Type-erasing unsafe traits in Rust

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In Rust, traits can be object-safe and non-object-safe. There are workarounds to make unsafe traits safe - this is how I did it.

The problem began when I wanted to Box a trait Formatter in pq. The serde_json Formatters (PrettyFormatter and CompactFormatter) both implement the Formatter trait and I wanted to switch between pretty formatting in a tty and compact formatting outside a tty.

This is the error I got:

error[E0038]: the trait `serde_json::ser::Formatter` cannot be made into an 
 --> formatter.rs:7:5
7 |     formatter: Box<Formatter>,
  |     ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ the trait `serde_json::ser::Formatter` cannot be made into an object
  = note: method `write_null` has generic type parameters

Object-safety in traits

I was pointed to this article and this article from the #rust IRC channel.

tl;dr: since the trait Formatter depends on type W: ?Sized + io::Write, the ?Sized is a generic parameter which makes Formatter non-object-safe (and thus unusable in a Box). Side-note: Sized is a special trait which is inherently always implemented, and an explict ?Sized is required to indicate that an object is not implementing Sized.

Wrapper trait

From Reddit, I was pointed to erased-serde, which contains type-erased copies of some serde traits - making them object safe and thus usable in a Box.

Here’s a small example. Say here’s our lib, mylib, with the non-oject-safe trait UnsafeTrait:

mod mylib {
    trait UnsafeTrait {
    	//?Sized ruins everything!
	fn foo<W: ?Sized + Write>(w: &mut W) -> Result<()>;

    struct StructA { }
    impl UnsafeTrait for StructA { }

    struct StructB { }
    impl UnsafeTrait for StructB { }

Let’s write a library called erased_mylib with a cross-implemented trait called SafeTrait with ?Sized removed:

mod erased_mylib {
    extern crate mylib;

    use mylib;

    trait SafeTrait {
    	//no ?Sized
	fn safe_foo<W: Write>(w: &mut W) -> Result<()>

    impl mylib::UnsafeTrait for SafeTrait {
	fn foo<W: ?Sized + Write>(w: &mut W) -> Result<()> {
	    self.safe_foo(&mut w);

    impl SafeTrait for mylib::UnsafeTrait {
	fn safe_foo<W: Write>(w: &mut W) -> Result<()> {
	    self.foo(&mut w);

Finally, we can use a Box<SafeTrait> for StructA and StructB:

# main.rs

use mylib::{UnsafeTrait, StructA, StructB};
use erased_mylib::SafeTrait;

let my_struct: Box<UnsafeTrait> = if cond1 { StructA::new() } else { StructB::new() };

let my_struct: Box<SafeTrait> = if cond1 { StructA::new() } else { StructB::new() };

Make a safe wrapper trait, then cross-implement the safe and unsafe traits for each other.

You can see this solution for the serde_json Formatter type clearly in my erased-serde-json code.