Ruling Straight Lines for Calligraphy

Let it be said that I admire and bow to the living calligraphy gods who can write in straight lines and uniformly on a blank page (or window!) without a shadow of a guideline that I can see.

I am a calligraphy mortal. As such, I am versed in several tools that aide in the skillful foundation in a great piece of work: straight lines for calligraphy.

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I am blessed with a large commission that will be published in a book. I’ve elected to write it in Spencerian script, a simple and elegant angular cursive. The letters are quite flat and there is ample spacing between the lines, so I knew that the spacing of the lines of text would have to be even and consistent throughout the work. This is the largest piece I’ve ever worked with and I believe the smallest letter height I’ve ever used, at just 4mm. It has about 40 lines of text, written on a 52° slant.

What are Guidelines?

With enough practice, calligraphy does become some kind of alchemy where you use ink and a nib to cultivate artful letters out of an ordinary piece of paper. Until then, guidelines are what you use to cultivate consistency in your script.

Horizontal Guidelines

These are lines that keep the height of the letters consistent. The term x-height refers to the height of the main body of the lowercase letters. Another guideline regulates the ascenders, or lines that go above the x-height, such as b and k. Descenders — g, j, p, and y have another line that keeps them a reasonable length. Capital letters generally fall into these guidelines too. Different scripts have different proportions.

Straight, consistently spaced lines set the quality of the entire work before you’ve even picked up your pen.

Vertical Guidelines

The second set of guidelines are vertical. Sometimes called the slant line, these lines keep track of the angle at which we write the letters. This helps the eye and hand learn what the script should look like as you write. These are much more straightforward, as they are equidistant, and are also valuable to have in place to judge how far apart to space letters and words.

Tips for Drawing Guidelines

Be sure to leave space between each line of text so that extending lines of letters don’t overlap. Another important tip: write the lines lightly so they’re easy to erase later. If you put too much pressure on the pencil, it’ll make a groove in the paper. Grooves don’t erase.

You can either draw guidelines directly onto a page for practice or you can work with a lightweight blank page on top of a page with guidelines. That’ll save you time. I like to practice directly on a lined page because I need practice with touching the guidelines with my letters.


I use the JNB graph paper pad (not an affiliate link) for vertical scripts. Graph paper is useful for so many things, it’s definitely my sidekick. I use it for layout, practicing, and drafting for final pieces. A great bonus is that it takes ink well, so you don’t have to figure out your ink situation.

Ruling Up

I start by making sure the first line I rule is perpendicular to the left edge of the page. a T-square ruler or a triangle is perfect for this. I use this first line to measure and draw other lines from there. As I draw the straight lines, I lightly mark the x-height with an x. This is so I can keep track of which lines are for which purpose. Be sure to include space between each set of lines for ascenders and descenders. You can either do this with a ruler or you can mark the heights on a card and use that for measurement as you go. There’s much less margin for error that way.

No matter how meticulously I look directly over the ruler or my card, I can never quite seem to get the lines in the same spot every time. My own margin for error depends on the pencil lead thickness and my humanness. So I’ll end up with one line of lettering that’s slightly bigger than the rest, or two lines of script that are superclose to each other. Or I’ll be doing fine and not skip enough lines and have to start all over.

And I’ve been screwing it up for about 3 years now.

Ames Lettering Guide

This project is how the Ames Lettering Guide has become a valuable addition to my studio. I heard about the guide from other Instagram users. They posted one or two videos about using it to rule up straight lines for calligraphy. It’s a small plastic drafting tool that has a small rotating disc set into it with 4 rows of holes.

The user gently turns the disc, setting it so that the holes will correspond to the desired height and spacing of lines of letters. The setting can be measured by the row of numbers two through ten at the bottom right of the disc. The numbers correspond to 1/32 of an inch, so the higher the setting, the wider the lines are apart. I was working in millimeters, so I did a few test runs and measured the distance between the lines to get the right setting for my work. I also tend to way overthink math and fractions. Now I just turn it and test it until the lines get close enough to the measurement I need.

Drawing Straight Lines

With a straight edge in place, put the point of the pencil into the bottom hole of the row of holes on the guide. Hold your straight edge down with your non-writing hand. Using the pencil, glide the guide along the straight edge to the end of the page, making a line with the pencil along the way. Move the pencil point up to the next hole and draw the guide back across the page, using the straight edge as a guide. Continue up the guide as you draw lines back and forth. Re-position the straight edge and guide and repeat the process for as many lines as you need.

Right off the bat, it has increased the speed and accuracy with which I rule up a page. This saves me a ton of time and frustration. I love drawing the guidelines, but sometimes the effort it takes detracts from what I would put into the actual calligraphy. So that’s my secret. That I rely on tools for accurate straight lines and do my best to get rid of the evidence!

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