Over-exuberant Mac font cleaning

A couple of weeks ago I decided to give my Mac a spring clean. Though Mac OS X is pretty good at housekeeping itself, it can’t take account for all the unused software and redundant system bits-‘n’-pieces that I’ve added over the years. I decided to load up Font Book and clean out some of my dusty fonts.

At some point in the past I remember installing the same font in multiple places, which is just plain wasteful of disk space, when all that’s required is to put fonts in a publicly accessible place and ensure that all users can access them from their accounts (particularly as I am the only ‘power user’ with a couple of other accounts for my wife and for guests that rarely get used, font management shouldn’t be a big issue).

Well, I got fed up with plodding through each font family deleting the ones I didn’t want. There were a heck of a lot of duplicates, as I suspected, and I knew it would be quicker to dive into the terminal window as superuser and delete them from the command line.

Having searched for them, I found a number of /Library/Fonts folders and located the duplicates. rm‘ed them, then mv‘ed the remaining ones into one sensible place.


OK the Mac OS X loading screen appeared with the progress bar, but no descriptive text. Errm… what have I removed?

Next, the desktop pattern and white menubar appeared, with the spinning rainbow disk, and then the screen blanked out for a second, and the desktop reappeared… looped again, and again, and again…

The system had stopped responding to any input. I had stupidly removed all the fonts from the main /System/Library/Fonts folder, and now not only was all the text invisible, but the system couldn’t even boot to a point where I could blindly get to the Terminal and correct it.

Help, what now?

Booting from the Mac OS X install disk didn’t help, as all it wanted to do was to reinstall the system (logical, I guess), and I wasn’t prepared to go back point-eight versions then spend the next day downloading all the updates again.

Fortunately, my Mac is old enough that Apple hadn’t disabled the “Boot into Mac OS 9” mode, so I fired it up—having remembered both the firmware and the OS 9 passwords I’d set and promptly forgotten about—I then checked out the OS X install disk again (after realising that I couldn’t even cry for help on the Apple website as my new Net settings weren’t configured in OS 9). I was very pleased that it wasn’t simply an image file, but had the real system directories and files—I found the /System/Library/Fonts folder. Now the dilemma – can I just copy those fonts over the top of my Mac OS X volume or will it corrupt the other files?

Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet. I tentatively dragged and dropped the 17 fonts from the CD to Kayleigh (my OS X volume), reset the startup disk, and prayed as I restarted.

Splash screen … woo-hoo – text is appearing. Desktop … I can see the menu! Problem solved, after not a little agonising over the best thing to do.

I don’t know how many of the fonts in the root System folder are required, but a sensible guess is all of them.

Moral? Don’t mess about with anything in the System folder, even things that seem as innocuous as fonts, without a very good reason. Not being able to read text properly is one thing; causing your computer to refuse to boot up is quite another. I don’t know what the solution would have been if Mac OS 9 mode hadn’t saved the day, but it would probably have been expensive.

3 thoughts on “Over-exuberant Mac font cleaning

  1. Mark Cirino

    Hey – I found your post about font problems via MacSurfer. I used to be the tech support manager for Font Reserve. I thought you’d appreciate a font tip. All you need to start up is three fonts in System / Library / Fonts:


    You can remove all other fonts (unless you need the Asian or other foreign fonts) from all other locations.

    For Classic, you only need to keep four fonts in the System Folder / Fonts folder:


    Note that all fonts in the Classic Font folder will be available to OS X. I always recommend setting fonts like this and using a font manager to activate fonts outside the system. Or, you can put fonts in each user’s Library / Fonts folder (so each has his own set) or in the main Library / Fonts folder (for all users).

    Hope this helps.

    – mark cirino

  2. Andy

    Thanks for the links and tips guys. I won’t be messing about with anything in System again in a hurry.

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