Frequently Asked Question List for TeX


Getting MetaFont to do what you want

MetaFont allows you to create your own fonts, and most TeX users will never need to use it — modern (La)TeX systems contain rather few MetaFont fonts of any significance, and when MetaFont output is needed the font generation is done, automatically, “on the fly”.

If you find you have some special requirement that the system doesn’t satisfy, you need to know about MetaFont in rather more detail. MetaFont, unlike TeX, requires customisation for each output device: such customisation is conventionally held in a “mode” associated with the device. Modes are commonly defined using the mode_def convention described on page 94 of The MetaFontbook (see TeX-related books). Your distribution should provide a file, conventionally called, containing all the mode_defs you will be using. In the unlikely event that doesn’t already exist, Karl Berry’s collection of modes ( is a good starting point (it can be used as a without modification in a modern implementation of MetaFont). Settings for new output devices are added to as they become available.

Now create a plain base file using mf (in “initialisation” mode),, and

% mf -ini
This is METAFONT...
**plain # you type plain
*input local # you type this
*dump # you type this
Beginning to dump on file plain...

This will create a base file named plain.base (or something similar; for example, it will be PLAIN.BAS on MS-DOS systems). Move the file to the directory containing the base files on your system, and run texhash as necessary.

Now you need to make sure MetaFont loads this new base when it starts up. If MetaFont loads the plain base by default on your system, then you’re ready to go. Under Unix (using the default TeX Live (and earlier) distributions this does indeed happen, but we could for instance define a command plainmf which executes mf -base=plain (or, in more traditional style mf & plain) which loads the plain base file.

† On the grounds that a command plain could be misconstrued as a reference to Plain TeX.

The usual way to create a font with MetaFont (with an appropriate base file loaded) is to start MetaFont’s input with the line

\mode=<mode name>; mag=<magnification>; input <font file name>

in response to the ** prompt or on the MetaFont command line (if <mode name> is unknown or omitted, the mode defaults to “proof” mode and MetaFont will produce an output file called <font file name>.2602gf). The <magnification> is a floating point number or a “magstep” (magsteps define sizes by stating how many times you need to multiply a base size by 1.2, so for a base size of 10, magstep 1 is 12, magstep 2 is 14.4. If mag=<magnification> is omitted, then the default is 1 (magstep 0). For example, to generate cmr10 at 12pt for an Epson, printer you might type

mf \mode=epson; mag=magstep 1; input cmr10

Note that under Unix the \ and ; characters must usually be quoted or escaped, so this would typically look something like

 mf "\mode=epson; mag=magstep 1; input cmr10"

If you need a special mode that isn’t in the base, you can put its commands in a file (e.g., and invoke it on the fly with the \smode command. For example, to create cmr10.300gf for an LN03 printer, using the file

% This is as of 1990/02/27
% mode_def courtesy of John Sauter

(note the absence of the mode_def and enddef commands), you would type

mf \smode="ln03"; input cmr10

This technique isn’t one you should regularly use, but it may prove useful if you acquire a new printer and want to experiment with parameters, or for some other reason are regularly editing the parameters you’re using. Once you’ve settled on an appropriate set of parameters, you should use them to rebuild the base file that you use.

Other sources of help are discussed in our list of MetaFont and MetaPost Tutorials.

Tags: metafont