How to manage your dotfiles with 'freckles'

October 24, 2017 · 6 minute read

Note: This was written for a previous version of freckles. The code/examples in here won’t work anymore.

This is part two of a three-part series about managing dotfiles with freckles. The first part explained what dotfiles are, why one might want to manage them, and how to do that by hand. This one here will show you how to do the same thing using freckles, and the last one will show how to use freckles with a more involved setup (mine).

If you haven’t – or just can’t be bothered to – read my introductory post about freckles: freckles is a configuration management tool to help you setup your working environment with as little fuss and configuration as necessary.

freckles comes with three different command-line applications, all with slightly different goals. freckles itself, frecklecute, and, for our purpose the most relevant:


freckelize’s main goal is to support a data-centric configuration management approach, in your working environment. It supports plugins, so-called ‘adapters’, which help prepare an environment for certain types of data. One such type of data is a dotfiles folder laid out in the way described below (the relevant adapter is named ‘dotfiles’, unsurprisingly).

checking out your dotfiles repo, and ‘stowing’ your config

To recap, in the previous post I described a simple folder structure for configuration files which can easily be used with stow:

├── bash
│   ├── .bashrc
│   └── .profile
├── git
│   └── .gitconfig
├── i3
│   ├── .config
│   │   ├── i3
│   │   │   └── config
├── zile
│   └── .zile
└── zsh
    ├── .zprofile
    ├── .zshenv
    └── .zshrc

If you created your dotfiles repository similar to this, and uploaded it to github, you can already use freckles to initialize a new machine:

$ curl | bash -s -- freckelize dotfiles -f gh:<your github username>/<your dotfiles repo name> --no-install

This is designed to be as easy to remember as such a curl/bash command can possibly be, and to do as much as makes sense:

  • it bootstraps the freckles python package from pypi including it’s dependencies, then runs freckelize (which comes with it)
  • it might or might not ask for your ‘sudo’ password, which the underlying Ansible application might need to install dependencies (like for example git)
  • it expands the gh:<xxx>/<xxx> url to a proper github one
  • it uses git to check out your dotfiles repository (to $HOME/freckles/<repo_name>)
  • it stows all the configuration files in the dotfile repositories sub-folders

How this bootstrap and freckelize work in detail is explained in the freckles documentation.

installing your applications

You might have noticed the --no-install flag at the end of the above command. This tells freckelize (more exactly, freckelizes ‘dotfiles’ adapter) to not execute the ‘install’ step, which it would do by default.

Most of the time, if you have have configuration for an app, you want that app to be installed. And most of the time that application’s package name is the same as the one you’ll have used as sub-folder name in your dotfiles repository (e.g. i3, zile, …). So, why not use that folder name as the metadata to make sure the application a set of configuration files is associated with is installed? This is what the freckelize dotfile adapter does by default. So let’s run the above command again, without --no-install, and without the curl part since freckles is already installed:

$ source ~/.profile     # in case you haven't logged out and logged in again, to pick up the PATH freckles is installed in
$ freckelize dotfiles -f gh:<your github username>/<your dotfiles repo name>

This will not only stow all your configuration files, but also install packages named after sub-folders in your dotfiles repository, using the system package manager.

installing (additional) applications that don’t have configurations

Now, most of the time you’ll want additional applications to be installed, ones that don’t have or need configuration files, or where you are just happy with the default config.

This is easy to do as well with freckelize, but we need to create an extra metadata file to be able to tell freckelize which applications to install. freckelize can do more than just install and manage dotfiles, which is a topic for other blog posts, but it has one file it always looks up: .freckle in the root of the repository you point it to. So, let’s add a few ‘non-configuration’ applications (using yaml syntax):

    - htop
    - tree

As we are using the freckelize dotfiles adapter, we’ll need to put details about it’s execution under the dotfiles key, otherwise it wouldn’t be picked up. The dotfiles adapter understands keys other than packages, which I’ll say more about below, and in the next blog post in this series. Or you can of course check out the dotfiles adapter documentation.

I’ve prepared an example repository that contains configuration for the fish shell, as well as the zile editor, and which uses the above .freckle file, here: To apply that dotfile repository to your machine would look like:

$ freckelize dotfiles -f gh:makkus/dotfiles-test-simple

# using repo(s):

 - gh:makkus/dotfiles-test-simple
     -> remote: ''
     -> local: '/home/vagrant/freckles/dotfiles-test-simple.git'

# starting ansible run...

* starting tasks (on 'localhost')...
 * starting to process freckle(s)...
   - checking out freckle(s) =>
       - => ok (changed)
   - starting adapter 'dotfiles' => ok (no change)
   - starting dotfile adapter execution => ok (no change)
   - install dotfile folders packages =>
       - zile (using: apt) => ok (changed)
       - fish (using: apt) => ok (changed)
   - install dotfiles packages-list packages =>
       - htop (using: apt) => ok (changed)
       - tree (using: apt) => ok (changed)
   - installing stow =>
       - stow (using: apt) => ok (changed)
   - stowing folders =>
       - zile => ok (changed)
       - fish => ok (changed)
   => ok (changed)

To check the created symlinks we can:

$ ls -lah ~
total 57M
drwxr-xr-x 8 vagrant vagrant 4.0K Oct 24 09:58 .
drwxr-xr-x 3 root    root    4.0K Jun 19 23:27 ..
drwx------ 3 vagrant vagrant 4.0K Oct 24 09:56 .ansible
-rw-r--r-- 1 vagrant vagrant  220 Jun 19 23:27 .bash_logout
-rw-r--r-- 1 vagrant vagrant 3.5K Jun 19 23:27 .bashrc
drwx------ 3 vagrant vagrant 4.0K Oct 24 09:55 .cache
lrwxrwxrwx 1 vagrant vagrant   42 Oct 24 09:58 .config -> freckles/dotfiles-test-simple/fish/.config
drwxr-xr-x 3 vagrant vagrant 4.0K Oct 24 09:58 freckles
drwxr-xr-x 5 vagrant root    4.0K Oct 24 09:57 .local
-rw-r--r-- 1 vagrant vagrant  809 Oct 24 09:56 .profile
drwx------ 2 vagrant vagrant 4.0K Oct 24 09:54 .ssh
-rw------- 1 vagrant vagrant   60 Oct 24 09:57 .Xauthority
lrwxrwxrwx 1 vagrant vagrant   40 Oct 24 09:58 .zile -> freckles/dotfiles-test-simple/zile/.zile

As I’ve mentioned before, freckelize can actually do a bit more, and it can be configured much more fine-grained, for example to install packages using other package-managers (git, conda, nix, …). You can specify different package names for an application. You can also run a set of additional tasks that create folders, import gpg keys, or do whatever else you might need done. I’ll write about all this in the last post of this series, using my own setup as an example.