Stroke Building Techniques to Give Your Letters an Edge

You probably haven’t heard of “stroke building”. That’s because it’s a phrase I made up (I think). When I say the words stroke building, I’m referring to the process of layering different strokes on top of each other to flesh out the body of a letter form. This approach is something I’ve seen other calligraphy artists do. But as far as I’m aware, there’s no existing vocabulary to describe it.

So there you have it — it’s a term now, okay?

Here’s an example of what I’m referring to when it comes to building strokes:

Graves at Sea by Jake Rainis

If you study the image above, you’ll notice darker parts of the letters where different strokes overlap. Specifically, this is most noticeable in the sharper points of the letters. These sharp edges can’t be achieved with a single stroke.

Stroke building is a fantastic way to give your letters unique character. And when it comes to blackletter calligraphy, giving the letterforms a sharp, mean looking edge compliments the style.
Let’s dive into some techniques.

Stroke Building Techniques

When it comes to stoke building, the possibilities are endless. The process is also quite simple once you get the hang of it. There isn’t a strict science as to when and where you layer extra strokes on top of your existing ones.

Decades to build, seconds to destroy by Jake Rainis

Once you’re familiar with the technique, stroke building will come naturally and you’ll apply it to where it feels most natural.

However, as a jump off, let’s talk about some of the most common anatomical aspects of letterforms and see how stroke building can applied in those contexts.


Vertical uniformity is what gives blackletter script its visual rhythm. The majority of letters contain vertical strokes (AKA “stems”) and these parts of the letter often have stroke building opportunities.

Check out the following image of the minuscule letters “i” and “l”. Each letter has two treatments; a regular specimen (left) and a specimen that utilizes stroke building (right).

Stroke building with stems

When building upon strokes, it’s done in two or more movements. In other words, you put one stroke down, then add to it again after you’ve lifted the pen.

To achieve the effect, draw your first stroke as you normally would. Now, to build on that stroke, maintain the same pen angle as the original stroke and finish off the point with a new stroke.

For example, with the top of a vertical stem, your second (building) stroke will start off slight to the left of the stroke and move downward and to the right until the left edge of your nib meets the edge of the initial stroke.
You could also build off the bottom of the stroke by adding another stroke that leads into the bottom curve of a letterform.

Arcs and Shoulders

Arcs and shoulders are the horizontal pieces of a letterform and they can be built upon very similarly to a vertical stroke (stem).

Like the stems image above, the following image contains 2 sets of the letters “h” and “e”. Again, each letter has 2 versions (regular and with stroke building). As you can see, both letters contain a horizontal stroke.

Stroke building with arcs and shoulders

To build upon the stroke from the left side, position the pen (again, with the nib at the same able) above the beginning of the stroke and move downward and to the right until the right side edge of your pen meets the top of the initial stroke.

This takes a little more practice and effort, but you can also build off of the right side of the stroke, although this works better in certain letters. Starting inside of the letter, move downward and to the right until the write edge of your nib aligns with the end of the horizontal stroke.

Stroke building can also be done by “sketching” in the stroke. It doesn’t need to utilize your entire pen. If you’re looking to achieve just a little bit of edge, draw it in with the corner of your pen.


Descenders come in a couple of different flavors. For example, a “p” tends have a straight vertical stroke, while a “g” has a curved swoop.
Both scenarios present different stroke building opportunities.

Stroke building with descenders

For a straight descender, you can give it an edge on the right side of the bottom of the stroke. Starting from inside of the stroke, move your pen downward and to the right until your nib aligns with the angle of the initial stroke.

It helps to think of it like an upside down stem, so if it’s easier, you can also turn it upside down and build on the stroke in the same way you would with an “i” or an “l”.

Curved descenders have several opportunities to stroke build and you can mix and match them to your liking. I’ve included several in the picture above. They’re added in the same way — just make sure you’re maintaining a consistent angle!

Build Responsibly

Like I mentioned, stroke building is an incredible way to give your letters a unique, sharp edge. However, like any technique, use it conservatively.
Stroke building should enhance your letters, not save them.

You should never rely on a technique as a crutch to make your letters look better. Just make sure you don’t let your fundamental best practices slip in the interest of reinventing your letters.

The only certainty in life is death by Jake Rainis

I hope you found this helpful! If you have any questions, don’t be afraid to reach out!

Signup to receive exclusive content and a weekly post every Thursday.