How to fix permission problems when restoring folders from Time Machine Backups

Airport TimeCapsuleI had an odd problem the other day: I wanted to restore a fairly large folder from my new AirPort TimeCapsule. But the restore always stopped at one particular file, with an error message about permission problems.

The folder in question was about 4GB in size and contained just over 10.000 files in total. I was baffled! Time Machine had never failed me before, so what was going on out of a sudden?

Well I guess it’s a computer, and things just go wrong sometimes. Thanks to Apple Support this problem is now solved – and I thought I’d share the insight, both with you all and my future self.

What’s Time Machine and TimeCapsule again?

Time Machine is a background process on Mac OS X which creates automatic hourly backups, either to an attached USB drive or a network drive – such as the AirPort TimeCapsule which I’ve recently bought. This puppy backs up both my MacBook and my wive’s MacBook via WiFi onto its internal 3TB drive. TimeCapsule also functions as a router.

You restore files by “entering the Time Machine”, which brings up a Finder-esque window that lets you step through particular files/folders and see what those looked like at earlier points in time. A menu on the right shows you available dates and times. By changing those you can see what your hard drive looked like in the past. It’s awesome!

I understand that Time Machine works extremely well with USB and internal drives but can sometimes get the hiccups when working with network drives.

The Problem

Usually you right-click on a folder/file in Time Machine and select “Restore to…”, choose a location and the file is restored. This worked without trouble in the past.

So on my wive’s MacBook I wanted to restore a folder that had been backed up the night before. The folder in question was a Poser Runtime folder, so it contains lots of small files – about 10.000, amounting to 4GB in total. But when I tried, I always got the same message on one particular file, something along the lines of “The file HotPants.obj cannot be restored due to incorrect permissions”. Don’t ask…

I tried to restore that nasty file by itself, and that worked fine. I also tried to restore other parts of the folder, and the process would always stop, referencing a different file if HotPants.obj was not in the mix. This was strange.

A long Google search brought up several articles, none of which solving my problem. The closest one and very helpful was Pondini.org, but it involved so much hassle I thought there had to be an easier way. Time to make use of my Apple Care Package.

The Solution

The solution was provided by someone amazing named Lydia, a Senior Time Machine Specialist (imagine that’s your job description). She suggested the following tips:

  • Enter Time Machine and select the Backup in question
  • Find the folder in question and right click on it
  • Select Get Info, which brings up a new window (patience while it’s populating)
  • At the bottom left you’ll see the permissions. Let’s take a look at those:

Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 23.26.24

If anything in that window under Name pertains to “Fetching” or “unknown”, then you can follow Pondini’s instructions. I had a reference there to “wheel” but that’s just something TimeCapsule specific. My problem was that even though the permissions looked correct, some of the 10.000+ files in my folder weren’t set correctly. This could have been because they were located in the Shared User’s directory.

Let’s continue:

  • Click the Lock Icon on the bottom right (this will require your root password)
  • Click the little gear icon and select “Apply to enclosed items”
  • Hit OK and let it do it’s thing
  • Try to restore again

What this does – you’ve guessed it – is to reset the permissions of every file in every folder to what it should be. If the restore still throws up an error message, try to apply the same to the folder above the one you’re trying to restore.

Hope this helps!

Jay is the CEO and founder of WP Hosting, a boutique style managed WordPress hosting and support service. He has been working with Plesk since version 9 and is a qualified Parallels Automation Professional. In his spare time he likes to develop iOS apps and WordPress plugins, or draw on tablet devices. He blogs about his coding journey at http://wpguru.co.uk and http://pinkstone.co.uk.

11 thoughts on “How to fix permission problems when restoring folders from Time Machine Backups

  1. Hi there, thanks for the info here. I am having the same problem with restoring some music projects from my time machine. I have followed the steps above and the only problem is that the lock icon is greyed out so I am unable to make the changes. Any idea why this might be? Is there a set I might be missing out?
    I was about to call Apple Care but my Apple Care product has just expired, so I’m a little stuck…thanks! 🙂

    1. Hi valamusic1, that’s really bizarre – I’ve just checked this on Mavericks 10.9.5 and I’m getting the same thing now: the lock icon is greyed out. Perhaps it’s no longer needed because I can apply different permissions to a file or folder just by changing the drop down menu. Maybe this has changed to make our lives easier. Ignore the lock icon and proceed – let me know how it works out for you.

  2. Hi Jay, thanks for coming back to me. Sorry, I should have said I’m running Mountain Lion 10.8.5. I haven’t upgraded to Mavericks isn’t compatible with the music programme I’m running (Logic 8). Unfortunately I am unable to select “Apply To Enclosed Items” as it is also greyed out. This afternoon I repaired the Time Capsule disk using disk utility just incase this might do the trick but unfortunately it’s not worked either.

    1. That’s a shame. Here’s something I’ve heard last time I spoke to Apple Support, perhaps it helps you out: whenever you buy another piece of equipment from Apple, Apple Care for your time capsule is automatically extended – it’s a loophole so that your time capsule is always covered. So if you have bought anything with Apple Care, give them a ring and your time capsule *should* be covered, and perhaps the Apple Support team can help you out for free. Good luck!

  3. I’m having a similar problem but the solution above doesn’t work. I don’t have the option to “apply to enclosed items” and I don’t know how to fix it.

  4. Thank you immensely. Never knew you could do the enclosing thing on permissions. Always thought that would be a stick in the mud problem.

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for bringing this to my attention. I’ve just fixed the links in the article.

      Sadly James Pond (owner of pondini.org) died in 2013. Lucky for us, archive.org keeps a record of his marvellous works alive for the foreseeable future. The direct link to his instructions are here.

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