PROCESS :: Using The Mighty Ames Lettering Guide

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!

51 thoughts on “PROCESS :: Using The Mighty Ames Lettering Guide

  1. Kiel West

    Ha! Thanks for the demo. I too had one lying around and for years could not figure the bugger out. I was then blessed with meeting an old school drafting dude with a mustache and he taught me how to use it!

  2. josh

    Really nice to see another advocate of the Ames. They seem to be crazy hard to get in other countries, but they are cheap as dirt and pretty easy to get in the U.S. I'm definitely a big fan!

  3. DHARBIN! Post author

    I naturally write pretty small, so that's the size I letter most comfortably at, Box–and a lot of the reason I've been working so small. It just makes sense!

  4. DHARBIN! Post author

    You can get them in the U.K., I know–I researched at one point getting a guide with more HOLES, meaning I could draw more sets of lines at a pass before having to reset.

  5. Joey Weiser

    I use…(drumroll please)… a mighty 6.5!! Yeah, big ol' letters for me. Except for Monster Isle which I don't use the guide for at all.

    Nice post, Dustin! I love the Ames Guide, but so many people think it's unusable/unnecessary.

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  7. Josh Kramer

    I too love the Ames Guide. Personally I'm a bottom row kind of guy. I just like the leading better, I don't even draw the 'x-height' line. The one thing that really gets me is when you hit a piece of tape when you're drawing a line with the guide. Feels like a car accident.

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  9. Josh Crawley

    Very informative tutorial!

    For the sake of comparison, Todd Klein — according to the DC Guide to Coloring and Lettering Comics — uses "about 3 and a 1/2 or a bit less" and the bottom row of holes (and leaving out the x-height) for standard original art-sized work.

    I have yet to open my Ames Lettering Guide; hopefully soon, though.

  10. vollsticks

    Try The Graphics Centre in London, but they're not cheap…I paid twelve quid for mine. And Dustin…THANK YOU!!!

  11. Arkonbey

    Wow. You were actually much more clear than the Ames instructions. Amazing how they can have so much type, yet not tell me really how to use it.

    Thanks for this!

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  13. Gil

    Awesome! I still have two of them. The mechanical pencil made it easier since you didn't have to always sharpen the lead for the leadholder every time. Good memories!

  14. Rob Ullman

    I've always used about a 3 or a little less, depending on how much real estate I had to work with for the lettering. But what I'm REALLY impressed with is the use of the lead holder with the non-repro blue lead sticks. Them bastards are so fragile I usually break 'em just trying to SHARPEN 'em, much less trying to make a whole page's worth of uniform lines!

  15. DHARBIN! Post author

    Rob, I actually NEVER use those for lettering lines, I just thought it would be easier to see in the photos. In truth, non-repro blue pencil annoys the heck out of me–it's too greasy to erase all the way. So if I decided I needed to move my lines down or something, the page gets messy the more I have to erase bluelines.

    Honestly, since I started using harder pencil leads and just not erasing, it's been an enormous timesaver. I only worry about cleaning anything up when I've overworked something so much it actually shows up under the inks! But with my Ames I just use my regular mechancial pencil usually, with 2H lead.

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  20. Josh Neufeld

    Great (and funny) tutorial. I'd been using the A.L.G. for 15 years — the wrong way — until I came across Abel & Madden's instructions in Drawing Words and Writing Pictures (which are basically the same as yours). Thank gawd! Anyway, this is a great resource, which I will be sure to always pass on to others. Thx!

  21. minxlj

    It's a brilliant tool – all designers should be required to use it for a time, you get used to 'knowing' kerning off by heart and can then do it correctly, much more quickly. It's only just over a decade since I graduated but it seems design schools here now don't even know what these are – it's still important to know how to draw your own type for visuals and sketches, don't rely on computers! (and this is coming from a true geek and computer addict)

    I'm setting my old college drawing board up next to my Macs at home to encourage me to draw more, so I may just get myself one of these again :)

  22. Bill Edmonds

    I have one of these Ames lettering guide labeled “the new” it is still in original plastic bag and has never been opened it was given by friend to me over ten years ago and it has an ingraiving on th device “TACRO 5039″ I believe this is over 15 years old or older and it was made by “Olsen Mfg co. Ames Iowa USA, Ames Lettering Guide 68• , it also has instruction booklet in package. This is all unopened and I am wondering if anyone is interested in old one. Maybe you know it’s age. If interested write me.

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  25. Cliff Thomas

    Started using this in high school in 1952, yep I’ve been around awhile. Just stumbled onto your article. Interesting how some of the gadgets we depended on are so foreign to everyone today. I used this little device up to the mid 1990s when CAD begin to appear. Used the slant to keep letter uniformly slanted. Used a #4 pencil for guidelines and a HD for lettering.
    Still have my first one.

  26. DHARBIN! Post author

    That’s awesome! Yeah when I finally figured out how to use it, it was like a light went off. Your post made my day!

  27. Lucy B.

    Any advice for tightening up Ames guides that are too loose? I just replaced my old one, which was eaten by gnomes or something equally mysterious, and found that the new one spins too easily. The upshot of which being that it will often skid to a different setting as I’m ruling my lines. Most distressing. How can I stickify it a little?

  28. DHARBIN! Post author

    I’ve never had to stickify one–if anything, mine is so rock solid that it takes a certain effort just to get it to move, and then not move too far because I’m pulling so hard. I might suggest abrading the edge of the disk a little, maybe lightly and carefully with a file? Or the metal file on a set of fingernail clippers? Alternately, stick something on just one part of the disk, say a dab of rubber cement. You’re not trying to glue it to anything, just to create some tactile area where the disk can grab onto its holder. Just a thought.

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  31. David Marshall

    Thanks for posting this. I put up a similar online instruction for the Ames Guide (, but yours is more detailed. Kudos for using the even-spaced calibration. I’ve stared at a lot of Silver- and Golden-Age originals at conventions over the years… no one used 2/3rds or 3/5ths.

    I’ve also come 180 degrees on the C-6 nib. Working 12″ x 18″ allowed me to bump my Ames size to 4 or 4.5, letting me use the rare B-6 round-end nib. It still comes up a little thick, so I shave it down (losing the roundness). Might as well go back to the C-6.

    But enough about me. Thanks!

  32. Rob Campbell

    My dad recently sent one of these my way, new and in a sealed package. With directions in English and French, which what I think they speak in parts of Canadia.

    Your directions make an awful lot more sense than the ones in French, and a fair amount more than the ones in English. I gave it a run through and may eventually fulfill my hope of hand lettering my strip. So much more expressive than computer letting.

    Thank you.

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  34. BeckyF

    The slant guide is really a finish/weld symbol. More of an engineering/detailing mark than lettering.

    I *love* that you scanned in the originals. Thank you!

  35. Jessica

    I know this is an old thread, but I stumbled upon it was doing a Google search for “Ames Lettering Guide”. My great-grandfather was Oscar Olson, founder of Olson Manufacturing Company and inventor of the Ames Lettering Guide. Pretty cool to see that people still use these. I remember packaging them and those instruction booklets as a kid and I never knew how to use it.

  36. DHARBIN! Post author

    Oh my god!!!! That’s pretty amazing–a lot of people curse the Ames guide bitterly, but I will sing your great-grandfather’s praises to the heavens! I love that little thing. Do you know why it’s called the Ames guide and not the Olson guide? Or even better, “THE OSCAR”.

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