The Best Starter Themes for WordPress

Published in WordPress.

An interesting way to make a living out of WordPress is to develop and sell themes. If you’re thinking of taking the lead in this niche market, make sure you have the know-how and you’re ready, so that you don’t reinvent the wheel and maximize your profits. The first thing you should know is that all WordPress themes follow a similar structure and hierarchy of files and templates. For this reason, today we can find base themes so that we do not have to start our developments from scratch. It’s what we usually know as starter themes.

Unlike theme frameworks (Genesis, Divi, and many others) or other complex themes, it’s not necessary to create a child theme from a starter theme to start working on it. What you do is to take the starter theme and start editing it directly. It’s the same thing you did with the boilerplate plugin, as my colleague David explained here.

If you didn’t know what a starter theme is, here is a list with the most popular starter themes for WordPress. Now you’ll have no excuse not to start to build your WordPress themes (almost from scratch). Come on, download and play!

Underscores

Underscores (_s), a starter theme from Automattic.
Underscores (_s), a starter theme from Automattic(web, GitHub).

Among the starter themes that exist for WordPress the most popular is Underscores, also known as _s. You may have expected that, as it’s been made by Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com and owned by Matt Mullenweg. But Underscores is more than that; it’s also known for its simplicity, versatility, and good organization.

If you want to learn how to correctly structure the files that are part of a WordPress theme, Underscores is clearly the “official” proposal to follow. Of course, keep in mind that if you install it in your WordPress you won’t see anything “pretty”. And this is so because the theme comes practically without CSS styles, something that you’ll need to configure yourself.

Here you can see the single.php of Underscores (_s).
Here you can see the single.php of Underscores (_s).

Underscores being that basic may be very interesting for designers who want to make lots of modifications, since they have a free way to do it. They won’t face any major obstacle on this. However, it’s possible that others see Underscores as something too empty and prefer other alternatives.

Regardless of the needs you have, taking a look at Underscores’ structure and code is something we should all do to better understand how a well-programmed WordPress theme works.

UnderStrap

UnderStrap, a starter theme that combines Underscores and Bootstrap.
UnderStrap, a starter theme that combines Underscores and Bootstrap (web, GitHub).

If you think Underscores is too basic for you or you’re going to need a lot more power, an interesting option is UnderStrap. This theme combines Underscores with the Bootstrap framework from Twitter. It also includes support for JetPack, WooCommerce, and Contact Form 7.

It works as both a starter theme, which you can modify as you please, and a theme development framework, for which your create a child theme (also available on their website) with your own modifications.

As you can see, the single.php of UnderStrap is much complex than Underscores'.
As you can see, the single.php of UnderStrap is much complex than Underscores’.

It’s a very active project, receiving updates constantly. If you decide go for it, you probably won’t regret. All this extra functionality, however, comes with a price—the entire Bootstrap framework could become a performance issue, so use it carefully.

Sage

Sage, a starter theme for WordPress by Roots.
Sage, a starter theme for WordPress by Roots (web, GitHub).

Sage is a starter theme for WordPress that includes modern tools to speed up development. In addition, its community is very active. They even have a kind of forums where they discuss the evolution of the theme and the inclusion of new improvements. And the documentation they provide is not bad either.

As a curiosity, Sage uses the Blade template system, also used in the Laravel framework. In this way, the syntax of single.php is reduced to the maximum, as you can see below:

Template for single.php in Sage using the Blade syntax.
Template for single.php in Sage using the Blade syntax.

However, keep in mind that in order to work with this theme you’ll need to use other components such as composer and yarn for dependency management, compilation, and build generation. Therefore, this can be a too complex entry point for many newbies in theme development. On the other hand, if you get used to it, your productivity may increase greatly. In fact, this is the biggest advantage of Sage with respect to Underscores, as you can see in the comparison they have on their website.

FoundationPress

FoundationPress, a starter theme for WordPress that includes the Foundation framework.
FoundationPress, a starter theme for WordPress that includes the Foundation framework (web, GitHub).

If you are a designer and have experience working with the Foundation framework, you probably know that there is a starter theme for WordPress that includes it so you can use it in your WordPress themes. We are talking about FoundationPress. It’s a starter theme for experienced developers, since it uses technologies such as npm and Gulp to manage dependencies, create the folder structure for development, and build the theme files.

The good thing about using FoundationPress is that you’ll have all the components that come with Foundation directly in WordPress, so you can design more complex elements with less effort than using a more basic starter theme. In contrast, the code you’ll have to modify will be more complex, and the final weight of the theme will also be higher (due to the included libraries). Keep this in mind when you decide to choose this option.

FoundationPress includes its own hooks, as you can see here in single.php.
FoundationPress includes its own hooks, as you can see here in single.php.

As a curiosity, FoundationPress adds its own filters and additional actions to those WordPress includes by default. All the documentation about these hooks can be found here.

JointsWP

JointsWP, starter theme for WordPress that includes de Foundation framework.
JointsWP, starter theme for WordPress that includes the Foundation framework (web, GitHub).

As an alternative to FoundationPress, if you’re also a fan of the Foundation library you can try JointsWP, a starter theme based on this framework. There you’ll find the typical PHP files that are part of a WordPress theme adapted to all the graphic potential that Foundation includes.

JointsWP includes the typical CSS classes from Foundation, as seen in single.php.
JointsWP includes the typical CSS classes from Foundation, as seen in single.php.

JointsWP also includes support for Bower and Gulp, to automate the entire process of compilation and build generation (minification and merging of files, web browser reloading after changes in development, etc). Of course, keep in mind that if you don’t have experience with Foundation, this starter theme will be more complex than others. In addition to it, note that once decompressed, JointsWP uses more than 19Mb!

Bones

Bones, a starter theme for WordPress by Eddie Machado.
Bones, a starter theme for WordPress by Eddie Machado (web, GitHub).

Bones is designed to be a light, responsive, and mobile-first theme. It defines the styles with SASS and makes it easier to work with post formats and custom post types, since you have specific functions for them. In addition, Bones allows you to customize the WordPress Dashboard.

Code fragment of single.php in Bones, where you can see that it contains support for post formats.
Code fragment of single.php in Bones, where you can see that it contains support for post formats.

Although not updated since May 2016 (at the time of writing this article), it’s an interesting option because it includes translations into more than 20 languages. And you have quite funny comments on the code (see single.php above), which will help you customize it.

Naked

Naked WordPress, starter theme by Josh Beckman.
Naked WordPress, starter theme by Josh Beckman (web, GitHub).

Surely it’s not the most popular starter theme to be used as a basis in real developments, but if you are a designer with aspirations to become a developer of WordPress themes, Naked is going to be very useful.

File structure of Naked starter theme. It's pretty simple!
File structure of Naked starter theme. It’s pretty simple!

It was created by Josh Beckman a few years ago and contains the minimum to start creating a WordPress theme. And best of all, it’s very well documented, with self-explanatory, very exhaustive comments in the code. This will help you understand what each piece of code does and why.

As you can see, Naked includes comments to help you understand almost each line of code.
As you can see, Naked includes comments to help you understand almost each line of code.

If you are a newbie, my recommendation is that you download it and start with this starter theme. By doing so you can learn as you mess with things here and there. With Naked and the WordPress Theme Development Handbook you’ve all the ingredients to become a pro in a short time.

Final Remarks

After seeing the details of all these starter themes for WordPress, you only have one thing to do. Choose one, the one that catches your attention the most, and download it to start working on it. The good thing about these starter themes is that you can simply add the CSS rules you want to end up having a minimally decent product (ideal for designers), but also make modifications to the PHP code to add the desired functionalities incrementally.

If you didn’t have a plan for these next months, it’s a good idea to fill your free time creating your own WordPress theme and releasing it to the market! It won’t be easy, but surely you’ll learn a lot throughout the whole process. There are no excuses because all these starter themes are completely free. Become a WordPress theme developer today!

Featured image by William Stitt via Unsplash.

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3 thoughts on “The Best Starter Themes for WordPress

    1. What is the difference between WP Bootstrap Starter and Understrap?

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