Font Creation: Hand Digitizing vs. Keyboarding

Tackle the complicated task of font creation with this helpful article. 

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Keyboard lettering for embroidery allows for the typing of characters in the same manner as typing in a word processor or creating text in a graphics program. If the font exists and the proper settings are used, adding text to a design can be a quick and easy process without having to digitize the text from scratch on a design by design basis.

Most embroidery systems have a wide range of font types and styles integrated into their systems. There are two ways that an embroidery font is created. The first method, which is not ideal, is a true type-to-embroidery conversion where an embroidery system reads a true type font and converts it to text automatically without any human intervention. This method often lacks the visual fluidity that a hand digitized font will have. It gets the job done, but often requires fine-tuning before production. The success or failure of this method is largely dependent upon the font style that is being converted. An intricate font with many different stitch directions will be more challenging than a plain block font. Any time a conversion is used, there should be a careful analysis of the results.

The second method is for the font to be digitized as a keyboard font. This process produces much better results and is a great long-term solution. The problem within a keyboard font is that the user can choose whatever size they want without making adjustments, which can cause issues, which in turn gives the keyboard method a bad reputation. Fonts that are created as true type fonts for use in a graphics program have the flexibility to fluctuate in size to almost unlimited values.

The reality is that keyboard lettering, in this case, is digitized lettering. The main difference between keyboard lettering and hand digitizing lettering for a specific design is that when you hand digitize for a specific design, the font is digitized to that exact size, while a keyboard font is designed to fluctuate in size.

While there are many different systems and methods for creating a font, the principles behind the font creation are the same. Three things must occur to create a keyboard font.

  1. Each character must be digitized.
  2. Character spacing (Kerning) needs to be defined.
  3. The font needs to be compiled from individual characters into a selectable font.

Understanding how an alphabet is crafted into a keyboard font is extremely beneficial in understanding how to use the fonts correctly.


The digitizing of the character is by far the most important step. If the character is digitized poorly at this stage, it will never properly work once it is compiled into a keyboard font. The first step in the digitizing process is to determine the intended size range for the font. A blanket range of .25″-10″ is unrealistic.

Embroidery has the limitation of column width. A typical satin stitch range is from 1mm-10mm. Once columns fall below or above those values, the embroidery is susceptible to problems. When determining the font range, those values, and the character size at those values must be known. Serifs are another determining factor. The decision to stitch serifs in a horizontal or vertical direction is based on the size range for the font.

Keyboard fonts can exceed the size range they were intended for, but at that point, the font stitch type will need to be converted to a bi-column, random column, or fill stitch. When attempting very small sizes, a font will also need great care and attention. If the column thickness becomes too thin, then you run the risk of putting holes in the garment or experiencing thread or needle breaks. The best solution for a small font is to digitize a series of fonts that are exclusively designed for small lettering. Placing a recommended limit of .25″-.40,” rather than trying to cover a huge variance, will also help in the results of the font.

Horizontal serifs are more forgiving at smaller sizes. The width of the stitch will max out the font size sooner than a vertical serif. The vertical serifs allow a font to go larger but may have difficulty at smaller sizes (All images courtesy the author).

Once the size range and stitch types are determined, the next step is to digitize each character. Each character should be digitized in a manner where the exit point of the font can vary as the exit point for a character will change based on the next character to it. This will allow the end point to maintain the closest point connections possible. Certain systems require you to digitize each character three times with a different end point-top, middle, bottom-for each character. Systems that allow segments to be combined (aka branched) allow each character to be digitized only once as the stop position is flexible.

Once the digitizing is completed, there needs to be a way to determine the kerning and baseline for each character. The baseline represents where each character sits along an imaginary plane. The baseline is important as you would not want an apostrophe to be at the bottom of a letter nor a period to be at the top of a letter. The most accurate way to set both kerning and baseline values is to draw some reference lines that are associated with each character. In the following example, notice how the position of the kerning reference indicators has a huge impact on the spacing between characters. Also, notice how the baseline box shows the positioning of characters.

The kerning and baseline adjustments are equally as important when creating a stylized font where each character must be in perfect relation to another character. An excellent example of this would be a fancy three-letter monogram font as pictured below.

The final step is to compile the font. Compiling a font is accomplished through initiating a command within the embroidery software to take a letter and assign a keystroke to it. Some systems also allow the ability to mass load an entire character set at once. When assigning keystrokes, the embroidery software does not care what is being assigned to the keystroke. It is nothing more than a relation to an object or file. The letter A can be assigned to display an A or any type of design. This helps eliminate the constant merging of stitch files for design fonts.

Once everything is compiled, testing is required to ensure that all fonts generate correctly. Loading a visual kerning pair reference file helps ensure that each character set ends up in proper alignment. In addition to this step, the font should be carefully examined during the first few weeks of usage with any necessary adjustments made along the way.

Since fonts can fluctuate in size, the appropriate values in regards to underlay and pull compensation should be evaluated to ensure proper stitching. Another factor that can affect the quality of a keyboard font is compression. The more a font is compressed, the more it loses the originally digitized integrity.

Due to the nature of fonts, visual properties, and different letter heights, it is impossible to have one kerning reference that applies to all letter combinations. Therefore, a good font creation program must have the ability to change kerning pairs on a letter by letter basis.

In the example below, leaving the default kerning reference points and not adjusting individual characters would result in “Th” looking fine but “Te” looking visually incorrect.

Digitizing a font is a time consuming process, but if the proper care is taken from the start, and if the designated intent is adhered to, then keyboard fonts can become an invaluable time saver with excellent results. 

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Ed Levy, Hirsch Solutions Inca

Ed Levy

Ed Levy is an industry veteran and director of software technologies at Hirsch Solutions.

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