How to Create & Use Mac 'Stationery Pad' Documents

My Stationery PadThe Stationery Pad feature in Finder—when I mention this in passing to my students and clients, most of them give me that deer-in-the-headlights blank stare, usually followed by, "uhh, yes, Sandro… the Stationery Pad." But they know that I know that they have no idea what the Stationery Pad feature is!

Well guess what, this obscure but handy little feature has been around on the Mac since the days of Mac OS 6, and I'm fairly sure even before that.

I know what you're thinking: "What the heck is the Stationery Pad feature, and why is this so important?" Well, in the big scheme of all-things-Mac, it's not that important, but it IS a cool, moldy-old feature that does come in handy at times. Let's take a look.

Stationery Pad is actually a file attribute you switch on and off. It's available to you for any of your document files. There is only one way to get to that switch: via the Get Info panel for the file.

While in Finder, select the document file, then go to File > Get Info. I like using the shortcut CMD-I and actually go there frequently for other reasons, such as adding Spotlight comments, checking sharing and file permissions, and gathering other interesting trivia about my files. Think of Get Info as a "File Inspector." For you switchers out there, it's similar to "File Properties"  in Windows.

The file Get Info panel showing the Stationery Pad checkbox.

This is the Get Info panel for the selected file. Click the Stationery Pad checkbox to enable.

Towards the top of the Get Info panel, in the General section, you'll see a checkbox named "Stationery pad." There it is! That's the only place, short of issuing terminal commands, where you toggle this feature for the selected file.

"What's the big deal," you ask?

Think of how you use a real stationery pad, you know, of the dead-tree variety. It may be a memo pad of paper with your name and address pre-printed on each sheet. What do you do when you need to jot something down on paper? Typically, you tear off the top sheet from the pad, write on it, and dispatch the sheet as needed. Underneath, you find a pristine sheet of paper ready for the next memo.

If you understand the memo pad analogy, then you'll understand how the Stationery Pad feature works on your Mac.

Enabling the Stationery Pad attribute for the selected file essentially turns it into a template. This is especially valuable when using apps that don't have a built-in template creation feature. Major productivity apps like Pages, Numbers and Keynote do provide a template creation feature. Creating and using templates in your workflow can be a huge time saver.

Here's an example of how I use Stationery Pad. When writing articles for posting here on TMO, I generally like using the venerable TextEdit app. TextEdit is a simpler word processing app than Pages. Among other things, it does not have a "Save as Template" feature. I rely on templates quite a bit to make work easier, so I create templates with my preferred text formatting, margins, etc., and I save them as regular TextEdit files with an appropriate file name, like "TMO Article TEMPLATE."

Then, in Finder, I select the file and do a Get Info and set the Stationery Pad attribute as described above. From then on, when I open this Stationery Pad file, Finder first makes a copy and opens the copy, leaving the original template file closed so it can't be accidentally edited. If I need to make changes to the actual template, I simply turn OFF Stationery Pad for the file, make my change, then turn it back ON.

Two files shown in Finder. One is the template file created with the Stationery Pad attribute and the copy of the file that is created when opening the template file.

Opening the template file from Finder will create a copy of the file and open the copy for editing in the app.

I've noticed that because of Apple's new "Modern Document Model" which introduces Auto Save and other goodies, things have changed a bit when using Stationery Pad. If you become a fan of Stationery Pad, it's important to note that starting with Lion, the only way the above works is by opening your "template" file from the Finder, not from within the app via File > Open.

The arcane Stationery Pad feature can be quite useful under certain circumstances. Hopefully some of you will find it helpful in your workflow. Whether or not you embrace this feature, if you ever land on one of those trivia game shows, and you are asked what the Stationery Pad is in the Mac Finder, and… you win millions… you won't forget me and TMO, will you?