Font creation tutorial

Every graphic designer who uses computers thinks about creating or modifying fonts, sooner or later: "how do I create my own fonts?" "how can I retouch one of the fonts I have to better suit my needs?" "Is it difficult?" "will I be able to do it?" There is something clear: somebody has drawn the fonts we have, either with traditional tools or with a computer... and some of the designs are clearly based on handwriting forms.

Contents of this article:

  • Introduction
  • What is a digital font
  • Necessary equipment and Workflow
  • Starting points for a typeface
  • Step by step
  • Scanning
  • How to trace the contours
  • Creating the glyphs
  • The vector shapes: important details
  • How to generate the font
  • Font making programs
  • Resources
  • Part 2: Advanced techniques and tips

To create a new typeface isn't a particularly difficult task. Indeed, the idea is very easy to get, and the necessary equipment, very basic . At the worst, we can regard the process as something more or less laborious, and it requires good organisation and planning. This guide doesn't aim to be either a complete manual on fontmaking or a tutorial about the software you will use (there can be plenty of programs involved -or just one, depending on what you choose.) This is only a quick, start level, introduction; if you want to achieve optimal results, some advanced understanding of those programs is recommended. Once you begin to have more confidence in creating fonts, go on to part two of this workshop.

The best starting point is to study the workflow diagram below. It illustrates the whole process: which kind of files we will deal with, what programs can be used. We can follow different paths to get to the same result: a digital font for the computer, so we can choose the procedure that best fits our equipment, software and skills.

What is a digital font

A TrueType or a Type 1 font is a group of vectorial drawings. They can be scaled with no loss of quality. The vectors that describe each character are stored in a file, which we shall install in order to use the font. In the PC platform, the TrueType files have a .TTF extension, and the Type 1 files are composed of two files: a .PFB and a .PFM file. This last file stores the metrics information. In a Mac system the file structure is somehow different, but this is a minor difference: the process of designing a font is pretty much the same, only choosing another saving option in the last step.

To create a digital font, we only have to 1) draw the shapes and 2) export them as a .TTF or a .PFB + .PFM file. Well, this sounds like Monthy Python's How to write a novel! There are plenty of programs that will help us in the first part, drawing. However, the second part requires more specialized software. Fortunately, a very common program, CorelDraw, includes a font-export filter. What is more, the entire process can be completed from within CorelDraw. For this reason, we will focus the techniques of fontmaking in using a drawing application such as CorelDraw (and its user's manual includes detailed information.) The tools these drawing applications include are usually easier to use and more powerful than those in a font-making program, but the fine details in a font file (kerning, spacing, hinting...) require them.

Necessary equipment and workflow.

Apart from the usual requirements for digital graphic design (or course, a computer, which can be very basic, even an old 486SX PC if you use CorelDraw 3! and the common programs), we will need:

A scanner.
Even an old b/w scanner will suffice: we don't create the fonts in colour, but as black and white vectors.
Auxiliar drawing programs.
Used to acquire images in the computer, retouch where it's necessary and prepare them for the typeface. Even the Paint app included with Windows will do, but it is recommended to use a propram with more features: Paintshop Pro, the Gimp, Photoshop, PhotoPaint, PhotoImpact...A recent version can be overkill: even PSP 4 will be more than enough -that's what I use.
Programs to convert the image to vector.
This isn't absolutely necessary, but it will help speed the process and keep it in control. Most designers use CorelTrace or Adobe Streamline as vector tracer, if the program itself doesn't include this option. The vector editing programs include Freehand, Xara, Illustrator , and CorelDraw. The two first have an internal tracing utility. There is a basic (freeware in its version 2) vector editing tool, called Mayura Draw that will do, too.
Programs to generate the font file.
Several programs can do this last task. On the one hand, we have dedicated solutions, from entry-level shareware programs like Softy or The font Creation Program (FCP), to full-featured fontmaking professional tools (Fontographer, FontLab .); on the other hand, there is the special case of CorelDraw, a swiss blade of a program that will let you export as a digital font. So, if you already have Corel, this is a good starting point before buying a dedicated program. This isn't a plug: you may love Corel or hate it, but it's an extremely powerful program that can be found as a bargain, and it includes many extras (tons of clipart, premium quality fonts...)

The diagram that follows is a workflow for fontmaking. It considers almost every option; includes the programs that can be used and the kind of files they will work with. And you can choose your own itineraries.

  font creation workflow

Starting points for a typeface

First, we shall design the characters of a font (the glyphs). The diagram shows some of the possibilities:

  1. A drawing on paper
  2. Every drawing implement will do: pencil, ink, eraser, paper, or technical tools: ruler, measures, T-square, whatever. It can be our own handwriting. Then, we will have to load the file into our computer. We can draw directly with our painting or drawing program
  3. or even the font-creation program. We can use the mouse, or have better control with a graphical tablet. Most professional-quality fonts have been drawn with painstaking detail with a drawing application, using (or not) a scanned template. We can modify another font, or digitalize a traditional design

But first, we must check all the legal questions, copyrights, and all this stuff. If it is legally possible, we can use another type design as the basis of our own. There is another interesting possibility: we can recover old designs, and bring to life (digitally) centuries-old typefaces. There is a good page at the University of Zaragoza in Spain that explains the recovery of a XVIII century font, the Ibarra typeface. Their page is a recommended complement of this tutorial.

Step by step

It isn't easy to detail the fontmaking process, because it isn't a single chain-like task; it is grid-like, and it is possible to use different programs with different routes. In order to cover most of the steps, we will follow the longest possible routine, starting at the top of the workflow diagram, from a sheet of paper with some letters drawn in, through the final step of generating a font. Of course, any other route is possible: for example, you could complete the whole task in CorelDraw or in ScanFont.

  bitmap before scanning

Scanning recommendations

The exact instructions and settings for your scanner depend on every machine, but there are some common points. It is better to scan at 300 dpi or less, and use a sample the largest the better. For example, characters with a height of 5 cm. or more (2 inches) will scan smoothly at 300 dpi. The reason why: if you scan small characters at a very high resolution you will get a lot of noise and a contour that reflects every irregularity; a low-rez scan of a big letter will let you discard the artifacts without affecting the overall shape, which is what you really want to use.

Yes, forget your fancy 32 bit-colour, 2400 dpi scanner. Set it to scan in greyscale, at a lower resolution (300 dpi or even less if you have big letters.) If you want to autotrace, this resolution is recommended; if you will trace the contours yourself, and the scan will only serve as a template, you can scan the drawing at screen (72 dpi) resolution.

It is often a good idea to apply a subtle blur filter to the resulting greyscale image, and refine it with the contrast and brightness or the levels controls. Use the gaussian blur option if available, and test it to get a more soft contour. This will polish the uneven contours and make the next step easier.

When the image is ok, we must save it. Save a greyscale copy (in the native format of your application, or in a lossless format, such as TIFF, GIF or PNG.) Then, convert it to bitmap (black and white); toy a little with the "threshold" parameter to push more or less pixels to black. Use either the BMP or the TIFF format, and save it. So now we have a bitmap file, like myfont.bmp. It is time to scan the contours.

  traced artwork

How to trace the contours

If you examine the workflow diagram, you will realize that a number of programs will let you bring your bitmap file to the next stage, the vector file in adobe illustrator or EPS format. This vector file contains shapes that are defined by means of Bézier curves, mathematical instructions to place points and adjust curves and lines to them. This kind of geometrically defined curves are pretty much the same stuff that makes up a digital font. Read your drawing program documentation for a detailed description of Bézier curves, or visit some page such as Mike's Sketchpad or the PostScript section of Luc Devroye's.

Let's see what the tracing step is. You must place anchor points and handles to define the vector shape, on top of the bitmap image you prepared in the first part. You can do it manually, but in many cases the autotrace option or a dedicated autotracing tool will do a good work. If you are lazy and/or the quality isn't a critical factor, forget the hand tracing and open the autotrace engine!

When the either the autotrace or manual trace is ready, we must have something like the figure shown here. The figure has been approximated with more or less fidelity, by a number of anchor points that define vector shapes. Now we can save the results as a vector file, in Adobe Illustrator (.AI) or .EPS format. It is advisable that we use an older version of the AI format (version 5 or lower) to solve any compatibility issue.

Creating the glyphs

Now, open your drawing application, or if you have it, your font-making application. I will use CorelDraw as an example, because this is what I have, but you could use any other vector drawing tool, such as Illustrator, Freehand, Xara or even the humble but postscript-solid Mayura Draw. The process of font creation in CorelDraw is covered in several other tutorials that you can find on the net. Nick Curtis, of Nick's Fonts fame, uses it to create his wonderful typefaces, and he has an article about his techniques (see the links below.)

First, we need a template to place the characters we will export to the font. The size of the characters must be big enough to test the contours and be sure they will look good at different point sizes. The recommended size is a 750 x 750 points page. This isn't the standard page in CorelDraw, so you will have to change it. Double-click anywhere on the page and the properties dialog will show up. Then, place some guides to have consistent baselines, x-heights and so on. Just make the rulers visible, and drag the top ruler to place a horizontal guide, or drag the left ruler to place A typical template page should look like the accompanying picture.

  template for font design in CorelDraw

The template is where you are going to place the AI/EPS files you traced before, or where you are going to draw the characters from the start. Take advantadge of the many and easy-to-use tools of your illustration application, and use the options of copy-paste, scale, unite, split, etc.

One moment now. A complete font has many dozens of characters. If we don't want to go nuts, it's better to tidy up our working environment. CorelDraw and Freehand have a multipage option that you can use to place a character in each page (sharing the same guides in all of them.) Even if you have a multipage file it may become unmanageable with more than 200 pages; it is better to create separate files, for example, for lowercase letters, uppercase, numbers and punctuation and extended characters. In other apps you will have to use some workaround, for example, prepare a page with groups of characters, with its own guides, then select them individually to export them to the font file. Another alternative, that will work even with very basic versions, like CorelDraw 3, is to have files with layers, where you put up your characters separately. Keep only the rulers and the active layer visibles to work easily.

  contour simplification

The vector shapes: important details

Creating the shapes can be very easy if we autotrace the image, or if we use relatively simple shapes (circles, rectangles) that we weld, split or modify in other ways. There are only a few points that we must remember:

  • It is better to simplify the contours to the minimum number of anchor points. If the vector has many nodes, it will be unnecesarily complex -it could even prevent the font from displaying or printing correctly. More complexity means more memory usage and often a worst quality. Keep in mind that a shape can be defined with just a few Bézier nodes: for example, a dot needs only two points. If you have started with a clean scan, it is more likely that you will have leaner Bezier curves.
  • Each character in the font must be a single path, filled and closed . If necessary, you can use a and composite path. For example, you create a dot with a single shape, a circle or ellipse; to create an hyphen you need a solid rectangle.
  • However, to create an "O" you cannot do it with an empty ellipse. The shape must have a fill. So you use two ellipses, and the smaller one cuts the hole in the outermost one. And you cannot use intersecting paths: for certain effects, you must use the "combine" or " create composite path" option, together with "removing overlap" or welding several shapes into a single path.
  • There is another detail that can be corrected with some programs, and is the path direction. Composite paths have specific directions in each component (clockwise or counterclockwise) and as a rule, they should be inversed each time that a path contains another path. The outermost path must be counterclockwise, while the inner paths combined with it should have a clockwise direction. You can read more details about this topic in an article on how to make fonts in Corel in their site, (see the links down in this page.)

How to generate the font

The process of making single characters yeld the single or combined paths that will make it to the next and last phase, generating the font file.

In CorelDraw, select one character at a time, go to the File > Export menu, and choose Export as... then TrueType or Type 1, depending on the kind of font you want to generate. Caution: You must check the box "only selected" in the export dialog box. The following box will appear:

  font export dialog box

Here you type the name of the font, check the box if you are creating a Symbol font, and leave the rest at their default values. When you press "Accept", another dialog box pops up, this time prompting you to select the character that corresponds to the shape-s you are exporting. In this example, we must find the ! character in the central column, and select it:

  placing characters in their slots

Finally, we press OK in this dialog and we can repeat the process for the rest of the characters.

So, this is the way people creates fonts! This is boring as hell, isn't it? Yes, and even with the Big Daddy of Font creators, Fontographer, you create the characters one at a time, and the process is more or less the same as we have explained above. So take it easy. Go get yourself a good coffee mug, put some music and et to work. You can do it in several sessions if you get really bored. But in the end we will have our own font creation, something we can share with other people and -who knows- even sell. When the font is complete, we only need to install it to the computer and start using it.

Font making programs

CorelDraw can generate fonts, but it proves very limited when it comes to define most parameters of the font. It is good to create symbol, dingbat or illustration fonts, but if spacing, kerning, and hinting is critical you must use a dedicated solution to create and edit fonts.

Most font editing programs let you draw directly the character. In some cases you can also autotrace them from a BMP or TIFF bitmap. And you can place AI/EPS files created in other applications. Again, the many possibilities are shown in the workflow diagram of this article. The main handicap of Font creation programs is the price/functionality relation. They can be really expensive and you will only use them for font creation/editing. This means that if you create fonts ocasionally, you will find little use to the program. Consider this: depending on the route you follow on the Workflow, you will need a proper fontmaking program only for a short time. If you have some friend that has one of these programs, if he lets you use his computer for a while, you can bring a disk with your .ai or .eps files ready to place in the character slots, or better still, a raw font produced in a cheap utility or in CorelDraw. Then, in a while you can prepare a decent font and generate it. This is what I do.

There are several fontmaking programs that are available for trying out. The most notable and powerful of these is Pyrus Scanfont . With this tool, creating a font can be a matter of, literally, a few minutes. Just open a bitmap of the font, or scan it directly with the program. One command separates the shapes (that is, autotraces them), then you drag these shapes to a character map window, and the font is ready. Name it and you're done! Amazing. It you start with a clean scan of your handwriting, you can have it ready to use in a few minutes. Of course, you may need to tweak individual characters, spacing, etc. and you can do it with precision. You can try Scanfont to create up to five fonts! Get it from their distributor, Pyrus or FontLab. The same company offers the most advanced font creation program, FontLab, and a basic font editor and creator, TypeTool (also with a 5-font tryout), together with some other type utilities. A visit to their website is recommended.

There are two basic font creators, Softy and FCP ( The Font Creator Program) that you can download from the net. The first is a very small program, but it isn't very intuitive and lacks a good help system. FCP is available from High Logic, in the Netherlands, and is a good starting point to learn fontmaking.

And finally, what about Fontographer? This used to be the most used font creation tool. A professional caliber program, distributed by Macromedia. There is no tryout version of this program, so you will not be able to get a feel for it before buying. You can find more information about Fontographer at the Macromedia site, and there is also a Fontographer newsgroup. However, many years has passed since the program was last updated and it lacks many features present in Fontlab.

Don't forget to take a look to the net resources listed on the below and to check out the second part of this tutorial. Jump there...

Resources on the net

These are some selected articles about fontmaking. This collection makes almost a complete reference book to get you started. These articles cover almost every topic. If some of the links doesn't work, don't blame me —in the Internet they get stale faster than home made cream.