Cursive for fun and profit

Port sisters Anna and Emma Duffrin are making a business out of their skill at handwriting

Anna and Emma Duffrin (from left) of Port Washington have started a hand-lettering business they squeeze in between graduate school and other jobs. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Anna Duffrin of Port Washington admits she is not an artist.

“I can’t draw to save my life,” she said, but added, “I’ve always had neat handwriting.”

Having what many view as an antiquated skill — some schools have stopped teaching it — crossed her mind.

“Great, where is that going to get me in life?” she asked.

Duffrin’s younger sister Emma learned handwriting in third grade and enjoyed it so much that she asked to do her homework in cursive. Her teacher agreed provided she was able to read it.

“So I write in cursive for fun,” Emma said.

The sisters have taken their hobby to another level, opening a hand-lettering business last year called a + e pen + paperie.

The seed for the idea was planted three years ago when Anna did signs for a wedding and was told she should start a business.

“People just had ideas and said, ‘Can you do this?’” Anna said.

The young pair — Anna is 25 and Emma is 23 — are mostly self-taught through YouTube. They practice with the fat Crayola markers to make strokes of varying thickness. Anna uses a popular website for inspiration.

“Pinterest is my best friend,” she said.

The sisters can work on most any surface, from chalkboard to canvas to wood. Supplies come from various sources, including resale shops, to keep costs down. They once used wood pulled from pallets.   

 Some customers provide ideas, while others just tell them to make it happen.

While both enjoy doodling, having a deadline and specific projects brings on some stress. Seeing completed projects brings on “relief for sure.”

Then they turn their thoughts to the customer. “OK, cool, hopefully they like it,” Anna said.

Anna sometimes doesn’t, which requires more time to complete jobs.

“You’re your own worst critic. Sometimes, that’s why it takes so long to get done,” she said.

“I’m a perfectionist. I enjoy doing it but sometimes I want to pull my hair out.”

If Anna isn’t happy with her work on a piece of wood, she will sand it down and start over.

Their styles in how they do their work contrast as much as some of their white lettering on black chalkboard.

Emma warms up before starting her lettering.

“I just do different strokes, up and down, or the alphabet,” she said. She learned via YouTube that upstrokes are thinner than downstrokes.

Emma does sketches of exactly how she wants the letters to look. Anna uses a rough sketch only. “I’d like to be able to freehand it and not sketch it, but I’m not there yet,” she said.

There’s one other major difference. Emma is left handed, meaning she gets a drag affect. She has to lift her hand to avoid contact with the ink or paint, and she has developed another technique—she can draw letters backward.

They are quick to point out they don’t consider what they do to be calligraphy, which Anna considers to be “more formal, such as the Declaration of Independence.”

Hand lettering, they said, is more like modern calligraphy and customized fonts. The pair mixes handwriting with cursive fonts to create their work.

Marker and acrylic paint are two common mediums. The paint allows for some creativity.

“If you can’t find a color you want, you make it,” Anna said.

They would like to get a home die-cutting machine to be able to do different projects.

Their work is “not cheap but it’s not outrageous,” Emma said.

“It’s a handmade product,” Anna said.

The business has started with friends and coworkers.

“A lot of the jobs that we’ve done are for people we know,” Anna said.

The two work in the living room of their parents’ home and hope to carve out their own space in the basement.

They split their roles in the business. Anna handles public relations and ordering, while Emma manages the finances. They manage to find time to run their business in between graduate school and other jobs.

Anna is an athletic trainer for Ozaukee and Random Lake high schools, works at a hotel and Starbucks, and is studying toward her doctorate in athletic training, slated to graduate in December 2020.

Someday, she would like to be a college professor.

Emma works at a hospital and is studying to earn her master’s degree in social work, slated to graduate in spring 2022.

The two get along “for the most part,” Emma said.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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