Splitting a big, single-page pdf into print-size pages

I’m currently putting together a grant application. This means I need to get together documentation and press for what I’ve done. I need to submit this all on printed physical paper. URLs or pdf files by themselves are not enough.

I’m on macOS. Normally, you can just print a webpage to pdf from the browser. However, for some crazily-made websites, this doesn’t work and creates broken formatting. I had to use a plugin (which I now forget, because I’ve since switched computers and it was a few months ago) to print these broken webpages. The plugin outputs the page as a single page large pdf, like so:

Screenshot 2017-06-28 10.17.09

Unfortunately, this is not “ready to print” yet.

The Problem:
I have several single-page pdfs with page sizes that are much larger than 8.5″ x 11″. I want to split these into pages so that they’re ready to print on a 8.5″ x 11″ paper. Fortunately, the layout of the big pdf is such that we can split it into a single column; we don’t have to have split the page left-to-right, only vertically.

Trying to find a solution:
Nothing seems to do this out of the box. In fact, most of the current pdf management tools seem unprepared for non-standard pdf page size.

This is a hard-to-Google problem, in that all the ways to specify it are ambiguous for the purposes of a search engine. Is there a general term for these kinds of problems? When you search for “splitting pdf” or “crop pdf” or “separate pdf pages” the results assume you want to take a pdf document with several pages in it, and remove some of the pages, without affecting individual pages themselves.

macOS’s Preview app’s print dialogue won’t let me print a single page pdf onto multiple pages. When I try to adjust scale of a single pdf page, it crops the page rather than lets it overflow:

Screenshot 2017-06-28 10.26.35

I thought I could maybe use lovely command-line tool image magick convert to take each single-page pdf and crop it into a series of 8.5″x11″ pages. Unfortunately, looks like my source pdfs all have varying widths. While it may be possible, there’s no immediately convenient way to measure the width of a source pdf and split it into semi-overlapping tiles of a given ratio.

I heard that Adobe Acrobat would let me crop pdfs. I installed it via homebrew cask, which is how I install any application whenever possible. After installing it, I that the cropping pdf feature was only available in Acrobat Pro. Cropping a pro feature!? Seems crazy, but given how arduous my search had been so far, maybe that’s not actually that crazy.

Fortunately, I’m already paying for Adobe Creative Cloud at $50 USD/month.

I found the pdf splitting interface in the print dialogue (more on that later). However, Adobe Acrobat won’t print to pdf. And, Adobe won’t print to macOS’s print dialogue – trying to do this crashes Adobe Acrobat. Adobe Acrobat would only print to real printers that were connected to my computer, which I couldn’t do because I’m sending pdfs to a print shop via email.


So, I needed to make a virtual printer that showed up in my print dialogue, but actually printed to pdf. I found one called VipRiser. Here’s the virtual printer:

Screenshot 2017-06-28 10.40.15

With VipRiser, you can choose where the pdf goes. I tried setting it to Desktop, and then Downloads, which VipRiser accepted, yet when I tried to print, it would hang for a bit then told me it “couldn’t find the folder”. So, I selected the “Open in Preview” option instead. Then, after the resulting pdf opened, I could save it to the desired location. This yak is a Matryoshka doll.

VipRiser worked fine after that, but it froze if my Mac ever slept. It also hanged for a shockingly long time while printing documents of only a few pages, like 30 seconds.

Now that actually outputting a document is solved, lets go back to the Adobe Acrobat print interface. Under the “Page Size & Handling” Tab, select “Poster” to choose your tiling options.

Screenshot 2017-06-28 00.11.48

On the right side, you can see the dotted lines cut the big single page into 3 pages. However, the top of the first page isn’t aligned with the top of the original page. I couldn’t see how to fix this. I just decided to accept this and hoped it wouldn’t make my application look too weird.

You can see I set the “Tile Scale” to 60%; I found this out manually. Note in the page visualization on the right, it tells you the document size is “8.5 x 33 inches”. If you make the Tile Scale one bigger, to 61%, it changes the page layout so it’s 11 inches wide, ignoring the Orientation setting:

Screenshot 2017-06-28 00.11.58

But then it worked. Holy shit.

I come across these sorts of “I just want to do a simple thing” deep dives more often than I’d like, so I’ve started a new category: yak-shaving posts. If you aren’t familiar with the definition of yak shaving:

[MIT AI Lab, after 2000: orig. probably from a Ren & Stimpy episode.] Any seemingly pointless activity which is actually necessary to solve a problem which solves a problem which, several levels of recursion later, solves the real problem you’re working on.


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2 Responses to Splitting a big, single-page pdf into print-size pages

  1. My research students recently witnessed me shaving the yak and seemed astonished that this behavior exists. I have long since considered it normal, and of course I started from “I just want to do a simple thing” (in my case, run emacs on a chromebook). Thanks for posting this chronicle!

    • dustinfreeman says:

      Glad you read this! Do you mean they were astonished that yak-shaving was required (they must be new!) or the level of persistence you were able to throw at the problem?

      I think one thing I’ve had to learned is that the only solution to many problems is throwing a shocking amount of persistence at them without letting yourself become frustrated. To non-technical folk around you, it can often come off being emotionally robotic, while you’re actually furious. And then, once the difficult process is finished, to be helpful to your org/the world at large, you have to re-examine the process to figure out why it was so arduous, and see if you can improve it for the next person.

      And, not to start a whole thing, but it isn’t just apt-get emacs ?

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