FontForge build procedures

Before you build (on unix/linux based systems)

You must have the following packages installed before you can build:

Before you build (on a mac)

You must insure that you have the both the X11 server and the Xcode toolchain installed on your system. This process is slightly different on OS/X 10.3 & 10.4

  • Open the Install DVD that came with your system.
  • Scroll down to "Optional Installs" and open it.
  • Keep clicking Continue until you get to the pane "Custom Install on "Macintosh HD""
  • Press the arrow beside "Applications" so you get a list of them.
  • Select X11
  • Keep pressing Continue
  • The Xcode toolchain is optional software on the install DVD. Simply insert the disk and click on the XCode install icon.
  • The X server lives in a package called X11User on the third install CD.
  • You must also install the X11SDK package on the XCode CD
  • And you must install the XCode tools themselves.

You may also want to install the fink package which includes many useful libraries (see the dependencies section below for more info on this)

You must then start up a Terminal window (the Terminal Application also lives in the Utilities sub-folder of the Applications folder) and be prepared to type commands in that window (I know, it's very un-mac-like).

Special note for building prior to 10.3

OS/X has evolved over time. Certain system calls have changed. The current source distribution should work on any 10.3+ system.

If you wish to build on a 10.2 system you must say

$ ./configure --with-regular-link

(Rather than just saying ./configure)

Before you build (on MS/Windows)

You must download the cygwin environment. You will need

Caveat: cygwin has a different approach to the file system than Windows. A filename like C:\windows\fonts\arial.ttf will be called /cygdrive/c/windows/fonts/arial.ttf under cygwin (backslashes are replaced by slashes, and the initial drive "C:" becomes "/cygdrive/c"

Having done that you should now be ready to build. Open a cygwin terminal window and be prepared to type commands in it.

Building and installing from source

Obtaining a source distribution

There are two basic ways to obtain a source distribution. One is by downloading an entire source tree from the web, and the other is by using the git utility to maintain a source tree on your machine which will be as up to date as possible. The former solution provides more stability, the latter provides access to cutting edge bugs.


Sourceforge's file release system will contain a tarball (a file with the extension for .tar.bz2).

After you have downloaded one of these packages, either copy the tarball to where you are, or move to the directory containing the tarball (I can't provide explicit instructions here, because I don't know where your browser put the file) and type (do not type "$"):

$ bunzip2 fontforge*.tar.bz2
$ tar xf fontforge*.tar
$ cd fontforge-*

from the git repository

git is another version control system. To set up your own (local, read-only) copy of the git repository (including documentation), create a new directory, cd into it and type the following (do not type "$", when it asks for a password, just hit return):


You can also browse the git repository online. Or read the git documentation.

from the cvs tree

The cvs repository is no longer up to date. It still exists (for now) for historical purposes (and in case something goes wrong with git) but it is no longer in active service and no commits have been made to it since 13-Feb-2011. You really want to use git, above.

cvs is a nifty set of utilities which allows concurrent access to a source tree by many users. To set up your own (local) copy of the cvs tree (including documentation), create a new directory, cd into it and type the following (do not type "$", when it asks for a password, just hit return):

$ cvs login
CVS password:
$ cvs checkout fontforge
$ cd fontforge

Once you have established a directory you may update it to obtain the most recent version of the source by typing:

$ cd fontforge
$ cvs login
CVS password:
$ cvs update

You can also browse the CVS tree online. Or see sourceforge's description for more information, or read the CVS manual.

Building & installing it

Now you have the source installed on your system and you should be positioned at the top directory of that tree. You need to configure your package (this is a little program that figures out how to use your system), and then build it (do not type the "$"):

$ ./
$ ./configure
$ make

Having done this you will probably want to install what you have built. This should be done as root:

$ su
password: ******
# make install

On the mac the process is slightly different:

$ sudo make install
password: ******

While on cygwin, where there is no root, you just say:

$ make install

More complicated installs

The configure script allows you to turn off and on various features of fontforge that might not be appropriate for your system. Type

$ ./configure --help

for a complete list of options. Some of the most useful are described below.

Building fontforge without X

If you don't want to install X11 on your system, you can use fontforge as a command line tool which can execute scripts to manipulate fonts. FontForge's scripting language is described in detail in the section on scripting, or the section on python scripting.

$ ./configure --without-x

Building fontforge to use higher precision internally

FontForge generally uses floats to represent coordinates. If you need greater accuracy...

$ ./configure --enable-double

Building fontforge with the tile path command available

FontForge has a command which lets you tile a pattern along a path. Generally this is disabled as it isn't what most fonts will use, but for some decorative fonts it can be useful.

$ ./configure --enable-tilepath

Building fontforge (also) as a python extension

If you want to write python scripts in normal python (as opposed to within the python embedded in fontforge)

$ ./configure --enable-pyextension

Installing FontForge somewhere other than /usr/local

If you want to install fontforge in a different directory (say in /usr/bin)

$ ./configure --prefix=/usr

Installing documentation from the cvs tree

If you have a copy of the git repository on your system then you should be able to type

# make install_docs

Again you will probably need to be root to do this install too. Use either "su" or "sudo" as appropriate for your system (see above).

Applying a patch

From time to time someone will report a bug or request a feature and I will reply by sending a patch which purports to fix the bug or implement the feature. But how do you use the patch file I sent?

patch is a standard unix utility (Try typing $ man patch, for more info) which will make changes to text files. I use it to modify the source files of FontForge.

So before you can apply the patch you must have the source code available to you. If you choose to download from the git repository, then, in all probability, the patch will already have been applied (so you don't need to do anything with it). But if you download one of my tarballs then you will need to apply the patch:

$ bunzip2 fontforge*.tar.bz2
$ tar xf fontforge*.tar
$ cd fontforge-*/fontforge
$ patch <foobar.patch 
$ cd ..
$ ./configure
$ make
$ make install

Dependencies (external libraries/helper programs)

FontForge tries to avoid hard dependencies. If a library is missing then fontforge will (in most cases, but not on cygwin) be able to continue to run, it will just lack whatever functionality the library provides. So if you don't need to import tiff images, you don't need libtiff. If you don't need to handle SVG fonts you don't need libxml2, etc.


If you want to do autotracing around character images you should also download either


None is required for the proper compilation/execution of FontForge, if the libraries are not present they will not be used. (If the machine on which your executable was build didn't have them, then you must not only install the libraries, but rebuild fontforge from source) If your machine doesn't have them and you want them they are available from:

Extra Files

If you want to edit CID keyed fonts you need these character set descriptions. (These were last updated 22-Dec-2004)

Once upon a time, fontforge only used X11 bitmap fonts, on most systems in now uses fontconfig.

There seem plenty of good unicode outline fonts, so I shan't provide any suggestions. To install them you simply create a subdirectory called .fonts in your home directory, and then copy the font file into that subdirectory.

Warning for mac users: pango uses opentype to layout complex scripts. Most fonts on the macintosh are in a different format -- glyphs from them will display fine (so they work for latin, greek cyrillic, japanese, chinese, etc.) but more complex features will probably not work (so Arabic and Indic scripts may not be displayed properly).

In the old days there weren't many bitmap fonts with good unicode coverage so I provided a list of suggested fonts. That's not nearly as important now. But if fontconfig isn't available for you, you might want to pull down some old unicode bitmap fonts.

To install these, put them in a directory, and in that directory type:

    $ mkfontdir
    $ xset fp+ `pwd`

You should make sure that the xset line happens whenever X is started on your machine (put it in your .xsession file).


The complete fontforge manual is available online.

Installing a documentation tarball

Once you have downloaded the documentation tarball as described above, you should move to the directory containing it, and type:

$ su
password: ******
# mkdir -p /usr/local/share/doc/fontforge
# mv fontforge_htdocs*.tar.bz2 /usr/local/share/doc/fontforge
# cd /usr/local/share/doc/fontforge
# tar xfj fontforge_htdocs*.tar.bz2
# rm fontforge_htdocs*.tar.bz2

After doing this fontforge will be able to find the docs on your system when you press the [F1] (or [Help]) key. If you don't do this fontforge will attempt to find documentation online.

(on some strict unix systems you may need to do the following instead)

$ su
password: ******
# mkdir -p /usr/local/share/doc/fontforge
# mv fontforge_htdocs*.tar.bz2 /usr/local/share/doc/fontforge
# cd /usr/local/share/doc/fontforge
# bunzip2 fontforge_htdocs*.tar.bz2
# tar xf fontforge_htdocs*.tar
# rm fontforge_htdocs*.tar