Tinderbox Forum

Struggling with Tinderbox and a suggestion

I’m sorry but I really am struggling with Tinderbox. I am a new user and I have also downloaded The Tinder Box Way.

The suggestion first. If ever a program cried out for a Lynda.com series of tutorials, it is, in my view, Tinderbox.

Second, as a new user I am finding that information about Tinderbox is scattered all over the place and when I do find it, I find it difficult to follow. Some of the video tutorials (made, I know, by well-meaning folk) lead to more confusion, not less.

And whilst the Tinderbox Way is helpful, I find the information in it is, for me, a new user, fragmented, disjointed and often difficult to understand. I have, for two days now, been experimenting with Tinderbox and, to be brutally frank, I am about ready to give up and call it a day. I have some success, especially since downloading The Tinderbox Way but I still believe I am fighting an uphill (losing!) battle.

The problem is, I am not a programer. And, for two days now I have been trying to do one simple thing. That is, build a series of notes which include a URL attribute (a link to a Wikipedia page) and, ultimately, I would like to print out a list of URLs (further reading) which I can hand to my students. I have also put the URL in the note as a line of text so I have both a URL attribute and also a URL sitting in the text in each note. Now, to seasoned Tinderbox users, creating a list is probably an easy thing to do and you might be wondering what I am whining about. Well, here is my main question. How much more time can I spend trying to get to grips with Tinderbox and have it do simple things when I can find other ways of achieving my goals? I see others have written that Tinderbox has a steep learning curve and for me, the is proving to be true. I can’t even print out a simple list. Clearly I must be DIM!

I recognise that Tinderbox is a very clever program but the sparsity of clear instruction for somebody like me is causing me to wonder if buying Tinderbox was a wise investment.

Overall, I have the feeling I am not qualified to join the elite group of Tinderbox users and should perhaps gone for something simpler to use.

Richard (disheartened)


Sorry for startup struggles! Here are a couple of ways to start.

  1. Getting a URL into a set of notes. You can do this two ways, If they’re really the only text you’ll want for each note, you could simply cut-and-paste them into the Text box that each note has. (Hit Cmd-5, while looking at notes in outline view, to see the text box in the lower right.)
    The other way is to make the $URL attribute, which is built into every note, a “Key Attribute,” so that it’s always visible in the list of note attributes. (You do that by selecting the prototype for your notes, hitting Cmd-1 for the inspector, and finding what’s shown below.)

Then just enter the URL in the Key Attributes part of each note.

Then (2) For getting the information out of the notes, what you’ll want to use is the collect command – which goes through a series of notes and collects their values.

I have to leave in a second, but conceptually you could:

  • Set a Rule for the parent-container note of your URL notes, saying something like: $Text=collect(children,$URL).format("\n")) That will make the URL list into the text of the parent note, with each value on its own line . Then you can cut-and-paste that list, or use “Export as Text” etc.
  • Or have an agent / rule that looks for the notes in question and again collects the results.

I have to go now, and others will fill in the actual details. But if you’re just looking for a list of values from a group of notes, it’s the kind of thing the program is designed for. Passing it now to the actual coding crew!


I’m a huge fan of low-tech approaches to a lot of my TBX problems. For example, if you have the URLs in the text of notes and simply select all the notes: the list you are looking for will appear in the note pane. Your can cut-and-paste it from there for print in a text file. If the order of the list isn’t what you want, you can rearrange it in outline view. (The list in the note view is stacked in the note’s outline order).

I use this technique all the time to prepare docs for my own students.

Finally, if you want specifically to export and haven’t looked at them yet, maybe these posts about basic custom export from Tinderbox might help.


I created Tinderbox file that does what I think this recipe involves:

Here is the file

List Example.tbx (57.0 KB)

I’m not going to write much about how it works, since I believe a cursory examination on your own will suffice. The one thing I would mention is how to export several notes into an RTF file. Select those notes, use File > Export As > Text, and use the settings shown in this image.

As this page at aTbRef explains, one can include the value of attributes in an RTF export by using ^value(expression)^ in the body of the text. So, in the example, since you wanted the value of the $URL attribute included in the notes’ text, you would use ^value($URL)^ in the body, as shown in the example file I attached.


Yes, endorsing this too as a quick-and-zero-coding way to get the result you’re looking for.

Hopefully the explanations above have helped. If not, it would aid us if @Richard_Broom could clarify whether the aim is to export to RTF text (i.e. as in a TextEdit document) or to HTML. I say this only as each needs a slightly different approach.

The requirement to have the URL both as a key attribute and in the note text has me confused as both enable the user to open the target URL (in key attributes click the globe icon, in text click the link itself). This suggests a confusion over how (web) links in text are created. In Tinderbox v7 it is confusing as note text supports both RTF ‘quick links’ and web links created via the Tinderbox app. Sadly the former don’t function as the latter in all contexts; HTML export doesn’t export smart links in text (though there is feature request for this to do so).

So before adding to the OP’s confusion if would be useful to understand the format desired for export and the need for duplication of the URL in each note.

A nice thing about this community (replying to original query) is that the more specifically you can describe where you would like to end up, the more likely/certain it is that the wizards here (not me–the ones I rely on) can tell you how to get there.

For instance, in this case might you ideally like:

  • To keep one big running master list of URLs, which you will give to students in one big group when you’re ready?
  • One-by-one notes of specific URLs, which you’ll combine and give to the students?
  • One-by-one notes of specific URLs, along with commentary on each one that you’d like to share with the students?
  • One-by-one notes plus commentary that you want to keep for yourself and not share with the students?
  • Any of the above, on a printed handout (or in email)?
  • Any of the above, as a web page?

There is a way to do each of those things, and other permutations, in TB-- and if you give an idea of what the final result would look like, I bet you’ll get a step-by-step answer that will solve this challenge – and, on “teach a man to fish” principles, will equip you to do other things.

Hi Richard,

You’ll no doubt find that Tinderbox, as an open-ended tool, usually has many different ways to accomplish something. This is one of the reasons it can be overwhelming and ultimately frustrating — there are just so many paths to explore, and it’s not clear at first which will be fruitful. However, in the end it’s not all that complicated, and like with many challenging skills, if you stick with it and learn it, it will pay dividends in the future. The only program I know of that approaches Tinderbox’s capabilities in certain domains is Emacs (specifically org-mode), and learning to use Emacs effectively is a much more onerous task than learning to use Tinderbox.

One of Tinderbox’s biggest strengths is its small but responsive, supportive, and friendly user community. My biggest suggestion to you would be to reach out for help on these forums before you become disheartened, when you are merely frustratedly curious.

The other thing is to really take note of the different features that you come across when people post their solutions, and mark them down for later exploration. Most of the features are multi-layered and deserve more attention than one solution will give them.

@bcrane’s solution is nice and simple, and introduces a wonderful feature of Tinderbox: the fact that when you select multiple notes, the text contained in the notes is concatenated together and displayed in the note text box.

Others have covered various export options. The export features of Tinderbox are one of its unparalleled strengths, and are worthy of deep study.

Another feature that you can use to solve this problem is Tinderbox’s column view, which shows the values of attributes in an outline. Try the following:

  1. Go to an outline view of the notes with the URL attributes, by selecting View -> Outline. This should give you a view like this:

  2. Turn on column view by selecting View -> Use Columns. Note the new column bar at the top of the window:

  3. Click the plus sign on the left of the column bar to add a new attribute column:

  4. Click on “Attribute” to bring up the column drop-down menu:

  5. Type in the name of the attribute you wish to display. Here we’re using URL:

  6. Hit enter, and the URL attribute will now be displayed:

  7. Select all the notes with ⌘A or shift-clicking or what have you, and then hit ⌘C to copy them to the clip board. This will copy them as tab-separated values, which you can then paste into a spreadsheet, a text-editor, or whatever you wish.


The community is all very nice and I am sure everyone wants to help, but the problem for some of us who are new and having problems with Tinderbox is the following. A new person is trying to get a handle on the system in general, and at the moment they finally give up and decide to write into the forum they happen to be trying to do one simple thing. They will state their overall frustration with the entire system, perhaps make some suggestions for better information on how to use Tinderbox, and then explain the problem they are having at the moment. Where upon the very friendly community pretty much ignores all that went before and proceeds to offer solutions to the particular problem the individual has identified at that point in time. Nobody ever seems to go back to the overall problem that instructions for using Tinderbox are scattered all over the place, some are beautiful to look at and totally useless for application, and then there are the testimonials about what a great system it is. I am a genuine early adopter–got my first desktop in 1980–and, while not an active programmer, I have worked with some very complex programs. I actively use DevonThink Pro Office, and a variety of other programs that are by no means simple, and Tinderbox has me totally frustrated. I do now understand that if I just want to use it to collect thoughts and notes with little or no functionality I can use it as sort of a note pad, but for $250 that is a pretty expensive note pad. DevonThink has a whole series of clearly structured brief tutorials in the system, The Brain has regular, albeit sometimes too fast paced, tutorials that they can be watched in real time or from their files. Most other programs that have any degree of complexity either have embedded tutorials or have clear manuals that have a truly step by step quality to them. BookEnds, which I use for bibliography has an easily searchable user guide. The Tinderbox Way has so much rumination and philosophy padding it out that it is impossible to use as a guide. Somebody, it would seem, needs to bring some real order to this mess and produce a genuinely useful guide that gets a person from filing notes to actually being able to use Tinderbox without an inordinate investment of time–I suspect that most of the people who would most benefit from Tinderbox are also the most pressed for time anyway. Otherwise, it looks increasingly like an insider game that only the initiated can play with any sophistication and that is of very little use to me, and, I suspect, many others.


I do agree. Tinderbox’s documentation is the worst I have ever seen in a piece of commercial software. The built-in Tinderbox help on exporting does not even contain the string “HTMLExportTemplate” — the name of the attribute that must be set to use Tinderbox’s HTML export facility!

That said, it is true that learning to use Tinderbox effectively simply requires more of its users than most other programs, because more is going on that is exposed to the user than in most other programs. Tinderbox is more in the realm of famously inscrutable programs like Emacs and vi than most Mac end-users are accustomed to. It is a powerful tool, and learning to use a powerful tool effectively takes practice.

The potent combination of inherent complexity and abysmal documentation is why I recommend coming to the forum early and often. Between the forum and @mwra’s irreplaceable aTbRef, most questions are answered, and confusions resolved, within a fairly quick timeframe.

@Analyst. Have you used the ‘Getting Started With Tinderbox’ and ‘Actions and Dashboards’ tutorials that are provided in the Help menu?

Yes, I have, and there are clearly things there that are useful. A big problem, at least for me, however, is that my time is very constrained and actually using some of these functions on a regular basis requires a “steep learning curve” as the saying goes, that really entails a lot of repetition to master–rather than returning to the “Getting Started” or some other source two or three days later because I lost track of all the steps. Put another way, I really can’t take the time to go to a given source and every time I want to do something and see if I have all the programming in the right place. Perhaps the program is just not made for people like me, but the functionality is buried behind the need to essentially do your own coding. I don’t want to go on about this too much, but the comment that I originally responded to struck a cord because it seems all too often that the community responds to specific issues–I want to export a list of URLs–and fails to respond to the larger general issue that a really organized system for learning Tinderbox does not seem to exist. That’s all.

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This is a user-to-user forum. We’re here just to learn and to help others. We can all express opinions about the documentation – but our opinions don’t fix your complaint. Because “nobody” here can do anything about your problem. Except for @mwra who has spent years – with no compensation – writing the most comprehensive how-to that most (any?) Mac application has.

Otherwise, you need to go offline and write directly to the developer / owner at Eastgate, because he is the only person who can address your documentation needs.


I’m french and I started to read The Tinderbox Way aloud many years ago and it was not easy at the beginning as you can easily imagine, but it was a great experience. I read it in the same way I use to read Montaigne’s Essays: Montaigne talks in a very old french I couldn’t barely understand if I didn’t have a glossary. He makes me think, but it often comes that I feel loosing my way in his syntax. Those times, I had to reread what I was immediately reading and I systematically take notes to keep track of the way as if I was in a sort of labyrinth. I often thought that it would be so simple if I allowed myself to read Montaigne in a lightened version: with no old words, no convoluted propositions, no latin sentences, and so on. But I never never ceased to read Montaigne in his own language. I’m very proud of it even if I don’t understand completely him. I am not trying to convince anyone and I don’t know if that metaphor is really appropriate: it is just about my experience which I am trying to illustrate.
I don’t use Tinderbox in a very complicated way. But as you can see, this forum is very very supportive and I have no doubt that if I were at an impasse while trying to use its more advanced functions, it could bring me its help.

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I take it that you do not appreciate my lack of appreciation for the work that others have done. I am quite well aware of what @mwra has done, it is admirable, and useful, and I have visited several other individual sites where clearly very well meaning individuals have posted videos and other resources giving examples of neat things you can do with Tinderbox. I appreciate all of this. I have no desire to get into arguments about who had done what and what its value is. I am quite prepared to say that given my own abilities and other compromising issues, particularly time, Tinderbox is not suited to my work flow process. But I have now been with it for about a year, coming up on the decision whether to put in another investment, and I will have to deal with that–but that is my problem. As I have said in the last posts, the occasion for my comment was some sympathy for the original poster who has a specific issue, addressed by the community in what I am sure will be a singularly helpful manner, but who also put forward a more general issue that I have seen on a number of other posts over the year I have been in the system–without commenting on this issue so far as I can remember–that a really coherent program for learning Tinderbox is, if not entirely absent, at least very hard to pin down in a useful way. That is all. I have no desire to criticize people who find Tinderbox extremely useful, and who have mastered it. I do not go around the internet trying to start arguments. I would simply appreciate it if a more coherent and accessible learning process were available–at least more than I have been able to find.


People’s tastes and tradeoffs differ.

FWIW I found the series of videos collected here – by Steven Zeoli, by Dominique Renauld, by Mark Anderson and Mark Bernstein, and others, plus Brian Crane’s here – to be useful in giving me a sense of how the program works. YMMV.

There’s no argument.

I really urge you, though, to put this to the owner directly. Users cannot address your, and others, issues about the documentation.

I have actually spent time with Zeoli’s and Renauld’s videos. I had not seen Crane’s, but after a quick look I will take more time with his. Deep appreciate the suggestions. I did not intend to get deep into this discussion, so appreciate the responses. On the matter of time, I now have to fix dinner, so will sign off.

Fair enough. Will see what happens. For now, I have to fix dinner.

For clarity, though I start by quoting a previous post, this isn’t comment aimed at any particular problem but rather it addresses the meta-issue to which the thread alludes.

And there’s the rub. A frequent misperception about Tinderbox is that is a tool for a specific purpose q.v. Scrivener for writing or Bookends for references, etc. In fact, Tinderbox is a more of an open-ended toolbox. Most people use only parts of it and then in very different ways. Indeed people understand the app in quite different ways - as is brought home to me how discrete sub-sets of users respond to various personal descriptions/tutorials of how to use Tinderbox. So, no one-size fits all solution, and that annoys some folk as it undermines their assumptions.

Also, people often unwittingly chose to do something for their first which seems simple in their minds eye but is actually complex and full of unseen edge cases. Rather that break the overall task into resolvable task, the desire to beat the app (and then sometime’s its developer) takes over in a form of zero-sum game where the app has to be the loser so there can be a winner. I write this without prejudice as I’ve seen myself go through this phase with a number of apps at first encounter.

We’re also sometimes to proud to ask others for help. The Tinderbox user community is small so this forum is really the only Q&A forum for such help. However it does contain folk willing to help those who bring understandable problems to the forum. The forum can give practical bootstrapping suggestions and expertise but cannot re-write the manual or answer existential questions about the design concepts of the app.

A coherent program for learning Tinderbox - an app always evolving and so wide in scope - is a Sisyphean task.
I’d go so far as to say the worst approach to the app is to ‘just’ get an overview to start. as likely that will include lots of features of no interest. The more productive, if less intuitive way is to pick a task and work through it and then continue to build out from that expertise.

For those still looking for overview, I would commend reading this and this tutorial on Tinderbox prototypes and inheritance. I wrote them during v6 but the same principles still apply (minor UI differences in the v6/v7 Inspectors are not pertinent).