Have you been learning hand lettering and are now wondering how to digitize it? Well, today, I’m going to show you how to do exactly that! I’m going to walk you through the process, step by step, which, once you get the hang of it, is very simple and won’t take you long at all.

I will say this, first; this process is what works best for me, and other hand lettering artists have other processes and programs that they prefer to use instead of the ones I’m sharing with you today.

Let’s begin!

Tools You’ll Need to Complete this Tutorial

  • Sketch pad or loose leaf paper
  • Pencil
  • A good eraser
  • Ink pen (Tombow dual brush pen, sharpie or ballpoint pen)
  • Light pad or tracing paper
  • Scanner or iPhone
  • Adobe Photoshop & Illustrator

(Head to my Amazon shop where you can order all of these supplies and more!)

1. Start with a sketch

Choose a word or phrase you’re going to letter, and start with sketching it out on a loose sheet of paper. Keep erasing and refining the sketch until you have it exactly the way you’d like it. Just a regular pencil or mechanical pencil and a good eraser will work just fine for this step!

sketch image

2. Add ink

Once you have your refined sketch completed, tape it to your light pad, or your desk if you don’t have a light pad. Taping it will keep it from slipping or moving around while you’re tracing it with ink. If you’re using a light pad, grab a piece of tracing paper and place it over the top of your sketch. Feel free to tape the tracing paper over your sketch as well.

light pad image

I do have several recommendations for the pen to use to trace over your lettering. I would recommend the Tombow Dual Brush Pen (the non-brush end), a black sharpie or a ballpoint pen. Depending on how thick your lettering is, a ballpoint pen will take long time to color it in, but it can work well for very thin lettering. Make sure you use a black pen for tracing your sketch, as that is better for digitizing your lettering – you can always add color in Illustrator later!

inked sketch image

3. Photograph your lettering

Once you’re happy with the inked version of your lettering, you’ll need to get it into a photo editing software. I prefer to bring it into Adobe Photoshop.

Now, you have two options for getting an image of your lettering into the computer: either using a scanner or taking a photo of your lettering with your iPhone.

  • Using a scanner
    1. Of the two options, I highly recommend taking the time to use a scanner. Make sure to scan your lettering in at at least at 300 dpi, preferably 600 dpi, and in black and white, and save it as a JPEG. I prefer to have the scan open directly in Photoshop rather than saving it somewhere on my computer and having to open it up through the program (an extra, unnecessary step!).
  • Using your iPhone
    1. If you don’t have a scanner, you can use also use your iPhone. I say iPhone because that is what I have, and they take excellent pictures – I’m not sure of the quality of other mobile phone cameras, but feel free to try this method with whatever type of phone you have.
    2. Out of these two options, I highly recommend using a scanner, as it can prevent weird shadows and glares that are difficult to avoid with a mobile phone’s camera. The image I’m using for this tutorial was scanned in with my scanner.

4. Bring your lettering into Photoshop

Once you’ve got a great scan of your lettering, bring it into Photoshop. Crop any unnecessary backgrounds/extra space, and erase any stray marks that you don’t want included in your final lettering.

bring lettering into Photoshop

5. Adjustments

A few more adjustments will need to be made to your lettering before you take it into Illustrator.

  • Make sure your image is set to black and white:
    If you weren’t able to scan your image in black and white or had to use your mobile phone for the image of your lettering, you’ll need to change the image to black and white. In the Image tab, go to Adjustments, then select “Black and White.” The Black and White option is shown in gray here because I scanned my image in as clack and white. If it was able to be selected, you’ll know you need to change your image to black and white.

Image Adjustments Levels location

  • Adjust the levels
    Once your image is black and white, you’ll need to adjust the levels of both black and white. Go to the Image tab again, then Adjustments, then Levels. The goal here is to get the blackest blacks and the whitest whites in the image. You’ll move the left cursor to the right until you get just past the first big hill of black. Then you’ll move the cursor on the right to the left, which will make the background as white as possible. But don’t move it too far – you’ll know if you did, because your black lettering will start getting lighter.

adjusting the levels

Levels info

6. Refine your lettering by erasing, adding color to white areas within lettering and smoothing.

Sometimes when changing the levels of your image, it will make any missed dark marks or areas that need erased more prominent. Erase any other marks/areas that are not to be included in your final lettering.

marks to erase

You may also notice that some white areas show up inside your lettering. You can easily use the paint brush tool to “paint” in some black color to cover up those areas.

lettering to fill in with black

Something else you may see may be that the edges of your lettering are kind of rough, which you can easily erase with the Eraser tool. Depending on how drastic the roughness is, I sometimes like to keep it there to keep the hand drawn look to the lettering.

7. Save as a JPEG

Once you’ve finished refining your lettering in Photoshop, save the image as a high-resolution JPEG by making the quality “Maximum.”

saving as a JPEG

8. Bring your JPEG into Illustrator and open the Image Trace panel

Once you’ve brought your JPEG into Illustrator, it will be time to “trace” it using the “Image Trace” tool. This will vectorize your lettering and make it possible for you to enlarge your lettering, add color, and so much more!

  • Open the Image Trace panel

image trace in AI

  • Click on “Advanced” dropdown arrow to see advanced settings
  • Adjust the settings to desired look and make sure “Preview” is checked
    Having Preview checked will allow you to see changes in the trace that’s created as you adjust the settings in the panel.
  • Click “Trace”
    Once you’ve reached the desired look of your lettering, click the “Trace” button
  • Expand and Ungroup

Once your lettering has been traced, click the “Expand” button in the top toolbar. Your lettering will light up with a bunch of dots all around it, otherwise known as anchor points.

expanding image trace

Once your lettering has been expanded, go to the “Object” tab and click “Ungroup.” This will allow you to select different portions of your lettering individually.

ungrouping image trace

selection after ungrouping

You’ll also need to delete the white blocks within your lettering, which you can do by selecting the background and the areas within the lettering, and then hit Delete. Now just your lettering will be left on your artboard!

9. Refine edges using Smooth tool

Now that your lettering has been traced, it’s time to refine the edges using the Smooth tool. This tool is located right next to or within the pencil tool in your left sidebar. Hold down on the pencil tool, and a dropdown will appear, where you can select Smooth Tool.

Smooth tool

To smooth your lettering’s edges, you’ll need to be able to see them clearly, so zoom in on your lettering and make sure that you have your lettering selected. Then, drag the Smooth tool along the edges of your lettering until you have the desired look. Every time you clean up a different line, make sure to reselect your lettering using the Selection tool (select “V” on your keyboard”). Don’t forget – you want your lettering to look hand-drawn, so don’t try to make it look too perfect or too smooth!

9. Save as a high-resolution PNG

Once you have the final, desired look to your lettering, it’s time to save it! In the File tab, click on “Save for Web.”

save for web in AI

I always save my lettering as a high-resolution PNG file with a transparent background. To save as a high-res PNG, make sure “Optimized” is selected above your image, choose “PNG-24” as the Preset Name, and make sure “Transparency” is checked. Then save the file in your desired folder on your computer with an easy to find and recognize file name.

PNG settings in AI

10. How to use your saved files

Here’s the fun part! Now you can add your vectorized lettering to anything you like. If you have a pattern or solid background you’d like to place your lettering on, now you can easily do that by just placing your high-res PNG file over your pattern and saving a new file.

There are so many amazing uses for hand lettering, including logos, graphics, wall and cover art, printables, and so much more! Here’s a couple of examples of how I was able to change the colors of the lettering now that it has been vectorized.

changing color of traced lettering in AI 2

changing color of traced lettering AI

As a bonus, I’ve included a free downloadable and printable checklist for digitizing your hand lettering. Just fill out the form below to receive the checklist. The checklist will be great to tape onto the wall next to your computer for easy access anytime you’re working on digitizing your lettering J

I hope this tutorial was helpful! Have a question? Did I forget something? Let me know in the comments – I would love to answer any questions you may have! If you’re interested in more tutorials like this, make sure to sign up for my e-newsletter, where I provide weekly hand lettering and calligraphy tips, as well as business tips for creative entrepreneurs! SIGN UP HERE


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About Brittany brittnay

Hey there! I’m Brittany. I am the calligrapher + hand letterer + designer behind Letter Lane Design Studio in Omaha, NE. I work with brides, small business owners and other creatives offering custom calligraphy, hand lettering and design services for weddings and events, as well as home and office décor. I’m busy enjoying life with my new husband, cuddling with my two kitties, Sebastian and Bella, reading as many books as possible and always looking out for the next best thing to watch on Netflix.


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