Building a Blog with Metalsmith

Ever want to set up your own blog? Stuck on which Static Site Generator to use? Know Javascript? Or don't? After trying out multiple NodeJS based SSG's, and looking into multiple non-NodeJS based ones, I settled on Metalsmith for my own blog. Here's my beginner's guide to setting up a new blog from scratch.


  • You have NodeJS installed. And are hopefully at least a little familiar with it.


Start with a brand new empty directory, set it up for a Node project, and install Metalsmith:

> mkdir blog
> cd blog
> npm init
# Answer questions
> npm install --save metalsmith

Create your bare-bones Metalsmith build file, build.js:

var Metalsmith  = require('metalsmith');

    .source('./contents')       // read files from here
    .destination('./output')    // write files to here
    .build(err => {             // build!
        if (err) throw err;     // handle errors

Yep, that's it. That's a fully-functioning Metalsmith static site. It's not going to do anything but copy your stuff from contents/ into output/, but it works. Give it a shot - make your first content file and run the build:

> mkdir contents
> echo "<h1>Hello World</h1>" > contents/index.html
> node build.js
> cat output/index.html
<h1>Hello World</h1>

Look at that, there's our file, processed through the Metalsmith pipeline.

The pipeline is an important concept to grasp when it comes to working with Metalsmith. You tell it where to find your input files via .source() and where to write the output files via .destination(), and then you will begin inserting a bunch of plugins as ordered steps along the pipeline. When all your plugins are registered, you call .build() to start the processing. It will then process all files from your source directory through the plugin pipeline, transforming them at each step of the way, and finally write out the final files in your destination directory.

Let's take a look at what the pipeline looks like by writing and adding our first plugin. Add the following between the destination and build steps:

.use((files, metalsmith, done) => {
    console.log('files', files);
    console.log('metalsmith', metalsmith);
    console.log('done', done);

This is the format of a plugin and it's going to show us exactly what the pipeline looks like. A plugin is called with .use(Function), and in most plugins, you'll see that you call the plugin which returns the function you'll pass to .use(). Each step of the pipeline receives three arguments - the files object, the metalsmith object, and a done callback.

The files object:

    'index.html': {
        contents: <Buffer>,
        mode: '0644',
        stats: {
            dev: 16777220,
            mode: 33188,

The files object is just a key-value store with an entry for each file in your source directory. It stores some useful information about the file in mode and stats, and it stores the entire content of the file as a Buffer in contents. You can easily convert theBuffer to a string using files['index.html'].contents.toString().

The metalsmith object not super important for now. It's got lots of global metadata about the actual build you're running. Maybe we'll come back to it, but in building out this blog, I don't think I ever actually touched it.

The done() callback

This is to tell Metalsmith when you're done. For whatever reason, all of their examples show it being called with setImmediate during synchronous plugins, so I followed suit. Don't ask me why that matters.

Let's make it "Bloggy"

Ok, so using Metalsmith to copy/paste files around seems pretty stupid. Let's start adding some of the Community Plugins to make this thing useful.


Let's stop writing HTML directly and use markdown. First, install the plugin:

> npm install --save metalsmith-markdown

Then, add the plugin as a step in the pipeline, right before our final debugging plugin we set up above. Please excuse the inline require - that's only for readability in this post.


And then rename and alter your existing index.html file to an file, and adjust it's contents to be markdown:

> mv contents/index.html contents/
> echo "# Hello World" > contents/
> node build.js
> cat output/index.html
<h1>Hello World</h1>

Simple enough? The metalsmith-markdown plugin essentially does the following with the files object:

  1. For each *.md key, indicating a markdown file in your source directory
  2. Convert the contents to HTML by running it through a markdown parser
  3. Write out the new file as *.html
  4. Delete the old *.md key entry

It might seem odd that it's deleting the old one, but that's again an important aspect of the metalsmith pipeline. The .build() step at the very end essentially just writes the files object to disk. For every key in files, a file matching that path is created in your destination directory, and the contents written to it. If we didn't create the new index.html key in files, we wouldn't get an output/index.html file, and if we didn't delete the key, we'd also get an output/ file written out.


Now that we're converting markdown to HTML, let's start wrapping our contents in a common header and footer using nunjucks templates. First, install the metalsmith-layouts plugin and the nunjucks package, and create a directory to store our templates:

> npm install --save metalsmith-layouts nunjucks
> mkdir templates

Then add two templates we'll use for scaffolding the HTML page:

// templates/layout.nunjucks
<!doctype html>
    {% block head %}
    {% endblock %}
        {% block header %}
            Welcome to My Blog!
        {% endblock %}
        {% block content %}{% endblock %}
        {% block footer %}
            Built with <a href="">Metalsmith</a>
        {% endblock %}
// temmplates/post.nunjucks
{% extends "templates/layout.nunjucks" %}

{% block content %}
    <div class="post">
        {{ contents | safe }}
{% endblock %}

Basically, layout.nunjucks will be the base layout for every single page on out site, providing extendable blocks where content can be inserted. Then post.nunjucks extends the layout tempate, and inserts the file contents inside the body block.

Now, add a pipeline step that will process your files against these templates

    engine: 'nunjucks',        // Which engine to use
    directory: 'templates',    // Where are the templates stored
    default: 'post.nunjucks'   // Default template to use

Now, when you run the pipeline, you should see a full-structured index.html` file written out, using the proper above layout.

Page titles and specific layouts

Let's look at how we might both title a post as well as choose a specific layout to use. Metalsmith supports YAML Frontmatter by default (which can be turned off, but I don't see a good reason why), so you can specify metadata at the beginning of your source files. So, insert the following at the beginning of

title: My first Blog Post
layout: post.nunjucks

Those entries will become key/value pairs on the file object in the pipeline, and also exposed to your templates. So now we can enhance our post.nunjucks file to include the title:

{% extends "templates/layout.nunjucks" %}

{% block header %}
    <h1>{{ title }} </h1>
{% endblock %}

{% block content %}
{% endblock %}

And the metalsmith-layouts plugin already looks for a layout property on every source file, and uses that prior to the default.

Next Steps

So what's next? We've got markdown files with frontmatter metadata building into a nunjucks-driven extensible layout structure. What do we need to move this into a full-on blog? Here's the list of plugins I'm using to host, and feel free to check out the source for this site over in GitHub if you want to see any examples:

  • metalsmith-collections to organize all of your posts into sorted collections
  • metalsmith-pagination to group your collections into paginated lists
  • metalsmith-metallic for syntax highlighting in code blocks
  • metalsmith-page-titles to generate HTML <title> content
  • metalsmith-assets to copy over static assets
  • metalsmith-favicons to copy over and setup your site icons
  • metalsmith-drafts to support draft posts that don't get published
  • metalsmith-permalinks to generate permalinks without the .html
  • metalsmith-excerpts to grab the first paragraph of a post for an overview display
  • metalsmith-tags to allow tagging of posts and listing posts by tag`
  • metalsmith-sass for SCSS compilation
  • metalsmith-icons for easy inclusion of custom icon fonts from font-awesome
  • metalsmith-feed to generate an RSS feed

Good luck!