Fraser Xu Thoughts on life and code.

PDF Generation On The Web

The Wiredcraft team is working on the Myanmar voter registration system during the past half year. One part of the systems we are building is a native Windows application that needs to work offline and generate PDF from a list of voters in Myanmar language.

There’re serval challenges we need to tackle:

  • Native application that needs to run on Windows
  • The client needs to run offline due to the poor Internet connection
  • Generate a single PDF with 1000 pages with web technology
  • The text on the PDF should be in Myanmar language

The stack we’re using:

  • Electron to build and pack the application for Windows
  • A Go lang CLI to interact with encrypted sqlite database
  • React to build the user interface
  • Flux + Immutablejs to deal with front-end data flow

The workflow

Data + Template => Rendered HTML => PDF

Prepare the data

  "id": 1,
  "voter_name": "ဒေါ်ကြည်စိန်",
  "gender": "မ",
  "dob": "1989-04-17",
  "father_name": "ဦးအုန်းဇော်",
  "mother_name": "ဒေါ်စန်းရီ",
  "address": "ခုံကြီးကျေးရွာ"

A simple reader.js function to read the data. In production this could be a restful api or something like that.

var fs = require('fs');

module.exports = function(path, cb) {
  fs.readFile(path, function(err, data) {
    if (err)
      return cb(err)
      try {
        cb(null, JSON.parse(data.toString()))
      } catch (e) {

Prepare the template

A render.js to take in the template path and formatted data.

var Handlebars = require('handlebars')
var fs = require('fs')

module.exports = function(tplPath, data, cb) {

  // registe a each helper
  Handlebars.registerHelper('each', function(context, options) {
    var ret = ""
    for(var i=0, j=context.length; i<j; i++) {
      ret = ret + options.fn(context[i])
    return ret

  fs.readFile(tplPath, function(err, tpl) {
    if (err)
      var template = Handlebars.compile(tpl.toString())
      var rendered = template({pages: data})

      cb(null, rendered)


With the render.js we now have a HTML file with rendered data.

The code to generate PDF

Now we’ve got a rendered HTML. The next step is to generate the PDF with it.

The solutions for generating PDF:

  • Phantomjs: a headless WebKit scriptable with a JavaScript API. It has fast and native support for various web standards: DOM handling, CSS selector, JSON, Canvas, and SVG.
  • jsPDF: A HTML5 client-side solution for generating PDFs. Perfect for event tickets, reports, certificates, you name it!
  • wkhtmltopdf wkhtmltopdf and wkhtmltoimage are open source (LGPLv3) command line tools to render HTML into PDF and various image formats using the QT Webkit rendering engine.
  • Pandoc: If you need to convert files from one markup format into another, pandoc is your swiss-army knife.

Since in our stack, we don’t have server running somewhere. But luckily we have nodejs/iojs in Electron. All the tools above have a command interface that we could start a child_process to run it, and send back the progress while callback function.


The first thing we try is Phantomjs together with a rasterize.js rasterizes a web page to image or PDF

 * generatePDF function
 * @param  {String}   the path of the template
 * @param  {String}   the PDF file destination
 * @param  {Function} A callback function when job is done
function generatePDF(tplPath dist, cb) {
  var childArgs = [ './rasterize.js', tplPath, dist, 'A4', 1.00];

  childProcess.execFile(phantomBinPath, childArgs, function(err, stdout, stderr) {
    if (err) alert('generatae pdf err', err);

This approach works fine for us except:

  • The Phantomjs binary file is about 30MB on Mac or Windows, which is a little heavy
  • It works fine for English language but not Myanmar, we tried lots of Myanmar font but none of them work on Winodws
  • Even it works on Mac, the file generated is 988 MB in total for 1000 pages and the text on PDF is not selectable
  • The text of PDF generated on Windows is 60 MB for 1000 pages and text is selectable, and that’s also one reason why the size is way small than the one on Mac(using rasterize.js)

Note that in order to fix the font issue, we have tried to convert the font file into base64 file and svg, but none of them work on Windows. :(


Since we could never resolve the font issue on Windows, we dropped Phantomjs. So next we tried wkhtmltopdf.

The wkhtmltopdf provide a simple cli interface that we could simply call

$ wkhtmltopdf voters.html voters.pdf

in a child_process the same way we did with Phantomjs.

But the font is still broken, not even work on Mac.


If you need to convert files from one markup format into another, pandoc is your swiss-army knife. Pandoc can convert documents in markdown, reStructuredText, textile, HTML, DocBook, LaTeX, MediaWiki markup, TWiki markup, OPML, Emacs Org-Mode, Txt2Tags, Microsoft Word docx, EPUB, or Haddock markup to…

Which means you can using it to convert file between almost any kind of text-based files. But we didn’t even have a try before we drop it.

If you want to create a PDF, you’ll need to have LaTeX installed. (See MacTeX on OS X, MiKTeX on Windows, or install the texlive package in linux.) Then do

$ pandoc -s -o test1.pdf

The MikTex Windows 32-bit is already 163.18 MB, not even include Pandoc itself.

I believe there surely are use case for Pandoc, like professional publication, or a server centric system, but not here for our application. 200 MB is two heavy just for generate PDFs.

printToPDF from Electron

The browser is the best(not even one of) tool to render HTML properly, that’s what I’ve been loving it so far.

While trying the approaches above, we already know that Chrome already have a way to print and generate PDF from within the browser.

The window.print() method opens the Print Dialog to print the current document.

If you call this function from the browser console, you will see the following dialog.


This could actully generate a PDF with the right font, but there’re also serval limitations:

  • UX issue: There’s no way to generate the PDF directly, the user has to click serval button to get what they want
  • The window.print() method can only print the current document, but we are inside a Electron rendered window instance but not the PDF html window

The first thing we try for this approach is to use the method to open another window and inject a script to print the opened document once it’s loaded.

  function ready(fn) {
    if (document.readyState != 'loading'){
    } else {
      document.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded', fn);

  ready(function() {

This could solve the second problem, but the UX is even worse. We have too open two unnecessary windows just to generate one PDF. The UX is totally unacceptable. Plus the user may want to generate serval PDF at the same time, which means we have to open lots of windows.

Is there a way we can skip all of the windows?

Yes! The printToPDF method comes to rescue.

Prints windows’ web page as PDF with Chromium’s preview printing custom settings.

Below it’s the sample code

var BrowserWindow = require('browser-window');
var fs = require('fs');

var win = new BrowserWindow({width: 800, height: 600});

win.webContents.on("did-finish-load", function() {
  // Use default printing options
  win.webContents.printToPDF({}, function(error, data) {
    if (error) throw error;
    fs.writeFile(dist, data, function(error) {
      if (err)
        alert('write pdf file error', error);

The code here just open a new BrowserWindow in the background, and then render the template, once the content is fully loaded, it print the content to PDF and finally we can write it to the local file system.

Introducing electron-pdf

To make the whole workflow effortless, I’ve written a simple cli tool with nodejs named electron-pdf.

To use it, you just need to run npm i -g electron-pdf electron-prebuilt, and if everything go well, you can start to use it by calling

$ electron-pdf ~/Desktop/fraserxu.html ~/Desktop/fraserxu.pdf

Below is a screenshot of how it works.


For more information and usage please check the github repo here electron-pdf and fire any issue you might have and pull request is more than welcome!