Automator: Combining PDFs by Dropping Them on a Folder

Automator is one of the unsung heroes of Mac OS X. With it, you can, well, automate the tasks you perform frequently and speed up your workflow. To that end, we’re going to cover how to create a folder that combines PDFs into one file when you drop them into it. It’s certainly easier than jumping through Preview’s hoops for doing the same thing, let me tell you.

So first things first—open Automator from your Applications folder. Its icon always reminds me of Marvin the Paranoid Android.

When the program opens, it’ll ask you what type of document you’d like to create. Choose “Folder Action” from the list. Folder actions are basically scripts that you can associate with a folder, so anything you put in that folder has whatever instructions you specify performed on it.

Then you’ll have to choose which folder you’d like to be your “combining PDFs” one. I usually just create an empty new folder on my Desktop to work with and then select it from this dialog box.

Now if you look at the panes on the left side of the Automator window, you’ll note that you can click on any of the categories to see what actions are available. For example, choosing “Files & Folders” will let you see all of the actions that apply to moving stuff and changing items within the Finder. There is a TON available there, so I don’t blame you if you get lost just looking through everything in wonderment.

We’ll now build our action by choosing what steps will be followed after we drop PDFs into the folder. Add the following actions either by double-clicking them from the lists on the left or by dragging them into the empty pane on the right of your window:

  • PDFs > Combine PDF Pages
  • Files & Folders > Move Finder Items. We’re adding this one because otherwise, Automator will plunk your files into weird places, and they’ll be hard to find. Make sure you tell it where you want them to end up!

  • Files & Folders > Rename Finder Items (optional). When you insert this step, Automator will ask you if you want to add the Copy Finder Items action, too. For our purposes, you shouldn’t need it, so choose “Don’t Add.”

Also on this action, you’ll need to change the drop-down menu to Name Single Item and then specify what you want the basename (i.e., the part of the file name that doesn’t include the extension) to be.

  • Files & Folders > Open Finder Items (optional). This’ll open the created PDF into whatever your default program for that is unless you configure something different. I like to see my finished product when it’s done, so I always add this action.

Hit Command-S to name and save your file, and you’re finished! That was pretty easy, right?

Now let’s try out our handiwork. If you grab a few PDFs and drop them into that folder, you should see a spinning gear appear in your menu bar at the top of your screen. Assuming your task takes long enough for you to get up there, you can click on that gear to see the progress. 

Your shiny new PDF will then be saved to the location you selected and will open in your PDF program (or not, depending on what you chose). Eureka! We’ve done it! Now that we know our fancy PDF folder works, we can drag its shortcut into the Dock for an easy place to drop things, or we can just stick it somewhere else convenient. It’s like a magic portal to a happy world where all PDFs are one.

Now that you’ve created your first folder action, there are a few final things to know. You can manage what folders your action is applied to by right-clicking or Control-clicking on a folder and then choosing Folder Actions Setup. Use that to apply an action you’ve created to a different folder or to remove an existing one. If you don’t see that option in your contextual menu, though, go to System Preferences > Keyboard > Keyboard Shortcuts > Services to toggle it on.

Another thing to know is the default order that your PDFs will be combined in—it’s alphabetical by file name. So if you’d prefer one PDF to be first in your new file, add a space to the beginning of its name to force it to always be combined as the first page. This is a great way to use a cover page on PDFs you send often, for example.

So now that you’ve all been given this brief introduction to Automator, I fully expect you to give us some good thoughts on using it. What’s your favorite workflow to create? Virtual cookies to anyone who enlightens us all with ideas in the comments of this article. And by the way, virtual cookies fit in with almost any diet. Except perhaps for those of us who sit in front of computers all day.

I’m going to the gym now after thinking about that.