How To – Configuring Cairo-Dock

I have already mentioned Cairo Dock, my preferred choice of Linux Docking tool. In this How-To, I’m going to go through some basics in how to get it looking just the way you want.


1. Contents
2. Setting Up
3.The Configuration Menu
4. The Dock
5. Icons
6. Indicators
7. Results

Setting Up

To start with, you have to install it. You can download the latest version from the BerliOS website. If you download the .deb file, you will also need the plug-ins .deb.

Once it’s installed, run it, and you will be asked to choose a theme. The packaged themes are very nice, and you may be happy just using one of those. I preferred to create my own though. I used coz’s ‘clear’ theme as my starting base.

Coz's Clear Theme for Cairo-Dock

Coz's Clear Theme for Cairo-Dock

If you want to change themes at a later point, just <right-click> on Cairo-Dock, go to the Cairo-Dock sub-menu, and choose ‘Manage Themes’.

You can also set up ‘sub-docks’, one of the features that makes Cairo-Dock so powerful. To set one up, <right-click> on an empty space in the main dock, and choose add a sub-launcher. A dialog will pop-up where you can enter a name and an icon for the sub-launcher. Under Extra Parameters you can also choose its position in the dock, which dock or sub-dock it is attached to, and which view you wish to have the dock rendered in.

The Configuration Menu

To start making your own customisations, <right-click> on Cairo-Dock, go to the Cairo-Dock sub-menu, and choose Configure. If you’re using ‘simple mode’ you will only see a couple of tabs that don’t let you do much. Click ‘advanced mode’ in the bottom left corner. You will then see that there are quite a few different settings groups you can modify:

  • The first tab, position, can be used to modify where the dock is in relation to the desktop. However, it’s usually easier just to hit alt and drag it where you want it to be. You can also turn on auto-hide and ‘keep below’ features here.
  • The task bar tab is quite interesting. Here you can toggle features like the ‘window’ display – Cairo-Dock can show the current applications in the dock alongside the launcher icons, if you choose. You can configure how launchers and applications are grouped, how application icons display, and so on.
  • The system tab isn’t one I’ve fiddled with a lot, but it has a few useful options, namely the option to ‘click to show sub-docks’, which I like.
  • Applets is far more handy; here you find some of the fun little gadgets that are being developed and adapted for Cairo-Dock. A few of them are in early days yet, but I’ve found wifi, logout, and a few others quite useful.
  • The background tab is the most useful for customising the look of your dock, and I will come back to this in more detail later.
  • There are a few options to play with in the icons tab, especially customising the labels that appear on mouse-over, (unless you set them to appear all the time). You can set the behaviour of your icons here as well, whether they bounce, rotate, etc, their size. You can choose whether or not to have seperators between different icon types, and what form these seperators should take. You can tie all the icons together with a bit of ‘string’ of a thickness and colour of your choice. Finally, you can change the order the different types of icons appear in.
  • Views changes the type of dock you have; you can specify this for the main dock, and also for sub-docks. You can have a panel-type box, a 3d platform, a curve, a slide, a rainbow – there are lots of choices! Once you’ve chosen your view, you can hit preferences to configure it further, such as changing the vanishing point of a 3D dock.
  • Dialogs changes the appearance and behaviour of the warning, notice, and general query dialogs that occasionally pop up. However, I haven’t seen too many of these, so I haven’t done much with configure it.
  • Desklets are Cairo-Dock applets that can be removed from the dock and placed directly on the desktop. The desklets tab lets you modify a few settings for these.
  • Finally, we have indicators. These are graphics that show when an application wants some attention. You can create your own graphic, or modify existing graphics.

The Dock

To start with, we’ll make the actual dock look good. For this, we need to go to the background tab of the Configure window.

  • The callback zone is the area behind the dock. When Cairo-Dock is set to ‘autohide’, putting the mouse in the callback zone will cause the dock to return. You can choose to decorate the callback zone with an image, which will appear whenever the dock is hidden.
  • Next is the Extern Frame, which configures the appearance of the line that runs around the edge of your dock. Here you can choose how ’rounded’ the corners of your dock will be, how thick the line around it will be, (or if there will be a line at all), and the colour.
  • You can set a background image for your dock using Background image, or you can just adjust the colours and gradiations in Gradiation. You can choose a ‘bright colour’ and a ‘dark colour’. By default, (if you’ve used the ‘clear’ theme as your base at least) the ‘bright colour’ is along the front of the dock, the ‘dark colour’ is along the back. If you want these colours the other way around, you can simply swap them around. You can also change the angle they appear at, the number of stripes that will be shown, and the width of the stripes.

Using these options, you can actually create quite a wide variety of looks.

A Pink themed Cairo-Dock

A Pink themed Cairo-Dock

Blue themed Cairo-Dock

Blue themed Cairo-Dock

Both these looks were created from the ‘clear’ theme using only the Frame and Gradiation options described above.


This still leaves us with the default icons, however, and sadly, they are not yet so easy to change. To change the icon for a single launcher, right click on the launcher, <right click> on the launcher, select modify this launcher, and change the image’s name or path to the icon you want to use. Using .svg is better than .png because of Cairo’s ability to ‘zoom in’ on active icons.

If you set the entire path for the launcher, then everytime you want to change theme, you will have to change the launcher as well. As an alternative, you can just enter the name fo the file, without the extension. Then go to the Icons tab and scroll down to Icons’ themes. You can add your icon directory to here, and Cairo-Dock will look in that directory for an icon of the same name that you entered for the launcher. If _ThemeDirectory_ is top, then Cairo will first look there, and if it doesn’t find anything, then look in your folder. If you move your folder up the list, Cairo will look there first. It will also look in these folders for application icons it can use.

An alternative is to create your own proper icon theme for Cairo-Dock. To do this, place your chosen icons in ~/.cairo-dock/current_theme/launchers. Each icon must have the same name as the class for the relevant application. To find the class for an application, make sure it’s open, and then go to a terminal and type

xprop | grep WM_CLASS

This will bring up a little pointer, which you use to click on the relevant window. This will call up a range of information on that window, which grep will then search for the WM_CLASS section. The feedback you get will look something like this:

WM_CLASS(STRING) = “abiword”, “Abiword”

To get Cairo-Dock to show the correct icon, the icon in current_theme/launchers must be given the same name as the application class, so for example ‘abiword.svg’ or ‘abiword.png’. You will need to set up icons for all the major programs you’re likely to need. If in doubt, just make a list of the icons in there from the default theme, and make sure that all your icons have the same names.

You can also change icons for Cairo-Docks applets. For example, if you’re using the trash applet, <right click> on it, configure this module, go to the module tab and choose the relevant images there.


Indicators are another area where a little effort can have a big effect on your Cairo look. Apart from anything else, if you’ve set up a lovely looking dock, and you still have the indicators from the old theme, they could completely ruin it!

You customise indicators by going to the Indicators tab of the configuration panel. If you don’t want any indicators, you can turn them off by unticking the relevant boxes; ‘Display a drop indicator on icon while dragging over them’, ‘Draw indicator above the icon’, ‘Display the indicator above the icon’ and ‘Link the indicator with its icon’. You will also need to set ‘Linewidth of the frame around the active window’ to 0.

However, indicators could be set up to have some nice effects, so you may not want to just simply turn them all off. To truly get the best from them, you may have to be a little artistic. You need to create an image for each indicator.

  • The drag-and-drop indciator should be orientated from top to bottom, to symbolise falling. An arrow would be a good example.
  • The drag-over indicator is displayed on an icon when you drag something over it. It is usually about 1/3 the size of the icon.
  • The active window indicator can be a colored frame around the active window. You can set the color, the thickness, and how rounded the corners of the frame will be here.
  • The active launcher indicator should be shown under the icon for launchers that have been activated, however you can adjust it vertically if you prefer it higher. You can input any suitable image, just as with the drag’n’drop indicator.


Just changing the dock view type, the appearance in Backgrounds and changing the icon set, should be enough to create a wide variety of very different looks. Here are some simple examples. There are many more on the Cairo-Dock Website.  My current dock uses the ‘Gartoon Redux‘ icon set from Gnome-Look. My old one used the ‘Black-white 2 gloss‘ set.

A fun pink-themed Cairo

A fun pink-themed Cairo

An early Cairo-Theme I made

An early Cairo-Theme I made

A very Grey Cairo-Dock

A very Grey Cairo-Dock



Filed under How To, Linux

4 responses to “How To – Configuring Cairo-Dock

  1. Phil

    Thanks for all the work on this configuration tutorial. Very much appreciated. I am having much fun modifying my Cairo dock.

    • lusule

      I’m glad you found it useful! I keep meaning to write more tutorials, but unfortunately time has got the better of me at the moment. Hopefully I’ll have some more for you soon!

  2. gigi

    Very nice info, thanks!

  3. Thanks. Succes change dock position manually with alt. Thanks thanks thanks

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