contextualize.

My next project, Unfinished Business, will highlight the the hidden outcomes of design. It won't be polished, but it will be honest.

'Pen' Tool Secrets: Anchor Point Lettering Technique

In This Lesson...

  • When Illustrator automatically joins two paths
  • Why keeping paths separate is useful
  • An easy workaround for precision and separation

'Pen' Tool Quirks

For all it's usefulness as a design tool, Adobe Illustrator still has some interesting little quirks that users must figure out how to work around. One of these quirks, involving the 'Pen' tool, used to drive me absolutely nuts. As I've detailed in previous posts I rarely vector trace using a continuous, point-by-point path that travels around the perimeter of a letterform. Instead, I prefer to construct letters in separate parts and combine with the 'Shape Builder' tool. But, working this way lead me to encounter the same problem over and over. Take a look...


Keep Paths Separate

See the problem? It's subtle but annoying. When using the 'Pen' tool to start a new path at the end anchor point of an existing path, Illustrator automatically joins the two. Quite often this is a useful feature, but there are times when keeping paths separate is highly beneficial for editing purposes and/or reusing segments of paths on similarly shaped letterforms. So, is there a work around? You bet!

Click. Space. Drag.


How did I do that? Unlike some workarounds, this technique is oh-so-easy: (You'll need to have Smart Guides turned on in order for this to work.)

  1. Using the 'Pen' tool, click the start of a new path near, but not on, the end anchor point of an existing path.
  2. Keep the mouse button pressed down.
  3. Press the Spacebar and drag the newly created point to the end anchor point of the existing path you wish to start from.
  4. Let go of the Spacebar and drag the Bezier Handles any direction you choose.

There you have it...a quick and easy way to achieve precision anchor point placement while maintaining two separate paths!

Next Time on Type Builder

Next time around, I'll introduce an obscure little tool for connecting paths. It might seem a bit strange, but for the vector lettering artist, it's a handy little gem packed with time-saving, accuracy-improving functionality.

InkScribe Part 2: Anchor Point Perfection

In the previous Type Builder I introduced the InkScribe plugin for Adobe Illustrator and hyped its incredible potential to become your next vector lettering super tool. In this lesson I'll take a closer look at the tool and answer the following questions:

  1. What exactly is the InkScribe plugin?
  2. What is the Smart Add/Remove Anchor Point (SARAP) feature?
  3. How do I personally use InkScribe and SARAP to help improve the speed and appearance of my vector lettering?

Plus, I'm going to include one super simple time saving tip to help make InkScribe an even more efficient tool. Here we go!

What exactly is the InkScribe plugin?

InkScribe is Astute Graphics' ambitious 'Pen' tool replacement plugin. The team at Astute Graphics sought to provide designers with a more intuitive drawing experience, so they packed InkScribe with all kinds of awesome, time shaving functionality. Don't believe me? Check out this sweet little promo page to see for yourself: InkScribe Features.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I don't personally use InkScribe as the drawing tool it's intended to be. I happen to like the 'Pen' tool and feel that InkScribe's strengths lie in its abilities as a world class path editing tool. To be clear, I find InkScribe most useful after roughing in my trace with the 'Pen' tool (a bit more on this later). Regardless of how you choose to use it, InkScribe's $36 price tag (currently) makes it an absolute steal for the serious vector lettering artist.

What is the Smart Add/Remove Anchor Point (SARAP) feature?

One of InkScribe's many features, SARAP is a quick and easy way to both add and remove a path's anchor points, an ability that shines brightest on extra curvy paths. All ye who fear the letter 'S' and hand drawn scripts, REJOICE! By simply holding Alt and hovering over a selected path, SARAP can...

  1. Determine the best place to add key anchor points
    • Properly placed anchor points help to preserve the overall integrity of a curve when editing.
  2. Remove unnecessary or unwanted anchor points
    • Sometimes, problematic anchor points can make your path difficult to edit or visually unappealing.

The big takeaway here is that SARAP knows and shows you the best place for anchor points as they relate to the path you're attempting to draw.

How do I personally use InkScribe and SARAP to help improve the speed and appearance of my vector lettering?

Can InkScribe take the wheel and trace my hand lettering sketches to geometric and aesthetic perfection while I sit back and sip coffee?

Not exactly. Below, you'll find a video of me tracing an 'S' that shows just how useful this tool can be for vector lettering. As you watch, keep two things in mind...

  1. My use of the 'Pen' tool for the initial trace is super sloppy. I would NEVER recommend tracing like this, but as you'll see, InkScribe is totally up to the challenge.
  2. When I'm using InkScribe, all I'm doing is holding down Alt, clicking the mouse, and occasionally dragging the path to reposition. Nothing fancy here.

A Tiny Tip

Earlier in this lesson, I mentioned that InkScribe is intended to be a 'Pen' tool replacement, but I use it more as a path editor for my vector lettering. Admittedly, I could be called out for this (somewhat) bass ackwards approach considering that Astute Graphics actually has a powerful tool made specifically for path editing (called PathScribe), but sometimes tools prove useful in ways beyond their intended functionality. If you do decide to purchase InkScribe and use it in the way I've recommended, I have one tiny tip that will make your user experience easier: Create an Illustrator hotkey (mine is the number 1). This way, you can quickly shift between the 'Pen' tool (P), InkScribe (1), 'Direct Selection' tool (A), and so on.

Next Time on Type Builder

Check back soon as I'll be introducing a 'Pen' tool tip that is sure to solve an annoying lettering problem common to Adobe Illustrator.

InkScribe Part 1: An Error Free Way to Add and Remove Anchor Points

In This Lesson...

  • Review: Mapping anchor points
  • Review: Bezier handles at constrained angles
  • How a perfect trace can still be imperfect
  • Introduction of Smart Add/Remove Anchor Point

Remember Mapping

Awhile back, I posted a lesson about Mapping Anchor Points Before You Trace your hand lettering sketches in Adobe Illustrator. This is a great technique for both beginning letterers and advanced pros. Why? It helps you find the "extrema" of your letters, understand where crucial anchor points should be placed and, in turn, speeds up the vector tracing process.

Bezier Constraints

Another related technique you've probably seen or read about is the practice of keeping bezier handles at constrained angles (0, 45, 90, etc). This topic that has been discussed in great length by whip-smart type designers in articles like this one: Bezier OCD Or Why You Should Know About Point Placement. Long story short, mapping anchor points and constraining bezier handle angles are considered best practice because they help ensure that curves are shapely and transitions smooth. If you use these techniques to trace your hand lettering, great! Keep at it. You'll consistently create beautiful letterforms.

Perfect Trace, Imperfect Letterforms

However, there will always be times when even a perfectly traced sketch doesn't pass the eye test and needs refinement. When that happens, and I feel like like a curve isn't round enough or tight enough or somehow feels "off," there's a tool with an amazingly simple, yet effective, function that I rely on to make the necessary adjustments...

A Smarter Approach to Anchor Points

Allow me to introduce the Smart Add/Remove Anchor Point feature from Astute Graphics 'InkScribe' tool! What is the 'InkScribe' tool, how does it work, and most importantly, how can the Smart Add/Remove Anchor Point feature help improve the speed and appearance of your vector lettering? I'll dive into those questions and more in an upcoming, expanded lesson that details how I use the 'InkScribe' tool to refine almost every letter I create.

In the meantime here's a quick video teaser that shows just how powerful this tool can be in the hands of the vector lettering artist:


Next Time on Type Builder

On the next installment of Type Builder, I'll walk through the basics of InkScribe's embarrassingly easy, yet effective, Smart Add/Remove Anchor Point feature. I'll also provide examples of the tool in action and hopefully, fill your head with all kinds of creative lettering possibilities.

Remove Serifs, Add Style

In This Lesson...

  • First add, then subtract
  • Serif considerations
  • Creating sans serif letters from serif style type

Reverse Method

Last week I presented a nifty way to add serifs to sans serif type. Well, this week I'll show a similar process, only we'll be subtracting serifs to create elegant, custom made, sans serif letterforms.

Be Careful!

Before I begin, a quick word of caution. Removing serifs is a trickier game than adding them. Type with serifs has been thoughtfully designed, so simply hacking serifs off without careful consideration is unlikely to end well. Think about the style/mood you're trying to achieve, and choose a typeface carefully. As always, don't be afraid to draw and edit a ton BEFORE moving on to your vector trace!

Chop n' Trim

The steps that follow are nearly identical to last week's lesson, but there are a few key differences to note along the way:


  • I've chosen a typeface called Big Caslon Medium because it's got a nice mix of thick and thin strokes and wide, sweeping serifs that should be somewhat challenging to remove.
  • After you choose a typeface, type a word in Illustrator (or any other graphics software), and set the color to a light/middle gray value.


  • Print out a copy of your word on cheap, 8.5" x 11" paper.
  • If you have a light table and tracing paper, use 'em. If not, you can draw directly on top of your printout, but I'd recommend printing a few extra copies.


  • Now for the fun part. Use the serif typeface you selected as the bones for your hand lettering, and experiment with removing and/or reshaping the serifs.
  • Remember, the type you selected is merely a skeleton at this point. Don't hesitate to redraw entire sections of a letter to fit the style you're trying to achieve.


  • Scan or photograph your new, custom lettering and place it onto a locked layer in Adobe Illustrator.


  • Create a new layer and put your vector skills to work by tracing your sketch.
  • When you finish, you'll have designed custom, sans serif lettering that you can't find anywhere else!

Next Time on Type Builder

The 'InkScribe' tool from Astute Graphics is one of my absolute must have tools. Sure, I could find a way to get along without it, but it'd be a huge blow to my workflow. The reason? Find out next week in Part 1 of a two part series dedicated to one of the most useful tool features in all of Adobe Illustrator.

Drawing Custom Serifs on Sans Serif Letters

In This Lesson...

  • When originality is unoriginal
  • The inspiration of Frankentype
  • How to draw serifs on sans serif type

Mr. Originality

For the longest time, I was convinced that my custom type needed to be 100% original, wrought from the inner sanctum of my creative being. But after awhile, I noticed something: All of my hand lettering was beginning to have the same look and feel. The reason was simple: My feeble little mind can only create so much on it's own. At some point, like all artists, designers, and illustrators, I was going to have to access reference material to expand my horizon of possibilities and replenish my creative thinking abilities.


Then, one day I had the thought, "What if I just Frankenstiened an existing typeface?" So, I typed a word in Helvetica, printed it out, taped the print to my LightTracer 2, slapped a piece of tracing paper on top, and went to town! When I finished, I was pleasantly surprised by what I'd drawn. My lettering had the bones of Helvetica, but the style, the flesh and blood, was an entirely original creation. Excitement!

Super Simple Sassy Serifs

In today's lesson, I'll provide a quick breakdown that explains how to add custom serifs to an everyday, sans serif typeface, and I think you'll be encouraged by the versatility this simple technique adds to your type game.


  • I've chosen the typeface DIN Condensed Bold for its height, weight, and clean/modern construction.
  • After you choose a typeface, type a word in Illustrator (or any other graphics software), and set the color to a light/middle gray value.


  • Print out a copy of your word on cheap, 8.5" x 11" paper.
  • If you have a light table and tracing paper, use 'em. If not, you can draw directly on top of your printout, but I'd recommend printing a few extra copies.


  • Now for the fun part. Use the sans serif typeface you selected as the bones for your hand lettering, and experiment with all kinds of fancy schmancy serif styles.


  • Scan or photograph your new, custom lettering and place it onto a locked layer in Adobe Illustrator.


  • Create a new layer and put your vector skills to work by tracing your sketch.
  • When you finish, you'll have successfully performed type surgery and created custom, serif lettering that you can't find anywhere else!

Next Time on Type Builder

This week I showed you how to draw super simple sassy serifs onto an existing sans serif typeface. Next week, I'm headed in reverse, as in removing serifs to create to a funky sans serif type specimen!

Custom Shadow Textures in Illustrator

In This Lesson...

  • Updated lesson plan
  • An easy way to make your custom lettering stand out
  • Shadow texture breakdown

A Change of Plans

At the end of the last Type Builder lesson, I hinted at introducing a tool for hand lettering on the fly in Adobe Illustrator. I was referring to the 'Blob Brush' tool, but after some initial planning for the post, I decided to delay the 'Blob Brush' breakdown because the lesson was becoming a bit more complicated than I'd hoped for.

Custom Shadow Textures

With that out of the way, allow me to introduce today's topic: How to make custom shadow textures for your type in Illustrator!

The process for making custom shadow textures is simple, but it's a high impact effect that's certain to add a touch of class to your vector lettering.

In this lesson I'll lay out a quick, step-by-step guide then provide a few examples of custom made shadow textures to get your creative wheels turning.

Follow Along!

For this breakdown, I'll be using a typeface I designed called BoHammer Script, but your own vector lettering samples (along with typefaces from your Illustrator library) will work just as well.

Here we go!


  • Create two layers in Illustrator: Type Layer and Shadow Layer.


  • Type Layer will have the word you're using. Select the word, then copy and paste in place on the Shadow Layer.
  • Next, make the word a compound path and lock the Shadow Layer.


  • Now, select your word in the Type Layer and perform an offset path from the 'Object' dropdown menu (play with the offset amount to find your desired effect).
  • Copy the newly offset letters, delete, paste in back, group, and change the color to match the composition's background.
  • Then, lock the Type Layer.


  • Unlock the Shadow Layer, select your word, and position to your liking.
  • This will give you your first look at how the shadow will appear.


  • Now it's time to create the texture for your shadow. For this example, I'll be making a crosshatching texture.
  • The opportunities for textures and patterns are endless.


  • Working in the Shadow Layer, I'll draw a diagonal line at 45 degrees somewhere on the artboard.
  • Then, I'll copy and paste a new line and drag it to the other side of the artboard.
  • Shift-select the original line, and create a 'Blend' between the two.


  • To achieve the crosshatching look, simply copy the blend, paste in place, and reflect vertically.
  • Then, select both blends, group, copy, delete, and paste in back.


  • Now position the crosshatching texture behind the shadow word.
  • Select both, right click, and choose 'Make Clipping Mask.'


  • Congrats! You just custom built a one of a kind shadow texture for your lettering.


If you're more of a visual learner, here's a quick video that shows the whole process from start to finish:



Finally, here are a few more examples to help inspire some creative thinking:

Next Time on Type Builder

Did you know that you can use an existing typeface as a guide for your hand lettering? In the next lesson I'll explain how I draw serifs on top of sans-serif type to create beautiful, custom letterforms.

PS...Sign up below to have Type Builder delivered directly to your inbox!

Letter Better with Illustrator's 'Width' Tool

In This Lesson...

  • The 'Outline' method of vector tracing
  • Is there a faster way to trace ornate letterforms?
  • Using Adobe Illustrator's 'Width' tool

Tried & True

Most of the time, vector tracing your hand lettering looks something like this during the construction phase:

The way I vector trace may be a bit different from the way you do it, but I'm willing to bet that both of our methods are based on tracing around the perimeter of a letterform. This is a tried and true method, the best practice, and it works for just about any letter style you could hope to create. However, it isn't the only method, and since the goal of Type Builder is "Clean Letters. Fast Vectors." I'd like to share a sweet little timesaver that may just revolutionize the way you vector trace your hand lettering in Adobe Illustrator.

Width Magic

Let's say this fancy schmancy "I" is one of your sketches. Sure, it was fun to draw, but when you open Illustrator, you feel a twinge of regret because you know that ornate letters like this can be a bear to trace.

Enter the 'Width' tool. As one of Illustrator's standard offerings, the 'Width' tool is super handy and should be a regular part of the lettering artist's vector arsenal. Allow me to show you why.

With your fancy sketch on a locked layer at 30% opacity in Illustrator, use the 'Pen' tool to trace along the top arm of the "I".

Here's where things get cool! Instead of tracing the bottom edge of the arm, you can use the 'Width' tool to do this:


Magnifique! The 'Width' tool gives you the ability to add shape to any path with a simple click and drag of the mouse.

(Note: To add width to both sides of a path uniformly, simply click and drag on the width point. To add width to one side of a path, hold down the 'Alt' key while dragging on the width point.)

Up Your Game

When it comes to vector tracing your hand lettering in Adobe Illustrator, the 'Width' tool opens up a ton of possibilities. Like any tool, it has it's limitations (especially as paths widen and curve tolerances tighten), so you'll need to take time to experiment and learn its nuances. Overall, the 'Width' tool is a huge timesaver, easy to use, and helps ensure clean, consistent stroke widths in complex letterforms. Give it a try!

Next Time on Type Builder

On the next Type Builder, I'll share a simple tool that's bound to expand your sense of what's possible when it comes to hand drawing letters on the fly in Adobe Illustrator.

PS...Sign up below to have Type Builder delivered directly to your inbox!