'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.

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!

Draw Organic Letters Using Illustrator's Pencil Tool

In This Lesson...

  • A way to break free from Illustrator's 'Pen' tool
  • The organic possibilities of Illustrator's 'Pencil' tool
  • A step-by-step approach to using the 'Pencil' tool for clean, flowing letterforms

Vector Naturalist

So, you just drew this super organic letterform. It's all flowy and curvy and intricately detailed, and now you're wondering, "How do I vector this thing? Do I seriously have to endure the tedium of the 'Pen' tool's point-by-point precision? What's the point of creative spontaneity if I have to be confined to the geometric limits of bezier handles?!?"

Take heart, embattled letterer! There's another way, a more natural, hands-on way. Behold, the 'Pencil' tool. One of Illustrator's unsung heros, the 'Pencil' tool provides hand lettering artists with a way to trace organic letterforms that's as easy as using...a pencil.

Here's how it works (Note: This method works best if you're using a drawing tablet like an Intuos.)


  • Draw up any letter, using any organic style you like.


  • Now scan or photograph that drawing, and drop it into a locked layer in Adobe Illustrator.


  • Double click the 'Pencil' tool to bring up its settings box. There are a few different levels of control, and the options you select really do have an impact on line quality and workflow. Experiment to find the settings that work best for you and the letter you're tracing. Here's a screenshot of the settings I use most frequently:


  • Feel free to use the path style, color, and thickness you prefer. I typically use the 'Pencil' tool as a means of shape creation, so I keep these settings simple:


  • Now that you're all set up, use your stylus to trace your letterform as accurately as you can. Go ahead and let paths intersect, and don't worry if the trace starts to look a little messy. You'll clean it up a bit later.


  • Highlight all the paths you created, and use the 'Shape Builder' tool to merge your letterform into a shape. Then, hide the shape, and delete any leftover segments.
  • 'Hide' Object Shortcut: Cmd-3 (Mac) or Ctrl-3 (PC)
  • 'Unhide' Object Shortcut: Cmd-Alt-3 (Mac) or Ctrl-Alt-3 (PC)


  • Just like with the 'Pen' tool, you may want to tweak and adjust your new shape until it looks the way you intend.

Bingo Bango!

You just achieved a clean, beautiful letterform with flowing, organic appeal, and you did so completely free of the 'Pen' tool's iron grip!

Next Time on Type Builder

Just like you, I'm always learning new things about making letters. Recently, I started experimenting with Adobe Illustrator's 'Width' tool, and I couldn't be more excited to share the lettering possibilities it's opened up. Check back next week to learn a few basic tips that may change your entire approach to vector lettering!

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

Brush Pen Lettering for Adobe Illustrator

In This Lesson...

  • The popularity of brush pen lettering
  • A reminder about practice
  • How to turn your crappy brush pen lettering into beautiful client work

Brushy & Beautiful

Every time I'm on Instagram, I see tons of amazing posts featuring brush pen lettering work. The level of talent is inspiring, and I love seeing more people exploring the incredible creative capabilities of pen and paper. That being said, if you ever actually pick up a brush pen and put it to use, you'll soon find that it takes serious skill to draw beautiful letterforms with the flick of a wrist.

Brushy & Blah

If your brush pen lettering stinks (as mine often does), there's only one way to see improvement - PRACTICE! Like any artistic skill worth having, it takes time to develop command, but eventually you'll see positive results. In the meantime I have a wild suggestion: Even if you're not very good, use brush pen lettering in your client work! Don't worry, I'm not trying to derail your design career.

Brushy & Benjamin$

As I mentioned earlier, my own brush pen lettering isn't too hot, but I still use it in my client work because it provides character and freedom of expression that ready-made fonts often fail to deliver...plus it's easy! Here's how I use it:


  • Using a light colored marker with a brush nib, draw a word using whatever style suits you.


  • Refine your letters with a pencil directly on top of the brush pen markings. (One of the perks of using a brush pen is that the thickness of your letters should be relatively consistent throughout.)


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


  • It's showtime! When you finish this step, you'll have a 100% custom set of letters that will make your clients beam!

As you can see, using your brush pen lettering is a straightforward process that yields one-of-a-kind results. Using it for client work is a great way to build confidence in your hand lettering, and it gives you the opportunity to further practice vector tracing.

Next Time on Type Builder

Adobe Illustrator's 'Pencil' tool is an overlooked vector lettering hero. On the next Type Builder, I'll show how I use the 'Pencil' tool to achieve clean letters with a loose, handmade feel.

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

Remove Excessive Anchor Points from Your Lettering

In This Lesson...

  • How too many anchor points makes vector lettering a pain
  • Astute Graphics' 'Smart Remove Brush' Tool

Excessively Anchored

Here's the scenario: You've handdrawn a beautiful, script styled 'Z' and painstakingly vector traced it in Adobe Illustrator using a stroked, calligraphic brush. Nice work!

Now, for any number of reasons, let's say that you have to outline your stroked path(s) to create a shape.

Yuck! Look at all those anchor points! You may not know it, but these little guys can turn your vector lettering project into a hellish nightmare. How? By nullifying bezier handle control and severely impeding your ability to modify shapes quickly and accurately. Take a look at this video and see how difficult it is to manage all these points when editing.


Clean Letters. Fast Vectors. 

So, how does one quickly remove the excessive anchor points that come with outlining a stroked path? There are a couple of options, but there's only one tool that I absolutely trust to maintain the core geometry of shapes while removing non-essential anchor points: Astute Graphics' 'Smart Remove Brush' tool (part of the VectorScribe v2 plug-in pack).

Check out the video below to see the 'Smart Remove Brush' tool in action. The tool is super simple to use, just point and click, but it also has variables that allow you to control brush size and strength. I started using the 'Smart Remove Brush' two years ago, and it's been an extreme time saver with my client work.  If you're intrigued, I'd recommend downloading the free trial to experiment and see whether or not this tool would be a helpful addition to your workflow.


Next Time on Type Builder

The hand lettering scene is bursting with beautiful brush pen work. Brush pens are a great way to add style and character to any design, but you don't have to be a master penman to use them effectively. Check back next time for some practical tips on using brush pen markings as a base for vector tracing sophisticated letterforms.

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

Extend and Trim Illustrator Paths with Ease

In This Lesson...

  • A better way to extend and trim vector paths in Adobe Illustrator
  • Capabilities of the 'Path Extend' tool
  • Using the 'Path Extend' tool for vector lettering
  • Thoughts on investing in tools

My Favorite Plugin

Let's get right to the point. When you're vector tracing hand lettering in Adobe Illustrator, there will come a time when you'll need to make a path you've drawn shorter or longer. Traditionally, this would be a task for the 'Pen' tool, but there's a highly effective alternative available.

Last time on Type Builder, I introduced Astute Graphics (AG) plugins for Adobe Illustrator and went on and on about how good they are. Well, my feelings haven't changed, and I'm genuinely excited to introduce AG's 'Path Extend' tool. Easily my favorite feature of the AG VectorScribe v2 plugin set, the 'Path Extend' tool is feature packed and the perfect addition to your vector lettering toolbox.

Features Galore!

So, what exactly is the 'Path Extend' tool capable of?

  • Lengthening paths using one of four extension modes:
    1. Single Bezier
    2. Constant Radius
    3. Straight
    4. Spiral with Winding Constant
  • Shortening paths
  • Trimming paths to points of intersection with other paths or guides
  • Reversing the curvature of a path
  • Lengthening or shortening paths based on specific distances

Additionally, the 'Path Extend' tool has an easy-to-use control panel that allows for tweaking all kinds of variables.

Lettering & The 'Path Extend' Tool

Now that I've introduced the 'Path Extend' tool, I'd like to share five practical ways that I use it to help vector trace my hand lettering in Illustrator:

  1. Visualizing and reshaping paths along more natural, geometrically sound curves
    • This becomes particularly useful when the curves in your reference sketch aren't quite right (flat, skewed, too round, etc).
  2. Quickly adding or subtracting long path segments with precision
  3. Closing small gaps before using the 'Shape Builder' tool
  4. Adding detail and flourishes using the 'Spiral' extension option
  5. Freestyling new, undrawn curves with confidence

Check out this quick video to see the 'Path Extend' tool in action.


A Word on Cost

It's worth mentioning that Astute Graphics plugins aren't cheap. They're high end vector drawing tools, and acquiring them is an investment. With time and practice, the return on your investment will mirror the Type Builder motto, "Clean Letters. Fast Vectors." When you work clean and fast, you stand to profit from your vector lettering abilities. If you're on the fence, I recommend you...

  • Browse the Astute Graphics website for more information
  • Download the 14-day free trial and try the plugins for yourself
  • Leave a question for me in the 'Comments' section below

Next Time on Type Builder

On the next TypeBuilder, I'll review another nifty Astute Graphics tool that helps smooth out rough spots in curves and remove excessive anchor points (which can make editing paths a nightmare).

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