How to Delete Individual Backups from Apple Time Machine

Some of my most popular blog posts, over time, have been tips & tricks I’ve posted about how to get certain things done on the Mac.  My rule of thumb for these posts is simple – if I get stumped about how to get something set up, and then after an hour of searching I find the answer, I share it here.  My hope is that I’ll save other people that hour of searching.

This post is about a question I had today:

How to delete individual backups from Time Machine?

The problem I had was that the 1TB drive I have for Time Machine backups was full.  Now, Time Machine is very good about deleting the oldest backups on an ongoing basis to manage space.  But what if you just “need” extra space on that drive?  In my case, I needed to free up about 200GB so I could copy over some files, temporarily, from a drive I was retiring.

Time Machine has a very unique UI.  No menu bar, so no obvious place to click “delete a backup”.  I looked everywhere.  I clicked through to individual backups, but could see any button that said “remove” or “delete”.

Then I found this Mac OS X Hint from the always helpful

Turns out, when Time machine presents you with the “Finder-like” interface to your drive, it changes, subtley, the menu-items of the “gears” menu on the window.  I say subtley because, of course, there is no visual indication that the “gears” menu has different menu items in this context.

One of those menu items is “Delete Backup”.

So, to delete a full backup, you just do the following:

  1. Navigate to the date you want to delete.  In my case, I wanted to delete my oldest backup, from 1/30/2008.
  2. Navigate in the Finder window to your overall machine.  In my case, it’s called “Powersmash G5”, where I have 2 internal drives that are backed up.
  3. Select the “Gear” menu, and select “Delete Backup”
  4. Enter the admin password for the Finder, if it asks.

My guess is that Apple wasn’t trying to make this hard – they are just suffering from a non-standard interface, and then an overloading of that “gears” menu, which I’m sure is theoretically supposed to be a “contextual menu”.  For me, a menu that showed on on right-click of either the finder window itself or the Time Machine backup marker on the right would have been more obvious to me.

Hope this tip is useful to someone.  It sure helped me today.