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26 Frequently Asked Questions

See also http:://

  1. How can I get information on Sawfish?
  2. How do I read the Info manual?
    • From root menu (middle click the background), choose Help section.
    • Execute the command ‘info sawfish
    • In emacs, enter the Info mode (C-h i) and type g (sawfish) RET.
    • If you’re using GNOME, then try executing ‘gnome-help-browser info:sawfish’.
  3. I installed Sawfish but it’s not working! All I see when I start X is the default stipple background: no programs, no menus, no pager.

    This is exactly what it’s supposed to do, but first try middle-click (by default) on the background. This invokes the menu. (If you have a two-button mouse, try clicking both buttons simultaneously).

    Why this is so? Because Sawfish is minimal - Sawfish is a window manager and as such is not responsible for setting the background, starting programs or displaying a pager — these can all be done using separate applications (e.g. by using a desktop environment such as GNOME).

  4. How do I customize Sawfish?

    There’re two ways, by the configurator GUI and by preparing lisp code. The GUI can be run by middle-clicking background -> “Customize”. Most customizations similar to other window managers can be done through GUI.

    For customizations by lisp, first understand that in the startup, files ~/.sawfish/custom, .sawfishrc are read in this order.


    This file is created and edited by the configurator GUI, and stores customizations. It shouldn’t really be edited manually.

    ~/.sawfish/rc or ~/.sawfishrc

    This is the file you edit. It is a hand written lisp code, and almost all explicit customizations should be done here.

    Choose the filename either ~/.sawfish/rc or ~/.sawfishrc. The former is recommended, because the directory ~/.sawfish is anyway created to store custom, and you can also put other lisp scripts, like user-contributed codes there.

    Sawfish < 1.6 reads sawfish-defaults by default only if ~/.sawfishrc lacks, but now it is always read.

  5. How can I start an application from Sawfish?
    • From a key
      Bind a key to the ‘run-shell-command’ command. In the configurator, you can enter the command name at the same time.
    • From lisp
      The function system invokes a shell. Don’t forget to add “&” not to block the Sawfish execution.
      (system "firefox &")
    • At Sawfish startup
      You can use lisp, but you don’t have to. Simply execute it from, say, .Xclient or any file. See the above item “How do I customize Sawfish?” for lisp customization.
  6. How do I make clicking on a window raise the window?

    Bind the event Button1-Click1 in the window-keymap to the raise-window-and-pass-through-click command

  7. How do I redefine the ‘Applications’ menu?

    See the ‘Popup Menus’ node in the Info manual (see Popup Menus)

  8. How do I compile Lisp files?

    Use the shell command:

    sawfish --batch -l compiler -f compile-batch files…

    where files… are the names of the files you want to compile. They will normally have .jl suffixes, the compiler will create associated files with .jlc suffixes containing the compiled Lisp code.

    Remember that always the latest code is read, i.e., if the source is newer than the byte compiled file, the source is used, unlike emacs.

  9. How do I create a new theme?

    See the ‘Window Frames’ node of the Info manual (see Window Frames)

    Basically though, create a directory ~/.sawfish/themes/foo where foo is the name of your theme. Then copy any images into this directory and create a file theme.jl that will be loaded to initialize the theme

  10. How do I port an Enlightenment theme to Sawfish?

    There’s no automatic translation available. Get the images used in the window border, then write a theme.jl file telling the window manager how they are used to form a window frame

    See the themes/brushed-metal directory for an example, and the Info manual for the documentation

  11. Are there any other themes available?

    Yes, there are plenty actually. Most of them reside over at freshmeat: You can also take a look at the Themes section on the Sawfish website:

  12. Why don’t GTK themes work with Sawfish?

    There was a problem with older versions of the gtk-engines package preventing engine based themes working with several interpreted languages. Get the latest gtk-engines from

  13. Sound support.

    Here we explain sound support which can’t be set via Configurator.

    You can add sound files under ~/.sawfish/sounds/. This path can be changed with audio-load-path variable. See the file OPTIONS for the format.

    The program to play sounds is set by play-sample-program. If you want to pass arguments or redirect the output, prepare a wrapper script, for example something like following:

    # No need of backgrounding.
    mplayer -volume 30 "$1" &>/dev/null
  14. What’s this sawfish-client program?

    This allows you to connect to a window manager process and evaluate arbitrary Lisp forms. Do ‘sawfish-client -?’ for more details (‘sawfish-client -’ for a read-eval-print loop)

    By default you can only connect from the host running the wm (through a unix-domain socket). To enable the network based server, evaluate the lisp form (server-net-init).

    Note however that this connects through the X server, meaning that anyone who can open windows on your display can also execute any Lisp code on the host running the window manager (and by extension, execute any program).

    So don’t run the net server with X access control disabled (unless you’re not connected to a network).

  15. How do I restart Sawfish?

    From a shell lauch the following command: sawfish-client -q -f restart

  16. Shutdown privilege.

    The Sawfish root-menu has a “session” sub-menu which allows you to shutdown your machine. If you use GNOME or KDE, no additional work is required. But if you use Sawfish standalone, the user needs the privilege to execute shutdown command.

    You can do it, for example, with sudo combined with user group shutdown:

    $ groupadd shutdown      # add a new group called "shutdown"
    $ adduser john shutdown  # add user "john" to the "shutdown" group
    $ visudo                 # add the group "shutdown" to sudoers
    # add the following:
    %shutdown ALL=(root) NOPASSWD: /sbin/shutdown

    That’s it, now everyone in the shutdown group can do it!

  17. I have multiple heads. Is it possible to switch workspace per head?

    You have to devise a trick, because the strict answer is no. There’s “sticky-head” script which partly achives it on the wiki, but it’s still incomplete:

    Technically, Sawfish’s workspace implements “virtual desktop” specified in the window manager standard (ewmh), which has to be at least the size of the X screen, so the workspace has to containt all heads. “Per head workspace” has to be implemented as a new mechanism on top of workspace.

  18. How can I hide the mouse pointer when idle?

    Install “unclutter”.

  19. Why don’t you use GUILE or other languages?

    (Current Sawfish community’s attitude.)

    We can’t afford it. We’re understaffed.

    (Written by John Harper.)

    Mainly because I’m lazy; I had already written rep, and therefore understood it completely, whereas I have never used GUILE. Also, rep has some features not available in GUILE (byte-code compilation, autoloading, built-in event-loop, …)

    But before you flame me: yes I do think scheme is a more elegant language.

  20. Will you add feature x?

    Possibly. But only if it can be written in Lisp, or doesn’t conflict with the overall design aims.

    These aims are to build a lightweight, generally applicable, set of core window management functions, then write all high-level functionality as Lisp extensions

  21. Will you add background setting?

    No. This can easily be done by a separate application (e.g. with the GNOME hints, simply monitor property _WIN_WORKSPACE on the root window).

  22. Why does Sawfish look weird/crash on Solaris?

    Sawfish works stably on Solaris, but you may need to do two things:

    1. Disable use of MIT-SHM by Imlib (run the program imlib_config, the MIT-SHM option is on the ‘Rendering’ page)
    2. Recompile GTK+ using the ‘--disable-xim’ option to configure
  23. Why don’t some windows ever get focused?

    Because that window doesn’t accept it. Technically, windows ask to receive focus by setting their WM_HINTS property appropriately; for example if I xprop a gnome-terminal:

                    Client accepts input or input focus: True
                    Initial state is Normal State.
                    window id # of group leader: 0x5c00001
  24. Why doesn’t the GNOME desk-guide / tasklist show the true state of my desktop?

    It seems that there is a problem with these applets that only occurs after restarting Sawfish - they seem to lose track of the current window states.

    The simplest way to correct this is to execute the following shell commands:

    $ save-session
    $ killall panel

    (assuming you have a session manager to restart the panel afterwards!)

  25. What do these ‘bytecode-error’ messages mean?

    It means that you’re trying to execute Lisp code that was compiled for an outdated version of the Lisp virtual machine. Recompile any Lisp files that you have installed locally.

  26. Historical question: Why is it now called Sawfish?

    Because the old name (‘Sawmill’) was already being used by another company, who were in the process of registering it as a trademark.

    The rename should be mostly painless, all old binaries still work for the time being, but will be phased out over time (final phasing out started around 1.5.0). Where before you would execute a program called sawmill*, replace it by sawfish*. E.g. sawmill becomes sawfish, and sawmill-client becomes sawfish-client.

    Your ~/.sawmill directory will automatically be renamed ~/.sawfish unless it would overwrite an existing file. Only user configuration ~/.sawfish[/]rc will be checked currently, ~/.sawmillrc is not used anymore (it was also read up to version 1.3.5).

    My apologies for any inconvenience caused.

  27. Historical question: But why Sawfish, and not <insert your favourite alternative>?

    Well I had to choose something! And hopefully it satisfies the main requirements:

    • There are no other computer-related users of the name (as checked in April 2000,)
    • It’s similar enough to the old name to hopefully carry some recognition across,
    • It has no tenuous relationship to window-managing.

    Incidentally, there was no meaning to the name “Sawmill”, the author grepped /usr/dict/words for something containing “wm”.

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