Building with CMake


Teaching: 10 min
Exercises: 10 min
  • How do I build a project?

  • Have a reference for installing CMake.

  • Learn how to build an existing project.

  • Customize the build.

  • Learn how to do some basic debugging.

Installing CMake

It’s usually only one line or maybe two to install a recent version of CMake almost anywhere; see CMake Instructions.

Building with CMake

Before writing CMake, let’s make sure you know how to run it to make things. This is true for almost all CMake projects, which is almost everything.

Try it out

Let’s get a project and try to build it. For fun, let’s build CLI11:

git clone
cd CLI11

Now, from the newly downloaded directory, let’s try the modern CMake (3.14) build procedure:

cmake -S . -B build
cmake --build build
cmake --build build -t test

This will make a build directory (-B) if it does not exist, with the source directory defined as -S. CMake will configure and generate makefiles by default, as well as set all options to their default settings and cache them into a file called CMakeCache.txt, which will sit in the build directory. You can call the build directory anything you want; by convention it should have the word build in it to be ignored by most package’s .gitignore files.

You can then invoke your build system (line 2). Regardless of whether you used make (the default), ninja, or even an IDE-based system, you can build with a uniform command. You can add -j 2 to build on two cores, or -v to verbosely show commands used to build.

Finally, you can even run your tests from here, by passing the “test” target to the underlying build system. -t (--target before CMake 3.15) lets you select a target. There’s also a cmake <dir> --install command in CMake 3.15+ that does the install - without invoking the underlying build system!

Warning about in-source builds

Never do an “in-source” build - that is, run cmake . from the source directory. It will pollute your source directory with build outputs, CMake configuration files, and will disable out-of-source builds. A few packages do not allow the source directory to even sit inside the build directory; if that is the case, you need to change the relative path .. accordingly.

Just to clarify, you can point CMake at either the source directory from the build directory, or at an existing build directory from anywhere.

Other syntax choices

The classic, battle hardened method should be shown for completeness:

mkdir build
cd build
cmake ..
make test

This has several downsides. If the directory already exists, you have to add -p, but that doesn’t work on Windows. You can’t as easily change between build directories, because you are in it. It’s more lines, and if you forget to change to the build directory, and you use cmake . instead of cmake .., then you can pollute your source directory.

Picking a compiler

Selecting a compiler must be done on the first run in an empty directory. It’s not CMake syntax per se, but you might not be familiar with it. To pick Clang:

CC=clang CXX=clang++ cmake -S . -B build

That sets the environment variables in bash for CC and CXX, and CMake will respect those variables. This sets it just for that one line, but that’s the only time you’ll need those; afterwards CMake continues to use the paths it deduces from those values.

Picking a generator

You can build with a variety of tools; make is usually the default. To see all the tools CMake knows about on your system, run

cmake --help

And you can pick a tool with -G"My Tool" (quotes only needed if spaces are in the tool name). You should pick a tool on your first CMake call in a directory, just like the compiler. Feel free to have several build directories, like build and build-xcode. You can set the environment variable CMAKE_GENERATOR to control the default generator (CMake 3.15+). Note that makefiles will only run in parallel if you explicitly pass a number of threads, such as make -j2, while Ninja will automatically run in parallel. You can directly pass a parallelization option such as -j 2 to the cmake --build . command in recent versions of CMake as well.

Setting options

You set options in CMake with -D. You can see a list of options with -L, or a list with human-readable help with -LH.

Verbose and partial builds

Again, not really CMake, but if you are using a command line build tool like make, you can get verbose builds:

cmake --build build -v

If you are using make directly, you can write VERBOSE=1 make or even make VERBOSE=1, and make will also do the right thing, though writing a variable after a command is a feature of make and not the command line in general.

You can also build just a part of a build by specifying a target, such as the name of a library or executable you’ve defined in CMake, and make will just build that target. That’s the --target (-t in CMake 3.15+) option.


CMake has support for cached options. A Variable in CMake can be marked as “cached”, which means it will be written to the cache (a file called CMakeCache.txt in the build directory) when it is encountered. You can preset (or change) the value of a cached option on the command line with -D. When CMake looks for a cached variable, it will use the existing value and will not overwrite it.

Standard options

These are common CMake options to most packages:

Try it out

In the CLI11 repository you cloned:

  • Check to see what options are available
  • Change a value; maybe set CMAKE_CXX_STANDARD to 14 or turn off testing.
  • Configure with CMAKE_INSTALL_PREFIX=install, then install it into that local directory. Make sure it shows up there!

Debugging your CMake files

We’ve already mentioned verbose output for the build, but you can also see verbose CMake configure output too. The --trace option will print every line of CMake that is run. Since this is very verbose, CMake 3.7 added --trace-source="filename", which will print out every executed line of just the file you are interested in when it runs. If you select the name of the file you are interested in debugging (usually with a parent directory if you are debugging a CMakeLists.txt, since all of those have the same name), you can just see the lines that run in that file. Very useful!

Try it out

Run the following from the source directory:

cmake build --trace-source="CMakeLists.txt"

Answer this

Question: Does cmake build build anything?


No, the “build” here is the directory. This will configure (create build system files). To build, you would add --build before the directory, or use your build tool, such as make.

More reading

Key Points

  • Build a project.

  • Use out-of-source builds.

  • Build options and customization.

  • Debug a CMakeLists easily.