Compile Lemonbar Xft on Debian 10 Buster

UPDATE 2019-06-24. I created my own fork for this very purpose. See how I forked lemonbar-xft.

Lemonbar is a lightweight program that draws a panel on the viewport. The information on display is whatever is pipped to it.

The problem: upstream only works with bitmap fonts

Upstream lemonbar lacks support for proportional fonts and the corresponding interface with fontconfig.

This is a disappointment because fixed/bitmap typefaces leave much to be desired:

  • support for Greek glyphs is limited to a handful of typefaces such as terminus, fixed, times;
  • the quality of bold variants can be lower than the regular ones;
  • only specific point sizes work well;
  • colours are less distinct on a light background.

The solution: compile lemonbar-xft (my fork)

There is a popular alternative by GitHub user krypt-n that provides Xft support, but seems to have been discontinued. So I have decided to pick it up and maintain it. To make sure it syncs with upstream’s master branch and builds correctly.

So let us get going. First we need to get the build dependencies for Debian 10 Buster:

sudo apt install build-essential libx11-dev libxft-dev libx11-xcb-dev libxcb-randr0-dev libxcb-xinerama0-dev

Now clone my lemonbar-xft fork:

git clone

Switch to that directory:

cd lemonbar-xft

Compile it and install it system-wide:

sudo make install

Or if you are like me, compile it just for your current user, by placing the artifacts in your home directory. This assumes you have configured $HOME/bin to be part of PATH.

make PREFIX="$HOME" install

Uninstalling it requires the same steps, except you just pass the uninstall argument.

Done! Now lemonbar can use any typeface supported by fontconfig. Make sure you apt remove lemonbar in case you had the upstream package.

Closing thoughts

I generally stick to the packages provided by Debian. This is an exception because:

  1. Lemonbar is developed at a slow pace, so I can afford to inspect all commits.
  2. It is a small program that compiles in virtually no time. I am fairly confident that combined with the above, the compilation process will not become more complex in the foreseeable future.
  3. Upstream does not offer any good reason why it does not consider Xft support (see #188). This leads me to believe that there will be no progress on this front, at least not with how things currently stand.

The above granted, I am still not sure whether I will make changes to my custom desktop session, which still uses upstream lemonbar. I might just add a reference in my Prot’s Dots For Debian for users that want to follow the instruction documented herein.