Combat Calligraphy (aka the Fine Art of Making your Text Fit)

21 04 2014

I apologize in advance to my regular subscribers, this post is actually information for several people who have requested it.  Lacking somewhere to put it with enough detail to actually be helpful I stuck it here on my blog.

Laying out lines for calligraphy can be a righteous pain in the butt, and it’s not uncommon for new calligraphers to put in all the lines and then figure out that their text won’t fit.  So here’s the method I use (your mileage may vary) when I’m doing combat calligraphy. It’s quick, it’s a bit weird, but in about 10 minutes, I can figure out how to make my text fit on the scroll blank I’ve got in front of me.

First, put in a small grouping of lines that are correct for the nib and hand you wish to use.  I use an Ames Guide, but I know a ton of people who just do it by measuring the nib and extrapolating line heights from there. I end up with three lines for each “row” of text, so that I have a space for my ascenders, a space for all smallcase letters (a,c,e,m,n,o,r,s,u,v,w,x,z typically) and a white space, 1/2 the height of which is usually reserved for descenders. I’ve labeled the groupings in the photo below with -1, 0, 1, 2, etc.  I generally draw out about 4 rows (or 4 groups of 3 lines), and begin my scroll text on my line marked “1”.


Don’t draw out any more lines yet- if you’re off on how much room you need, you just end up erasing a lot of lines. 

Step two is to write or type out your scroll text (I use an index card typically) as it will actually be callig’d, and if you write it, keep your handwriting consistent.  That’s super important.  Also write out things like “Anno Societatis” and rather than using Roman numerals for the year, write it out.  (Example: forty-eight, rather than XLVIII.)  Also write out the date so that 14th becomes fourteenth.  Check out the example below to see what I mean, but for now, ignore the stars.


Okay.  Next step! The only scroll blank I had lying around is the one I used below, which starts with an “F”. Pretend it starts with a “D” for our purposes, so that the first line of text would read: “Do you hear that King… etc. etc.” On your scroll, pencil in the first line of text, meaning whatever fits on the scroll in a rough approximation of the actual hand you’re going to use.  My big fat bouncy penciled letters are a super quick emulation of the Uncial hand.  (See the photo below.) I probably could have fit King John’s name on the line too, but it’s always better to overestimate the room you need for text in my opinion then run out of room.


Here’s where the stars come into play.  If on my scroll, I can fit what I did – “Do you hear that King” on the row labeled one, I need to measure an equivalent on my written out text.  So if those 5 words measure 2 cm or 2 inches or whatever, then I put some delineation (like the little rows of stars) throughout my written index card. (See below.) If my measurement lands in the middle of a word, I put my stars before that word begins so that I’m not potentially putting half a word on a row.  (Again, overestimation is a good thing!) The idea is that after I measure out my index card text, I can count my little stars and figure out that I’ve got 12 rows of text total.  I generally add one extra for good measure, bringing my total rows to 13. 


At this point, I measure one row (or a set of the three lines needed for my ascenders, smallcase letters, and descenders) and determine approximately how tall a row is.  (I use cm for this measurement as it’s super easy to use a calculator since metric is based on 1/10’s.) Measure the height of your available area for text and double check that you’ll have enough room for your 13 rows.  If there is no way that your text will fit (as in, you end up more than 2 lines short) you may still be okay if the illumination doesn’t run all the way to the bottom of the text area, because that means when your left margin shifts to the left (at the bottom most edge of the illumination) you’ll gain a little space to jam another word or two onto each line.  If that’s the case, then sketch in whatever row of text would conceivably land there, and shift your measurement on your index card accordingly.  If after doing that, you’re still running more than 2 lines short, then erase your lines and choose a smaller nib. 

If you’re close to fitting all the text on the scroll, but you’re ending up with no “wiggle” room, NEVER FEAR! You’ve got a few options so that you don’t have to redraw your lines.  First, bump your starting row of text up to the “0” mark (as shown in the photo below) and if the white space still looks okay starting your working a little higher on the scroll I mean, and that gives you enough room, great! Draw in the rest of your lines and callig away. If that’s still not quite enough room, then chop all the numbers etc. back down to their shorter counterparts.  Example being: fourteenth becomes 14th, “Anno Societatis” becomes A.S.


You’ll have to re-measure out where your stars or tic marks go, but I keep two brightly colored Sharpie markers in my kit for this reason – so that I count the number of little green dots rather than stars.  If it still doesn’t quite fit, remember you added an extra line “just in case” and so if you need to, revert your number of rows back to the twelve you actually need for the text and see if that fits.  

At that point, you’re good to go.  And the best part is that you’ve given yourself an actual row by row draft of what text should be fitting on each line, so you can check that you’re on target at the end of every single row. 

Last but not least, remember to factor in some sort of space for the royalty to sign.  




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