by Wing Puah

Take 10 minutes to get started with Handlebars

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Nowadays front-end development is no longer about building static HTML markup and compiling SASS files. The rise of Single Page Applications (SPAs) means we can do a lot of the rendering logic on the client-side. Modern day web development often require dynamic data input.

While React.js is great, often it requires a learning curve for the developers before they can integrate it into the team. Recently, I was tasked with building the front-end of a course website. That marked the start of my exploration into Handlebars.js.

Handlebars is a popular and simple templating engine that is simple to use. It looks a lot like regular HTML, with embedded handlebars expressions in the curly braces {{}}.

<div class="entry">   <h1>{{name}}</h1>   <div>{{quote}}</div> </div>

Before we move on to the details of Handlebars, let’s see how data will be inserted into the page through vanilla Javascript. We will take the example of building a webpage that lists a few quotes. Because, hey, everyone needs some inspiration.

Vanilla javascript

Data retrieval

Most of the time, you might be retrieving data via ajax, but for simplicity, we will create our own data object.

// quotes.js var quotes = [   {name: "Frank Lloyd Wright", quote: "You can use an eraser on the drafting table or a sledge hammer on the construction site."},  {name: "Douglas Adams", quote: "The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair."},   {name: "Ettore Sottsass", quote: "I try and be as stupid as possible regarding my profession, which means I try to look at as few design magazines as possible."},   {name: "Shaun White", quote: "I’m a big fan of doing what you are really bad at. A lot."} ]

Create HTML markup

// index.html<div class="container>  <div class="row" id="quotes">  </div></div>

Adding the data with Javascript

We will use a for loop to loop through the content above.

//quotes.jslet quoteMarkup = '';
for (var i = 0; i < quotes.length; i++) {  let name = quotes[i].name,       quote = quotes[i].quote;
quoteMarkup += '<div class="col-12 col-sm-6">' +                  '<h5>' + name + '</h5>' +                  '<p>' + quote + '</p>'                 '</div>'}
document.getElementById('quotes').innerHTML = quoteMarkup;

With code like this, it is difficult to read and tedious to write. And the HTML markup for this page now resides in both the index.html and quotes.js.

Enter handlebars

Getting started

To start off, we need to include the Handlebar source code file. You can add the link inside the head tag or before the end of <body>.

&lt;script src="js/handlebars.js">&lt;/script>

Alternatively, you can also link to Handlebars from a CDN.

<script src="//"></script>

Create the template

We will still use the data object of quotes from the file above. We will sprinkle some Handlebars magic on the index.html file.

//index.html<div class="container>  <div id="quotes">
<script id="quotes-template" type="text/x-handlebars-template">                  <div class="row">                    {{#each this}}                      <div class="col-12 col-sm-6 p-3">                          <div class="card">                              <h4 class="card-header">                                  {{name}}                              </h4>                              <div class="card-body">                                  {{quote}}                         </div>                          </div>                     </div>                    {{/each}}                </div>            </script>    </div></div>
  • each: Iterates through the data
  • this: References to the current context.
  • text/x-handlebars-template: To tell the browser not to execute the script as normal Javascript.

Compile the template with Handlebars

It only takes a few lines to compile the data with Handlebars. That is what I love about it. Even if someone on the team has not used Handlebars before, the script and markup are very simple for them to understand and pick up.

let content = document.getElementById('quotes'),    src = document.getElementById('quotes-template').innerHTML,     template = Handlebars.compile(src),            html = template(quotes);
content.innerHTML = html;
  • content: Returns the element into which you want to insert the compiled information.
  • src: Retrieves the markup of the template.
  • Handlebars.compile(src): Compiles the template in use. It will return a function that the data can be passed to so it can be be rendered.
  • template(quotes): Compiles the data into the template.
  • content.innerHTML: Renders the above to the DOM

You can view the project here.


I used Handlebars for a multiple-templates website. I found myself writing the same ajax and Handlebars code multiple times. So, here are the two functions that I created to make my life easier.

Getting data from ajax with Javascript

function ajaxGet(url, callback) {    let xmlhttp = new XMLHttpRequest();    xmlhttp.onreadystatechange = function() {        if (xmlhttp.readyState == 4 && xmlhttp.status == 200) {            // console.log(xmlhttp.responseText);            try {                var data = JSON.parse(xmlhttp.responseText);            } catch(err) {                console.log(err.message +' Getting: ' + url);                return;            }            callback(data);        }    };"GET", url, true);    xmlhttp.send();}

Function to run Handlebars

function runHandlebars(id, dataSrc, src) {  if(document.getElementById(id) != null) {    let content = document.getElementById(id);    ajaxGet(dataSrc, function(data){      let source = document.getElementById(src).innerHTML,           template = Handlebars.compile(source);
content.innerHTML = template(data);    });  }}

With these two functions, I could run all my Handlebars code on a single Javascript file. It will look something like this.

runHandlebars('nav-sub-1', '/data/courses.json', 'nav-submenu-template');
runHandlebars('contributors', '/data/contributors.json', 'contributors-template');


My experience with Handlebars has been a positive one. In my project, I use it with gulp and metalsmith. Will I use it for other projects? My take is I prefer something like React or a full fledged static site generator like Jekyll. But in this case, when the team is more comfortable with HTML markup and it is a relatively simple website, Handlebars is a good choice.