How to Create a WordPress Theme from Scratch

WordPress Theme from Scratch

When it’s time to choose a WordPress theme for your website, you have tons of options. Perhaps the most powerful is to forego the readymade themes on the market and build your own. Building your own theme puts you in complete control when it comes to looks and functionality. It can take your project up to that next level. That’s why today, we’re going to show you how to create a WordPress theme from scratch.

Sure, it’s a big task. And you may be wondering why you’d want to go through all the work it takes to create your own WordPress theme. Could the end product be that much better than a readymade theme?

Advantages of Custom WordPress Theme Development

A custom-built theme is so much more than meets the eye. And there are benefits to be had just about everywhere. For example, by starting from scratch, you won’t have to rip apart another developer’s code in order to customize various elements. At the same time, you aren’t limited by whatever settings the developer has built into the theme.

In addition, there can also be some significant gains to be had in site performance. Readymade themes tend to include a lot of scripts and styles – some of which may go unused. By developing a WordPress theme yourself, you can add just the items you need. This reduces bloat and can improve page load times.

Truthfully, we’re just scratching the surface of what can be achieved. All told, it’s about building a WordPress theme that meets the exact needs of your project – no more and no less. Shouldn’t that be a goal for every website you build?

So, let’s take a look behind the scenes at how to create your own WordPress theme!

WordPress Theme Development for Beginners

For beginners, WordPress theme development can be intimidating. That’s understandable, as it’s a vast subject with so many possibilities. And if you’ve ever taken a look through the source code of a readymade theme, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. There’s a lot to digest.

One way to flatten the learning curve is to start with the very basics. Because, once you have a grasp of what makes a WordPress theme work, you can build upon that foundation one brick at a time.

Before we get into the weeds, let’s whittle the task of developing a WordPress theme down to some core concepts.

The Basic Skills Required for WordPress Theme Development

First thing’s first: you don’t have to be an expert programmer to create your own WordPress theme. It doesn’t require an advanced knowledge of computer science.

To start out, you should have a basic understanding of the following languages:

  • CSS
  • HTML
  • PHP

And no, we haven’t forgotten about JavaScript. It’s widely-used and essential for advanced functionality. But for those just learning about how WordPress themes work, it’s not 100% necessary at this point.

The key takeaway: don’t be afraid of what you don’t know. Developing a WordPress theme is actually a great opportunity to improve your skills in these areas. The more you practice, the more you’ll learn.

Bookmark the WordPress Theme Developer Handbook and Other Tutorials

A collection of helpful resources is a developer’s best friend. Whether it’s reference material you can lean on to find the functionality you need or a guided tutorial, we can all benefit from the extra help.

The web is simply teeming with WordPress theme development resources. But there are a couple of specific items we’d like to point out:
👉 Theme Developer Handbook
WordPress includes a massive amount of built-in functionality for themes. It’s incredibly helpful in that just about everything you’d want to do with your custom theme already exists. You just need to know where to find it and how to utilize it.

The Theme Developer Handbook will serve as the de facto reference point on your journey. It includes everything from the basics of how a theme works to a laundry list of functionality. You will find yourself coming back to this resource time and again.
👉 Course: WordPress Theme Development (Core Concepts)
Written by our own David Hayes, this free course will take you on a tour of the core concepts of developing a WordPress theme. You’ll learn the keys to getting started, such as the WordPress template hierarchy, the loop and how to harness the power of the functions.php file.

What’s great about this course is that it’s easy-to-read and includes features to help reinforce what you’ve learned. It’s the perfect counter-balance to the Theme Developer Handbook.

Course: WordPress Theme Development (Core Concepts)

Study the WordPress Template Hierarchy

What constitutes a WordPress theme? You might be surprised to find out that a theme could be comprised of as little as two files:

  • index.php – Provides a template for your theme to display content;
  • style.css – Serves as the main stylesheet for your theme;

Pretty lightweight, no? To add a bit more flexibility, a “barebones” theme might also include the following:

  • header.php – Displays the header portion of your website on each page;
  • footer.php – Displays the footer portion of your website on each page;
  • functions.php – Defines optional functionality for your theme, including enqueued scripts and styles, along with PHP code snippets, etc.;

In theory, at least, you could run an entire website with just these files. But we often want customize things further. That’s where the WordPress Template Hierarchy comes into play.

WordPress Theme Hierarchy

The Hierarchy gives us a way to create custom templates for various types of content in WordPress. For example, you might want to customize the way blog posts look (single.php) or add specific functionality to your site’s About Us page (page-about-us.php).

What’s more, the custom templates you create can be as broad or narrow in focus as you like. Templates can target just specific post types (archive-music.php) or just the home page of your site (front-page.php). The aforementioned index.php template, on the other hand, could conceivably handle every piece of content by itself.

Simply put, if you want to create a responsive WordPress theme from scratch, then you need to know the Template Hierarchy. To really dig in, be sure to check out the Visual Overview to get a better idea of how things work.

Understand That a Template File Can Be as Simple or Complex as You Wish

Take a peek at the source code of one of those popular do-it-all WordPress themes and you might be taken aback by its complexity. And while we can debate the merits of whether the theme is well-built, there’s no doubt about the advanced code that lies within.

But a WordPress theme template doesn’t have to be so complicated. Consider this example of an index.php template from the WordPress Theme Developer Handbook, with some explanatory comments added in:

get_header(); // Call the theme’s header.php file.
// Start “The Loop”
if ( have_posts() ) : // Does our website have any posts to  display?

    while (  have_posts() ) : the_post(); // If the answer is “yes”, let’s run some code.

        the_content();  // Let’s display the content of our post.

    endwhile; // There  are no more posts to display, let’s shut this down.

else : // If we don’t have any posts, let’s display a custom  message below.

    _e( 'Sorry, no  posts matched your criteria.', 'textdomain' );

endif; // OK, we can stop looking for posts now.

// End of “The Loop”

get_sidebar(); // Call the theme’s sidebar.php file.
get_footer(); // Call the theme’s footer.php file.

While this is a minimal amount of code, it could also be stripped down even further. Only “The Loop” portion of the template is actually required.

The takeaway is that a WordPress theme template can be incredibly simple. But it also has the ability to be built into something more complex – if your project calls for it.

Tools and Techniques to Help You Create Your Own WordPress Theme

One key to learning how to create a WordPress theme from scratch is finding ways to simplify the process – especially in the beginning. Trying to take on too much too soon can lead to frustration.

Thankfully, there are both tools and techniques that can be of great help.

Utilize a WordPress Starter Theme

While it’s certainly possible to start up your code editor with a completely blank screen and create a responsive WordPress theme from scratch, it’s not very efficient. At least not for project work that needs to get done in a timely manner.

The Underscores WordPress Starter Theme

That’s why WordPress starter themes such as Underscores are very popular within the developer community. They’re built to give your theme project a head start by taking care of the basics, including:

Theme Templates

A typical starter theme will provide theme templates that cover commonly-used items. For example, you’re likely to find templates for:

  • index and fallback (index.php)
  • header (header.php)
  • footer (footer.php)
  • post archives (archive.php)
  • single posts (single.php)
  • sidebar
  • search results (search.php)

This can vary based on the starter theme package you choose, but it should give you an idea of what to expect.

Basic Styles and Layouts

The job of a WordPress starter theme is to save you time – potentially hours of it. Therefore, the CSS styles that are included will likely be minimal and unopinionated.

They give you a framework to personalize the look and layout to fit your needs. This may also include responsive styles to help you build with mobile devices in mind.

What you’re unlikely to find are any highly-polished styles. Why? The idea is to help you to build from the ground up, as opposed to ripping apart what’s already there and starting over.

Helpful Functionality

In addition to basic templates and styles, a WordPress starter theme may include some helpful functionality. For instance, there could be features that allow for better accessibility or mobile navigation.

Again, the goal is to provide you with the basics and allow you to take over from there.

Customize Your Starter Theme

Want to maximize your WordPress theme development efficiency even more? Create a custom version of your starter theme that you can go to again and again.

In essence, it’s about adding scripts, styles or other functionality that you typically use in all of your projects. Doing so will save you from having to add these items in each time you start building a new website.

As an example, let’s say you have a mobile navigation setup that you prefer. You could set this up just the way you like it in your WordPress starter theme, then save it to either your device or a service such as GitHub.

Now, every time you start a new project, that setup is already there for you. It’s one less item on your to-do list.

Keep a Code Snippet Library

Conversely, when developing a WordPress theme, there may well be little bits of functionality that you only use on occasion. Perhaps it’s a custom post query or code that extends a WordPress plugin. These are items that you shouldn’t have to start from scratch each time.

For those situations, creating a code snippet library can serve as a handy resource. Whether you save them as GitHub gists or in a text file, you’ll have easy access to code whenever you need it.

Hint: Add notes with each code snippet to remind you of what it does and how to utilize it. This will save you from having to look up the answers!

Want to Know How Something Works? Check Out the Default WordPress Themes

The default themes that come bundled with WordPress (Twenty Twenty, Twenty Nineteen and so on) can also be a great resource for your theme development journey.

These themes tend to utilize the latest and greatest WordPress features as they are released. If you’re wondering how to style wide-aligned Gutenberg blocks, for example, it’s baked right into Twenty Twenty. The same goes for features such as the Theme Customizer and even custom menus.

Sometimes, actually seeing the code in action is the best way to learn. Thus, even if you aren’t using a default WordPress theme for your website, you can still gain vital knowledge from them.

Yes, You Can Create Your Own WordPress Theme! 🚀

To be sure, getting started with WordPress theme development is a challenge. But, by starting out with the basics, you can gradually learn the tricks of the trade. As your skills improve, you’ll find yourself better able to work with more complex implementations.

One thing to keep in mind is that even veteran theme developers need a helping hand. That’s why it’s important to utilize resources like the Theme Developer Handbook and tutorials like this one.

And, once you get the hang of theme development, you’ll want to be on the lookout for ways to increase efficiency. That’s where a WordPress starter theme can be a huge help.

We hope you found this tutorial useful in your journey—and that it provides you with the motivation to create your own WordPress theme. Good luck! 😎

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October 1, 2020 11:00 am

Nice article! I started on my own wp-theme and I learn a lot about the backend and the theme files of wordpress.

Thanks! Peter

September 21, 2020 8:23 am

I think it might be worth a try. Having spent 6 months trying to converse with a bunch of guys who developed a theme and then went off the planet when I was seeking support.. I may upgrade my Siteground to grow bigger and start messing about with themes first.

I started creating a website to create a writer’s online business, I already use a v simple blog theme for my walking blog. I’m happy with that to a certain extent. For now.

But I want to develop other websites. Thanks for the tutorial, I had to skip a bit as I’m not ready for this just yet.