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.

60 thoughts on “How to Delete Individual Backups from Apple Time Machine

  1. Yes, thank you, that is very helpful! I have been searching for just over an hour. 🙂

    You’re the first person I’ve found who explained this process clearly, step by step. All I wanted to know was how/if you can navigate to a certain date and delete just that date. Couldn’t get a straight answer for that simple question.

    I’m buying a new external drive for my iMac, and I want to use it for a SuperDuper bootable backup, and also for Time Machine. The new version of SuperDuper allows this. What I didn’t understand was what to do if SuperDuper didn’t have enough room for the next backup, due to Time Machine eating all my drive space.

    So if Time Machine doesn’t delete enough of its backups to allow SuperDuper proper space to function, then I’ll just go in there and delete the oldest backup myself. Easy enough.

    Thanks again. I didn’t want to buy two drives (or partition a huge one), 1 for SD and 1 for TM, at this point. I’d like to at least use Time Machine for a while first and see how valuable it is to me.

  2. Life saver! I’ve been trying to delete via the Finder by dragging to the Trash can, but it spent most of the day and it was only counting the items to trash – I aborted once it was counting into the millions.

    Then I disabled ACLs on the external disk and tried to delete it with UNIX commands, that ran for over 12 hours and was still nowhere near done!

    This method does the job and damn quick too, thankyou very much.

  3. I have the latest updates on Leopard and I don’t see “Delete Backup” when I open Time Machine in Finder… I have “Move to Trash” and that’s it… any suggestions?


    • You need to do this by going to the Finder and selecting “Computer” from the Go menu. Once that is open click on the Time Machine icon in the dock, or launch it via Spotlight. Navigate to the time of the backup you want deleted and select “Delete Backup” from the gear menu.

      • I have the same problem when navigating to the hard drive and trying to choose ‘delete backup’ from the gear menu. I’ve done both from finder and as you mentioned, the Go menu. Nothing. I’m working on Leopard if that makes a difference. Any help would be greatly appreciated

  4. I found that following these instructions resulted in ALL of my backups being deleted. Perhaps there’s a bug or unclear wording in Time Machine.

    After starting Time Machine, and selecting the oldest backup folder, the Gears menu displayed “Delete All Backups of ‘2008-01-13-205847′”. When I choose to continue, Time Machine displayed the dialog ‘Delete All Backups of ‘2008-01-13-205847’ with a progress bar, and removed EVERY backup on the system. The dialog always showed the January 13 date, but I could see outside of Time Machine that all backup folders were being removed one by one. Eventually every backup was deleted, except for the most recent.

    We did some additional experimentation (on a different machine) and navigate to a sub-folder such as “Downloads” within a particular backup. When we choose “Delete Al Backups of ‘Dowloads'”, Time Machine delete all Downloads folders from EVERY backup. This was the behavior that we expected, based on the message.

    We found that it is safest to delete an old backup from Finder (outside of Time Machine), drag the folder to the Trash, and empty the Trash. When we went back into Time Machine after deleting the backup, the backup was no longer available as expected.

    • JW,

      Very strange… I’ve just repeated this again on my system, and it only eliminates the single backup. I’ve done this many times to free up space. Not sure why you are seeing the behavior you are.

  5. JW

    I think you are doing step 2 wrong – you appear to be navigating to a backup folder, not to the highest level on your computer. In mine I click on “David’s computer” in the folder, and the gears menu says “Delete Backup”, not “Delete All Backups”.

  6. JW,

    I just started working on this myself and was similarly confused. The problem is navigation is ambiguous. I believe you and I NAVIGATED in the file structure to where our backups were being stored. The navigate that I think is being suggested is going to the earliest date in time machine without getting into the file structure. I started doing the same thing you did and noticed it was slowly taking out each one of my backups. I restarted my machine to kill the process. Hopefully, the major pieces for a full restore are still in place (or will be put back in by future backups)


  7. @JW, Dave d and Ben: Thanks for those explanations! I inadvertently deleted all of my time machine backups due to navigating to the backup volume, selecting the folder I wanted to delete and using the ‘gear’ to ‘delete all backups of YYYY-MM-DD-TTTTTT’ thinking it would only delete that particular folder.

    The correct method, as Ben states, is to use the fanning display to navigate to the backup that you want to delete and then use the gear to select ‘Delete Backup’.

    By the way, the reason I wanted to do this was that my backup folders were suddenly weighing in at > 40GB and it only took a few days of that before I started losing my earliest backups (and at 40GB/cleaning, the oldest archives were quickly lost!). I still haven’t gotten to the bottom of that problem.

    After starting over, things seem to be working fine. A tough lesson. Thanks for the thread.

  8. This was exactly what I was looking for. Thank you!!! I dunno why I never thought to look in the gears button – i kept trying a right click or seeing if a menu bar came down from the top.

    Many thanks!

  9. When i delete files from the backup using this method, the sparse file does not update the size. I deleted 100’s of gigs from my back up and the size did not change at all.

    Does anyone know what might be causing this?

    • Same issue as Tim – I’ve deleted individual backups using both the trash method from inside a sparse bundle (took ages to empty the trash) and the ‘gears’ method (very quick).
      However, despite having deleted several backups, the amount of space shown as being free on the Time Capsule has not changed AT ALL – on my 2TB Time Capsule it was “1.17TB available” before and after. Anybody know if any free space is created? I hope it isn’t going into a ‘black hole’ once I delete backups that is hard to recover!
      Thoughts on a postcard please – I will also contact Apple for their thoughts. Thanks!

  10. I find TM’s rigidity frustrating. Why can’t we have an option to just save the latest backup, or delete old files after X amount of time? This couldn’t be that hard to add. So what is the easiest way to tell TM to delete all but the most recent backup, of all files? Thanks.
    Great Blog, Adam.

  11. JW and all:

    Wanting to protect my first backup, I manually removed all intermediate backups from the backup drive in Finder. Took a while but worked.

    What I do NOT know is whether or not Time Machine is working by recursively checking for differences all the way through it’s list of backups.

    If that’s the case, then deleting backups manually is fine as long as you do a new backup immediately after, because of these possible problems:

    – Intervening backups being the only instances of files needed. Fixed by doing a new “backup now”.
    – Something that may not be possible: That the “first backup” is actually an alias to a previous (deleted) backup: Doign “Backup now” would fix this obviously – because the live version of the file would by definition be different. So fixed by “backup now”.

    The reason I’m doing this is I have a corrupt catalogue file apparently: On startup, Macbook pro won’t get past spinning wheel thing on grey screen before shutting itself down again.
    Permissions repair works, disk repair fails “invalid record count”

    … and I’m not sure if a backup-restore rewrites the catalogue file – does anyone know?

    But that’s the reason I need to keep the ‘first’ backup – the one that predates the problem.

    Anyway I’d be grateful for any thoughts out there.

    • One of the clever things Time Machine does is hard-linking every unchanged file or folder to the previous change. Because of this, each revision of the backup is essentially a full backup. When you delete any one version, it just deletes those hard links. Thus, if any other hard links exist, the data remains in the filesystem.

      • what does hard linking mean? so can i delete all but the most recent backup?

        ps i have movies etc on my back up drive as well. are those threatened?

  12. Thank you! Worked well. I appreciate it.

    (What happens if you click on “Delete all backups of… ” ?)

  13. Thanks very much for this info! Very useful.

    I have two followup questions:

    1. How long does deleting a backup take? It disappears from TM instantly, but then when I return to the ordinary Finder, it displays a dialog box saying “Delete One Backup” with a barber-pole “in progress” bar. When I delete a single backup, it seems to take a couple hours. So I decided to delete a bunch of backups in one deletion session, rather than waiting for each one to finish. (It seemed to make sense at the time, but in retrospect I think this was a bad choice on my part.) There are now 17 backup deletions in progress, and it’s been running for 36 hours straight, and I have no way to tell how much longer it’ll take. (I’ll file an Apple feature request to ask for an actual progress bar.) You said you needed to free up 200GB, which is about what I need to free up; how long did the deletions take?

    2. Related to Tim’s question from a few months back, how do you compress/compact the sparsebundle after the deletions finish? I’m guessing the context menu will do it, but I’m not sure — is there a better way? I think I once saw a dialog box in which TM offered to do the compression for me; maybe I just need to run another backup after I finish the deletions, and it’ll offer to compress the sparsebundle? Not sure.

    PS: In case anyone’s trying to delete multiple backups in a row, note that the TM GUI gets confused about what date it’s showing immediately after deleting a backup. Before you delete the next backup, even if it looks like you’re viewing the backup you want to delete, use the arrows to navigate back and forth to get TM to sync up the displayed date with the backup that it thinks is selected.

  14. Thanks man, this was really helpful. I am backup up 2 different MacBooks on 1 external HD. One MacBook gobbled up most of the space, and now I don’t have enough space on the HD to backup the other MacBook. I was about to wipe the entire drive and start over. This is much easier.

  15. I’m in Jed’s boat, and also would like to hear from the author (Adam) to see if he encountered this issue, and if so, how long it took to resolve… I just deleted several 5GB files, and now I have a “Delete Backups” dialog box with 5 activities going, each saying “Delete One Backup.” It’s been about 45 minutes so far…
    Also, as Jed notes, the files still appear in the TM interface after deleting them. I think I deleted the same file more than once, and hope that isn’t causing any issues.

  16. Just in case anyone wants to know, my deletions from Time Machine took a couple of hours. After deleting a few more items, the time to delete didn’t vary as much by size as I expected. Rather, some file types seemed to take much longer than others. Jed also mentioned to me that his files eventually deleted, but to me, any process that unexpectedly takes over 36 hours to complete is a little disconcerting.

  17. I’ve been following these comments. My external TM drive got filled up by including a second volume I neglected to add to the exclusion list. I added it to the list and then used the “gear” menu in the TM window to remove ALL backups to the specified volume. This took many hours, and the backup file as viewed from Finder seems to have lost the volume in question. But TM still shows the backups and the free space on the TM drive did not change. Any ideas why I did not recover the hundreds of GB of storage?

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  19. don’t know if anyone is still following this thread but i’ll still give it a try.. one never knows..

    i think i have done everything right.. i navigated to the top menu inside time machine and deleted 2 months worth of back ups..

    HOWEVER, once i entered in time machine preferences so as to check how much free space i had created… ZERO.. same as before i started with two months less of back-ups available..

    thoughts anyone?


    • Getting basically zero space by deleting some intermediate backups is not really surprising. The only space a deleted backup can free up is the files that existed only in those backups. (Not before and not after)
      So you have to be pretty lucky, or have to know you have started working on something that you’ve deleted after…

  20. Months ago I reported a similar problem, and several weeks after I had deleted backups the Time Machine did indeed recover the missing space. It took a long time (many weeks) for the system to digest and report the change. My nearly full terabyte is still half empty, a couple of months after the free space appeared.

    But another weakness in Time Machine has dawned on me. If I have a failure, it will take DAYS to restore because it’s so slow. You can’t get up and running again in an afternoon. Time Machine is great for keeping a record, but will be a big headache if it is the only backup for a complete restore.

    • Actually, I’ve restored a machine from a Time Machine backup, and it was quite quick. Comparable to doing a full clone of the hard drive (in my case, it was a 500GB drive). It took quite a few hours, but roughly the same time a full copy would have taken.

      I was quite pleased, overall, with the experience. It was:
      1) Step one, run Mac OS X installer on machine with clean hard drive
      2) Installer asked if I was restoring from Time Machine, I said yes
      3) Pointed installer at Time Machine backup.
      4) It ran for a few hours.

      I did notice some small issues – there were some aliases that I had to re-establish for example. Overall, it was pretty good.

  21. is it normal to have a LOT of free space after deleting your very first backup? it kinda makes me nervous, as it looks like others’ did not encounter the same situation, rather not much space was freed..
    i’d love some verification that what i did in the toolbox was alright?

  22. I also came across the “delete all backups” menu option and fortunately having read the posts above I knew not to select it! After some further trial and error I figured it out and this explains what I did in the clearest terms I can describe…

    1. Open time machine (not the preferences window)
    2. Use the time line date selector to choose the backup you want to remove
    3. In finder, in the left hand side panel under devices, select your computer
    4. Open the gears menu drop down and you should see ‘delete backup’
    5. Enter your password
    6. Close time machine
    7. Watch the finder window with a progress bar deleting the backup

    Job done!

  23. Paul, I’m not sure how this really differs from the direction in the original post. And overall, I’m not sure why one decides to reclaim drive space by deleting an entire backup — how can you feel sure that you’re not deleting the only copy of an important file? That seems like a big issue to me. I feel much better searching for very large backup files and deleting them if I feel confident I won’t need them any longer. Am I missing something? I’m eager to learn if I am, I sure don’t feel confident about messing with TM backups.

  24. I get no ‘Delete Backup’ option using the gear menu where the back-ups are listed. Just a ‘Move to trash’ option. Which for one back-up in the trash, got to almost 1,600,000 items before it started deleting. Any one know how to delete back-ups super fast?

  25. well i just lost all my 2008 files even though i click on delete all backups of a specific date. i clicked thru to the date of the backup i didnt need, right clicked and then chose delete all backups of x.x.x.x. date (there is only one backup of this date) but it ruined my entire year of 2008.
    i tried following the instructions on this thread on a diff file, but i dont understand,
    paul states,
    1. Open time machine (not the preferences window)
    2. Use the time line date selector to choose the backup you want to remove
    -i navigated to the date of backup i wanted to delete
    3. In finder, in the left hand side panel under devices, select your computer
    – ok…
    4. Open the gears menu drop down and you should see ‘delete backup
    – nope dont see it, it says delete all backups of x.x.x.x. date
    5. Enter your password
    6. Close time machine
    7. Watch the finder window with a progress bar deleting the backup

    • My computer did the same thing.
      I have two backups left, the latest, and the second to latest.. and it’s still chugging. I don’t know what’s going to happen.

      I don’t understand the opening Finder and clicking on my computer.
      Finder in Time Machine? Or Escaping from Time Machine and clicking on Finder… then what gear do I press?

      Little bit confused. I’ll check back the next time I need to delete any backups, because so far, Time Machine hasn’t deleted any for me :S

  26. I believe that Apple made it too simple.

    If you find a particular file in TM that you know is useless to save as a backup, you can delete a specific version of it by selecting “delete backup”, or you can “delete all backups”, effectively removing many versions of it. That works great if you are targeting files or folders that you wish TM to forget.

    Now take that logic to the folder that represents the entire day of files, and in essence you are instructing it to “delete all backups” of days…. even though it says the specific “date”, it is really deleting all dates.

    The folders at the root of the backup are named as the date and time of backup, so they appear to be unique, yet this function assumes all folder at that level are the same.

    I see this as a bug. It should not allow us delete all dates in that manner. A reformat would be cleaner way to start over.


  27. Hey thread, I just ran across a program that’s been around awhile called Back-In-Time. Based on reading the 4/14/10 MacWorld review, it sounds like this software offers an easy interface that should be extremely helpful in finding and deleting files based on user-selectable criteria. When I have time, I’m going to try it and see if I can intelligently reclaim some space on my TM volume.

    • Ahhhh, every time my Time Machine volume gets near full, it’s back to reading and rereading threads on deleting back ups from Time Machine… BTW, I realize the title of this article is a little confusing, as deleting “individual backups” could mean deleting individual FILES or deleting individual backup SETS (which could mean set’s of files from a particular backup group, or even a set of all backups of an individual file). I think different comments posted here are based on various ways of interpreting “individual backups.”

      I’ve found the FREE trial version of Back-In-Time is really helpful if you want to delete specific versions of backed up files from a Time Machine volume. If you’re trying to clear space on your TM volume, I find it extremely useful that Back-In-Time shows you all versions of a backed up file on one screen, so it’s extremely easy to see which to delete and which to keep. I also like that you can see package content of backed up files (such as, the files insides an iPhoto Library) with Back-In-Time, and am currently deleting many of GB of large, old backed-up iPhoto files ( and, while keeping only the most current versions.

      Note that when you delete large files, you’ll often have to wait many many hours (in Time Machine or Back-In-Time) until the deletion is complete — be patient, and don’t start the process unless you have time to let it finish! Not sure if one way is faster or slower than another, but I do like that Back-In-Time shows you your progress more accurately than Time Machine seems to.

      Also, GrandPerspective is a great application to visually see what files are taking up a lot of room on your Time Machine volume, it’s how I realized the iPhoto files were taking up soooo much room (I also saw some large Picasa files, which I will be deleting).

      All-in-all, GrandPerspecitve and Back-In-Time have been a live-saver for me to intelligently clear large unneeded files from my Time Machine volume, extending the time until the volume is full. Hope this helps someone out there… Though I also feel the need to warn, if you don’t feel sure what you’re doing, deleting files in your backup could result in deleting only back-ups of important files, and you might not realize it until your main drive fails and you turn to TM to recover. This is true no matter what program you use.

      BTW, I do have a curiosity question (it was more than curiosity, until I discovered how well Back-In-Time works): I sometimes read you can delete TM volume files directly from the Finder, and sometimes I read you cannot (or should not) do that. Any experts know if that should or shouldn’t be done? Does Time Machine use it’s own catalog to keep track of backed-up files (which means Finder deletions would seem bad), or does it just read what is on the disk (which would make Finder deletions seem fine)?

      Oh, another question for any TM experts (if they exist)… Why does deleting TM files often take so so long? I just don’t understand what is happening under the hood that makes it take thousands of times longer than it takes to delete a file from a non-TM volume.

  28. Lifesaver!

    I haven’t had any major things I’ve needed to keep in my backups and I’ve been itching to delete a few of them…

    What tricked me in your instructions was that you have to be in TIME MACHINE, viewing the Computer window in the finder. I tried to find the “Delete Backup” under the gears (Actions) menu when I wasn’t in Time Machine, and of course it wasn’t there… lol. Didn’t catch that.

  29. Good deal. I had made the same navigation mistake as other people have mentioned, and now I find this article and I get it. Thanks a lot!

  30. thank you very much!

    And I’ve read at other places, it’s a pity you can’t delete individual backups and stuff…

    Well, it may be hidden, but this works. Very happy!

  31. No one has answered the question of:

    Why does our Finder state that the available space is the same “post-deleting” as it was “pre-deleting?” Meaning, I had about 80GBs of free space before deleting files. After deleting (drum roll) still 80GBs.

    So, before someone goes off on a tangent about how to delete individual files, etc, etc — please, please answer this question.


    • Rick, I have typically found that deleting backups reflected in the finder (though it may take awhile). I wonder if you’re just deleting references of some time, and the actual files either still exist, or were already deleted? I sure wish I fully understood how TM worked, especially when it comes to deleting files.

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  33. Details on how to reclaim the free space can be found here: (see Step 3.) If you show Get Info on the volume while the recovery is happening you will see the Available space coming back in realtime.

    Also, when I first ran hdiutil, I got the following error:

    hdiutil: compact failed – Resource temporarily unavailable

    This was because TM was running a backup. To avoid any further interference, I turned TM off on all machines that were writing to this volume before running hdiutil again.

    I just reclaimed 160 GB by not backing up my Downloads and DropBox folders from 2 Macs, and deleting all backups for these directories.

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  35. When trying to do large deletes that take a long time, I have done the following, which may not be advisable for everyone as it leaves you without a back up temporarily:

    * Open Airport Utilities App
    * Click on your Time Capsule (Airport Extreme)
    * Click on Discs
    * Erase

    Then, I just start a new backup.

    I have resorted to this as I have noticed for some reason the time machine starts consuming a lot more more disk space even if I delete all the old backups using the proper commands. In fact, on one occasion, the more backups I deleted, the more space was consumed on the disk (even after trash emptied). This method, which I do once a year, seems to free up about 200GB of my 800GB of use. It is tantamount to starting over, but the erase in the Airport Utilities menu seemed to erase faster than the one in Disk Utilities.

  36. For Snow Leopard, open time machine interface,
    – Navigate to the particular date to be deleted
    – Open Root Folder
    – Right Click on an empty area in finder
    – Select Delete Backup
    – Don’t select delete all backups as it will delete all the data.

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  38. Not sure if this has been asked somewhere but here goes….
    I too have a 1TB drive that is too full to allow another back up to take place. When I launch Time Machine the dialogue tells me it is deleting back ups. This worries me as I don’t know which back ups are being removed.

    As far as I understand Time Machine takes an initial back up and then incremental or Delta back ups to use the back up disk more economically. So this means the total image of your system is the sum of all of the back ups. If this is true surely something will be lost if you delete any of the back ups. So how does Time Machine ensure the integrity of the system if it goes around deleting back ups either randomly or in some logical order?

  39. Hi – Not sure if this thread is still alive or not. I’ll try anyway. I have Mac OS X 10.5.8 and a Lacie extneral drive. My Lacie is full, but I need to protect the oldest backup file and TM seems to delete the oldest backup file naturally. I need to protect this file because I lost my hard drive at one point and most of the files in the TM backup are not on my new hard drive. Lots of pictures, videos, etc.

    Is there any way to protect that one backup only and delete all the others one so that TM can perform? If I leave as is, it will delete that oldest backup, which I dearly need.

    Thanks! Bill

    • Bill, I’d suggest that you restore those files to your existing machine, and then let Time Machine back them up again, or, even better restore them, and copy them via the finder off to another external hard disk for long term archiving.

  40. Thanks very much for the info. However I only found this after I deleted 3 of the oldest backups through finder, simply by CMD + deleting them. I’m using 10.6.8, it seems that many people have had serious problems doing this.. however, I had no problems at all. I also checked the next oldest backups in Time Machine any everything seems to be there. Question is, can I be sure that everything is actually there and that I haven’t messed up the Backups in any way? I’ve made subsequent backups and they are working just fine.. should I just carry on as normal or do you recommened I format and start the time machine backups from scratch to be sure? many thanks!

  41. Being completely paranoid, I purchased a Promise Pegasus R4 8 TB. I assigned it as my Time Machine backup media. THAT SAME DAY, I created a folder next to backups.backupdb and made my own periodic manual backups, just in case, as I was worried that TM might go belly-up and lose track of my files. I let TM run automatic backups for about a year.
    When the day finally came I needed to recover a file, I went into the TM, recovered the file and erased an empty folder I had named “Docs”. As the R4 lit up I started worrying… It was deleting big time. By the time I stopped it, Time Machine went from an empty “Docs” folder to delete close to 1.5 TB (17 backups) of the TM backup of the hard drive named “Documents”.
    I truly hate Time Machine.

    Solution: I added a folder in the R4 where I’m fusing literally dozens of folders from every single backup, keeping ALL copies. I intend to let MacPaw Gemini sort out the duplicates for me when I’m done. Even with all the copies I lost, at this rate, it’ll still take me another two weeks. It’s easier and faster to do it by hand if you ever want to RECOVER a file. So long Time Machine, may our paths never cross again.

  42. Does anyone know how to restore a deleted backup file(s) once they have been deleted as per thread, and then emptied from trash? Everything is still visible in finder, but when the backup is opened in time machine there is nothing there. Thanks,

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