What are the Clojure Tools?

The Clojure Tools are a group of convenience tools which currently consist of:

  • Clojure CLI
  • tools.build

The Clojure Tools. were designed to answer some of the following questions:

  • How do I install Clojure? (Clojure CLI)
  • How do I run a Clojure program? (Clojure CLI)
  • How do I manage Clojure packages (dependencies)? (Clojure CLI)
  • How do I configure a Clojure project? (Clojure CLI)
  • How do I build Clojure for production? (tools.build)

The rest of this post will dig into each of these tools.

Clojure CLI

The Clojure CLI is a CLI program. Here is what it looks like to use the Clojure CLI and some of the things it can do:

Run a Clojure repl


Run a Clojure program

clj -M -m your-clojure-program

manage Clojure dependencies

clj -Sdeps '{:deps {bidi/bidi {:mvn/version "2.1.6"}}}'

Like all Clojure programs, the Clojure CLI is built on a few libraries:

The following sections will provide overviews of each of the above tools.

The Clojure CLI is invoked by calling either clj or clojure shell commands:

# clj
clj -M -m your-clojure-program

# clojure
clojure -M -m your-clojure-program

Under the hood, clj actually calls clojure. The difference is that clj wraps the clojure command with a tool called rlwrap. rlwrap improves the developer experience by making it easier for you, a human, to type in the terminal while you're running your Clojure REPL. However, even though it's easier for you to type, rlwrap can make it hard to compose the clj command with other tools. As a result, it's a common practice to use clojure in production/ci environments . Additionally, not all environments have access to rlwrap so it's another dependency you have to install.

Okay, so they do the same thing. What do they do? clj/clojure has one job: run Clojure programs against a classpath.

The next sections will outline the tools that make up the Clojure CLI tool.


If you dig into the clj/clojure is just a bash script which ultimatley calls a command like this:

java [java-opt*] -cp classpath clojure.main [init-opt*] [main-opt] [arg*]

Thus, the Clojure CLI tool makes it easier to run Clojure programs. It saves you having to type out a gnarly Java command and make it work on different environments (windows, linux, mac etc). However, it orchestrates the building of the classpath by calling out to tools.deps.


tools.deps is a Clojure libary responsible for managing your dependencies. It does the following things:

  • reads in dependencies from a deps.edn file
  • resolves the dependencies and their transitive dependencies
  • builds a classpath

What's interesting about this program is that it's just a Clojure library. This means that you can use it outside of the Clojure CLI.

The other thing that makes tools.deps great is that it's a small and focused library. Why this is great is that if something goes wrong it's easy to read and learn the library in a short period of time.


deps.edn is just an edn file where you configure your project and specify project dependencies. You can think of it like Clojure's version of package.json. The deps.edn file is a Clojure map with a specific structure. Here's an example of some of the properties of a deps.edn file:

{:deps    {...}
 :paths   [...]
 :aliases {...}}

As you can see, we use the keywords :deps, :paths and :aliases and more to start to describe your project and the dependencies it requires.

As we noted above, deps.edn is read in when you run clj/clojure and tells clj/clojure which dependencies are requires to run your project.


tools.build is a Clojure library with functions for building clojure projects. For example, build a jar or uberjar.

The way you would use tools.build is by writing a separate program inside your app which knows how to build your app. The convention is to create a build.clj file in the root of your project. Import tools.build and use the functions provides by tools.build to build your program.

The 3 main types of Clojure programs one might build into 3 sub categories:

  • A tool
  • A library
  • An app

When you run your build.clj file, you will use Clojure CLI's -T switch. The -T switch is meant to run general clojure programs via the Clojure CLI and since build.clj is a separate program, distinct form the app you are writing, you would run it via the -T switch.

You would use -T for Clojure programs that you want to run as a "tool". For example, deps-new is a Clojure library which creates new Clojure projects based on a template you provide. This is a great example of a Clojure project which is built to be a "tool".

I don't want to go into more detail about -T now because that means we would have to dive into other Clojure CLI switches like -X and -M. That's for another post. On to the Installer!


The "Clojure CLI Installer" is a fancy way of referring to the brew tap used to install Clojure on mac and linux machines. As of February 2020, Clojure started maintaining their own brew tap. Thus, if you installed the Clojure CLI via

brew install clojure

you will likely want to uninstall clojure and install the following:

brew install clojure/tools/clojure

In all likelihood, you would probably be fine with brew install clojure as it will recieve updates. However, while brew install clojure will still see some love, it won't be as active as the clojure/tools/clojure tap.

clj v lein v boot

This section will provide a quick comparison of clj, lein and boot.

Firstly, all of the above tools are more or less addressing the same problems in their own way. Your job is to choose the one you like best.

If you're curious which to choose, my answer is the Clojure CLI. The reason I like the Clojure CLI is because the tool is simple. You can read through clj and tools.deps in an afternoon and understand what they are doing. The same (subjectively of course) cannot be said for lein or boot. I will note that Clojure CLI's API is not straightforward and can be confusing.

Secondly, the Clojure Tools promote libraries over frameworks. This is important when working with a language like Clojure because it really does reward you for breaking down your thinking.

Finally, the Clojure community is really leaning into building tools for Clojure CLI. For example, where lein used to have significantly more functionality, the community has built a ton of incredible tools that will cover many of your essential requirements.