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How can I make a .pdf file?

Note: This page describes an old method for making PDFs. A newer, slightly easier method is outlined on the new Making PDFs page.

Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF) is designed as a cross-platform document format. Adobe gives away the reader for .pdf files. However, Adobe's Acrobat program, for creating PDFs, must be purchased. However, there are some other ways to create PDF for free. Mac OSX, uses PDF as its native file format, and hence can generate PDFs from any program. That's very neat, but it doesn't help those of us with Windows or Linux boxes, or rusty old Macs that don't support the new OS. For the rest of us, there is a free program called Ghostscript that can be used to make PDFs.

Version 5.5 of Ghostscript for Windows is available for download from this site. Versions for other platforms are available from the University of Wisconsin, at http://www.cs.wisc.edu/~ghost/. The newest version should be available there. (There are actually three different programs included in what I'm referring to as Ghostscript: Ghostscript, Ghostview, and GSView. They're all used in conjuction with one another.)

I'm going to outline the steps involved in doing this on a Windows machine, since that's what I usually use. However, Ghostscript is available for the MacOS, Linux, UNIX, OS-2, and VMS.

We won't be creating a PDF document from scratch. Instead, you'll make the document in another program (Microsoft Word, or whatever) and then convert it to a .pdf file.

First, download Ghostscript and run the installation program. I usually take all of the default settings.

Next, you'll need to be able to make a Postscript file. (Postscript is the printer language commonly used by high-quality laser printers.) An easy way to do that is to add a new printer to your computer which prints to a file. In Windows, open the Printers folder. Choose "Add printer." Choose "Local Printer." For the type of printer, you can use pretty much any postscript printer appearing in the list of printers. I try to pick something I'm familiar with, like an HP 4050 or HP Laserjet 5/5M Postscript. Then, when you are prompted to choose what port to which the printer will print, choose FILE:. You can name the printer whatever you want; I usually just name it Postscript File.

When you want to make a PDF file, the first step will be to open the document you want to convert to .pdf. Then choose "Print," and choose "Postscript File" (or whatever you named your printer) as the destination printer. When the document starts to "print" you'll be prompted for a filename and location where you'd like the file to be created.

Once that file has been created, you can open it with the GSView program, included with Ghostscript. From the "File" menu, choose "Print..." You'll get a dialog box entitled "Printer Setup." In the "Device" field, choose "pdfwrite." Click the checkbox that says "Print to File." For the resolution, choose the best setting available. (For me, that's always 300, but I'm not sure whether that is a limitation imposed by Ghostscript, or by the particular postscript driver that I chose to create the original file.) Click OK, and you'll then you'll see a standard "save file" dialog box. Pick a name and location for the file, and that's all there is to it. (It may take a few minutes depending upon the size of the document and the speed of your computer.) One note: when you name the file, be sure to put the .pdf on the end of the filename: Ghostscript will not do that for you automatically.

And that's it. If everything went OK, you've now got a nice, clear, error-free PDF file.

PDFs generated with Acrobat can do some neat tricks that you can't do with Ghostscript, such as creating forms that can be edited by the end user. But if all you need to do is create a simple, cross-platform compatible document, Ghostscript is a great way to go.