My AwesomeWM Hacks

I've been using AwesomeWM as my daily driver for quite a number of years, but short of minor alterations, like a few custom shortcuts or setting different default layout for each tag, I never really did much to leverage its flexibility until now.

I had a couple of itches I wanted to scratch:

In this post I will describe solutions to the above problems.

N.B. the code in this post was tested with AwesomeWM compiled from git master. Several things have changed since the 4.3 release, especially around handling how screens are added and removed, so if you'd like better multi-monitor support you probably should upgrade from 4.3. The code also assumes awesome is started with the "screen=off" option, see the docs on modelines.

Disclaimer: I'm no expert on AwesomeWM so take my descriptions its internal workings with a huge grain of salt, these are just my observations from a bit of hacking around.

Restore windows to their original screen and tag, once display is reconnected

N.B. The following "solution" assumes you have identically named tags across screens, and I haven't tested it for windows mapped to multiple tags.

By default, disconnecting a screen moves all windows from all tags to the first tag of the other screen. I'd prefer a "merge" type behaviour, where the windows on the removed screen become secondary[1] windows on the equivalent tag of the remaining screen. This works well for me, as I always have the same number of tags on both screens, and I use the same tag for the same activity (Emacs on one screen's tag 3, and a terminal with tests on the other screen's tag 3), so I would prefer my tests terminal to stay on tag 3 when I unplug a monitor. And finally, when I do re-connect the second screen, I'd like the tests terminal to move back to tag 3 of the re-connected monitor.

This one turned out to be simple (once I had a better understanding of the WM events).

-- Handle screen being removed.
-- We'll look for same tag names and move clients there, but preserve
-- the "desired_screen" so we can move them back when it's connected.
tag.connect_signal("request::screen", function(t)
    local fallback_tag = nil

    -- find tag with same name on any other screen
    for other_screen in screen do
        if other_screen ~= t.screen then
            fallback_tag = awful.tag.find_by_name(other_screen,
            if fallback_tag ~= nil then

    -- no tag with same name exists, use fallback
    if fallback_tag == nil then
        fallback_tag = awful.tag.find_fallback()

    if not (fallback_tag == nil) then
        clients = t:clients()
        for _, c in ipairs(clients) do
           -- preserve info about which screen the window was originally on, so
           -- we can restore it if the screen is reconnected.
           c.desired_screen = t.screen.index

This is the code which will restore windows back to their desired screen:

function restore_windows_to_desired_screen(new_screen)
    for _, c in ipairs(client.get()) do
       if not (c.desired_screen == nil) then
          tag_name =
          tag = awful.tag.find_by_name(c.screen, tag_name)
          if not (tag == nil) then
          -- now clear the "desired_screen"
          c.desired_screen = nil

Now, we have to call restore_windows_to_desired_screen. In the default AwesomeWM config, we have a handler for screen.request::desktop_decoration and this is where everything is setup for the new screen (tags, the taglist widget, the tasklist widget, the top bar, etc). As our restore code looks for tags of the same name on the newly connected screen, we can only run it after we initialized the tags, so let's do just that:

screen.connect_signal("request::desktop_decoration", function(s)
    -- Each screen has its own tag table.
    awful.tag({ "1", "2", "3", "4", "5", "6", "7", "8", "9" }, s, awful.layout.suit.tile)
    -- Call our restore function, now that tags are setup

That's kind of it.

Also, thanks to bodograuman for sharing their window restoring code, as it served as an inspiration and starting point for me.

Virtual displays

More cool stuff: my ultra-wide monitor provides about as much screen real-estate as one and a half monitors. I've been able to tweak things to the point where I have 2 virtual screens with roughly a 3/4 and 1/4 split. I can also resize them on the fly and switch to a single screen layout easily. This is relatively easy to pull off given AwesomeWM offers: fake_add, fake_remove, and fake_resize out of the box.

This is a great productivity booster for me:

My workflow is not fancy: I want either the vanilla "each monitor == one screen" or "exactly one monitor == 2 screens" (what I use on the ultra-wide monitor 95% of the time). Also I want to be able to switch between the two.

Here's what the split layout looks on a 3440x1440 display: split layout

Adding a fake screen

Switching from a single screen to a split layout means resizing the one existing screen and adding a fake. The below code does a bit more than that, it also tracks "fakes" and the original dimensions of the "real" screen, and we will see later how we use that information when we handle removing the fake and returning to a non-split layout.

local function wide_split_layout()
   if (screen.count() ~= 1) then
      -- A sanity check, so we don't split multiple times.
      debug("more than 1 screen, bailing on wide_split_layout", screen.count())
   local geo = screen[1].geometry
   local new_width = math.ceil(3*geo.width/4) - 30  -- personal sweet spot for main screen size
   local new_width2 = geo.width - new_width
   local parent = screen[1]
   parent.original_w = geo.width
   parent.original_h = geo.height
   parent:fake_resize(geo.x, geo.y, new_width, geo.height)
   fake = screen.fake_add(geo.x + new_width, geo.y, new_width2, geo.height)
   if (parent.fakes == nil) then
      parent.fakes = {}
   parent.fakes[fake.index] = fake
   for k, v in pairs(fake.tags) do
      v.layout = awful.layout.suit.tile.bottom

Removing the fake screen

Now for switching back to the regular (non-split) layout. It's quite simple, we need to:

local function non_wide_layout()
   for s in screen do
      if s.fakes then
         for _, f in pairs(s.fakes) do
         s.fakes = nil

         local geo = s.geometry
         s:fake_resize(geo.x, geo.y, s.original_w, geo.height)

Dealing with displays being resized

As an aside, handling X11 displays (which one is primary, changing resolutions, etc) isn't the responsibility of the window manager. I run xfsettingsd (from xfce4) and also have a few layouts scripts created using arandr, for those few times when plugging in a display doesn't "just work".

Back to handling resize events. I'm not 100% sure how awesome numbers the screens or how it manages them. My observation has been that screen 1 is always my primary X11 monitor.

Some examples:

With this in mind we need to update the "original width" to match the resized display, and while we're at it let's try to be "clever" and go to either split or unsplit layout based on the new size of the display:

   function(old, new, reason)
      -- Update "original size" to match the resized display.
      for s in screen do
         if (s.original_w == old.geometry.width) and (s.original_h == old.geometry.height) then
            s.original_w = new.geometry.width
            s.original_h = new.geometry.height

      -- Some extra convenience: go to prefered layouts depending on the size.
      if new.geometry.width == 3440 then
         -- We seem to have connected the extrnal ultra-wide.
      if new.geometry.width == 1920 then
         -- We seem to have transitioned to the laptop screen.

I admit tracking and updating the screen's original size this way feels quite hacky, but it works so I don't have the motivation to look for a more elegant solution :)

Resizing the fake screens

Now let's add the ability to adjust the size of the fake screens.

local function resize_fake_screen(delta)
   if (screen.count() ~= 2) then
      -- sanity check
   local geo1 = screen[1].geometry
   local geo2 = screen[2].geometry
   screen[1]:fake_resize(geo1.x, geo1.y, geo1.width+delta, geo1.height)
   screen[2]:fake_resize(geo2.x+delta, geo2.y, geo2.width-delta, geo2.height)


And let's tie it all together with keybindings for the above. My keybindings are:

globalkeys = gears.table.join(
    awful.key({ modkey,           }, "#72",   function() non_wide_layout() end,
              {description="single screen layout", group="layouts"}),
    awful.key({ modkey,           }, "#73",   function() wide_split_layout() end,
              {description="wide screen split layout", group="layouts"}),
    awful.key({ modkey,           }, "#71",   function() resize_fake_screen(-15) end,
              {description="resize screen -15", group="layouts"}),
    awful.key({ modkey,           }, "#74",   function() resize_fake_screen( 15) end,
              {description="resize screen +15", group="layouts"}),

Debugging tips

It took me some trial and error to get the code here working. I was asking myself questions such as "did I mess up tracking the desired screen when removing the screen, or did I mess up restoring the tag when a screen is added?". Being able to add some well placed prints helps you narrow it down.

If you're using lightdm the .desktop file won't let you do output redirection, but you can create a wrapper script and exec that.

Here's how my /usr/share/xsessions/awesome.desktop looks like:

[Desktop Entry]
Comment=Highly configurable framework window manager
Keywords=Window manager

And /usr/local/bin/awesome-dbg, the wrapper script to do output redirection:


exec awesome "$@" > ~/.awesome-dbg

Now you can sprinkle print("text") and gears.debug.dump(obj, "text") anywhere you see fit and tail ~/.awesome-dbg.

Don't break your desktop, use nested X while hacking

In order to avoid breaking your config and being unable to use your computer, it's really nice to be able to start another instance of AwesomeWM while you hack away on the config. This is easy to pull of by using Xephyr to start a nested X session:

Xephyr -ac -screen 3430x1380 :99 &
set -x DISPLAY :99
# if you haven't embraced the fish shell yet:
# export DISPLAY=:99
awesome -c ~/path/to/rc.lua


Oh wow, I can't believe you made it this far! If you have thoughts or suggestions please share them on the reddit thread.

Also, my full AwesomeWM config is on github, but it's probably harder to read than to go through the code in this post.


[1] the AwesomeWM layouts and APIs still use a "master"/"slave" terminology, which nowadays might be considered... out of touch.