Creating Patches Using Git

This is not an Elixir post, but it comes up when working with custom Nerves systems. The problem is how to deal with custom patches to Buildroot, Linux, or any of the non-Elixir libraries that your application might use. You may have seen patch files like these. These patch files are used to create local changes to projects when modifications either can’t be sent upstream (partial workarounds, hacks for specific systems, etc.) or haven’t been integrated yet. This post describes a way to create them.

First, you’ll need the source code as it exists before your changes. Usually this means cloning a repository and checking out the tag. For example, if you’re patching Buildroot start by doing this:

git clone git://
cd buildroot
git checkout 2017.05   # or whatever release you want

Remember the 2017.05 part. I’ll refer to it later as the <starting tag>.

If the source code isn’t in git, copy it to a new directory, initialize a git repository, and add all files to it. Your starting tag will be main.

Next you’ll want to create a branch so that all of the work that you’re doing can be tracked independently from upstream:

git checkout -b my_updates

The project that you want to patch may already have patches. Those should be applied first:

git am path_to_existing/*.patch

It’s possible that some of the existing patches are not in git format and you get an error. When that happens, I manually apply the patch with the patch command. This looks like patch -p1 < path_to_existing/thing.patch. It can become tedious. Be sure to git add and git commit after applying each patch so that the order is preserved. This also will have the effect of turning non-git patches into git ones later on. This is good.

Now it’s time to make your changes. Hopefully you’ve already tested them so that you’re not iterating with patches files. That becomes painful. Make your changes and commit them.

At this point, I usually run git rebase -i <starting tag> and see if I want to squash my new change with an existing patch. I like to do this to keep my patches neat and tidy, but that’s optional.

Now it’s time to create the patches. Run the following:

git format-patch -N <starting tag>

You should get a set of numbered .patch files. Copy these over to wherever patches are stored. You may need to clean up the destination patch directory since patch numbers could move around or commit titles change. One final note: the -N keeps git from adding [PATCH n/m] to your patches. This will reduce changes between patch files when you add a patch in the future.

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