May 29

HTML / CSS to PDF using Ruby on Rails

READERS NOTE: Nic Williams and Jared Fraser were kind enough to create a Ruby Gem for my code, called Princely — available on GitHub.

Ever tried to save a web page and send it to someone? What about printing a web page? Both pretty much suck.

A lot of people are talking about printing with HTML and CSS these days but what they don't tell you is the following:

With CSS you can't...

  • Determine where page breaks happen.
  • Set page size or type (landscape or portrait).
  • Print background colors...some browsers don't even print images.
  • Set page footers.

Wow, that's lame.

Ever tried sending someone a web page? Not a link, but the actual web page. It doesn't work well at all.

A little history

I wanted to be able to print or send estimates and invoices from our Ruby on Rails application, Cashboard. A good majority of our users felt the same way.

Just sending a link to someone to view a HTML document online doesn't cut it. What if you want to snail mail that document? Shouldn't it look the same on the page as it does on your screen?

When I used to create invoices manually I'd always save PDF files for my clients and email them.

PDF handled printing well, was portable, and my clients couldn't edit the file.

We needed PDF for Cashboard.

The Prince of PDFs

I spent a good week just researching all of the PDF libraries and programs out there.

The ones I found for Ruby wanted me to re-create my documents in some PDF-specific layout language. That wasn't going to cut it. See, in Cashboard we already had these documents designed in HTML. On top of that, we allow users to customize the colors and upload their logo for invoices. Duplicating the layout wasn't an option.

After exhausting those possibilities I started looking into HTML to PDF programs. I found a few, but none that were any good at converting HTML and CSS to PDF.

This all changed when I ran across Prince XML. Not only is Prince great at converting HTML and CSS to PDF, it even passed the Acid2 test. They had a ton of demos available on their web site, and provide their program free for evaluation purposes.

Making it happen

Prince is a command line program, available for whatever platform you're probably running.

It can take a variety of inputs including files on disk, or even HTTP urls. We run a pretty tight ship on Cashboard, and everything is password protected.

Luckilly Prince also can take input from standard in, and can even pass its output back to standard out. This means if you don't want to mess with saving files and dealing with cleaning them up you don't have to.

prince.rb, pdf_helper.rb

I cooked up a very simple Ruby library to call Prince and a helper module to include on my Rails controllers. I store them both in the lib folder of my Rails application.

Here's the full helper, slightly modified for simplicity:

# We use this chunk of controller code all over to generate PDF files.
# To stay DRY we placed it here instead of repeating it all over the place.
module PdfHelper
  require 'prince'

    # Makes a pdf, returns it as data...
    def make_pdf(template_path, pdf_name, landscape=false)
      prince =
      # Sets style sheets on PDF renderer.
      prince.add_style_sheets("#{RAILS_ROOT}/public/stylesheets/prince_landscape.css") if landscape
      # Render the estimate to a big html string.
      # Set RAILS_ASSET_ID to blank string or rails appends some time after
      # to prevent file caching, fucking up local - disk requests.
      ENV["RAILS_ASSET_ID"] = ''
      html_string = render_to_string(:template => template_path, :layout => 'document')
      # Make all paths relative, on disk paths...
      html_string.gsub!("src=\"", "src=\"#{RAILS_ROOT}/public")
      # Send the generated PDF file from our html string.
      return prince.pdf_from_string(html_string)
    # Makes and sends a pdf to the browser
    def make_and_send_pdf(template_path, pdf_name, landscape=false)
        make_pdf(template_path, pdf_name, landscape),
        :filename => pdf_name,
        :type => 'application/pdf'

This simple module has two methods. Both take an ERB template path as an argument, then a pdf file name.

Make_pdf renders the template to a string, then does some modifications to make all requests within local. I'm passing in all CSS files locally as well, so I don't have to deal with authentication.

I've created some special CSS files for printing, and even can pass in if I'd like the page to be laid out in a portrait or landscape format.

When it's done it returns the PDF file as data. Nothing is rendered to disk. This method is useful for not only sending the PDF file to the client (as in make_and_send_pdf), but when generating PDF files for email attachments.

Creating PDF files from the controller

Both of these files make creating a PDF file dead easy.

Here's a slimmed down version of Cashboard's estimate controller.

class Provider::EstimatesController < Provider::BaseController
  include PdfHelper
    # Sends pdf of an estimate out...
    def pdf
      # @estimate is set with a before_filter and isn't relevant for this how-to ;)
      make_and_send_pdf('/client/estimates/show', @estimate.pdf_name)

Does it get any easier than that? Check out an example of a PDF file generated with Prince, straight from Cashboard. (Right click and save to your disk...)


Here again are the libraries I've created for using Prince XML with Ruby on Rails:

They're free to use, download em and check em out.

Written by Seth Banks

Seth spends most of his days leading the design team at Green Bits and improving Cashboard. Occasionally he finds time to write about music, design, startups, and technology.

Tagged: rails, ruby