Properties are key-value pairs where Apache Ant tries to expand ${key} to value at run time.

There are many tasks that can set properties; the most common one is the property task. In addition properties can be defined via command line arguments or similar mechanisms from outside of Ant.

Normally property values can not be changed: once a property is set, most tasks will not allow its value to be modified. In general properties are of global scope, i.e., once they have been defined they are available for any task or target invoked subsequently—it is not possible to set a property in a child build process created via the ant, antcall or subant tasks and make it available to the calling build process, though.

Since Ant 1.8.0 the local task can be used to create properties that are locally scoped to a target or a sequential element like the one of the macrodef task.

Built-in Properties

Ant provides access to all system properties as if they had been defined using a <property> task. For example, ${} expands to the name of the operating system.

For a list of system properties, see the javadoc of System.getProperties.

In addition, Ant has some built-in properties:

the absolute path of the project's basedir (as set with the basedir attribute of <project>).
the absolute path of the buildfile.
the version of Ant
the name of the project that is currently executing; it is set in the name attribute of <project>.
the name of the currently executing project's default target; it is set via the default attribute of <project>.
a comma-separated list of the targets that have been specified (on the command line, inside of an IDE, by an <ant> task, etc...) when invoking the current project.
This property is set properly when the first target is executed. If you use it in the implicit target (directly under the <project> tag) the list will be empty if no target has been specified while it will contain the project's default target in this case for tasks nested into targets.
the JVM version Ant detected; currently it can hold the values 9, 1.8, 1.7, 1.6, 1.5, 1.4, 1.3 and 1.2.
the absolute path of the ant.jar file.

There is also another property, but this is set by the launcher script and therefore maybe not set inside IDEs:

home directory of Ant

The following property is only set if Ant is started via the Launcher class (which means it may not be set inside IDEs either):

the directory that has been used to load Ant's jars from. In most cases this is ANT_HOME/lib.


Ant's property handling is accomplished by an instance of associated with the current Project. You can learn more about this class by examining Ant's Java API. In Ant 1.8 the PropertyHelper class was much reworked and now itself employs a number of helper classes (actually instances of the$Delegate marker interface) to take care of discrete tasks such as property setting, retrieval, parsing, etc. This makes Ant's property handling highly extensible; also of interest is the new propertyhelper task used to manipulate the PropertyHelper and its delegates from the context of the Ant buildfile.

There are three sub-interfaces of Delegate that may be useful to implement:

The default PropertyExpander looks similar to:

public class DefaultExpander implements PropertyExpander {
    public String parsePropertyName(String s, ParsePosition pos,
                                    ParseNextProperty notUsed) {
        int index = pos.getIndex();
        if (s.indexOf("${", index) == index) {
            int end = s.indexOf('}', index);
            if (end < 0) {
                throw new BuildException("Syntax error in property: " + s);
            int start = index + 2;
            pos.setIndex(end + 1);
            return s.substring(start, end);
        return null;

The logic that replaces ${toString:some-id} with the stringified representation of the object with id some-id inside the current build is contained in a PropertyEvaluator similar to the following code:

public class ToStringEvaluator implements PropertyHelper.PropertyEvaluator {
    private static final String prefix = "toString:";
    public Object evaluate(String property, PropertyHelper propertyHelper) {
        Object o = null;
        if (property.startsWith(prefix) && propertyHelper.getProject() != null) {
            o = propertyHelper.getProject().getReference(
        return o == null ? null : o.toString();

Property Expansion

When Ant encounters a construct ${some-text} the exact parsing semantics are subject to the configured property helper delegates.

$$ Expansion

In its default configuration Ant will expand the text $$ to a single $ and suppress the normal property expansion mechanism for the text immediately following it, i.e., $${key} expands to ${key} and not value even though a property named key was defined and had the value value. This can be used to escape literal $ characters and is useful in constructs that only look like property expansions or when you want to provide diagnostic output like in


which will echo this message:


if the property builddir has the value build/classes.

In order to maintain backward compatibility with older Ant releases, a single $ character encountered apart from a property-like construct (including a matched pair of french braces) will be interpreted literally, that is, as $. The "correct" way to specify this literal character, however, is by using the escaping mechanism unconditionally, so that $$ is obtained by specifying $$$$. Mixing the two approaches yields unpredictable results, as $$$ results in $$.

Nesting of Braces

In its default configuration Ant will not try to balance braces in property expansions, it will only consume the text up to the first closing brace when creating a property name. I.e. when expanding something like ${a${b}} it will be translated into two parts:

  1. the expansion of property a${b—likely nothing useful.
  2. the literal text } resulting from the second closing brace

This means you can't use easily expand properties whose names are stored in properties, but there are some workarounds for older versions of Ant. Since Ant 1.8.0 using the props Antlib you can configure Ant to use the NestedPropertyExpander defined there if you need such a feature.

Expanding a Property Reference

In its most simple form ${key} is supposed to look up a property named key and expand to the value of the property. Additional PropertyEvaluators may result in a different interpretation of key, though.

The props Antlib provides a few interesting evaluators but there are also a few built-in ones.

Getting the value of a Reference with ${toString:}

Any Ant type item which has been declared with a reference can also its string value extracted by using the ${toString:} operation, with the name of the reference listed after the toString: text. The toString() method of the Java class instance that is referenced is invoked—all built in types strive to produce useful and relevant output in such an instance.

For example, here is how to get a listing of the files in a fileset:

<fileset id="sourcefiles" dir="src" includes="**/*.java"/>
<echo> sourcefiles = ${toString:sourcefiles} </echo>

There is no guarantee that external types provide meaningful information in such a situation

Getting the value of a Reference with ${ant.refid:}

Any Ant type item which has been declared with a reference can also be used as a property by using the ${ant.refid:} operation, with the name of the reference listed after the ant.refid: text. The difference between this operation and ${toString:} is that ${ant.refid:} will expand to the referenced object itself. In most circumstances the toString() method will be invoked anyway, for example if the ${ant.refid:} is surrounded by other text.

This syntax is most useful when using a task with attribute setters that accept objects other than String. For example, if the setter accepts a Resource object as in

public void setAttr(Resource r) { ... }

then the syntax can be used to pass in resource subclasses previously defined as references like

<url url="" id="anturl"/>
<my:task attr="${ant.refid:anturl}"/>

If/Unless Attributes

The <target> element and various tasks (such as <fail>) and task elements (such as <test> in <junit>) support if and unless attributes which can be used to control whether the item is run or otherwise takes effect.

In Ant 1.7.1 and earlier, these attributes could only be property names. The item was enabled if a property with that name was defined—even to be the empty string or false—and disabled if the property was not defined. For example, the following works but there is no way to override the file existence check negatively (only positively):

<target name="-check-use-file">
    <available property="file.exists" file="some-file"/>
<target name="use-file" depends="-check-use-file" if="file.exists">
    <!-- do something requiring that file... -->
<target name="lots-of-stuff" depends="use-file,other-unconditional-stuff"/>

Since Ant 1.8.0, you may instead use property expansion; a value of true (or on or yes) will enable the item, while false (or off or no) will disable it. Other values are still assumed to be property names and so the item is enabled only if the named property is defined.

Compared to the older style, this gives you additional flexibility, because you can override the condition from the command line or parent scripts:

<target name="-check-use-file" unless="file.exists">
    <available property="file.exists" file="some-file"/>
<target name="use-file" depends="-check-use-file" if="${file.exists}">
    <!-- do something requiring that file... -->
<target name="lots-of-stuff" depends="use-file,other-unconditional-stuff"/>

Now ant -Dfile.exists=false lots-of-stuff will run other-unconditional-stuff but not use-file, as you might expect, and you can disable the condition from another script too:

<antcall target="lots-of-stuff">
    <param name="file.exists" value="false"/>

Similarly, an unless attribute disables the item if it is either the name of property which is defined, or if it evaluates to a true-like value. For example, the following allows you to define skip.printing.message=true in with the results you might expect:

<property file=""/>
<target name="print-message" unless="${skip.printing.message}">