7 Free, Modern Starter Frameworks for WordPress Designers

There are several ways how designers approach the process of creating custom WordPress-based websites and WordPress themes:

  • one can start from scratch, writing the entire code “by hand”. This is the most time-consuming and, to the best of our knowledge, relatively rarely used method,
  • one can take a ready-made WordPress theme (either free or premium) and tweak it until the desired result is reached,
  • or one can use what is called a theme framework to save a significant amount of time which would otherwise be spent on writing and testing the same code base over again.
framework image representing wordpress theme frameworks
Frameworks are not only good for supporting electricity cables..

Theme framework is a fancy word for a starter theme that is based on a solid code foundation that comes with built-in generic features such as starter template files, useful scripts, meaningful css, etc. Building up your WordPress theme or website from a framework is probably the most efficient way of streamlining the development process and ensuring that the end result is stable and resilient.

The latter is true because high-quality frameworks boast optimized and fully standards-compliant PHP, HTML, CSS, and Javascript. Add to it the fact that most of the frameworks mentioned in the below list have either extensive documentation or developed support communities, or both – and it becomes clear why so many developers prefer using theme frameworks in their everyday work.

And there’s a cherry on top of it all: all theme frameworks presented here are absolutely free to use and come under a GPL/BSD license!

But Nothing’s Perfect

Nothing’s perfect, and frameworks have certain cons of their own, the most important one being that once a particular framework is chosen, the developer is confined within its capabilities, and adding certain advanced custom features may become less productive than building everything from scratch.

Another aspect worth noting is the initial time investment required to get to know the ins and outs of the chosen framework (e.g. how functions are added and removed, how layouts are constructed, etc.) – and various platforms can approach the same functionality from very different perspectives! However, the time spent on learning to use a theme framework can be recouped within two to three projects, and provide significant efficiency gains in the long run.

A Rundown of the Frameworks

Below I provide an overview of some of the best free starter frameworks, focusing on features, capabilities, security, and support. The majority of them are, quite expectedly, pretty lightweight, minimalistic, and open-source, which is why the primary goal of this article is to highlight the distinguishing characteristics which could help you to decide which particular platform to use in your work.

I’ve also included a comparison table at the end for a more convenient overview.

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1. Whiteboard

Visit Whiteboard website →

Whiteboard WordPress theme framework

This is one of the oldest WordPress frameworks, which has been prolonging the life of designers around the world since 2008. It boasts a clean, well-structured, as well as standards compliant code base, and offers more dynamic classes and IDs than most other free and commercial frameworks. Whiteboard includes the Less CSS adaptive grid system which allows creating mobile-ready websites in a snap.

Whiteboard features:

  • Widest choice of dynamic classes and IDs
  • HTML5 and CSS3 with seamless degradation
  • Lightweight and well-structured code
  • Supports menu, background, and header management, several widget areas, etc
  • Easy to remove unneeded parts
  • Built-in Less framework for full mobile support
  • Compliant with WordPress development standards
  • Compatible with older ( – Cross-browser compatible
  • Search engine optimized
  • Supports multi-lingual capabilities
  • Open source

Whiteboard weaker points:

  • Available documentation is quite shallow

Especially recommended for:

Experienced ones who like to feel independent.

2. Underscores

Visit Underscores website →

Underscores WordPress theme framework

Based on the popular Toolbox theme, the Underscores, or _s framework is the product of 1000+ hours of testing plus the collective experience of the Automattic team – the guys behind the WordPress software itself. Underscores comes with a multitude of neat features such as sample theme options panel, custom template tags, several pre-formatted layouts, custom header implementation, and useful add-ons called “tweaks” that can be activated easily through the functions.php file.

Underscores features:

  • Backed by the experience of the WordPress creators
  • Minimalist and well-commented templates
  • Standards-compliant HTML5 and CSS3 code
  • Easy to add and remove capabilities
  • Custom header implementation
  • Custom template tags to optimize your code and prevent duplication
  • Sample theme options panel
  • Custom add-on functions, or “tweaks”
  • 5 ready-made CSS-based layouts
  • Mobile-friendly, with smartphone-optimized drop-down menus
  • Open source
  • Theme creator and showcase at Underscores.me

Underscores weaker points:

  • Not recommended to use as a parent theme

Especially recommended for:

Fans of Automattic who like to showcase  their creations

3. Bones

Visit Bones website →

Bones HTML5 framework

This sleek and resilient starter theme is built upon the HTML5 Boilerplate engine which is used by Google, Microsoft, NASA, and many other big fellows. Bones is distinguished by the “mobile-first” approach, which means that devices with smaller screens such as smartphones and tablets are being served only the required minimum, and the content flow is scaled up with the increase in screen size. This can make a huge difference for the mobile users with slower connection speeds, helping you to retain and engage the ever-growing share of the mobile traffic. The theme author offers a great tutorial on TutsPlus on how to get started with Bones.

Bones features:

  • Standards-compliant HTML5 and CSS3
  • Extremely detailed, clean, and well-commented code
  • Mobile-first approach
  • Graceful fallbacks for older browsers
  • Easy to add and remove features
  • WordPress header optimized for speed and performance
  • Supports custom post types
  • Custom dashboard functions included
  • Tuts+ tutorial on working with the theme
  • Open source

Bones weaker points:

  • Not meant for creating child themes
  • Limited support from the authors

Especially recommended for:

Less WordPress-savvy folks with per-project needs.

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4. HTML5Reset

Visit HML5Reset website →

HTML5Reset framework

A clean and simple “no-frills” starter theme, HTML5Reset offers a style-free framework packed with usefulness to help boost the initial phases of the website/theme development process. Apart from the standard HTML5 and CSS3 goodies, it also features jQuery, Modernizr, and built-in Analytics. What you get as a result is a stable, cross-browser-compatible foundation code for your project needs.

HTML5Reset features:

  • Very clean and detailed code, focus on CSS optimization
  • Standards-compliant HTML5 and CSS3
  • Includes Modernizr the library
  • Cross-browser compatible with easy browser-specific classes
  • Complies with hNews microformat
  • Widget-ready

HTML5Reset weaker points:

  • Relatively raw and less-maintained
  • Limited documentation and support

Especially recommended for:

Disciples of minimalism who like to build from the ground up.

5. Gantry

Visit Gantry website →

Gantry WordPress and Joomla framework

Gantry is a freebie by the RocketTheme dev team which consolidates their extensive theme-building experience into a simple yet powerful starter framework. Apart from the other frameworks listed here, Gantry is compatible with Joomla in addition to WordPress, which extends its usefulness beyond the confines of a single CMS.

This is probably one of the most feature-rich free frameworks, boasting a configurable admin interface, dozens of widgets, built-in extendable AJAX, and many more, making it an extremely flexible instrument, ideal for those who want to “push it to the max.”

Last but not least, the RocketTheme website offers a very detailed set of documents and tutorials on Gantry.

Gantry features:

  • Fully responsive based on the 960 Grid system
  • Available for both WordPress and Joomla
  • Well-structured code optimized for speed and performance
  • 38 possible layout combinations
  • Multiple built-in custom widgets
  • Search engine optimized
  • Additional typographical features
  • Browser-level JS and CSS control
  • 1-click automatic updates
  • RTL language support
  • Extensive documentation on the developer’s website
  • Free child theme available

Gantry weaker points:

  • Support forum accessible only to RocketTheme premium subscribers

Especially recommended for:

Daring amateurs who wish to build websites with extended functionality.

6. Hybrid Core and Hybrid

Visit Hybrid website →

Hybrid Core WordPress theme development framework

The Hybrid Core can be proud of much more than just its Starcraft-style name: it is a modular theme development framework consisting of chunks of php code (controlling e.g. layouts, galleries, images, breadcrumbs, pagers, theme settings panels, etc) which allow the developer to pick and quickly incorporate only the desired features. The creators of Hybrid Core have also prepared an advanced starter theme based on the framework, called the Hybrid.

It may not be as feature-rich as some of the other theme frameworks, yet it does have a multitude of styled child themes in case you wish to start moving in a particular direction right away.

Hybrid features:

  • Modular structure for maximum flexibility
  • Supports breadcrumbs, galleries, pagers, drop-down menus, etc
  • Custom theme settings UI
  • Widget-ready, includes 15 custom widgets
  • Easy layout creation and per-post layout control
  • Search engine optimized
  • Translation-ready
  • Offers a wide variety of child themes

Hybrid weaker points:

  • The theme is not responsive (mobile-optimized)
  • Must have paid membership in the Theme Hybrid club for support

Especially recommended for:

Believers in modular approaches to ..uhm.. everything.

7. Ashford

Visit Ashform website →

Ashford WordPress framework

The last theme included in this list is called Ashford, and somewhat unlike the others it is a “freemium” product (i.e. having a free and a premium versions), brought to you by Turtle Interactive. The free version is a CMS framework which enhances the WordPress experience for web developers by adding more features and flexibility compared to the WordPress.org default. The paid plan adds several interesting features such as mega-menus, layout builder, and mobile support. Since other theme frameworks offer some of the above for free, Ashford can be recommended for those who can really utilize all its premium features.

Ashford features:

  • CMS framework enhancing the generic WordPress core
  • 33 customizable theme options
  • 18 custom page templates
  • Focus on page load speed
  • Widget-ready
  • Advanced blogging features including social sharing, related posts, RSS comments
  • Search engine optimized

Ashford weaker points:

  • Certain features such as mega menus and mobile support available only in the paid Pro version

Especially recommended for:

Those who are ready to pay for the Pro version.

Comparison Summary

Framework Whiteboard Underscores Bones HTML5Reset Gantry Hybrid Ashford
License GPL GPL WTFPL BSD GPL GPL GPL
Open source? Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes No
Pricing Free Free Free Free Free Free Freemium
Documentation Basic Basic Detailed Basic Detailed Detailed Detailed
Support Limited Limited Limited Offered Offered Offered to club members Offered for Pro
Child themes Not included No No Not included Not included Available Included in Pro
HTML5 Yes Yes Yes Duh! Yes No No
Mobile-friendly Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No Only Pro
Maintained? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

Conclusion

I have provided an overview of the seven most widely used free theme frameworks to speed up custom WordPress website and theme development. Given that all of them are free, developers gain savings both in terms of time and money, and receive the possibility to leverage their everyday work on the effort and expertise that have been put into creating these handy tools. The preference towards a particular platform is often driven by relatively subtle things like the desired level of CSS granularity or the approach to adding and removing new functions.

On a very general level, however, the best piece of advice is probably to try to match the complexity level of the framework with the requirements of the present and possible future projects. Just to give a couple of examples: in case you need a foundation to create websites for individuals and small businesses, themes like Bones and HTML5Reset would be a sensible choice; if, however, you are planning to build a complex WordPress theme for someone or (especially) for resale, you’ll find Gantry, Hybrid, and Whiteboard as more valid alternatives.

As a matter of disclosure, I am personally using Whiteboard in my work, mostly because it strikes a decent balance between being lightweight and offering all required features to suit my needs (I design and sell premium themes under the Satori Studio brand) – but maybe also because I never felt an urge to shift after having spent my time on getting to know it.

As with anything, each of the theme frameworks listed here has its own drawbacks, yet also something great and unique to offer – the ultimate choice is yours!

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The metal framework image is courtesy of TschiAe on Flickr.

Comments (31)

    • Hey Nick!
      As far as I could understand from their website, Artisteer is not a free framework – you can download a demo, yet eventually you’ll need to create a paid subscription in order to retain functionality. Also, after trying out the demo I’d classify it as a website builder (similar to Wix, Squarespace, etc) and not a full-fledged framework.

    • I somehow missed the fact that Zurb made a WordPress framework based on its foundation (my bad) – so thanks for the tip, I’ll try out the theme and include it into the second part of the review!

      You’re right about the HTML5Reset WP theme, it seems that it’s not actively updated anymore – however, the Framework itself is being maintained and is up to date.

  1. I think you may be a bit confused about Hybrid. There are two components, The framework (Hybrid Core) then the themes that use that frame work (which there are a ton of both inside and outside of the main site)

    The Hybrid Theme that you mention in the post as not being HTML5 or responsive is one of the first themes that used the Hybrid Core framework and has since been depreciated of sorts. There are many other themes that use the framework that meet this criteria.

    Bottom line, Hybrid Core NOT a theme. Hybrid Theme IS a theme just a bit outdated and it’s recommended using a newer Hybrid Core based theme.

    • Thank you for the remarks!
      I must note that I do undestand the difference between Hybrid Core and the derivative Hybrid Theme, it might be that I didn’t make the difference clear enough in the article. I’ll revise it.

      Of the Core-based themes, the Hybrid Base (http://themehybrid.com/themes/hybrid-base) looks like an interesting starter theme candidate (more features than the Hybrid, including responsiveness) – do you think it might be more sensible to replace Hybrid Theme with this one in the article?

      • “…Hybrid Base looks like an interesting starter theme candidate – do you think it might be more sensible to replace Hybrid Theme with this one in the article?”

        This is a tricky question, there has been much developement in the Hybrid Community as far as starter themes and responsiveness. Hybrid Base is more like _underscores with no css and very basic. Shell is the responsive version of Prototype, which in some ways replaced the orginal Hybrid theme, is another good place to start . Lastly, Seamless is a starter theme that is more like Twenty-Twelve with many base style elements already styled.

        So I guess it depends on what level of customization the user is looking for on which of these they should choose.

    • Dear Connie,

      thank you for the suggestion!

      Suffusion could probably not be classified as a “starter framework” or a “starter theme” because, despite its many functions, it has quite some styling already in place and does not facilitate new theme/custom website design in any way that would be different from any other free theme in the WordPress.org repository (or any premium theme on ThemeForest, for that matter).

      Best,
      Andrew

  2. Nice article thanks. I’ve always started with the basic WordPress themes when building out sites. Twenty twelve and twenty thirteen have a lot of built in functionality without all the weight of some frameworks. Do you think using one of the frameworks you discussed offers much more as a starting point that make them worth considering? Which do you feel offers the best mobile experience?

    • Thanks Tom!

      As mentioned in the text, frameworks are technically also themes. To me, the biggest advantages of the former are additional features that are not present in Automattic’s default themes (e.g. page layout templates), modular structure, easy expandability, and “stylelessness”. Elaborating on the last point – Twenty Eleven or Twenty Twelve may indeed be convenient starting points for some projects, yet they still possess styling (e.g. gradient dark-gray menus in Twenty Eleven) most of which might not be needed for development purposes and thus might need to be removed time and again.

      To answer your second question: I would recommend taking a look at Bones in terms of the mobile experience – this framework was developed based on the “mobile-first” philosophy.

      Best,
      A.

  3. Hello,
    Sorry if this is not the right forum but I’m looking for some advice/opinions.

    I am on day 3 of trying to figure out WordPress. I have three websites designed in CoffeeCup Visual Site Designer I would like to transfer to WordPress, but I’m confused about whether i need a framework or not. I don’t have coding experience other than a 3 months web design class I took 4 years ago, but I’m pretty sure I can figure anything out with the right set of video tutorials : ). I thought I would use WhiteBoard because it is free, but their videos are not free and it’s not even clear to me if the LifeGuard videos are specifically for WhiteBoard or just WordPress in general. I really don’t mind taking the time to learn if it will be better in the long run, but I’m kind of discouraged because after activating WhiteBoard I don’t see in the Dashboard where to changes the CSS or even how to make the layout wider.
    I’m not a developer and I have no plans of designing sites professionally, so do I really need to learn a framework or could I just use Twenty Twelve? And if I do that is creating a child theme recommended? This is my current site to give you an idea of what I’m looking to create: naturalbeginningsnj.com I’m switching to WP because we want to incorporate a blog, ecommerce, and CoffeeCup does not work from my Mac.

    Thanks to any who respond!

    • Hey PeacefulPlaces!

      As far as I understood, you are fairly unfamiliar with WordPress and do not plan to design the website from scratch – in this case a much more efficient solution would be to use a decent WordPress theme, e.g. from Themeforest, which fits your design preferences and supports the required functions. Frameworks described here are intended primarily for designers and developers who wish to create websites for clients or create their own WordPress themes.

      Best,
      Andrew

  4. HI Andrew, what is your recommendation for a newbie like me for building a WordPress theme based on that frameworks?

    I am a programmer too, but I usually handling ASP.NET (C#).

  5. Hi,
    I installed whiteboard framework and I see that theme is Wp changed, but I expected that in main menu will apear whiteboard menu that allows me to change easily this theme. But there isn’t nothing. I didn’t find any video tutorial that shows what to do next with this framework after installing.
    So Andrew could you take a couple of PrtSc and explain how to work with this framework.

    • Hey Zalo_j,

      as mentioned in the description of the framework and in the summary table at the end of the article, Whiteboard has a rather basic and shallow documentation, which implies that it is meant for people with WordPress experience who work directly with the code (in fact all of the frameworks do, to some extent). In case you’re looking for more detailed documentation, you can try Bones or Gantry as a starting point.

      Cheers,
      A.

  6. Hey Andrew.

    Great list. I’ve been using Bones for quite some time and definitely fancy a change so will hit Whiteboard up. Bones was by far the best annotated framework I have used in a while and has really help me advance, now I’m after speed and cleanliness and ideally some kind of support.

    Cheers,

    Tom

  7. A very interesting and useful article for web designers, also for general users! A thorough report of the free WordPress Framework is a lot beneficial for me to create stylish and professional web pages. Currently, I am using another WordPress theme framework – Template Toaster. This is quite helpful to style impressive websites without costing me much.

    Here is its link, http://templatetoaster.com/wordpress-theme-framework

    You can also add this to your best WordPress theme framework list. It is really amazing to use. Abundance of features makes it my preferred choice.

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