Webpack 4 from absolute scratch

Jon Preece

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Dec 31, 2018 · 5 minute read

Writing your own Webpack 4 configuration from absolute scratch is not strictly necessary. You could go online, find a basic Webpack configuration file and fork it/copy it to your project and use that as your starting point.

Whilst using a starter project is good for getting started quickly, it is better to have a more indepth understanding of what is happening, to help with customisations and debugging later.

We will configure Webpack to do the following;

  • Build our JavaScript, use Babel and various plugins to allow us to use the latest language features whilst maintaining backwards compatibility
  • Enable hot module reloading (HMR)
  • Build other assets such as SCSS and images

Set up a simple Webpack project from scratch

Create a new folder called webpack-4-react-from-scratch and run git init && npm init -y to add Git support and create a package.json file with all the defaults, then open your favourite code editor in the folder just created.

Run the following command in your terminal to install Webpack and associated tools;

npm install --save-dev webpack webpack-cli webpack-dev-server

Add a .gitignore file with the following lines;


Then create a Webpack configuration file, called webpack.config.js. We do not need any config yet.

Add the following code;

module.exports = {}

We will utilise Webpack’s defaults where possible. By default, Webpack will look for our code under a folder called src, so here we should have a file called index.js. Go ahead and create that.

Add the following line of JavaScript;

console.log('Hello, World!')

Finally, add the following build NPM script to your package.json;

"build": "webpack --config ./webpack.config.js"

Now run the following command;

npm run build && node ./dist/main.js

Assuming all is working well, you should notice that a new directory is created (called dist) and a new bundle called main.js. The second command in the script above runs that code, which writes Hello, World! to the console.

This is our project so far;

Webpack 4 initial setup

Let’s move on.

Configure Webpack to compile ES6+ code using Babel

Currently Webpack is not doing much for us. It takes our code and bundles it, then outputs it to a single file. I personally dream of a world where this just works and no further configuration is needed. Alas, that is not currently the case, we must use Babel to make this happen for us.

We need Babel to take our nice shiny ES6+ code and make it work well in all browsers. An added benefit of using a transpiler like Babel is that we can also configure it to support language features that are not currently standardised or supported by all browsers.

Add the following packages using this command;

npm install --save-dev @babel/core @babel/preset-env @babel/preset-react babel-loader

What are these packages for?

  • @babel/core is the Babel compiler core.
  • @babel/preset-env is a preset that allows you to use the latest JavaScript without needing to worry about what transformations/polyfills are needed for browser support.
  • @babel/preset-react is a wrapper around several transformations that enable JSX support and more.
  • babel-loader is a plugin for Webpack. We will need to instruct Webpack to use Babel shortly.

Flip back to webpack.config.js and update to the following;

module.exports = {
  module: {
    rules: [
        test: /\.jsx?$/,
        loader: 'babel-loader',
        exclude: /node_modules/
  resolve: {
    extensions: ['.js', '.jsx']

Here we have added a module rule. There can be many rules. Each rule is run by Webpack for every file that it encounters in our project. As part of the rule, we have provided a test, which is a regular expression. The regular expression is simple. If the file has a .js or .jsx file extension, it will be processed using the given loader, which here is babel-loader. As all the code in node_modules is not part of our project (and usually pre-compiled) we do not need to do that here, so we exclude that project and tell Webpack not to process any files within.

We need to tell Babel (via babel-loader) to use our presets. Create a new file called .babelrc and add the following code;

  "presets": ["@babel/preset-env", "@babel/preset-react"]

When Babel runs, it will look for .babelrc and use the presets automatically.

Note: We have added resolve, with an extensions array with JS and JSX file extensions. I have added this here because it will clean up our imports in our JavaScript files, meaning we will not have to include the extension as part of the import. This is strictly not necessary but I always like to have tidy code when possible.

With resolve > extensions, this;

import frank from './frank.js'


import frank from './frank'

Neater huh?

Update your index.js as follows;

const obj = {
  hello: 'World'

const { hello } = obj


So much ES6 code here. We have used const and we have also used destructuring.

Run the following command in your console;

npm run build -- --mode development && node ./dist/main.js

This will prevent the bundle from being minifed so we can see it properly. Open main.js (in the dist folder) and observe the code as shown (which should be somewhere near the bottom);

  'var obj = {\n  hello: "World"\n};\nvar hello = obj.hello;\nconsole.log(hello);\n\n//# sourceURL=webpack:///./src/index.js?'

Notice that const and our destructuring have disappeared, and has been rewritten in ES5 compatible language, so we know Babel is working.

Observe the output from the script we just ran, notice that World has been written out to the console!

Congratulations, you have written your first, albeit basic, Webpack configuration file. Subsequent posts will discuss how to flesh this out and get all the pieces in place to enable us to build and deploy a serious React single page application (SPA).


We have built a very simple Webpack configuration file that when ran takes our ES6 code, transpiles it to ES5, bundles it, and outputs it to disk. Subsequent posts will discuss how to add all the pieces to build a serious React single page application (SPA).


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Jon Preece

About the author

I am Jon Preece, an experienced full stack website and software developer from Warrington (UK) currently working in and around Manchester (UK).

Throughout my 10+ year professional career I have worked in many sectors, including; e-commerce, financial services, marketing, healthcare, travel and accountancy.

I love to teach, I love to learn and share my knowledge with others, I love to speak at public events.