Open Source Musings The thoughts, ideas, and opinions of an open source guy

A look at some Linux desktop tools for manipulating PDFs

Adobe Acrobat logo

By the way I talk and write about PDFs and tools for working with them, some people think I’m in love with the format.

I’m not. For a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here.

PDF files are a necessary … well, not-so-good in my personal and professional lives. In a number of cases, I have to use PDF even though there are better alternatives for delivering documents.

If you need to manipulate PDF files, there are tools out there to do just that. Here are my impressions of a couple of graphical tools for working with PDFs.


Before I go any further, I’ll point out that PDF Mod relies on Mono. Yes, I realize how contentious a topic Mono still is. I’m not going to go into that in this post, or make any judgments. Consider yourself warned/informed.

PDF Mod is point and click By clicking then dragging and dropping a page in a PDF file, you can move it anywhere else — for example, take page 6 and put it right after page 10. You can also rotate and delete pages.

PDF Mod in action

Some of PDF Mod’s other features include the ability extract a page from a PDF and save it as a new file. On top of that, you can add another PDF file to the one that you’re working on.

Another feature, which is generally only found in Acrobat (which doesn’t have a Linux version), is the ability to add bookmarks. Bookmarks appear in the left pane of your PDF reader and let you jump to specific sections of a file. With PDF Mod, you can only jump to a page. To add a bookmark, click on a page in the file and then select Bookmarks > Add Bookmark. A new bookmark appears in the PDF Mod side pane. Double click the bookmark to change it’s name from the default New Bookmark.

Adding bookmarks with PDF Mod

You can also change the properties of the file. The properties contain information about the PDF – like the title of the document, the author, keywords, and a description. Some Linux PDF writers don’t include that information. But for archival purposes, and to make it easy to search for PDFs, you can change the properties. Just select File > Properties. A set of fields appear at the top of the PDF Mod window. Just type the information in the fields.

Changing a PDF file's properties with PDF Mod

PDF Chain

I’m a big fan of pdftk, a command line app for doing some interesting things with and to PDF files. Since I only it it infrequently, I don’t remember all of pdftk’s commands and options.

I used to use a graphical front-end called GUI for PDFTK. Sadly, it doesn’t work under 64-bit Ubuntu and I can’t be bother compiling the Pascal source.

PDF Chain is a a very good alternative to GUI for PDFTK. It gives you one-click access to pdftk’s most frequently-used commands. Without even touching a menu, you can:

  • Merge PDFs (including rotating the pages of one or more files)
  • Extract the pages from a PDF file and saving them to individual files
  • Add a background or watermark to a PDF file
  • Adding attachments to a file

PDF Chain main window

But you can do more. Click on the Tools menu to:

  • Extract attachments from a PDF file
  • Compress or uncompress a file
  • Extract the metadata from the file
  • Fill in PDF forms from an external data file
  • Flatten a PDF
  • Drop XML Forms Architecture (XFA) data from PDF forms

To be honest, I only use the commands to extract attachments and to compress or uncompress PDF files – with PDF Chain and with pdftk. The rest are pretty much terra incognita for me.

Summing up

The number of tools available on Linux for working with PDF files never ceases to amaze me. And neither does the breadth and depth of their features and functions. I can usually find one, whether command line or graphical, that does what I need to do.

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