We’ve all heard the different tools and tricks for starting lettering, but they’re almost exclusively talking about paper. What happens when you want to leave the page and try new materials? Mostly, trial and error. Or, referring to this handy dandy cheat sheet I whipped up for you with all my favorite tools and tips for lettering on a variety of surfaces.

MUGS (AND GLASSWARE)

Let’s start with my personal forte, mugs!  If you’ve been around G&B for awhile, you know that I’ve painted a fuckload of mugs in my day. Over 3000, if you want to get specific, but “fuckload” works just as well when you’re talking about hand painting teeny tiny letters on a heavy, rounded surface. Since I’ve painted SO many mugs, both porcelain/ceramic and glass, I can fully attest to this working 110%.

TOOLS

  • Small, thin paint brush (I’ve used so many brands, I can’t even begin to name one, but here’s something similar on Amazon to give you an idea).
  • Pebeo Porcelain Paint. You guys. This. Stuff. Is. My. Jam. It’s more time consuming than an oil-based Sharpie or similar paint pen, which is usually people’s go-to recommendation when it comes to lettering on mugs, but Pebeo porcelain paint blows those markers straight outta the water.

TRICKS

  • Prepare to use two coats. It’s like doing your nails – it’ll dry better with two thinner coats than one big gloppy coat.
  • Follow the instructions on the paint! It really does make a difference to let them dry for 24 hours (I know, I know, but I told you it’s time consuming!) and then bake them accordingly. I was never a real stickler for cooling (I usually propped the oven door open to speed it up), but putting the mugs in, turning the oven on, and THEN starting your timer once the oven hits the right temperature is the best way to go.
  • The jars of paint are fairly large for how much you use on a mug, so I always give it a good shake and then dip my paintbrush into the paint inside the lid, rather than the jar itself. If it starts to get thick (which happens after about 30 minutes or so), just put the lid back on and give it another shake to refresh.
  • At about 9 dollars a bottle, this stuff ain’t cheap, but one bottle of paint can easily last you 50 mugs. Plus, I pinky promise that it stays on + looks much higher quality than paint pens.
  • There are paint pen versions available. They’re mediocre at best. I have a black and a red that I use as a first coat when I’m cranking out huge orders and want to speed things up a bit by not hand painting the first coat. That’s really all they’re good for, and even then they show up pretty flaky half the time.

WOOD

TOOLS

  • Sandpaper (or power sander if you’re adventurous!)
  • Wood Stain
  • White Chalk pencil
  • Water-based Sharpie Paint Markers

TIPS

  • In my experience, the trick to successfully lettering on wood is less on the lettering tools and more how well your wood is prepared. Be sure the wood is sanded smoothly and covered with some kind of stain and coating to prevent your paint markers getting caught or snagged, or even worse, bleeding all over the wood.
  • Before starting your lettering, be sure the board is 200% dry after staining. Letting it sit overnight, or even better, a full 24-48 hours, helps you avoid feathering and bleeding from your marker.
  • Use the chalk pencil to measure out your lines and even letter a first draft so that everything is where you want it to be. Unlike paper, there’s no do-over on wood, so this is the second most important step after prepping your wood.

GLASS

TOOLS

    • DecoColor Acrylic Paint Markers
    • Oil-based Sharpie paint markers (semi-permanent*)
    • Bistro Chalk Marker

*You can scrape that stuff off if you put in the elbow grease, but for most purposes, the oil- base keeps it in place for day-to-day wear

TIPS

    • If you’re lettering on a see-through glass surface, such as a window or piece of glass inside a frame, letter on the front with a washable marker first! I prefer Bistro Chalk Markers for this. Then, use your oil-based sharpie or acrylic on the inside to essentially lettering backwards. This way your letters won’t be subjected to the elements, but you won’t have to try to do it backwards straight from your brain.
    • If you’re lettering on an opaque glass surface, like a mirror, then painter’s tape and a careful layout are your best friends. I like to draw a rough draft of the word or quote I’ll be doing on paper first, and then lining up my painter’s tape to give me guidelines to work in.
    • The best part about these kinds of surfaces, though, is that they’re so smooth that you can quickly wash off any mistakes you make along the way!

CANVAS

TOOLS

I know there are people that go ga-ga for paint pens when it comes to lettering on canvas. Try as I might, I’m just not one of those people. To me, nothing compares to the smoothness you get with good ole paint and a paintbrush on the rougher canvas surfaces.

  • Pencil (HB or chalk, depending on the color of your canvas)
  • Acrylic paint
  • Brush of your choice

TIPS

  • Use painters tape and chalk pencil to grid your layout before painting. Chalk erases much easier off of canvas than a regular pencil, so it’s always my go-to.

CHALKBOARD

TOOLS

  • Bistro Chalk Marker
  • American Crafts Erasable Chalk Marker
  • Chalk!
  • Chalk pencil

TIPS

  • Treat your chalkboard before starting. This means rubbing a piece of regular chalk all over that bad boy, and then wiping it off loosely. This primes your board for whatever tool you decide to use next (and adds that “chalky” look if you’re not using real chalk for your letters!)
  • I almost always use my chalk pencil to draw my draft and give myself some guidelines to go by. It’s thin enough that I can easily erase whatever I don’t cover.
  • If you’re using real chalk, sharpen it with a large pencil sharpener to give yourself a more pointed tool.
  • Chalk markers don’t come off as easily as chalk, usually leaving a faint impression behind, so if it’s something you’ll be writing on repeatedly, I suggest chalk. If you really want that more solid look, however, a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser does wonders against Deco chalk markers.

(Yes, this photo is from 2015. It’s also the first chalkboard photo I found in the labyrinth of my computer, so you get the idea haha)

FABRIC

TOOLS

  • Again, back to the brushes (sorry, marker peeps!).
  • Acrylic paint (Martha Stewart is one of my favorites, but any acrylic paint will work)
  • Martha Stewart’s Fabric Medium

TIPS

  • Ok, I know fabric paint is a thing that exists in this world, and it’s probably awesome. But Martha Stewart’s Fabric Medium let’s you turn any of your fave acrylic paints into fabric paint, so you not only get more bang for your buck, but a ton more colors to choose from. Just follow the instructions on the bottle (I honestly just eyeball it when I mix them together, and so far, so good).
  • Put something underneath your fabric when you paint. The fabric medium thins out your acrylic, which makes it easier to paint with, but if you’re like me and your idea of “eyeballing it” didn’t go so well, it can also be liquidy enough to seep through the fabric. It won’t bleed, but if your fabric is thin (cotton muslin is what I usually worked with), it can go through in spots where you’ve used a bunch.

LEATHER

TOOLS

TIPS

  • Let the paint dry completely before adding another coat. You’ll need anywhere from 2-5, depending on the color of your leather and the color paint.
  • High quality brushes work better with this paint (cheap ones can get streaky textures). Avoid ones you buy in packs for a few bucks at the craft store.
  • While the leather acrylic paint is really your best choice, high end acrylic craft paints (I love Martha’s) work well for items that aren’t being worn or handled regularly.

FOOD

TOOLS

TIPS

  • Make sure the area is smooth and dry before you start lettering.
  • Wipe the marker frequently (I use a damp paper towel) to get any crumbs, frosting, etc. off.
  • Know your timeline if you’re working with perishable items. It would suck to put in all that effort to make it look pretty if it melted or dried out.

And there you have it – a quick cheat sheet for getting your letters off the paper and out into the world on any surface! Keep in mind that these are by no means the only tools available, but ones that I have found work really well over the years. Things like what you need the item for, price of the tools, and how long you’re willing to wait to get them (some may not be readily available in a store near you) can all be factors in deciding which tools to work with. 

What are your favorite non-paper mediums to letter on? Your go-to tools? Share in the comments below…

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