Makefiles: recipes for binaries

Writing Makefiles is like writing a recipe. It consists of ingredients and a list of procedures to turn those ingredients into a product. In this tutorial, I will briefly cover how this works. We’ll first look at how we might turn a recipe for an apple pie from a cookbook into a Makefile.

Making an apple pie

A recipe to cook an apple pie1 might look as follows:


  • 200 grams of butter
  • 20 grams of sugar
  • 400 grams of self-raising flower
  • egg
  • 8 grams of vanilla sugar
  • salt
  • 1 Kg apples
  • 75 grams of raisins
  • cinnamon

Making the pie

Melting the butter

  1. Put the butter in a microwave and slowly melt it, stir it once in a while

Making the dough

Prequisites: melting the butter

  1. Mix the molten butter, the flower and 2/3s of the egg
  2. Knead the dough until it’s consistent

Preparing the raisins

  1. Put the raisins in lukewarm water
  2. Wait 15 minutes
  3. Dry them off

Preparing the apples

  1. Skin the apples
  2. dice them

Making the filling

Prequisites: preparing the raisins, preparing the apples

  1. Mix the diced apples with the sugar and the prepared raisins

Making the pie

Prequisites: Making the dough, making the filling

  1. Cover the springform using 2/3s of the dough
  2. Put the filling in the pie
  3. Cover the pie with the remainder of the dough

Baking the pie

Prequisites: Making the pie

  1. Put the pie in the oven that’s been pre-heated to 200 degrees Celcius
  2. Take it out after 60 minutes

I’ve split this recipe up into more steps than you may be used to. I did this to illustrate that you have certain parts of the process of building an apple pie product that you can separate. These parts may have dependencies on prior parts of the process, though. For example, you can not make the filling before you prepared the apples and the raisins.

Turning the recipe into a Makefile

A Makefile also consists of (intermediate) products, recipes and prequisites. It has the following structure:

product: ingredient1 ingredient2 prequisite1
	recipe that combines prequisite1 with ingredient1 and ingredient2

prequisite1: ingredient3 ingredient1
	recipe for prequisite1

make can use these rules to create product for you. It will also figure out whenever it needs to do something again, mainly if an ingredient or a prequisite changed.

So now let us change our apple pie recipe into something make would be able to understand:

pie: prepared_pie
	put prepared_pie into oven
	wait 60 minutes
	take it out

prepared_pie: dough filling
	cover springform with 2/3s of dough
	put filling in
	close off pie with the remainder of the dough

filling: sugar prepared_raisins prepared_apples
	Mix the apple with the sugar and the prepared raisins

prepared_raisins: raisins
	Put the raisins in lukewarm water
	Wait 15 minutes
	Dry them off

	Skin the apples
	Dice the apples

dough: molten_butter flower egg
	Mix the molten butter, the flower and the egg
	Knead until consistent

molten_butter: butter
	Put the butter in the microwave on low until it's molten
  • Note: I put pie: at the top, because Make will try to build the top-most target (product). Otherwise the order is not important.

Moving to code

In our apple pie Makefile we can identify that we have different (intermediate) products or targets that have some steps associated to prepare them, and some of these depend on others or on ingredients. We specify this so that Make can figure out when it needs to update something. Of course, “updating sugar” makes no sense, so lets look at an example where we have a source file.

A simple example

/tmp/src $ ls

void say_hello() {
    puts("Hello, world!");

int main(int argc, char** argv) {

We could build this using the following gcc shell command:

/tmp/src $ gcc -o hello hello.c
/tmp/src $ ./hello
Hello, world!

But lets write a simple Makefile. We are lazy and want to be able to just type make.

/tmp/src $ touch Makefile  # Should have a capital M!
/tmp/src $ your-editor-here Makefile   # e.g. vim, gedit or nano

Then we enter the following as our build recipe:

hello: hello.c
	gcc -o hello hello.c

Important: Makefile rules must be indented with tabs, not spaces. Make sure you configure your editor correctly!

Lets see if this works:

/tmp/src $ make
make: 'hello' is up to date.

Huh? make didn’t do anything! It turns out that make is quite smart, and it realised that hello has a more recent modification date than hello.c. That usually means that there’s no good reason to do all that work of compiling hello.c again, so make just doesn’t do it. We can force it to build things using make -B, or we can remove hello. Let us do that:

/tmp/src $ rm hello
/tmp/src $ make
gcc -o hello hello.c
/tmp/src $ ./hello
Hello, world!


A more complicated example

So far, our example was very basic. make shines when you have a more complicate build process. Lets extend our example to have more than one source file, which we want to build and link separately. This allows us to only recompile what has been changed, while we are developing the project.

Let us set up two source files in our /tmp/src folder:

// hello.c
// we use extern to indicate that we will specify say_hello() elsewhere.
extern void say_hello();

int main(int argc, char** argv) {
// say_hello.c
#include <stdio.h>

void say_hello() {
    puts("Hello, world! from say_hello.c");

We can build and link these files as follows

/tmp/src $ gcc -c -o hello.o hello.c
/tmp/src $ gcc -c -o say_hello.o say_hello.c
# Note that in the next line we use the compiled `.o` files!
/tmp/src $ gcc -o hello hello.o say_hello.o
/tmp/src $ ./hello
Hello, world! from say_hello.c

Clearly, this is way too much work to type. We can write a Makefile to save us all this work.

hello: hello.o say_hello.o
	gcc -o hello hello.o say_hello.o

hello.o: hello.c
	gcc -c -o hello.o hello.c

say_hello.o: say_hello.c
	gcc -c -o say_hello.o say_hello.c

We made three rules: one to build the final target hello, and two to build its prequisites hello.o and say_hello.o. Lets test our Makefile:

/tmp/src $ make
make: target 'hello' is up to date.

Oh, right… We got outsmarted by makes lazyness again. Lets force make to rebuild everything.

/tmp/src $ make -B
gcc -c hello.c -o hello.o
gcc -c say_hello.c -o say_hello.o
gcc -o hello hello.o say_hello.o
/tmp/src $ ./hello
Hello, world! from say_hello.c

That worked great! We can now also see that make is smart, if we change for example say_hello.c. Lets change say_hello():

void say_hello() {
    puts("Hello, world! from say_hello.c");
    puts("And goodbye again");

Now we can run make again:

/tmp/src $ make
gcc -c say_hello.c -o say_hello.o
gcc -o hello hello.o say_hello.o

make realised that only say_hello.c changed and only rebuilt say_hello.o. As a result of that, it also needed to link hello again, but it skipped building hello.o! It’s easy to see that as your program grows, this can be very helpful.2

Common problems and caveats

Finally, lets discuss some of the problems you may run into.

Makefile template

As a reminder, your Makefile should look as follows:

target: ingredients
	build rules indented with **TAB**

target should normally be something on the filesystem, unless you want to always have it execute when you try to build it. Don’t forget the : after target. ingredients should be other targets or files on the filesystem, and it should be all on one line. Again: the indentation should be with tabs.


Makefiles must be indented with tabs. If you indent them with spaces you may get errors

Makefile: 2: *** missing separator.  Stop.

Already up to date

make is lazy and sees that your binaries are more recent than your source files. If you want to force a rebuild, use make -B, change the source files, or remove the targets.

No rule to make target

If you specify something that make can not find on the filesystem or does not know how to build from other things, it will complain. For example:

say_hello.o: zay_hello.c
	gcc -c say_hello.c -o say_hello.o

We made a typo in say_hello.c when we specified the ingredients for say_hello.o. This results in the error:

make: *** No rule to make target 'zay_hello.c', needed by 'say_hello.o'.  Stop.

We can fix this by repairing the typo.

This can also apply to targets that depend on other targets:

hello: hello.o zay_hello.o
	gcc -o hello hello.o say_hello.o

Then make will also complain:

make: *** No rule to make target 'zay_hello.o', needed by 'hello'.  Stop.

We can solve this by writing a rule for zay_hello.o, that renames say_hello.o to zay_hello.o:

zay_hello.o: say_hello.o
	mv say_hello.o zay_hello.o

But that is a bit silly. Better fix the typo, in this case.

No targets specified and no makefile found.

This error occurs if you don’t have a Makefile in your current folder. Check if a Makefile exists, the name is spelled correctly (exactly Makefile) and make sure it has a capital M!

The wrong thing is built!

make, without options, builds the first target it finds. You can build a specific target by typing make target, or you can move around the rules. A common trick is adding a target all to the top:

all: mything


mything: ...


If you have suggestions for further improvement, click the edit link below and send in a pull request.

  1. I mostly made up the ingredients, so it may not be a good idea to serve a pie you made using this recipe to your grandmother or lecturer. ↩︎

  2. Splitting up build steps also allows Make to do things in parallel. See man make for more information. ↩︎