Making UIToolbar and UINavigationBar’s background totally transparent

I have an upcoming iPhone application, Cartographer, that is highly stylised and requires high customisation of the interface to achieve a convincing, beautiful vintage look. To make it work, I needed transparent toolbars and navigation bars for my UIViewController-based views.

The solution I came up with for this was to implement a category on UINavigationBar and UIToolbar, and overriding drawRect: with a method that does absolutely nothing. Then I can place my own textures behind the bar, and they’ll be seen, instead of the default bar background.

@interface UINavigationBar (TransparentAdditions)
@implementation UINavigationBar (TransparentAdditions)
- (void)drawRect:(CGRect)rect {
    // Do nothing!

For UIToolBar, if you’re using it within a UINavigationController, you’ll want to also override drawLayer:inContext:, as this appears to be used instead of drawRect: when used within a navigation controller, for some weird reason.

Note that this method will affect all bars in your app. If you only want some bars to be transparent, you’ll need to do a little objc-hocus-pocus. Thanks to Mike Ash for this solution on method replacement (read that article for the whys and hows). This technique replaces the default methods as before, but keeps track of the defaults. If you now set the tintColor of the bar to [UIColor clearColor], the bar will have a transparent background. Otherwise, it’ll just look the same as usual.

For UIToolbar (same principle for UINavigationBar):

#import <objc/runtime.h>
// Keep track of default implementation
static void (*_origDrawRect)(id, SEL, CGRect);
static void (*_origDrawLayerInContext)(id, SEL, CALayer*, CGContextRef);
// Override for drawRect:
static void OverrideDrawRect(UIToolbar *self, SEL _cmd, CGRect r) {
    if ( [[self tintColor] isEqual:[UIColor clearColor]] ) {
        // Do nothing
    } else {
        // Call default method
        _origDrawRect(self, _cmd, r);
// Override for drawLayer:inContext:
static void OverrideDrawLayerInContext(UIToolbar *self, SEL _cmd, CALayer *layer, CGContextRef context) {
    if ( [[self tintColor] isEqual:[UIColor clearColor]] ) {
        // Do nothing
    } else {
        // Call default method
        _origDrawLayerInContext(self, _cmd, layer, context);
@implementation UIToolbar (TransparentAdditions)
+ (void)load {
    // Replace methods, keeping originals
    Method origMethod = class_getInstanceMethod(self, @selector(drawRect:));
    _origDrawRect = (void *)method_getImplementation(origMethod);
    if(!class_addMethod(self, @selector(drawRect:), (IMP)OverrideDrawRect, method_getTypeEncoding(origMethod)))
        method_setImplementation(origMethod, (IMP)OverrideDrawRect);
    origMethod = class_getInstanceMethod(self, @selector(drawLayer:inContext:));
    _origDrawLayerInContext = (void *)method_getImplementation(origMethod);
    if(!class_addMethod(self, @selector(drawLayer:inContext:), (IMP)OverrideDrawLayerInContext, method_getTypeEncoding(origMethod)))
        method_setImplementation(origMethod, (IMP)OverrideDrawLayerInContext);

You can now add background texture to the bars in a number of ways. These are two I’ve used:

  • By adding a CALayer to [bar layer] — but note that UINavigationBar will try to add elements at index 0, underneath your background. To make this work, I provided a subclassed CALayer (and overrode UINavigationBar’s +layer method) which only lets you insert layers at index 0, via a custom method, and override insertLayer:atIndex: method, setting index to 1 if it’s 0. UIToolbar doesn’t require this.
  • Or, by adding a CALayer to your view layer. Note that the view’s bounds do not cover the UINavigationBar; I had to offset the layer by the height of the bar in question (navigationBarLayer.frame = CGRectMake(0, -self.navigationController.navigationBar.frame.size.height, [barImage size].width, [barImage size].height);, for example), and set self.view.clipsToBounds = NO to allow the layer to be seen.

Of course, you can also draw the texture in drawRect:, instead. It’s entirely up to you. The advantage in using a CALayer is that it can overlap the view boundary, for effects like drop shadows.


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  1. ArtOflex
    Posted September 23, 2010 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    Awesome, I search a technique to customize the buttons and UINavigationBar but in vain ! I’m newbies in Objective-C and XCode, could you please provide me a source code of this technique ? If you want I am a GUI designer, we could share our knowledge?

  2. Posted October 13, 2010 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Is this allowed in the App Store?

    • Posted October 13, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      I can’t imagine why not – it doesn’t use any private libraries, so it should be perfectly legal

      • Matthew
        Posted October 11, 2011 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

        This used to work xcode in 4.1 but in xcode 4.2, it doesnt make it transparent anymore. Any ideas?

        @interface UIToolbar (TransparentAdditions)@end @implementation UIToolbar (TransparentAdditions)

        • (void)OverrideDrawRect:(CGRect)rect { // Do nothing! }

        • (void)OverrideDrawLayer:(CALayer *)layer inContext:(CGContextRef)ctx {

          // Do nothing }

        • Posted October 12, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

          I noticed that, too, but haven’t had time to look into it yet. I’d love to hear if you find a solution. I’ll update this post if I find it first, though.

          • Thomas
            Posted October 30, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink

            It seems that the condition in if(!class_addMethod(self, @selector(drawLayer:inContext:), (IMP)OverrideDrawLayerInContext, method_getTypeEncoding(origMethod))) method_setImplementation(origMethod, (IMP)OverrideDrawLayerInContext); evaluates to false, so OverrideDrawLayerInContext never gets called.

  3. ArtOflex
    Posted October 23, 2010 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    how did you create your buttons like the picture please?

    • Posted October 23, 2010 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

      That’s a UIButton within a UIBarButtonItem

      • yama
        Posted January 18, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        Can you please elaborate your answer? Actually I need to implement something like this only. So was in need of some solutions. Can you tell me,how to add toolbar item at the bottom line in the uitoolbar and not in the middle?

  4. seary
    Posted November 9, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    thank you so much~~

  5. Andy
    Posted December 13, 2010 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Method swizzling on UIKit classes (or any class you don’t own the implementation of ) is highly, strongly, extremely discouraged. Not by me – by ex-Apple luminaries such as Matt Drance and Evan Doll. You app WILL break with new versions of the OS.

    • Posted December 13, 2010 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      It certainly doesn’t seem like something one should typically do – but is there any realistic alternative? Aside from writing our own UIKit, that is ;-)

  6. Robert
    Posted July 15, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    Why not use inheritance to override the methods you want to replace on these classes? Replacing these methods with categories or method swizzling seems pretty dangerous and unnecessary…

    • Posted July 15, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

      Hi Robert,

      I’m afraid this is stretching my memory, now, but I do remember there were several issues with subclassing instead that turned out to be insurmountable. One of them was that there’s no way to provide UINavigationController with a custom UINavigationBar aside from within Interface Builder, and I’m not sure there’s any way to provide a custom UIToolBar. There were some more problems, but I can’t for the life of me remember what they were – I really should’ve documented them here, but I didn’t. Bad me.

      Still, if you do (or have done) this successfully, I’d love to hear it.

  7. Dave
    Posted September 16, 2011 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Very nice example how to legally change framework defaults. I guess this would be the way to turn off default Google Maps in MapKit and replace it with OSM. the question is how much time this would take to correclty find out how :) thanks for inspiration. Do you turn off Google Maps in Cartographer when you use OSM ?

    • Posted September 16, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Permalink

      Hi Dave,

      Actually, no, this approach would not work with something as complex as changing MapKit tile sources (essentially reimplementing MapKit). The Cartographer (and, as far as I know, most any other app that uses alternative tile sources) uses the Route Me library.

      • Dave
        Posted September 16, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

        thanks,but route me can’t use goole maps legally, right?

  8. Dave
    Posted September 16, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    in mapkit there is just mktilemap view with draw as well, i am able to switch off base maps using undocumenetd func.

  9. Thomas
    Posted October 30, 2011 at 7:27 am | Permalink

    In iOS 5 Apple introduced some methods to customize the toolbar, in particular [toolbar setBackgroundImage:[[[UIImage alloc]init]autorelease] forToolbarPosition:UIToolbarPositionAny barMetrics:UIBarMetricsDefault]; does the trick.

    • Posted November 4, 2011 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

      Cheers, Thomas – this is definitely the best solution. When used in conjunction with the method mentioned on this page (with a check for iOS version), it works great for both 5.0 and pre-5.0.

  10. Sonny Parlin
    Posted November 7, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

    Can you tell me what the correct image resolutions are for navigation bar backgrounds? I’ve found the resoutions for pretty much all the other elements on Apple’s Custom Icon and Image Creation Guidelines page, but I couldn’t seem to find anything for pixel sizes on navigation bar background images.

  11. Posted December 11, 2011 at 1:57 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the thorough article. I’m using this technique now, but you mentioned that one of the advantages of adding CALayer to the view layer is that you can apply drop shadows. This is true, but I find that on scrollable views, what’s supposed to be the nav bar layer actually scrolls with the rest of the view. How do you handle that?

    • Posted December 11, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      That’s odd, Daniel – are you sure you’re adding the CALayer as a sublayer of the navigation bar’s layer? It’ll only scroll with the scroll view if it’s a subview of the scroll view, which it shouldn’t be.

      • Posted December 11, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

        I added it to the view’s layer so I could apply a nice drop shadow gradient underneath. The controller’s view is actually a UITableView, so I was able to override layoutSubviews and use CATransaction to keep the background at the top. Sweet solution for what I’m up to. Thanks for the tips,

  12. enrico
    Posted December 14, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    form what I understood it’s highly discouraged to act like this because at run time you are not sure about which method is called. A part of this thanks for the article, I’m trying to do pretty much the same thing. I need to animate my UINavigationBar between two colors, I thought the best way is to work with CALayer animation but I can get it done. Good article anyway a bit complex but interesting way of doing this, did your application never crash?


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