Conquering the “Phantom Menace” with Nan DeLuca

One of our most popular, yet often most challenging, products is the Phantom Liner. This useful tool allows you to project lines onto paper that won’t cooperate with a lightbox. However, it is often confusing and frustrating to use with only the directions provided. Therefore, I was quite thankful when Nan DeLuca offered to revamp an article she’d written on using this tool so that we could post it on the blog. (As you will see, quite a bit of time and expertise have gone into creating this article!) Nan is a New York City calligrapher who specializes in wedding work that is both beautiful and elegant. Her advice on using the Phantome Liner will help make it much more accessible to those who have been hesitant to try this tool, as well as those who have assigned it a space in storage due to frustation. It really is an excellent resource that can help prevent having to line envelopes by hand. Enjoy Nan’s expert advice!

 “Using the Phantom Liner” by Nan DeLuca

Envelopes and cards can be difficult enough to deal with when you CAN use a light box to see your guidelines.  Add to the equation tricky papers (slick, catchy), challenging inks, complex writing styles and deadlines, and it can be a lot to deal with.  Now make the paper opaque (either dark or heavily lined) which cancels out your ability to use a light box.  And sadly, some papers will not accept pencil/soapstone lines or erasing.  What is a calligrapher to do?

If you want to expand the type of lettering you can do to dark papers, heavily lined envelopes or just learn a new tool, the Phantom Liner (“Reflections” is how it is currently packaged) can literally expand your horizons…or at least play with your depth of field vision!  This device is often referred to by scribes as the Phantom Menace! It can be chore to set up and use but allows us to write on paper that is not translucent enough to use on our light boxes.

What makes scribes shy away from it? Why do some use it happily while others grumble using very un-scribelike words while setting it up? What exactly is it?

Very simply it is a device that allows you to see lines to write on that are really not there on your paper; they are only reflected on a piece of smoked plastic from a guideline placed across from it.  Imagine a hologram or a ghost image of your guidelines appearing over your paper or envelope.  You need to buy into this image and treat it as if it is really there on your paper.

The device looks like a giant “V with your guideline on the left and the grey plastic window/panel you must look thru on the right. You look thru the right side and see your guidelines above your writing paper. Your paper lies below and to the right of the “V” as shown in the package illustrations.

To make it work properly, here are some ‘rules’:

  1. On guidelines, slant lines must be reversed (55 degrees becomes 125 degrees).  Any color guidelines      will ‘reflect’…so black lines will show up with black paper.
  2. Color helps when writing on light paper. Measure and mark your margins in color on your guidelines to more easily see them reflected.
  3. If you mark off your indents or  spacing, use different color lines.
  4. I use a bright highlighter to mark my writing lines; this makes it easier to find on the reflection.
  5. Guidelines printed on clear  plastic or vellum work on both dark and light papers.
  6. Make a template or guide to sit your paper in with some vertical and horizontal centering lines marked so that you can always check that your Phantom Liner is properly oriented.

Setting up can take some time to do correctly but once done, the work can go quickly.
First, find a heavy piece of smooth cardboard or other firm surface; you will be taping the phantom liner to it. (I use a piece of clayboard purchased in an art store).   It has to be large enough to accommodate the Phantom Liner base as well as the paper/envelope you are writing on.

Second, set up the Phantom on it, putting in the white plastic holder for guidelines on the left and the grey plastic viewer on the right. Have a screwdriver handy to make adjustments to the angles when the time comes to set up for your particular job.  Insert your guidelines on the left, centered and low;  do not place it too high or it will distort your image.  Get a good light source; light must shine on the guide sheets (not a spotlight!) while your lists and template area must also have light.  Lighting needs to come from the right hand side of your work area for right hand calligraphers; if you are a lefty, reverse sides.

Third, place a paper (your template with horizontal/vertical lines marked) under the grey plastic side on the left of the base. Looking through the plastic, can you now see your guidelines hovering. Trace your envelope shape on the paper and mark off some horizontal and vertical lines…a center line is very helpful.  Consider where you want to start your writing, margins, and where to end.  (For envelopes, I always outline my envelope on the guideline in a bright color to more easily align).

Fourth, take time to make adjustments and tweak your set-up. Looking down at your paper through the plastic, line up your guidelines with your paper and have the lines of writing hit exactly where you want. Watch the edges to be sure they match. As stated on the package directions, you can adjust the angle of the “V” by tightening or loosening the screw in the middle—thus moving the guidelines up/down.  You do have to play around with this for a while to get it right; do not be afraid to move your guidelines if needed.  Are the horizontal lines parallel on your guide sheet and on the template?  Is the center line on your guide sheet overlapping with the center line on your template?  The goal is to have the guidelines match the template.  When it does, note your seating position.  Are you comfortable?   This will be your writing position for all your work!  Test this-move a bit to left or right or slouch or sit higher—the relationship of the image changes with your position!!   (I often hold my paper/envelope on the bottom edge, with my hand loosely against my ribs, and I have even gone so far as to mark my ‘handprint’ on the paper edge!)

Fifth, finalize your set up. Retaining the position you have set up, tape down the phantom liner base securely with masking tape. You can put some cardboard borders or ‘bumpers’ on your template to mark exactly where your envelopes or paper will go to make sure it goes EXACTLY IN THE SAME PLACE EACH TIME AND DOES NOT MOVE. This template will now be where you will place your paper. (I go further by taping down small strips of thinner cardboard (mat board is great) to make an “L” to ‘hold’ the paper/envelope.) This way, each time I put down a fresh envelope, for example, I do not have to search for the right spot.  Another tip….even though you do not need to open the flap on envelopes to write…is a good idea to do so to assure you are not writing upside down on the front!

This photo shows my working setup. You can see my guidelines and even the finished envelope.  When working, my hand slips under and holds the bottom left corner area of the envelope steady while I write and the cardboard template further helps to position it.  You can see my “bumpers” with all the tape and colored lines on guidesheet on left.  Right above my ink/water area is the base of my lamp shining light on my guide sheet and work area.   I use Post-Its to mark the address I am writing on lists propped up in front of me.  Exemplar with Bickham serves to remind me of letterforms.  You can see the ‘screw’ in middle of the base to adjust the ‘wings’ of the Phantom Liner up or down a bit.
You have to strategically place your ink/water setup as well as the text/copy you are working from. Most importantly you need to find a comfortable position to write in. I turn slightly sideways, with my body at a slight angle to match the phantom liner set up. If you have to crook your neck to see thru the ‘window’, it will not take long until you are very sore and uncomfortable. A good chair with proper support is a godsend (for any of your calligraphic work!).  Actually, by forcing you into good posture, your writing may actually improve.


  • Try a hand you know and are comfortable with. Don’t try too many variables; black ink on ink jet paper for practice is fine.
  • Allow time to adjust…both the position of the set up and your seating. Try different color papers and inks once you feel comfortable. Vary your guidelines…what works? What does not?
  • Check and re-check your  position. A slight bump to the phantom can send it out of alignment. (With each envelope I check the position of the guideline relative to the template.)
  • Depth of field gets some getting used to; the guidelines seem to ‘hover’ above your paper. Try to see through them to the paper itself; soon you will not notice the spacial difference.
  • Take frequent breaks—don’t  get stiff in one frozen position. Be comfortable.
  • If doing a job, price accordingly  for extra set up time as well because using the Phantom will slow you down in the beginning. However, it will allow you to take jobs that you  otherwise would have to turn down. Be wise in your choice of jobs accepted—dealing with poor paper, runny gouache, handwritten lists and a  too-tight deadline will make you wish you never had accepted the job.
  • If you have long hair, leaning forward may cause it to come into the image area—that is why they invented pony tails!  Ultra long penholders can be an issue; it is nice to have one of the shorter ones handy.
  • Extra large envelopes and shiny/sparkly papers can be difficult if not impossible to work with.
  • The large size Phantom Liner is more useful…you can do smaller jobs with it but the reverse is not true with the smaller size.

The envelope above was so big that I used some weights to hold them flat and I had no room to open the flaps to write!Soon you, too, will be able to complain to fellow calligraphers about your current job on the Phantom Menace and will be churning out envelopes written in bright yellow on deep blue envelopes! (Many thanks to SOS member Carol Zack for talking me through all this over the phone when I first attempted to use years ago and many, many envelopes ago.)


You can view more of Nan’s work at:

To purchase the Phantom Liner, visit our website at:



  1. I loved this posting! I printed it out and shared it with all of the folks who go to our creative/ study group. It is very thorough and anyone can figure it out with these directions… even me. I’ve had one of these things for a very long time, but I never used it ’cause I thought it was more trouble than it was worth.. but NOW, that I have all the secrets… I use it more often!

  2. Thank you for posting this! I’m a lefty and before I purchase the tool, would you be able to shed some light on this tool for use by lefties?

    • I,too, am left-handed and have had success using the Phantom Liner. You’re going to simply reverse the angle from which you work. Specifically, what style of calligraphy are you going to be doing?

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