Saturday, 29 May 2010

Free tools for manipulating PDFs

PDF has definitely become the standard digital document format, and I both read and produce a large number of PDF files in my work. Compared to for example Word documents, the advantages are obvious: A PDF file looks the same on any operating system and any document reader. However, most PDF readers do not have support for operations like merging, splitting or rotating PDF files. Many people use expensive software like Adobe Professional to do such things, but there are also freeware alternatives available.

While I was using Windows on my work PC, I used the free PDFill Tools, which have a nice graphical user interface and are really easy to use. However, after switching to Ubuntu, I needed a Linux alternative to PDFill. After some search I concluded that one of the most popular tools is pdftk (PDF ToolKit), developed by Sid Steward. It is a command-line tool available for both Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, FreeBSD and Solaris. As long as you are comfortable with using the command line, pdftk provides a really effective way of doing both simple and more complex manipulations of PDF documents.

A simple example: Merge files 1.pdf and 2.pdf into a combined file 3.pdf:
pdftk 1.pdf 2.pdf cat output 3.pdf

A more complex example: Extract pages 1-7 from one.pdf, pages 1-5 from two.pdf, page 8 from one.pdf, and merge them all together into a combined PDF:
pdftk A=one.pdf B=two.pdf cat A1-7 B1-5 A8 output combined.pdf

These examples only show a fraction of the possible uses - check out the pdftk homepage for several more examples. Also, if you want to dive deep into the world of PDF maniplation, you might want to consider buying Sid's book PDF hacks.


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