Do you have a bunch of dotfiles? Do you maintain a GitHub repo1 with all your dotfiles? Whenever you upgrade your machine, do you find yourself manually placing the dotfiles in the right spots in your home directory? If you answered yes to these questions, read on.

Enter GNU Stow

GNU Stow2 is a dotfile management utility. Stow has all the makings of a varsity athlete3:

  • Stow is small (a 32KB Perl script).
  • Stow is simple to use with a solid manpage.
  • Stow doesn’t get in the way of version controlling dotfiles.

Real world Stow usage is pretty simple and best explained with an example. Imagine you had your i3wm and Bash configurations stored in your home directory. The layout might look something like this:

home/
    ieg/
        .bashrc
        .bash_profile
        .config/
            i3/
                config
            i3status/
                config

To organize the configs into something Stow can work with, make a dotfiles directory (for example, mydotfiles/) that has a directory per tool you wish to manage:

home/
    ieg/
        mydotfiles/
            bash/
            i3/ 

Copy the configs of each tool into their corresponding directory. Be sure to copy over the files/directory structure exactly as they appear in your home directory:

home/
    ieg/
        mydotfiles/
            bash/
                .bashrc
                .bash_profile
            i3/ 
                .config/
                    i3/
                        config
                    i3status/
                        config

Supposed you hopped onto a fresh system with GNU Stow and your mydotfiles/ repo checked out. You can selectively “install” configs using the stow command. For example to install i3 and Bash configs:

cd mydotfiles/
stow bash
stow i3

It’s that simple. Stow takes care of creating symlinks in your home directory that point to the concrete files in mydotfiles/! If you want to unlink some configs, just run stow -D. For example, to unlink Bash configs:

cd mydotfiles/
stow -D bash

Doesn’t get much easier than that.


  1. dotfiles ↩︎

  2. RTFM. The Stow manpage is a short, worthwhile read. Check it out. ↩︎

  3. Bet you didn’t expect to find a Sopranos reference here. ↩︎