See also tips and Common Issues. This is the copy of distributed faq which is incomplete. Updated Apr 2009.

If have a question, then the mailing list is our preferred communication channel, but you can ask it at Your voice page.

How can I get information on Sawfish?[]

How do I read the Info manual?[]

Either execute the command `info sawfish', or enter the Info mode within Emacs (`C-h i') and type `g (sawfish) RET'.

If you're using Gnome, then try executing `gnome-help-browser info:sawfish'.

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).

How do I customize Sawfish?[]

There are two ways; using the configurator GUI, or 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, three files are read, in the order: `sawfish-defaults', `~/.sawfish/custom', `.sawfishrc'.


This is a system default lisp library. It loads some of the common window manager features. More precisely, it currently does:

  • Gnome setup, by opening `sawfish.wm.gnome.integration', if Gnome is running.
  • Error handling enhancements, by opening `sawfish.wm.ext.error-handler'


This stores customizations created by the configurator GUI; 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 customization should be done here.
Choose 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.

If this file is present, then `sawfish-defaults' isn't read by default. But it loads standard features, so if you want it, add the following line to your `~/.sawfishrc' (or `~/.sawfish/rc') file:

(require 'sawfish-defaults)

In fact, `sawfish-defaults' is an alias of `sawfish.wm.defaults'.

How do I bind a key to execute a shell command?[]

Bind a key to the `run-shell-command' command; remember to enter the shell command you want to execute in the string entry in the `Edit binding' dialog window.

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

How do I redefine the `Applications' menu?[]

See the `Popup Menus' node in the Info manual.

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.

How do I create a new theme?[]

See the `Window Frames' node of the Info manual.

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

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

Are there any other themes available?[]

Yes, there are plenty actually. You can take a look at the Themes section on the Sawfish website: Some are also available at

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

What's this `sawfish-client' program?[]

This allows you to connect to a window manager process and evaluate arbitrary Lisp forms. Do `sawfish-client --help' 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).

How do I restart Sawfish?[]

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

Why don't you use GUILE?[]

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.

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

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).

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

Why don't some windows ever get focused?[]

If you don't have the option "give focus to windows even when they haven't asked for it" set to nil (define-special-variable ignore-window-input-hint nil), then windows that don't ask for focus don't get it.

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

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!)

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.

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.

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".