How to build and deploy static websites using Metalsmith


Today, I’ll talk about my process for building and deploying static websites using Metalsmith, a static site generator for NodeJS.

A static website is appropriate for a variety of projects such as:

  • Blogs
  • Technical Documentation
  • eBooks
  • Small websites

By using a static site generator, you are able to get several features such as navigation, table-of-contents, templates, partials, permalinks, and more. If you didn’t use a generator, these are things that you would have to manually create and maintain.

I recently used Metalsmith to create the documentation site for Bedrock, and I was pleased with the development process. It’s worth sharing how I built it as I don’t think a lot of people have used Metalsmith. It’s a good alternative to Jekyll, which is a hugely popular static site generator written in Ruby.

Metalsmith is lightweight, yet very flexible. I was inspired by Segment’s technical documentation page, which looks and works very well and is just a static website built using Metalsmith and it’s many plugins.

Here’s what we will cover:

  • How Metalsmith works
  • Project Setup
  • Writing using Markdown
  • Using layouts and partials
  • Automatic table-of-contents and navigation
  • Syntax Highlighting
  • Development and Live Reload
  • One-line deploy to Github Pages

Clone a sample site on GitHub

For those who prefer looking at code, I put all the code required to build a static website with the above features up on GitHub. Check that out and clone it if you are interested in building a static site using Metalsmith.

Ok, now let’s talk about how I built it.


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How Metalsmith works

Metalsmith works in the following manner:

  1. It takes a collection of static files from a source directory
  2. It applies a set of transformations to them
  3. It moves the transformed files to a destination directory.

You define the transformations inside a build.js file in your project’s root directory. It’s similar to the concept that Gulp employs.

For example, here is what my build.js looks like. Read through the comments to understand the transformations.

We build the files by running  node build.js from the command line.

These transformations are defined by the developer and shared throughout the community as plugins. These plugins are all npm modules. For building Bedrock’s static site, I used the following plugins.

I also use browser-sync, which reloads and rebuilds my static site when I save changes. I’ll talk more about that in the Development section.

Run the following command to install all these into your application:

Project Setup

Here’s an image of how my static website folder structure looks like.

assets: This directory stores CSS and JavaScript files.

build: The contents of this directory are created by the Metalsmith build.

layouts: This stores layout templates. I used Handlebars as my layout engine. More about layouts and templating below.

src: This is where all the site content is placed. Content is written in markdown with YAML tags. The  metalsmith-collections module groups files into collections and displays them automatically in a top-level navigation bar.

build.js: This is the Metalsmith build file, explained above.

deploy.sh: This is a shell script that deploys the contents of my build/ directory to Github Pages. More information in the Deployment section below.

Everything else is pretty self-explanatory.

Writing using Markdown

The pages are written using Markdown and stored inside the src/ directory. Each markdown file has YAML content above it. Here’s a snippet of one:

The YAML at the top defines some variables that are used by the various plugins.

  • title: Transforms into a {{title}} variable that is available in the layout file.
  • draft: Used by the metalsmith-drafts plugin to specify if this is a draft or not.
  • collection: Used by the metalsmith-collections plugin to define the collection that this file belongs to.
  • layout: Specifies the layout to use for this file.
  • date: Used by the metalsmith-collections plugin to sort files within a collection by date.
  • autotoc: Specifies whether an automatic table of contents should be generated or not. Used by the metalsmith-autotoc plugin.

These markdown files will be transformed into HTML files through the transformations specified in build.js above.

Using Layouts and Partials

Layouts are provided through the metalsmith-layouts plugin. It supports a variety of different layout engines.

To use, define the layout engine in  build.js:

Metalsmith determines the layout template to use based on the YAML layout key. Here’s what my layout.html file looks like. You’ll notice that several of the YAML variables are defined in there. The variable  {{{contents}}} will be filled with the content of the Markdown file.

I haven’t used partials for this project but you can use the metalsmith-partial plugin for it.

Navigation and Table of Contents

There are a few interesting snippets in the project’s layout file that are worth pointing out. The first is iterating over collections.

The metalsmith-collections plugin generates a collection object that I use here to create a dynamic top-level navigation. Here’s the snippet in build.js:

Next, there’s the code for the table-of-contents.

Not all pages will have a table-of-contents, but if one does, the metalsmith-autotoc plugin will provide an array to create a linked table-of-contents.

Syntax Highlighting

Syntax highlighting is important for documentation sites. Fortunately, it’s really easy to add with the metalsmith-metallic plugin.

Make sure you apply this transformation before you transform your markdown to HTML. Since the syntax highlighting is done through Highlight.js, you will also need to add an appropriate syntax highlight theme file in. I added in the Atom Dark theme.

Once in place, you can write code snippets in Markdown.

Development and Live Reload

When developing your site, run node build.js. This will start up a browser-sync server that will automatically look for changes in the src/, assets/, and layouts/ directories. When changes occur, it will rebuild Metalsmith and reload the page.

I prefer browser-sync to metalsmith-watch, which has issues rebuilding the codebase when it has to listen to multiple directories.

Deploying to Github Pages

When ready to release, you can deploy to Github Pages by running:

This will run the shell script inside ./deploy.sh. The script will perform push from the project’s build/ directory to origin/gh-pages.

Note: If you get errors when executing the shell script, you may need to edit its permissions to make it executable:

I originally got this script from the metalsmith-gh-pages-deploy repository.

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