Generating Website Thumbnails in Rails 4 using Dragonfly and wkhtmltoimage

Kam Low

I had a joyous time the other day trying to get a new rails app to take thumbnail snapshots of remote websites for… Actually I lied, it wasn’t fun, in was a total pain in the ass - but you know how it is as a developer ;)

There are a few third-party services out there,, Websnapr and ShrinkTheWeb, but they all cost money - and why pay for it when we can build it for free?

I ended up using a combination of wkhtmltoimage and Dragonfly to make it work. Wkhtmltoimage is great because it does most of the work; it generates the image from the remote URL using a WebKit renderer, and stores the full size screenshot in a temporary location. Then the temp image file is assigned to the Dragonfly accessor, which processes it and creates our thumbnails on the fly. Carrierwave would be a good alternative to Dragonfly if you wanted to create the thumbnails right away, or defer processing to a background task.

As you can see in the example below, everything happens inside a validator during the after_save callback. This way if wkhtmltoimage throws an error we we can say to the user, “well what’s up with this dodgey URL?”. For maximum scalability you would defer processing to a background task, but the tradeoff is you would be unable to preform real-time validation.

Just drop the following code in your Rails model to make it work. Also make sure you have added Dragonfly to your Gemfile, and wkhtmltoimage is in your environment PATH.

class MySexyModel < ActiveRecord::Base

  ... rails stuff

  # Generate the thumbnail on validate so we can return errors on failure
  validate :generate_thumbnail_from_url

  # Cleanup temp files when we are done
  after_save :cleanup_temp_thumbnail
  # Generate a thumbnail from the remote URL
  def generate_thumbnail_from_url

    # Skip thumbnail generation if:
    # a) there are already other validation errors
    # b) an image was manually specified
    # c) an image is already stored and the URL hasn't changed
    skip_generate = self.errors.any? || (self.image_changed? ||
        (self.image_stored? && !self.url_changed?))
    # p "*** generating thumbnail: #{!skip_generate}"
    return if skip_generate

    # Generate and assign an image or set a validation error
      tempfile = temp_thumbnail_path
      cmd = "wkhtmltoimage --quality 95 \"#{self.url}\" \"#{tempfile}\""
      # p "*** grabbing thumbnail: #{cmd}"
      system(cmd) # sometimes returns false even if image was saved
      self.image = # will throw if not saved
    rescue => e
      # p "*** thumbnail error: #{e}"
      self.errors.add(:base, "Cannot generate thumbnail. Is your URL valid?")
  # Return the absolute path to the temporary thumbnail file
  def temp_thumbnail_path
    File.expand_path("#{self.url.parameterize.slice(0, 20)}.jpg",

  # Cleanup the temporary thumbnail image
  def cleanup_temp_thumbnail
    File.delete(temp_thumbnail_path) rescue 0

Here’s to keeping it simple! Hopefully this helped make your life more peachy…

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