How to drag and drop with Java 2, Part 2

Create a library of drag and drop-enabled Swing components

How would you like to drag and drop almost any kind of data using almost any project Swing component? The first article in this series, "How to drag and drop with Java 2" (see Resources), introduced data transfer using familiar drag and drop (D&D) gestures. The first article's examples were limited to a single project Swing component -- a D&D-enabled JLabel. We transferred text data between labels in the same Java virtual machine (JVM), to other JVMs, and to the native system.

This article will show you how to create D&D-enabled versions of many more Swing components. We'll also learn how to transfer various data types beyond plain text.

Custom Transferable classes

In the first article in this series, we discussed how to transfer text. It is, however, possible to drag and drop other data types, such as images and GUI components. In order to transfer other kinds of data, we must create at least one DataFlavor class and a Transferable class.

Previously, we created a StringTransferable class that provided text data in several DataFlavors. StringTransferable encapsulates a java.lang.String object, which it makes available in these flavors. When the user drops the data onto a droppable component, the component requests the data in its own preferred DataFlavor. Depending on the DataFlavor requested, the String is either simply returned or transformed into a byte stream.

An important point to remember is that a java.lang.String is serializable. If the DropTarget resides in the same JVM, it will receive a reference to a live object. If, however, the DropTarget is in a different JVM, it will receive a serialized copy of the String. The D&D system automatically serializes the String in the same way that RMI parameters are marshalled. We can easily transfer any data encapsulated in a serializable object by defining our own Transferable class.

Create a custom Transferable class

In this example, we'll create a Transferable class for our own Rockhopper class. Rockhopper will be serializable, as will its members; if any are not, we can mark them transient and transfer their data manually via the writeObject() method. This Transferable creates two DataFlavors for our class. In both DataFlavors our Rockhopper class is the representation type. The Transferable object simply keeps a reference to the Rockhopper object, which is returned in the getTransferData() method. Remember that, if the DropTarget is in another JVM, the D&D system will automatically serialize the Rockhopper object.

Now, let's look at the code for this example:

public class Rockhopper extends Bird implements Serializable {
   private String name; // String is serializable
public class RockhopperTransferable 
   implements Transferable,
   ClipboardOwner {
    public static DataFlavor rockhopperFlavor=null;
    public static DataFlavor localRockhopperFlavor=null;
    static {
     try {
         rockhopperFlavor = new
                      "Non local Rockhopper");
         localRockhopperFlavor = new
          DataFlavor(DataFlavor.javaJVMLocalObjectMimeType +
                  "; class=com.rockhoppertech.Rockhopper",
                  "Local Rockhopper");
     } catch(Exception e) {
   private Rockhopper penguin;
   public RockhopperTransferable(Rockhopper rocky) {
      this.penguin = rocky;
   public Object getTransferData(...) {
      // check to see if the requested flavor matches
   ... etc ...
      return this.penguin;  // easy!

You may want to create a library of Transferable classes for commonly used data types. Popular custom Transferable choices include java.awt.Color, java.util.Date, java.awt.Font, and

Create an Image Transferable class

Creating an Image Transferable class is a bit tricky. The problem is that java.awt.Image isn't serializable, so it can't be used as the representation type for a DataFlavor class. Luckily, javax.swing.ImageIcon is serializable. The ImageIcon maintains a reference to an Image, but it's a transient member. To actually transfer the Image data, the ImageIcon class defines the readObject() and writeObject() methods for manual transfer.

The capability to transfer image data to the native system is more complicated. For native transfers, we need to provide the data as a stream of bytes via an InputStream subclass. For our StringTransferable class, we employed a ByteArrayInputStream object that used the String's bytes in the proper charset.

Similarly, we can create a JPEGTransferable class that provides the image data in JPEG format. The DataFlavor used by the Transferable can specify image/jpeg and its MIME type. The getTransferData() method can provide the data either via the com.sun.image.codec.jpeg classes or the Java Advanced Imaging API. The latter also provides other formats, such as GIF.

Our JPEGTransferable class will work as long as we have a native program that accepts data with an image/jpeg MIME type. On Windows systems, however, these programs are rare. Most Windows programs accept only Win32 clipboard formats such as DIB (device independent bitmap) or ENHMETAFILE (enhanced metafile). Therefore, for Windows environments you'll need to create InputStream classes that provide the data in one of these formats. Moreover, you'll need to use a special FlavorMap instance.

The FlavorMap class provides mapping between MIME types used in Java and native clipboard types such as DIB or HDROP. The D&D system creates the default FlavorMap from $(JDK)/jre/lib/ For our custom native InputStreams to be used, we need to add an entry to Alternatively, we could create a FlavorMap instance for our listeners.

Here's a custom entry in


Build a D&D library

If you need a single D&D-enabled component, you can create a subclass that defines DragGestureListener, DragSourceListener, and DropTargetListener as inner classes. This was the technique used in the first article. If you need a number of D&D-enabled components, you will write very similar code for each component's listeners.

Rather than using inner classes for the listeners, in this article we will use reusable adapters. This makes more sense for a D&D-enabled component library; it should be kept in mind, however, that it is also a bit more difficult to create adapters that will adapt to all possible uses.

The main classes and interfaces in our D&D library include:

  • DragComponent
  • DragSourceAdapter
  • DragGestureAdapter
  • DropComponent
  • DropTargetAdapter

A D&D-enabled component would create associations with an instance of each of these classes, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. UML diagram of D&D library classes

The Drag classes

A drag-enabled component implements the DragComponent interface. It creates an instance of DragGestureAdapter and an instance of DragSourceAdapter.

The DragSourceAdapter implements the DragSourceListener interface and maintains a reference to a DragComponent object. When a drag is initiated, the DragSourceAdapter queries the DragComponent for the acceptable drag operation and an appropriate Transferable object. If this is a move operation, the DragSourceAdapter will tell the DragComponent to move the data. The move operation actually adds the data to the destination, then removes the data from the source at the end of the D&D operation. We'll discuss this more when we come to the JList and JTable examples. The drag-over effects are the DragSourceAdapter's responsibility. These are usually cursor changes. The DragComponent may register custom cursors with the DragSourceAdapter object.

The DragComponent uses a DragGestureAdapter object, which implements the DragGestureListener interface, in order to initiate the drag operation. With components such as a JTree, it is possible that not all nodes can be dragged. The DragGestureAdapter verifies the drag with the DragComponent's isStartDragOk() method, and it registers the DragComponent's DragSourceAdapter.

Figure 2. DragComponent message trace

The Drop classes

A drop-enabled component implements the DropComponent interface. It creates and maintains a reference to a DropTargetAdapter.

Figure 3. DropComponent message trace

Transferable models

For some components, we might not want to create an individual subclass for each type of data the component might represent. It would be better to create a transferable model for these components. When the drag operation starts, the component gets the Transferable from the model. This strategy works well for the JTable and JList.


It is convenient to place all of the common D&D methods in an abstract subclass of JList. This abstract DnDList takes care of creating and registering the appropriate adapters, drag-under and drag-over feedback, autoscrolling, moving, and event/flavor validation. The concrete subclass specifies the acceptable operations and flavors, and defines an add() method that is called when the DropTargetAdapter receives the drop message.

We can define a TransferableListModel interface with method public Transferable getTransferable(int index). For convenience, we can define an AbstractDnDList model that has data structure maintenance code but requires that subclasses implement the getTransferable() method. This concrete subclass determines the exact type of Transferable returned. For example, a DnDTextList concrete subclass of DnDList would create a DnDTextListModel concrete subclass of AbstractDnDList; the latter in turn creates and returns a StringTransferable object from getTransferable.

Figure 4. D&D list model


The JTable follows the same pattern as the JList. We place the common D&D code in an abstract class that uses an abstract transferable model. The concrete table subclasses create a concrete transferable model.

Figure 5. D&D table model


It isn't necessary to create a Transferable model for the JTree. The tree nodes may contain a user object. If this object is serializable, you can define a TreeTransferable class with a DataFlavor that uses a DefaultMutableTreeNode as its representation class.

What does it mean to copy a tree node? Do you want to copy just the node, or all of its children? We will address these issues below, when we talk about the JTree in more detail.

Issues for drag and drop components

When you create a D&D-enabled component, there are several issues you need to address:

  • Starting the drag operation
  • Drag-under feedback
  • Drag-over feedback
  • The drop
  • Transferable
  • The move operation

I will address each of these issues for three complex components -- the JList, the JTable, and the JTree -- with the help of our D&D library classes. First however, let's examine these issues in a general sense.

Starting the drag operation

Is it OK to start dragging at the current pointer location? Perhaps the component is a JTree and the selected tree node cannot be dragged. The DragGestureAdapter object calls the isStartDragOk() method of our DragComponent object. If the return value is false, the drag simply will not start.

Drag-under feedback

How do we show that a drop is valid? If, for example, the component is a JList, where will the drop occur? To show the user where the data will be inserted, define the dragUnderFeedback() and undoDragUnderFeedback() methods from our DropComponent interface.

Drag-over feedback

Most of the time, the default drag-over feedback is fine. However, there could be a situation in which you would like to use custom cursors. The DropTargetAdapter calls the DropComponent's isDragOk() method repeatedly during the drag. The return value sets the drag-over feedback. For most components the initial cursor should be a no-drop cursor, since dropping the data in the same place as its origin is useless.

The drop

If you accept the dropped data, you insert it someplace in the component. Where is it going to be inserted? What flavors are accepted?


What Transferable/DataFlavor class should you use? When a drag starts, how do you get the Transferable object? The Transferable object may encapsulate data associated with the component or data retrieved from its model. Our DragGestureAdapter calls the DragComponent's getTransferable() method.

The move operation

Because it's a two-step process, the move operation actually removes the data. The D&D system adds the data to the destination and then removes it from the source. If it's a complex component, such as a JList, which item is removed? The DragSourceAdapter calls the DragComponent's move() method.


Now, let's look at possible solutions for each of the issues we've just raised in the context of a D&D-enabled JList.

Starting the drag

Remember that, with a list and a table, you get the Transferable from the model. Since our drag-under feedback selects the item that is under the pointer, we can get the Transferable from the model at the selected index. We must remember this index, since a move operation will remove the item from the model.

Drag-under feedback

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