is here abe slaney

I’ve been working on getting ready for MegaMooseCon, filling orders, dealing with my aunt’s estate, prepping the TableMaster manual for the printer, working on the Mac port (just found where a leftover Windows system call was hiding!) and all sorts of other chaos, mostly all at once. One of the major parts of that has been preparing the font package for a relaunch, 20+ years later.

Actually, it’s two font packages now: Arcane Alphabets, a major reworking of the old one, and Cryptic Ciphers, which is almost entirely new. (one font, Astrologer, moved over from AA because it fit better in CC) It’s the latter that I’m working on right now, and the font I’m currently taking a break from is the famous Sherlock Holmes “Dancing Men” cipher, which I’ve called “Slaney“, named for the villain of the story.

Since I’m surfacing from font-editing for a little while, I figured I’d spend that time talking a bit about the design process that went into Slaney, with some asides about fonts in general.

It was Edgar Allan Poe’s “Gold Bug” cipher which sparked my interest in cryptography in general. I was in elementary school, and when everyone in my class got to order a book from the Scholastic Book Club, I picked Poe’s “The Gold-Bug”. If you haven’t read it, it’s no spoiler to say that a cipher plays a central role in the story. More important, in the back there was a chapter about ciphers and cryptography. I read it and I was hooked. Yes, there’s a Gold Bug cipher in CC.

The second cipher I encountered as a child was the “Dancing Men” of the Sherlock Holmes story of the same name. I was fascinated when I saw the techniques, such as frequency analysis, that I’d just read about being put to use, albeit by another fictional character. And, unlike the “Gold Bug” cipher, which was just ordinary typewriter characters, the “Dancing Men” cipher was made of really cool little stick figures. It instantly became a favorite of mine, and has remained so to this day.

So, before I get back to actually building the font — I’m working on a “weathered” face for it now — I figured I’d take interested readers though my design process.

One of the first things I do, when I decide on an idea for a font, is to do a quick search of font websites to find out what other people have done already, so I can do it better. I found a number of “Dancing Men” fonts. One or two were just autotraces of the characters from the drawings from the original story, which can be fond in most printed and electronic versions of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, with the missing characters (only 18 were shown in the story) filled in with flipped versions of other characters. While the originals are certainly the definitive source, they have suffered badly from decades of reproduction of reproductions. Looking further,  I found one that had been hand-drawn, but too well; it looked too modern. There were several that looked totally mechanical, using crisply-drawn stick figures in the correct poses. Those work better as a font, especially at larger sizes, but they could never pass for a meaningless child’s scrawl. I also found one that was apparently a reproduction of the characters drawn by the late Aage Rieck Sørensen, the Sherlockian scholar who analyzed, and reconstructed the missing parts of, this cipher several decades ago. What there wasn’t, in short, was something that you could type and have it look like what the messages printed with the story in 1903, which is what so many of us would like to replicate.

That, then, was what I was going to do: produce a font that looked something like the original would have, before 114 years of repeated copying muddied it. I started by making a few characters for a strictly “reconstructed original” version — drawing the characters by hand so they would be properly irregular. That, however, didn’t look right. We’re so used to the worn-out drawings of the original that mine looked too new. So much for doing it the easy way. I was going to have to go back to those printed messages and try to salvage something.

I think you have to be a real font geek to do this sort of thing. I will have to sell hundreds of copies of Cryptic Ciphers just to pay myself minimum wage. (y’all can, of course, help out by buying it!) Having to do this particular font the hardest possible way didn’t really help there. But there’s something about bringing those little dancing men back to life that I can’t explain to anyone else who isn’t a font geek, and don’t have to explain to anyone who is. It is just plain fun.

So, I was going to have to go back to the originals and assemble good characters from those. My first thought was to build a library of parts — a good head, a good left arm, a good right arm, etc. — selected from all 62 characters we see in the story, and assemble each one from that. I decided that would lean too more to the mechanical-looking side, because even when someone doesn’t consciously notice the similarities in characters, it still “feels” wrong. (this is why you notice the fake handwriting fonts DirecTV uses to address the envelopes for their ads)

Instead, I decided to assemble all of the examples of a given character — the As from AM HERE ABE SLANEY, AT ELRIGES, etc. — and build that character from the originals, then move on to the next character in turn. For the missing characters, I followed Sørensen’s pattern, building them from existing characters that resembled them (the ‘new’ ones usually only needed something like a change in arms, etc., from some old one) and using other examples from the sources for those characters, so they wouldn’t look identical. In Photoshop, I patched characters together: the head from this A, the left arm from that one, the body and legs from this other, etc. Then I edited them to tidy up oddly-shaped arms (they seem to have suffered more than most from the repeated re-copying) and so on. In some cases, I was moving just the side of a body, or the bottom half of a foot, or something, from a source character to the ur-character I was building. Finally, I edited the edges to remove discontinuities, round out rough corners, and so on.

Once I had my ur-characters, I could build the actual font. I pasted each one into Fontographer, adjusted the size if necessary (FOG can be weird about template sizes), and autotraced that: the character I’d constructed from multiple authentic characters plus, where necessary, a bit of original work. Then followed the slow, tedious, but eminently necessary task of going over each character in detail and fixing the errors from the trace, adjusting curves that didn’t look quite right in the actual font, etc. When I’d done that, I copied the letters to the uppercase and gave them all flags, as used in the original to denote the ends of words. (being lazy, I decided to use just one flag shape for all of them)

That led to a problem: B and P. Based on the best characters in the original (as opposed to, for example, when P and V were mixed up), they should have no arms. This left them with no way to hold their flags! I tried moving flags around in a lot of ways, all of them bad, before I finally gave up. I went with Sørensen’s style, which gave them arms, so they could hold their flags properly. For those people who prefer the more-authentic versions, they’re in [] and {}, with the flags just sort of stuck into the sides. (clearly, they tucked the sticks into their shirt fronts)

So here’s what I built:

The “Slaney” font, regular

That is, to the best of my efforts, a reconstruction of what the original drawings would have looked like. I’m pretty proud of it. 🙂

I decided that, since every other such font out there was named some version of “Dancing Men,” I’d use the name of a character from the story. “Elsie” didn’t seem right, too flowery, and “HiltonCubitt” made it sound architectural. “RidingThorpe” only means anything to someone who knows that story very well (it’s the name of the manor). But there was the villain, Abe Slaney. (no spoiler; the first mention of his name is when he’s identified him as such) “Slaney” seemed like a good name for a font, so there it was.

Then came the question of variants. I knew a weathered version would have to be done; it was just too much of a natural for writing that was meant to be chalked on walls and other rough surfaces, then left out in the rain. Tedious, but I have a technique for that. That’s the part I was taking a break from when I wrote most of this post.

As I was working on the original, I fancied I saw a similarity with the undeciphered Rong0-Rongo writing of Rapa Nui (Easter Island). That’s a script I’ve looked at a lot in the past few months while studying various ancient alphabets for the fonts in Arcane Alphabets. So I did an outline version of Slaney that would be pick up that general feel, and added a character on \ that would serve as a spacer, instead of needing to use the flags, in order to give it a more ancient feel. It looks like this:

It looks rather like the Rongo-Rongo writing of Rapa Nui

I could be biased here, but I think that would be awesome for any sort of ancient inscription. You can use the uppercase with its flags for word breaks, of course, but I think the spacer characters (that’s the little fellow with the spear) look better in this use.

There is an additional wrinkle in all of this: Some of the messages were written with pencil on torn notebook paper, and Hilton Cubitt copied the others on paper to show them to Holmes. While the most common electronic versions (Project Gutenberg, Wikimedia, etc.) use the characters I worked with, these may date only to the printing of the collected stories in a book, possibly the 1905 collection, and the Strand originals may more closely resemble pencil drawings. I’m still trying to find out more about that; this is going to require digging through a compilation of 1903 scans from In all probability, I’ll create a pencilled-looking version of the font, too, so we can have that.

That’s quite a complicated course of events for what started out as a simple font idea!


Update: It turns out that there is a totally unrelated font out there named “Slaney”; this may therefore end up being named “SlaneyMen” in the final product.