Let’s talk about calligraphy guides. When it comes to calligraphy, guides make can make all of the difference in the world. I’m not talking about lesson-based tutorials or books, I’m talking about templates with guidelines.

In this post, we’ll explore why calligraphy guides are important as well as how to utilize different types of calligraphy guides to bring unique aspects to your compositions.

While you’re reading, download this free set of guides that I’ve put together for you. By the time you’re finished, you’ll have all of the knowledge you need to begin experimenting with these different guides.

Download free blank calligraphy guides

What Is a Guide and Why Is It Important?

Calligraphy guides can be as simple as a single baseline in which you write your letters on. This single line acts as a visual cue in which each letter sits on.

Try writing a sentence on a blank sheet of paper using no guides. Chances are, your line begins to slant or become wavy as you progress. Perhaps each word is vertically offset ever-so-slightly from the previous.

A picture of calligraphy guides.

It might not seem like a big deal, but these inconsistencies are a mark sloppiness. They’re what keeps a mediocre execution from being a great execution. If you take your work seriously, you owe it to yourself to be as thorough as possible.

“Isn’t It Considered Cheating to Use a Guide?”

Before we go any further, let’s get this out of the way.

NO. Using a guide isn’t cheating.

Can you draw a perfectly horizontal line across a piece of paper without using a rule? Probably not. Can you draw a perfect circle freehand without using a compass? I doubt it. Even the majority of “experts” can’t do this. And even if they can, they won’t because it’s simply easier to draw a perfect guide using a tool rather than eyeballing it.

Seriously, do yourself a favor and use a ruler (or even better, a T-square).

Calligraphy Guide Components

A single line might suffice in some cases, but robust calligraphy guides generally consist of more than just a baseline. Other components of calligraphy guides include:

  • Ascender
  • X-height
  • Descender
  • Baseline,
  • Line spacing (the space between lines in a multi-line composition)

How letters fit on to these lines is pretty straight forward. For example, a lowercase “o” would sit on the baseline and meet the x-height at its highest point. A lowercase “h” would also sit on the baseline. Additionally, its shoulder would meet the x-height and its ascender would reach up to the ascender line.

An example of letters with ascenders and descenders on a calligraphy guide.


Now you know what the different lines are… but how far apart is each one supposed to be? That’s where ratios come in.

A major aspect of calligraphy guides is the ratio in which the guidelines are set. When it comes to blackletter, the most common ratio is 2:4:2.

blackletter line guides by jake rainis

A 2:4:2 ratio means each line is comprised of 2 parts descender space, 4 parts x-height space, and 2 parts ascender space. In blackletter, one “part” represents one nib-width of the pen you’re using.

And what represents one “part”, you might wonder? Well it doesn’t really matter. However, when it comes to blackletter, 1 “part” is often indicative of the nib width of your flat pen. So for example, if you were using a blue Pilot Parallel (which has a nib width of 6MM), one “part” would represent 6MM.

In this scenario:

  • The space between the ascender and x-height line is 12mm (2x nib width of 6MM)
  • The space between the x-height and baseline is 12mm (2x nib width of 6MM)
  • The space between the baseline and descender is 24mm (4x nib width of 6MM)

Line Spacing

When it comes to the space between your lines, there’s hard or fast rules. You can have as little as no space between your lines if you want. When starting out, I would recommend using the same amount of “parts” as you have between in the descender and the baseline. In a 2:4:2 ratio, this would be two units (resulting in a 2:4:2:2 ratio).

This should result in a composition with nicely spaced lines. However, it’s worth trying out different amounts of line spacing. And you will in the downloadable guide associated with this post!

Different Kinds of guides

As you can see, the mechanisms of calligraphy guides are quite simple and straight-forward. But let’s take it a step further by exploring how we can utilize different styles of calligraphy guides to add variety to our calligraphy work.

Vertical Variations

We discussed 2:4:2 ratios. Well, what happens when we move to a 2:5:2 ratio? Or a 2:3:2 ratio?

2:4:2:2 Ratio

2:4:2:2 Ratio
2:5:2:4 Ratio

2:5:2:4 Ratio
3:3:3:3 Ratio

3:3:3:3 Ratio

Compare the differences between the two sets of guidelines in the above images. Adjusting the spacing (or “part” units) between each guideline makes quite a difference, doesn’t it?

The greater the difference between the numbers in the guideline ratio, the more compressed the letter becomes. The smaller the difference between the numbers in the guideline ratio, the more elongated the letter becomes.

Horizontal Variations

Regardless, of the vertical ratio you use, you can also create horizontal variations in your letterforms by how much horizontal space a letter occupies.

An example of wide and narrow letters on the same guide sheet.

Take a look at the above image. Obviously, each “a” features the strokes, but they’re drastically different from each other. One is wide and stretched out while the other is condensed.

Depending on the type of composition you’re creating or the space you’re looking to fill, you can combine the approach of letter-width variations with different guide ratio variations.

The combinations are endless!

An example of wide and narrow letters on the same guide sheet.

Downloadable Guides

Here’s the PDF of guides in case you missed it.

Download free blank calligraphy guides

Print it out and practice on a variety of 5 different grids:

  • 2:3:2:2
  • 2:4:2:4
  • 2:5:2:2
  • 3:3:3:3
  • 3:4:3:1

These calligraphy guides are set with 3.8MM units which should line match perfectly to your green 3.8MM Pilot Parallel. To further your experimentation, try varying the width of your letters in each set of guides. I’m confident you’ll be impressed with how much variety in style you’re able to achieve with just a few simple lines.