10 Books To Learn WordPress Theming From Scratch

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The basics of WordPress are easy enough to learn on your own. You can pick up any free tutorial or video guide and dig into the WordPress dashboard with ease.

But theming is a much deeper subject. This gets into the little details in WordPress’ codex and the PHP functions found in every major WP theme. But even if you don’t know much PHP you can still learn quickly by diving head-first into WordPress theming.

I’ve curated the top 10 best WordPress theming books for study guides and resources. Whether you’re a complete beginner or looking to advance your knowledge I guarantee there’s a book here for you.

Best Choice for Beginners

Absolute beginners just getting into WP theming have a lot to choose from. But if I had to recommend one book it’d be Build Your Own Wicked WordPress Themes. It’s 250 pages of golden info made for beginners who want to reach a practical understanding of WordPress theme development.


Building a WordPress Theme From Scratch: The Basics

If you want a quick and cheap intro to WordPress theming then I’d highly recommend Building a WordPress Theme From Scratch: The Basics.

It’s only 74 pages long but covers all the fundamentals of theming in an easy to read manner. Each chapter guides you through the step-by-step process of converting a design into a working WordPress theme.

You’ll notice the author writes without much technical lingo while still keeping true to the WordPress documentation. Instead you’ll learn the basic concepts of theming in plain English. This will appeal to many developers who simply cannot understand the free yet overly-technical tutorials online.

However this is a beginner’s book and only intended for true beginners. If you’ve already tinkered with themes or built one before then you’ll get nothing from this title.

But if you want to start building WP themes and have no idea where to start then this cheap intro guide might be just what you’re looking for.


WordPress Theme Design

Developers who want a more advanced intro to theming should pick up WordPress Theme Design. It covers everything from a local install of WordPress to the structure and organization of a basic WP theme.

Later chapters get into technical functions, debugging, and launching your theme live on the web.

There is no shortcut to theming and it simply takes time to learn. But this book teaches the absolute best practices you should follow when designing a new WP theme. It’s easy to read and while it is rather technical I still think a newbie could follow along.

You’ll start with the basics of WordPress theming and file configuration, then move into necessary PHP functions for the loop and eventually get into higher-level concepts like custom theme widgets, Ajax forms, and code validation tools.


WordPress Theme Development – Beginner’s Guide

While the previous book WordPress Theme Design is very detailed it can also be rather technical. If you’re looking for a book that targets less technical devs who need an easier introduction to PHP then WordPress Theme Development – Beginner’s Guide is a great choice.

This is also fairly lengthy but it covers more of the fundamentals behind coding a WordPress theme. You’ll learn about HTML/CSS and the basic PHP functions needed for loops and related post content.

You’ll also learn a bit about how themes are structured and extras like widgets & featured images. But this book focuses primarily on coding a new theme or editing an existing one. Best practices are not thrown out the window, but they do not get as much attention as the previous book.

What I like most about this book is the accessibility for new readers. As long as you understand HTML/CSS code then you can pick up this book and should be able to follow along effortlessly.

However if you want a more comprehensive and technical overview to theming I’d recommend WordPress Theme Design instead.


Build Your Own Wicked WordPress Themes

I’ve noticed a lot of fun books published by SitePoint in recent years. They’re all super affordable and full of great tips for developers. Build Your Own Wicked WordPress Themes is yet another example of SitePoint’s incredible content & publishing work.

I’ll admit this book starts slow. It covers the history of WordPress and what it’s used for—probably not valuable to anyone who already knows WordPress and wants to get into theming.

But once you get into the second chapter things pick up quickly. You’ll learn about the basics of grids, the different theme files, how widgets/plugins work, and finally how they all tie together into one WordPress theme.

Each chapter has source code and exercises that teach you how to understand the major points of WordPress theming. You’ll build on top of existing themes and learn how to build your own from scratch. The last chapter even shares tips on documentation, GPL licensing, and how to release your own themes either free or paid.

For the price this is the absolute best WP theming book you’ll find. It caters to newbies but also gets into more intermediate topics later in the book.


Professional WordPress Plugin Development

Themes and plugins are closely interrelated in the WordPress system. They are constructed very differently, but on the backend they can appear like one in the same thing.

Many modern WordPress theme developers bundle custom plugins within their themes so they activate/deactivate along with the theme itself. That’s why Professional WordPress Plugin Development is such a valuable book for theme development.

A plugin is nothing more than a custom series of functions to perform a task. This could add a widget onto the dashboard counting the number of views, or it could add custom social buttons onto your post pages. It can even be incredibly complex like the Yoast SEO plugin often recommended for new WordPress installs.

This book covers the latest APIs in WordPress and teaches you how to properly structure a plugin from scratch. You can add your work into the plugins directory or right into the theme, and this book even teaches you the difference between these two options.

You’ll learn development through real world examples of building plugins that customize user role permissions, create new database tables, and pull data through Ajax requests. The content does get advanced pretty quickly so I recommend having some WordPress theming knowledge before getting into this book.


Professional WordPress: Design and Development

Professional WordPress: Design and Development is currently in its 3rd edition fully updated for WordPress 4.x. You’ll learn all the newest features in WordPress 4, but most of the book centers around real world projects.

This book explores every little detail of WordPress theming from the loop to custom post types, metadata, taxonomies, and even WordPress multisite installations.

Later chapters get into WordPress security and building a custom framework on top of the WordPress core. This is not easy and certainly not viable for every project. But it’s a valuable skill to have in your toolbox.

I’d recommend this book to anyone from a beginner to a more advanced coder. There’s so much to learn about WordPress theming and if you’re looking to increase your knowledge this book has a little something for everyone.


Building Web Apps with WordPress

In just over 450 pages this book teaches you everything there is to know about webapps on WordPress. Most users pick up WordPress as a blogging platform. But in recent years it has grown to allow for so much more functionality.

Building Web Apps with WordPress shares tips for alternative developers who want to use WordPress as more than just a blogging platform. The authors cover native mobile apps, custom features for user roles, 3rd party PHP libraries and data visualization.

This book is not for a complete beginner. It’s meant for a fairly experienced WordPress developer who wants to build something unique on top of WordPress. This could be a custom news site, or a social network, or a Reddit clone, or a web game store.

Exercises in this book teach you how to build features but don’t force you down one single path. You can apply these lessons to any project you build and there’s really no end to the possibilities.

Just make sure you already feel comfortable coding in WordPress before you pick this up.


Building WordPress Themes from Scratch

Anyone looking for a quick and dirty intro to WordPress theme development will enjoy Building WordPress Themes from Scratch.

The book is pretty short and easy to grasp. The author does assume some development knowledge, mostly on the frontend in HTML/CSS but also a bit of PHP. Each chapter delves into a deeper topic related to theming from the individual theme files to custom post types and theme-based plugin development.

I am a tad disappointed with the length of this book. It’s only about 150 pages and unfortunately there are better books that offer greater detail when it comes to theming.

What this book does offer is a quick intro to theming for someone who has never done it before.

It’s not comprehensive but it covers everything you need to know when building a custom theme. And for the price it’s a pretty sweet deal.


WordPress Web Application Development

When you’re ready to move into advanced webapps on WordPress then you’ll absolutely want a copy of this book. WordPress Web Application Development teaches you how to build webapp functionality on top of the WordPress core.

Some topics include custom user roles, permissions, custom profile pages, customizing database tables, building a template loader, customizing the admin toolbar and working with open source JS/PHP libraries.

The book spans 430 pages and it’s truly a monster resource. You should have some experience developing WordPress themes before working through these lessons. But by the end you’ll feel extremely comfortable building secure & scalable webapps on a WordPress foundation.

Because WordPress is a publishing platform it can bloat quickly with lots of excess data. It’s not always the best choice for webapps like social networks, but if properly optimized you can get this to work by following the lessons in this book.


WordPress Plugin Development Cookbook

I’m a huge fan of cookbooks when done correctly. They can offer quick solutions to common problems and teach you a thing or two along the way.

In the WordPress Plugin Development Cookbook you get over 80 unique recipes for building custom plugins from scratch. You’ll learn how to add customization panels to the dashboard, how to build custom widgets, how to queue JS libraries attached to your plugin, and a whole lot more.

Custom post types and custom database tables are covered in great detail. This is truly the most advanced guide to extending your WP themes with internal or external plugins.

You’ll be using most of the same design patterns in all your plugins so the biggest factor is implementation. This cookbook teaches you how to properly structure, build, and organize your plugin code so that it’s secure and functions properly.

Custom development over WordPress is a surprisingly easy topic once you understand the basics. The tricky part is knowing where to get started and how to build custom themes properly from scratch.

If you’re willing to put in some elbow grease I’d recommend either WordPress Theme Design or Build Your Own Wicked WordPress Themes. Both are fantastic choices for beginners and they cover a lot of ground beyond just coding.

Many other books in this post go beyond the basics and they’re perfect for intermediate-to-advanced developers. But regardless of your experience there’s bound to be something in this post to help improve your WP development skills.


Author: Alex Turner

Alex is a fullstack developer with years of experience working in digital agencies and as a freelancer. He writes about educational resources and tools for programmers building the future of the web.