When a designer in Iceland is picking a font to use for his design some of the desired fonts are impossible to use for the Icelandic language. How come?

In addition to the English alphabet the Icelandic language requires few special characters. These accented and special characters are:
á é í ó ú ý ð þ æ ö

See this more detailed at Diacritics site.

Accented characters are common in scandinavian and eastern European languages and are therefore more likely to be included in the fonts. How ever we often realize that the Thorn, thorn, Eth and eth are missing.

Most foundries and serious font designers stick to the Adobe Standard Encoding or even wider encoding for Open Type and include those characters in their fonts. However there are many cases where the characters are not drawn right or even that the font designer may have chosen to make the characters in a style that is unacceptable for use. This is most evident in the designing of the eth. The reason is most likely that the font designers lack the knowledge about the basic form of the character. Some common and bad versions include where a d with a stroke is used as an eth, and where the ascender gets a curly end.

Gunnlaugur S. E. Briem, an Icelandic font designer has on his website some very good descriptions on how to get the Thorns and the Eths right. Font designers are encouraged to take a look at his site to get the idea.

The shape of the eth is of course up to the font designer to make. The overall feel of the typeface must be considered. With some basic information like the ones Gunnlaugur provides the eth would surely fit nicely with the other characters.

Let’s look briefly at these characters.

Þ Thorn
Making a Thorn in a font editor like FontLab or a vector program is easiest by using the P. A handy way is to put together an I and a P, lower the P and then cut off the descender. Be careful because I and P don’t always have the same ascender thickness like in this example.

þ thorn
The most common way to make a thorn is to add the ascender of a b to a p. In FontLab Studio, when you double click on the thorn glyph window to make a new glyph, FontLab puts a b and the vertical Bar in the thorn slot and the width of the bar. It’s not a very good starting point and I expect FontLab to change that in next update and use the p and b.
In joining b and p, take into consideration how the bowl connects to the ascender. You probably would follow the way the p does.

Ð Eth
Based on a D with an added stroke. Most often the stroke should be like the bar of H but many like to see it a bit narrower like in this example. The stroke should be longer on the right side of the stem but without filling the negative space too much.
The width of Eth can almost every time be the same as the D but of course the overall feeling of the font decides.
Many years ago I compared the afm (Adobe Font Metrics) tables of the Adobe Font Folio for the Icelandic characters. At the time the collection had about 1600 fonts. I only found five examples where the with of the Eth differed from the D.

ð eth
This glyph is the hardest one and most misunderstood. But first: Never use a d as a base for an eth.
Most common is to base eth on an o and use the same width for it. Some prefer to lower the o-section slightly. Common practise at Emigre as an example. As Gunnlaugur points out, other forms in a font may be found in the right parenthesis. Personally I find it only in very rare cases useful to combine it to an o. Neither do I find the number 9 to do the trick. It can be quite time consuming to tilt and bend to fit it for a nice eth. For an experienced user of bezier curves or a font designer it is as quick or even faster simply to manually draw the ascender in a vector application.

The eth takes considerable ink and where the stem and the o-section meet is often the thickest part of any character in a font. Depending of the design of the font you may want to use variations like this to make the eth. The first one is the one I used before. Second one shows a different approach and the third one is adapting to forms found in the font.

I hope this will throw some light on the forms of these characters and help making it more suitable for Icelandic.

To add to this I just want to mention that when making an OpenType font with a lot of ligatures one might want to add a few extra ligatures for Icelandic. We have common character combinations like fð, fþ and ði and some more, that simply cry out for a ligature no one has ever made before.


  • I’ve often wondered how Eth & Thorn should be shaped. Thanks a lot for the guide.

    I think most of mine are OK, but the eth characters are weak in mine. I’ll try to do better. That f-thorn ligature looks like fun.

  • Takk fyrir þetta! Ég get ekki beðið eftir að spreyta mig á að búa til fþ, fð og ði líminga. Ég sé líka fyrir mér gð (með tveggja hæða g með eyra). Kannski fleiri. Ég læt þig vita þegar því verki er lokið.

  • One of these days I should put together a similar posting about the right way to draw Yogh and Wynn. Thanks for the inspiration! Your explanation is very clear.

  • Thanks a lot – a well written brief on the subject this is.

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