Ratpoison: an efficient and minimalist WM

Dion Moult


Ratpoison is a tiling window manager, with a focus on removing the need to use your mouse under any circumstances whatsoever. It’s extremely efficient and minimalist. For those new to tiling window managers, this is in contrast to most window management systems where windows “float” and overlap one another, and you have the options to maximise, restore, and minimise windows to control their sizes. In contrast, windows do not overlap in a tiling window manager. Instead, they tile. An easy way to visualise this it by thinking of a table. A table can have rows and columns split up into as weird a configuration you can think of, but there is only one value per cell, and that value cannot overlap another cell. You can resize your cells, switch values from one cell to another, split, remove and merge cells. Not only that, but you can do this using naught but your keyboard. It’s time to push that rodent away from your computer and appreciate the keys you already have to input information to your computer. But why, you say, would I enjoy having to design a complex table layout for a simple task? For a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s damned fast. It’s so fast you can split em, switch em, merge em, and focus on what matters most: your work … not moving around windows so that you get a good look at them. Secondly, it uses up all your screen space. No wasting space on window borders, taskbars, panels, etc. Every single bit of your screen is showing useful information, and nothing more. This is often referred to as “efficient use of screen real estate”. Thirdly, it’s a minimal WM. This means it starts up quick, doesn’t have many dependencies, and is lightweight on your system space and resources. Take a quick peek at this screenshot to show ratpoison in use:

A screenshot of ratpoison in use in 2009 showing KDE graphical apps and command line apps
A screenshot of ratpoison in use in 2009 showing KDE graphical apps and command line apps

As you can see, ratpoison is basically shortcut driven. You use the keyboard to do everything: open new applications, close applications, resize windows, move windows … well, pretty much everything. The problem with this is that the default ratpoison bindings, whilst it may be familiar to those who use GNU screen, may not be the most ergonomic. The solution to achieving a wonderful system is to use a combination of .ratpoisonrc settings and xmodmap settings. Here is a nifty guide that should get you started with some usable keybindings.

My Ratpoison setup.

I’ve customised by Ratpoison setup somewhat, and here’s how it works. Feel free to view these images directly for the full resolution.

A blank ratpoison setup with polybar
A blank ratpoison setup with polybar

Ratpoison uses a “command key” to prefix any commands that are sent to it. By default, this is set to Ctrl-T. This hand-stretching combination isn’t the most comfortable sequence and can get tiring after a while. So the first thing I do is remove my Caps Lock key (nobody ever uses it anyway) and change it to an imaginary key called F13. This way all I have to do is shift my left pinky slightly to the left when I want to do something. This makes using Ratpoison really fast! So create a file called .xmodmaprc in your home directory, and put this in it:

remove lock = Caps_Lock
keycode 66 = F13

Next thing you want to do is make sure these key changes take effect before you start the X server. So in your .xinitrc file in the ~ directory, before the exec ratpoison line, add xmodmap .xmodmaprc.

Now that Caps Lock has been redefined to be F13, you will want to configure Ratpoison to use it as the command key. Create a .ratpoisonrc file in your home dir (yes, all these files are hidden with a . prefix). Put this code: escape F13. That’s it!

I have extended my Ratpoison setup to also use Vi-keys for navigation. The idea is that hjkl will navigate between window tiles, and HJKL will move window tiles. I find this quite intuitive. I also use the page up and page down keys to control the volume. I also use polybar, which is a popular status bar, and bind the spacebar to open up a new xterm, which is by far the most common program that I launch. Here’s the setup:

escape F13
bind Next exec amixer -q set PCM 2- unmute
bind Prior exec amixer -q set PCM 2+ unmute
unbind k
bind j focusdown
bind h focusleft
bind k focusup
bind l focusright
bind J exchangedown
bind H exchangeleft
bind K exchangeup
bind L exchangeright
bind C-k delete
exec /usr/bin/rpws init 4 -k
exec /usr/bin/fbsetbg /home/dion/Images/Wallpaper.jpg
exec polybar moult
set winname class
set border 0
set padding 0 25 0 0
set bgcolor #333333
set fgcolor #CCCCCC
set barborder 0
bind space exec xterm

You might notice that rpws and fbsetbg is called. rpws sets up virtual desktops. So Alt-{F1,F2,F3,F4} will switch between the 4 virtual desktops. fbsetbg sets the desktop wallpaper to an image I have created. set winname class makes the window names something intelligent than the default. The border and paddings simply reduce the space between applications so I get 100% screen real estate used. There are lots of documentation available on what else to put in your .ratpoisonrc to configure it more.

Another trick is to turn my Windows Key (Hyper_L) into a special key, so that when combined with another key, it launches one of my favourite programs, or even controls my music player! Here’s an example:

definekey top Hyper_L thisIsNotAWindowsKey
definekey top H-f exec firefox-bin
definekey top H-o exec ooffice
definekey top H-b exec blender
definekey top H-p exec mpc toggle
definekey top H-bracketleft exec mpc next
definekey top H-bracketright exec mpc prev
Ratpoison running more console applications
Ratpoison running more console applications

Don’t forget if you want to try out the commands real time, use F13 (or whatever modifier) + : then type your command that you would use in your .ratpoisonrc. If you want to run a shell command or app, just do F13 + ! then type it in.

A final trick is to use the tmpwm command inside Ratpoison to temporarily switch to another window manager in the few cases where a tiling window manager isn’t quite the best thing to use. Alternatively, you can also use Xephyr.

Running Xephyr to run an X server inside your X server. In this case running Fluxbox inside Ratpoison
Running Xephyr to run an X server inside your X server. In this case running Fluxbox inside Ratpoison

Well. Good luck with Ratpoison, and I hope you enjoy using it. I know I have!


If you have any comments, please send them to dion@thinkmoult.com.