I have been hand lettering for about 4 years now and along the way I’ve learned SO much, mostly by making some BIG mistakes.
I decided to share all of my lettering secrets for writing on all the different surfaces, from the obvious surfaces like chalkboards and wood to the weird surfaces like pumpkins and capiz shells. I am still learning and every once in a while, a surface stumps me but I almost always can figure it out. Let me know in the comments if there is a writing surface that is stumping you and we’ll figure it out together.
>>Check out my Hand Lettering 101 post or follow me on Instagram @deonnwadeart for more tips and inspiration if you are a beginner with this whole lettering thing! 🙂
Let’s talk about the OBVIOUS surfaces:
Paper: Not all paper is created equally as you probably already know. When doing a practice run with a lettering piece, any paper will do. But, when you are doing a final piece, the paper and the marker matter. I still love my TOMBOW dual brush pens and these do really well on a nice smooth marker paper or even on watercolor paper. I also love Pentel brush pens for envelopes or little notes.
If you are wanting to use your nibs, I use these ones and these inks. I use the white ink from Dr. PH Martins for darker envelope addressing too.
**Little tip when using the Bleed Proof White Ink: Add a tiny bit of water and stir it around at the top to get it to flow better from the nib.
You can even trace over the Tombow pens with a wet, round brush on watercolor paper, and it looks like watercolor lettering. If you are trying watercolor, you MUST use watercolor paper and nice watercolors or inks like this.
Here are some examples below:
Wood: Next is the ever popular wooden signs. These have been popular FOREVER and I honestly don’t think they’re going anywhere anytime soon.
These are actually pretty easy and I will tell you that 99% of the time, I reach for an oil-based white Sharpie paint pen. I basically always use this and it always looks great.
The secret to getting a smooth lettering finish is to start with smooth wood. If you are staining and sealing it your own wood, I recommend using a satin polyurethane spray like this one. You can seal the wood before you do your lettering and your lettering won’t soak into the wood grain as much. It might take a few coats but it will look cleaner.
My secret for cleaning up paint mistakes on wood is to use a Q-tip and some nail polish remover. Just get a tiny bit on the Q-tip, ring out the excess, and touch up your mistakes. I will tell you that if you already sealed the wood, the nail polish remover will strip that off and you will be sealing it all again to fix that.
You can also emboss wood and it looks really great! I love to use a metallic powder, a clear pen, and my heat gun for the effect like on the ornaments below.
The last wooden sign I used as an example below that says “Scroggin” was actually made by me burning into the wood with this tool and is probably one of my favorite projects of ALL time.
Here are some examples of lettering on wood:
Chalkboards: These are probably my most requested item and I actually have chalkboards that I rent out locally here in El Paso. I have used tons of different brands of chalk pens but let me make sure you understand when to use those first.
A chalk pen or chalk marker can be used on synthetic, plastic-like chalkboards like the ones you buy at Hobby Lobby. They have a very smooth, non-porous surface that usually looks kind of shiny.
Regular chalk can be used on walls or boards that have been painted with chalk paint. If you use chalk pens on a painted chalkboard wall, it will not come off very easily and you will probably be repainting that wall or board with more chalkboard paint to fix it.
Ok now that we’ve got that all figured out, let me tell you some brands I like. I basically use this brand of chalk markers the most but I also LOVE these markers because they have a chisel tip which gives a completely different look.
If you are buying just regular chalk for your painted chalkboard walls or boards, I do not recommend dustless chalk. It just doesn’t do as well as just regular good old messy chalk.
With all kinds of chalk lettering, you can fix a mistake with a Q-tip dipped in a tiny bit of water.
Here are some chalkboard examples:
Acrylic: So acrylic signs are relatively new to the lettering game but they have been VERY popular with weddings for the past two years. Acrylic or polycarbonate sheets are basically plastic sheeting that you can get online or at a Home Improvement store in the windows/door section.
You can use chalk markers on acrylic if you want to erase it for later or Sharpie paint pens for a more permanent option. I love the look of the clear acrylic sheets with a white lettering. You can also back paint them where you basically paint the back with a color like the white or pink options below.
Pros of Acrylic: You can actually sketch out your entire design on a large paper and trace over it because it’s a clear canvas and get that lettering EXTRA perfect.
Cons of Acrylic: You can scratch these by just looking at them. Be very careful to avoid scratching, and wrap them in towels or blankets to transport them to avoid scratches and finger prints. You can wipe them with a microfiber cloth if you use the paint pens but you cannot clean them up as easily if you use the chalk markers.
Examples of Acrylic Signs:
Mirror or Glass: I think these two are intimidating but they’re actually one of the most forgiving surfaces for mistakes.
Let’s talk about mirrors first. You can use a Sharpie paint pen if you want it to be more permanent (I think you can remove permanent paint with nail polish remover) but 99% of the time I use a chalk marker on mirrors and glass windows. I have lots of rental mirrors that I want to use over and over again so I use the chalk markers because of this.
Now let’s talk about glass and windows. They are very fun, especially with chalk markers. I have done some Christmas windows which were mostly drawings but the methods are the same. If you want to do lettering on the inside of a window to protect it from weather, you can write the lettering on the outside first and then go trace it backwards inside the window.
I have also embossed glass items like mugs, champagne glasses, and a few others things in the past and they look beautiful and there are pictures below. I would use EXTREME caution with embossing large pieces of glass that are framed because I had a VERY bad experience with a soldier’s Christmas gift/shadow box shattering and it was BAD!
Pros to Mirrors and Glass: You can just wipe or scratch your writing off if you make a mistake.
Cons to Mirrors and Glass: They are pretty fragile and you also can’t measure as easily if you are using ALL chalk markers. If you are using a paint pen, you can do all of your measuring in chalk markers and then wipe it away afterwards. Also be careful about finger prints and smudges.
Leather Jackets/Purses: I love personalizing leather jackets and purses. I just buy a simple faux leather clutch and use a gold Sharpie paint pen to write the name on the purse. I’ve heard that the Montana paint pens work great on leather too but I haven’t tried them yet. The lettering has held up pretty well on my purse and the H&M leather jacket’s lettering has held up pretty well too! These are the best gifts and they take about 5 minutes to make.
Natural Objects: I have tried to do hand lettering on just about anything I could get my hands on these past few years. I’ve written on LOTS of pumpkins, agate slices, capiz shells, and some pomegranates. My secret weapon for writing on all of these natural objects is usually a fine Sharpie paint pen. That’s what I use 99% of the time and it’s permanent too. When I wrote on the capiz shells, I was shocked to find out that my nib and ink actually worked really great! I use a chalk marker with these natural objects too. Sometimes it just takes some trial and error with these.
If you can think of any other surface that I didn’t mention PLEASE let me know in the comments and I’ll give it a try soon!
Hi – this is a great article thanks. I was hoping to buy Capiz shells and handwrite names of wedding guests to use as name places. So this can be done using a chalk marker? Is the picture above with the word “Bride” written, done with a chalk marker? And it didn’t rub off at all? Thanks!
I used the calligraphy ink on the Capiz shells and they didn’t rub off…they did great!
Thank you for this article! So helpful! What would you use on denim?
Hey Annalyse! I would use a Tulip Fabric paint pen or just fabric paint…I did this recently and it worked like a charm!
Hi Deonna, thanks alot for sharing this very helpful information about all your writing tools! I appreciate your explanation with clarity – making it easier to understand. I was wondering if you could have a question for you – if you were to do hand lettering on a colored paper with white and gold pens then which pens would you use or prefer? Like sharpie or tombow or any other? As for me pens are easy to go than using nibs.
there is this cool white ink that i listed and if you dipped an old clear tombow in it I wonder what would happen…you can use gold or silver sharpie markers and then use the fake calligraphy technique to get the calligraphy effect. the paint pens don’t really work very well on the colored paper…they soak in too fast.
What about on canvas?
Hey Kim…for canvas I use the oil based Sharpie paint pens usually