PROCESS :: Using The Mighty Ames Lettering Guide

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Oh, bedeviling Ames Guide! How curious your strange shape, your myriad holes filled with murk and mystery. What–what??–are you for?? This is the oft-heard complaint of people trying to figure out the wild wooly trapezoid that is the Ames Lettering Guide. Myself included! But over the years I’ve gleaned some info from here and there as to its use; plus of course a fair amount of experimentation on my own to boot. Like most people, most likely.

BUT the real find was a number of years ago, when my dad gave me the ginormous drafting table I use today, which he’d rescued from an architect friend who was looking to get rid of it. The friend had been part of an architecture firm in the 60′s; in the side drawer of the table was an old crusty Ames guide with folded up instructions. I had to buy another one eventually, that I could actually see through, but the instructions were invaluable. The precision of the thing is insane–imagine needing to do something to precise metric measurements; for instance, fitting a number of letters into a finite space. In these days of computers and typographical technology, it’s hard to imagine needing it, but it works pretty great for making nice neat lettering lines for comics. I thought I’d pass on the small amount of usable info on the thing that I have, in case you, like me, are befuddled as to how to use the dad-blamed thing.

For this example I used these tools: a t-square, a blue-line pencil, a regular-colored-line pencil, the Ames guide, and some creamy toothy paper (so you can see it). Also later I use a G-nib, but I forgot to stick it in this picture, SO SUE ME:

At the bottom of the wheel are the English measurement (as in inches, feet, etc.) settings. You change settings by turning the wheel, which is kinda weird. You’ll have to fiddle with it to see what I mean, but essentially you have to hold the thing by one side to turn the wheel one way; and by the other side to turn it the other way. Crazy! For most of my own lettering, including my “real” (non-diary) comics, and my lettering for Casanova, I set it halfway between 3 and 2. Which is insanely small for you probably, so start bigger for God’s sake. Don’t be a fool like me.

There are four rows of holes, each of which run along different precise measurements. You’ll notice the 1st, 2nd, and 4th rows are grouped–that’s usually so you can have a top, middle, and bottom line, for instance if you wanted to make precise lower case letters. They work along different parameters, but you can see what and why at the bottom of this post, where I link to the little instruction sheet. For our purposes, lettering for comics, essentially you should just play around until you find something that works for you and your needs. Like any other artistic tool, what it’s designed for is not nearly as important as how YOU use it. Very important! Do whatever you like with whatever you have, is generally a good rule.

For me, I use the 3rd row, which is evenly spaced holes. I never letter with lower-case letters, and if I did, I letter so small I’d just freehand it anyway. So I use that row because the space between the rows is important to me. You want your lines to be far enough apart to be legible, but not so far that it’s aesthetically ugly, or throws off the “grey” of the lettering block as a compositional element.

SO: once you have your paper taped down to your board, and your Ames guide situated on your t-square, figure out where you want to draw some guide lines and stick the point of your pencil in the first hole, like so:

Now drag that mother over to the left. Or the right, if you started on that side. Free spirit.

Awesome, you drew a line! It feels good, doesn’t it? Now skip the next hole and stick your pencil point in the 3rd one–the leading between our letters is going to be half of the height of the letters themselves. If you don’t know what “leading” is, it refers to a piece of lead inserted between lines of movable type back in ye olden tymes, to hold the letters apart. The taller the piece of leading (rhymes with “bedding”), the greater the gap between lines on the printed page.

Okay! Now using the 3rd hole, we draw a line back in the other direction:

Then we hit the very next hole, which will be our leading:

See what I mean? Keep in mind that when you “draw” the leading, you’re both drawing the negative space between lines, AND ruling out the top guide of your next line of letters. I know that seems obvious, but it’s good to keep in mind.

Enough jibber-jabber! Let’s just cruise through the rest of our line of holes, remembering to skip a hole for your lettering spaces. You can fit up to 3 groups of guidelines in one “pass” with the Ames guide in this way, before you need to move your t-square and reset your guide. To do this, after the sixth line, draw the seventh as a leading line, under the first six–this will become the top guideline of your next set:

Now you have to eyeball things, so move your square around so that you line up that seventh line with the top hole in your set. I usually move the pencil back and forth a little just to make sure they’re lined up right.

In this way you can draw as many lines as you like. I just went for six, I’m not greedy.

Now stick some letters in there, whatever you like. If you’re like most comic book writers, then it doesn’t matter what you stick in there! Any old thing will do; I went for a motivational message:

Not that it matters, but I letter with 2H (hard) lead, so it’s nice and light. I made it a little darker here so it would show up in the photo. Using a light pencil lead–or blue lines or red lines or whatever–means you don’t need to erase as much. Or in my case, at all. Which means you don’t lose as much ink in the erasing process.

I inked these letters with a G-nib, which I believe is made by the Tachigawa company? Maybe? I never letter with these things, but it was the closest thing to my hand! You can see where the balloon lines bleed a little–this is on a slightly toothy cardstock, which is not great for nibs. If I were you, I’d use a high quality Bristol if you’re worried about bleeding. Up to you though–like everything, all that’s important is what works for YOU. Seriously, I can’t stress that enough. You can fiddle with tools all the live-long day, but the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Comics pudding!

All done! Good work, Ames guide! I only use this guy when I make my own finished comics now; I do all my Casanova lettering on the Cintiq and then print out bluelines to ink and scan back into the computer. But there’s something very satisfying about using the guide, especially if you’re a borderline anal-retentive like me. It’s very pleasant; not to mention the value in going the long way sometimes.

Okay that’s all! If you have questions feel free to ask in the comments section. I’ll link up these two images of the instruction manual to printable pdf’s, so get on that too. Get on it!