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May
18
2015

Care and Feeding of the Leroy Lettering Set

Background

You may not know exactly what a Leroy Lettering Set is, but if you’re interested in comics, I’ll bet you’ve seen the results of one in action. Leroy lettering was used most notably by publisher EC Comics in books like Tales From the Crypt and Vault of Horror. (Harvey Kurtzman’s EC war stories in books like Frontline Combat and Two Fisted Tales were the exception and were hand lettered by the great Ben Oda.)

Linkara-LOTDJackDavisTalesFromTheCrypt903-407

You may also have seen a Leroy Lettering Set in action in the early Wonder Woman comics. Here’re a few (cough, cough) typical WW panels from the William Moulton Marston era:

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You’ll stumble on this lettering here and there in old comics printed up until the early 60s or so. Interestingly, most of it was done by one couple, Jim and Margaret Wroten, who you can read about here.

Despite its clunky mechanical look that (objectively, anyway) doesn’t go very well with hand-drawn comics art, I’ve always had a strange fascination with Leroy lettering. There’s a free font based on Leroy lettering that I’ve used in a few odd projects, but I was curious about how the actual lettering set worked. I was surprised to find that the sets are not rare and they can usually be had for between $35 and $50 on Ebay. I bid on and won a complete set for $35.00. Here it is:

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And here are a couple of the lettering templates:

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How Does it Work?

The Leroy Lettering Set is basically a pantograph. One end of it traces the letters off the template, moving the other end of it which has a pen attached. More specifically, the key to its operation is this component, called the scriber:

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Here’s how it works:

  1. This is the tracer pin. You stick this down into the grooved letter forms on the template.
  2. This is a little clamp (tightens with that black rear-facing knob) that holds the drawing implement.
  3. This knob is a little adjustable “leg” that supports the drawing portion of the scriber–the part that’s over the paper/holding the pen.
  4. It’s hard to see in this picture, but there’s a dial here that changes the slant of the letters. This is how you make italic letters–as in the Wonder Woman samples, or the bold words in the EC sample.
  5. This is the tail pin. It just stays in the bottom groove of the template like a train track, keeping everything aligned correctly.
  6. These little hash marks correspond to the size of the letters on the template, allowing you to pencil in rough letters. Obviously, you have to fudge things for letters like “I” and “J” that are thinner.
  7. Each template has a pen size. The numbers correspond to the Leroy pen tips that come with the kit… which are identical to the same-sized Rapidograph tech pen numbers.

Drawing implements:

The kit comes with its own refillable ink pen tips, but it’s a whole lot easier to just use a tech pen. As far as I can tell, only actual tech pens will fit into the clamp. I tried mine with Rapidographs and with Staedtler MarsMatic tech pens and they both worked fine because they have this “barrel” for the clamp to grab onto:

penpointsOther pens I tried, most notably Microns, don’t have anywhere like this for the clamp to grab, so they didn’t work.

None of the mechanical pencils I had around would work with the scriber’s clamp, but Leroy made special mechanical pencils/lead hodlers specifically for the set. The set I have recommends a “22” model, but there were several different types made that would accommodate the scriber’s clamp.

ke_leroy-022-pencil

Here it is in action. As you can clearly see, I’m still getting the hang of using it. Getting it placed correctly so the letters are properly spaced is pretty tricky, as is picking it up without leaving an ink smudge on the letter you’ve just completed.

The Verdict

I’m sure things go faster once you’ve put in some hours getting used to lettering with the Leroy set, but I’m pretty stunned that people would do whole comics with this thing. I can’t imagine any scenario where this actually takes less time than hand-lettering a comic. I’m glad I bought it, though, and I’m going to continue to practice with it. The free font I linked to above is probably sufficient for anyone who wants to get the look of old-style Leroy lettering.

Feel free to ask me any questions you might have in the comments.

23 comments

1 ping

  1. Bill Wottlin says:

    Hello

    I have worked in several Engineering firms that used Leroy Lettering on their Construction drawings and planning documents.

    Bill

  2. sasha keen says:

    Back in the 70’s I was the entire Art & Design Dept forthe R&D Dept of Union Carbide…images of drawing an endless array of Benzine Rings still haunt my dreams…and I had to use a Leroy Lettering set for all the illustrations (I kept telling them to at least get some PresType if they wouldn’t buy an IBM Selectric)…I quit and opened NJ’s First comic shop as a result…they kept calling me back, even offered to chaffeur me back and forth

  3. Ernesto says:

    Ben,

    Thanks indeed for the very informative post-fascinating insight and keep up the practise. Great that you’re reading Lone Wolf and Cub-one of my favourites also!

    Ernesto

  4. Brian Hayes says:

    A fun postscript to your write-up might be that Leroy lettering and Ben Oda lettering were juxtaposed on the same page of many of the EC Comics, and I have blogged about that and shown a sample over at http://hayfamzone.blogspot.com/2015/05/leroy-lettering-and-ben-oda.html.

    I am glad to know about the Leroy font and thanks for a great article!

  5. Dave Kopperman says:

    Really, there’s only two possible responses:

    1) Thanks for this!
    2) Holy fucking shit.

  6. Ben says:

    You must have glanced at my Twitter feed! Yes, I’m reading LW&C. I’ve read bits and pieces of it before, but I picked up the first Dark Horse omnibus edition recently and have been digging into that. Amazing stuff–and I love the slightly larger trim size.

  7. Ben says:

    Hey, thanks for the comment! I’ve of course read some of your blog posts (including the one linked, obviously) on lettering/Ben Oda. I love Oda’s title lettering, as in the page you posted in that link. I did a EC war story pastiche recently and tried to emulate his title lettering for the “Monkey Business” title:

    http://cargocollective.com/benzilla/filter/Comics/Monkey-Business

    I probably should have used that Leroy font for the other lettering, though!

  8. Ben says:

    Glad you liked the post! And, yeah, it’s a completely insane process for lettering.

  9. Michael R says:

    I just picked up a set at a thrift store for $10. It had a bunch of extra templates jammed in the bottom, but its missing the tracer pin. Anyone know where I might acquire one without having to buy an entire set?

  10. Ben says:

    @Michael – Unless you can improvise a tracer pin by getting a nail or tack or something wedged in there, you’ll probably just have to buy another kit.

  11. Jakob says:

    Hi! I know this is an older post, but I enjoyed seeing it. A few years ago, I was given what I’m guessing is at least 3 complete sets and a ton of spare parts by a friend who knows I love art but have awful penmenship. I’ve finally gotten around to trying to figure out how to use them. It seemed a simple enough idea, and I see by your post that I had the right idea, but putting it into practice has been more challenging than I expected. I just can’t seem to get the hang of it. I have several of the mechanical pencils that came with it, and a bunch of what I’m assuming are ink…pens? They look different than your picture. The have a clear barrel on the end (I assume for ink, some have dried ink in them) and vary in size, with different colored bands on them. I am at a loss as to how to work those. Anyway, thank you for your post!

  12. Ken Rector says:

    The pens in my Leroy set do not have flats on the nibs like other Koh-i-nor pens. Can you tell me how to disassemble these pens for cleaning?

  13. Ben says:

    I’m afraid I can’t help you with that. I’ve only used the lettering set with my Rapidograph pens, not the “native” nibs that come with it. I’ve not idea how to clean those.

  14. Ken Rectoir says:

    Thanks for your reply. I cut open one of the nibs and found that it screwed together just like the ones with the flats. I soaked the nibs in alcohol for a couple of days and was eventually able to unscrew them with my fingers, no tools.

    I found somewhere else that India ink has shellac in it that hardens when it dries but can be softened by alcohol. So, the remaining nibs just need a good cleaning and they will be ready for my HP7550 Pen Plotter.

    I wonder how you are able to use Radiograph pens in the Leroy scriber?

  15. Rita Harding says:

    Hello.

    From my father, a draftsman during the the 60s and 70s, I have inherited many tools circa of that era including Leroy lettering templates.

    I’m would like to find a good home for them. Would you have any idea who would be interested in these tools? Are any being used today?

    Any suggestions would be most appreciated.

  16. Ben says:

    @Rita – No, no one really uses these any more. They’re simply too labor intensive vs. digital lettering. If you have the a complete lettering set, you could probably sell it on ebay. They seem to go for between $35 and $60. If you just have the templates, though, I can’t imagine anyone wanting them without the set itself.

  17. Ben says:

    @Ken – A Rapidograph fits into the scriber via part #2 shown above.

  18. ken says:

    @Rita,. I have a Leroy set with only a couple of templates. I’d love to have any templates you’d care to part with. Would you want to contact me at kdrhoo at Yahoo dot com.

  19. Laurie Sims says:

    I was a Leroy pro for GE in the 70s. Still have a set somewhere.
    A fun piece of trivia you may never need (I didn’t until just now) is that the treaty ending ending the war in the Pacific signed in 1945 aboard the Battleship Missouri was Leroy lettered. There;’s a photo in this wikipedia page:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_Instrument_of_Surrender#/media/File:Japan_Instrument_of_Surrender_2_September_1945.jpg

  20. Ben says:

    @Laurie – Wow, that’s really fascinating–both your history as a Leroy pro and the treaty.

  21. Michael Mow says:

    I used my Leroy set for many years when I was a draftsman and illustrator back in the 70’s and 80’s. I did many drawings where all the text was done with the Leroy. Once you get familiar with it the lettering goes fairly fast. I even have some specialty templates and large scribe to do up to 2 inch tall letters. Along with my jewel tip pens I have kept the entire set all these years even though my wife wants me to get rid of the stuff – I just can’t part with the stuff, yet.

  22. connel manning says:

    I just got a set at a thrift store. Using the ink pens is so fraught with mistakes for me that I can tell it would take a lot of patient practice. Maybe try the pencil (that’s why they make erasers) then ink over it.

  23. Jim Dossa says:

    Back in the early 1980s I bought the K&E Leroy music template #2702 and the music slur template #2704 for preparing music scores on pre-printed vellum and subsequent diazo blackline reproduction. An average 9×12″ page of music took about 8 hours to ink–timeconsuming but the results were great. A handful of composers and music typographers I knew were using the same techniques for self-publishing their music. 4-5 years later and the early generations of computer music typesetting programs were appearing. We all switched over to computers.

  1. Hipertexto #61 | Mundo Fantasma says:

    […] Leroy Lettering É basicamente um pantógrafo que era utilizado para balonar comics. Parece um processo extremamente lento. Benzilla. […]

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