Compiling and installing Grub2 for standalone USB boot

The goal here, is to produce the necessary set of files, to be written to an USB Flash Drive using dd (rather than using the Grub installer), so that it will boot through Grub 2.x and be able to process an existing grub.cfg that sits there.

As usual, we start from nothing. I'll also assume that you know nothing about the intricacies of Grub 2 with regards to the creation of a bootable USB, so let me start with a couple of primers:

  1. For a BIOS/USB boot, Grub 2 basically works on the principle of a standard MBR (boot.img), that calls a custom second stage (core.img), which usually sits right after the MBR (sector 1, or 0x200 on the UFD) and which is a flat compressed image containing the Grub 2 kernel plus a user hand-picked set of modules (.mod).
    These modules, which get added to the base kernel, should usually limit themselves to the ones required to access the set of file systems you want Grub to be able to read a config file from and load more individual modules (some of which need to be loaded to parse the config, such as normal.mod or terminal.mod).
    As you may expect, the modules you embed with the Grub kernel and the modules you load from the target filesystem are exactly the same, so you have some choice on whether to add them to the core image or load them from the filesystem.
  2. You most certainly do NOT want to use the automated Grub installer in order to boot an UFD. This is because the Grub installer is designed to try to boot the OS it is running from, rather than try to boot a random target in generic fashion. Thus, if you try to follow the myriad of quick Grub 2 guides you'll find floating around, you'll end up nowhere in terms of booting a FAT or NTFS USB Flash Drive, that should be isolated of everything else.
With the above in mind, it's time to get our hands dirty. Today, I'm going to use Linux, because my attempts to try to build the latest Grub 2 using either MinGW32 or cygwin failed miserably (crypto compilation issue for MinGW, Python issue for cygwin on top of the usual CRLF annoyances for shell scripts due to the lack of a .gitattributes). I sure wish I had the time to produce a set of fixes for Grub guys, but right now, that ain't gonna happen ⇒ Linux is is.

First step is to pick up the latest source, and, since we like living on the edge, we'll be using git rather than a release tarball:

git clone git://git.savannah.gnu.org/grub.git

Then, we bootstrap and attempt to configure for the smallest image size possible, by disabling NLS (which I had hoped would remove anything gettext but turns out not to be the case - see below).

cd grub
./configure --disable-nls
make -j2

After a few minutes, your compilation should succeed, and you should find that in the grub-core/ directory, you have a boot.img, kernel.img as well as a bunch of modules (.mod).

As explained above, boot.img is really our MBR, so that's good, but we're still missing the bunch of sectors we need to write right after that, that are meant to come from a core.img file.

The reason we don't have a core.img yet is because it is generated dynamically, and we need to tell Grub exactly what modules we want in there, as well as the disk location we want the kernel to look for additional modules and config files. To do just that, we need to use the Grub utility grub-mkimage.

Now that last part (telling grub that it should look at the USB generically and in isolation, and not give a damn about our current OS or disk setup) is what nobody on the Internet seems to have the foggiest clue about, so here goes: We'll want to tell Grub to use BIOS/MBR mode (not UEFI/GPT) and that we'll have one MBR partition on our UFD containing the boot data that's not included in boot.img/core.img and that it may need to proceed. And with BIOS setting our bootable UFD as the first disk (whatever gets booted is usually the first disk BIOS will list), we should tell Grub that our disk target is hd0. Furthermore, the first MBR partition on this drive will be identified as msdos1 (Grub calls MBR-like partitions msdos#, and GPT partitions gpt#, with the index starting at 1, rather than 0 as is the case for disks).

Thus, if we want to tell Grub that it needs to look for the first MBR partition on our bootable UFD device, we must specify (hd0,msdos1) as the root for our target.
With this being sorted, the only hard part remaining is figure out the basic modules we need, so that Grub has the ability to actually identify and read stuff on a partition that may be FAT, NTFS or exFAT. To cut a long story short, you'll need at least biosdisk and part_msdos, and then a module for each type of filesystem you want to be able to access. Hence the complete command:

cd grub-core/
../grub-mkimage -v -O i386-pc -d. -p\(hd0,msdos1\)/boot/grub biosdisk part_msdos fat ntfs exfat -o core.img

NB: If you want to know what the other options are for, just run ../grub-mkimage --help
Obviously, you could go crazy adding more file systems, but the one thing you want to pay attention is the size of core.img. That's because if you want to keep it safe and stay compatible with the largest choice of disk partitioning tools, you sure want to have core.img below 32KB - 512 bytes. The reason is there still exists a bunch of partitioning utilities out there that default to creating their first partition on the second "track" of the disk. And for most modern disks, including flash drives, a track will be exactly 64 sectors. What this all means is, if you don't want to harbour the possibility of overflowing core.img onto your partition data, you really don't want it to be larger than 32256 or 0x7E00 bytes.
OK, so now that we have core.img, it's probably a good idea to create a single partition on our UFD (May I suggest using Rufus to do just that? ;)) and format it to either FAT/FAT32, NTFS or exFAT.

Once this is done, we can flat-copy both the MBR, a.k.a. boot.img, and core.img onto those first sectors. The one thing you want to pay attention to here is, while copying core.img is no sweat, because we can just use a regular 512 byte sector size, for the MBR, you need to make sure that only the first 440 bytes of boot.img are copied, so as not to overwrite the partition data and the disk signature that also resides in the MBR and that has already been filled. So please pay close attention to the bs values below:

dd if=boot.img of=/dev/sdb bs=440 count=1
dd if=core.img of=/dev/sdb bs=512 seek=1 # seek=1 skips the first block (MBR)

Side note: Of course, instead of using plain old dd, one could have used Grub's custom grub-bios-setup like this:

../grub-bios-setup -d. -b ./boot.img -c ./core.img /dev/sdb

However, the whole point of this little post is to figure out a way to add Grub 2 support to Rufus, in which we'll have to do the copying of the img files without being able to rely on external tools. Thus I'd rather demonstrate that a dd copy works just as good as the Grub tool for this.
After having run the above, you may think that all that's left is copying a grub.cfg to /boot/grub/ onto your USB device, and watch the magic happen... but you'll be wrong.

Before you can even think about loading a grub.cfg, and at the very least, Grub MUST have loaded the following modules (which you'll find in your grub-core/ directory and that need to be copied on the target into a /boot/grub/i386-pc/ folder):
  • boot.mod
  • bufio.mod
  • crypto.mod
  • extcmd.mod
  • gettext.mod
  • normal.mod
  • terminal.mod
As to why the heck we still need gettext.mod, when we made sure we disabled NLS, and also why we must have crypto, when most usages of Grub don't care about it, your guess is as good as mine...

Finally, to confirm that everything works, you can add echo.mod to the list above, and create a /boot/grub/grub.cfg on your target with the following:

insmod echo
set timeout=5

menuentry "test" {
    echo "hello"

Try it, and you should find that your Grub 2 config is executing at long last, whether your target filesystem in FAT, NTFS or exFAT, and you can now build custom bootable Grub 2 USBs on top of that. Isn't that nice?

FINAL NOTE: In case you're using this to try boot an existing Grub 2 based ISO from USB (say Aros), be mindful that, since we are using the very latest Grub code, there is a chance that the modules from the ISO and the kernel we use in core may have some incompatibility. Especially, you may run into the obnoxious:

error: symbol 'grub_isprint' not found.

What this basically means is that there is a mismatch between your Grub 2 kernel version and Grub 2 module. To fix that you will need to use kernel and modules from the same source.


  1. Hi you.
    I was download grub 2.02 beta 3 from url
    But I can not find any file *.mod, *.img in folder grub-core (when unpack grub-2.02~beta3.tar.xz)
    How to get this file? Thank you so much!

    1. That's because grub-2.02~beta3.tar.xz is the SOURCE which you need to COMPILE as described in this guide, before you get the *.mod files. If you don't know how to follow this guide to get a compiled version of GRUB, then I'm afraid this guide is not for you, and you will need to look elsewhere for basic tutorials on compiling applications from source from Linux.

  2. Thank you so much. I can do it. But it is only i386-pc module. Can you help me build i386-efi & x86_x64-efi module? Thanks again!

    1. > Can you help me build i386-efi & x86_x64-efi module?

      No. If you need more than what is presented in this blog post, then ask the GRUB mailing list.

  3. I got the grub_isprint error which led me to here.
    My USB HDD was booting fine and then I suddenly got this error.
    I turned out the reason was because I had two partitions with two \boot\grub folders.
    Even though I booted from ptn 1, grub bombed out because it was somehow looking at ptn 2. If I renamed the \boot\grub folder on ptn 2 to \boot\grubxx then it all worked and no error!
    This must be a bug in grub. Why when all my grub files are on ptn 1 does it give this error because there is a \boot\grub folder containing a different version on another partition that it shouldn't be looking at (except I do load an ntfs module and the 2nd ptn is NTFS).

  4. FYI
    I got an aclocal error when running autogen.sh on Mint
    sudo apt-get install automake
    fixed this

  5. Thank you very much for explaining how grub-install actually works.

  6. dd if=boot.img of=/dev/sdb bs=446 count=1

    It should be bs=440 , no? Otherwise the NT disk signature will be erased?

    1. I believe you are correct. I have edited the post, thanks!