Exclude Sub-Directories while Copying (cp) Files / Directory using tar

I recently had the need to copy a directory to another portion of the file system, but wanted to skip some sub-directories. Normally what one would do is just copy the whole directory and delete the sub-directories that you don’t want after the copy operation has completed (and not make a big deal about it). However that wasn’t feasible this time, because each of these sub-directories had GBs of data and I did not have enough disk space to accomodate those extra files. I went through the cp man page and did a few google searches but did not find anything that would work for me. However I realized that I had just used the “exclude” feature of tar a few days back which lets you skip portions of a directory while tarring and I knew tar could be used to copy over files as well (tar pipe). So thats what I did.

Lets say you have a directory structure like the one below. Main directory test1 with few files and few sub-directories and the sub-directories also have one file each.

@tmp $  ls test1 -R
a  a.html  b  b.html  c  c.html  d





Now you want everything to be copied over to a test2 directory except for the sub-directories a and b

So first go ahead and create your test2 directory.

mkdir /tmp/test2

Now the commands to copy over the required files would be

cd /tmp/test1
tar -Sc . --exclude a --exclude b  | tar -C /tmp/test2 -xv

This will tar up your directory while excluding the two subdirectories a and b and pipe it to the second tar command while will untar it into the desired directory

After the copy is done, the directory tree of test2 is:

@tmp $  ls -R test2/
a.html  b.html  c.html  d


So we can see that the directories a and b haven’t been copied over.

It sounds like a very simple problem, and cp should ideally have the --exclude feature that tar does.

About Pratik Sinha

Linux Nerd, Socialist, Atheist, Adventuristic, Nature Lover, Geeky.


  1. You can simplify a little by being in the destination directory and issuing:

    (cd /srcdir;tar cvf – . –exclude a –exclude b)|tar xf –

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