Waf tutorial

Waf is a piece of software used to help building software projects. The goal of this tutorial is to provide a quick overview of how to set up the scripts for a project using Waf.

Waf scripts and commands

A software typically has source files which are kept in a version control system (git, subversion, etc), and build scripts (Makefiles, ..) which describe what to do with those files. A few build files are usually obtained after transforming the source files, but they are optional. The build scripts in Waf are files named ‘wscript’.

In general, a project will consist of several phases:

  • configure: configure the project, find the location of the prerequisites
  • build: transform the source files into build files
  • install: install the build files
  • uninstall: uninstall the build files
  • dist: create an archive of the source files
  • clean: remove the build files

Each phase is modelled in the wscript file as a python function which takes as argument an instance of waflib.Context.Context. Let’s start with a new wscript file in the directory ‘/tmp/myproject’:

def configure(cnf):

def build(bld):

We will also use a Waf binary file, for example waf-2.0.0, which we will copy in the project directory:

$ cd /tmp/myproject
$ wget https://waf.io/waf-2.0.0

To execute the project, we will simply call the command as an argument to waf:

$ python ./waf-2.0.0 configure build


An important part of the build system is to declare the creation of targets. Here is a very simple example:

def build(bld):
        tg = bld(rule='cp ${SRC} ${TGT}', source='wscript', target='foo.txt')
        bld(rule='cp ${SRC} ${TGT}', source='foo.txt', target='bar.txt')

The call bld(..) creates an object called task generator, which is used to create tasks which will actually call the command cp. The commands are not executed unless all the scripts have been read, which is important for computing the build order.

The expressions ${SRC} and ${TGT} are shortcuts to avoid repeating the file names. More shortcuts can be defined by using the ${} symbol, which reads the values from the attribute bld.env:

def build(bld):
        bld.env.MESSAGE = 'Hello, world!'
        bld(rule='echo ${MESSAGE}', always=True)

The bld object is an instance of waflib.Build.BuildContext, its env attribute is an instance waflib.ConfigSet.ConfigSet. This object is also accessible as an attribute on the configure() method’s cnf parameter. Therefore, values can be shared/stored/loaded easily:

def configure(cnf):
cnf.env.MESSAGE = ‘Hello, world!’
def build(bld):
bld(rule=’echo ${MESSAGE}’, always=True)

Scripts and Tools

To let a script use a script from a subdirectory, the method waflib.Context.Context.recurse() has to be used with the relative path to the folder containing the wscript file. For example, to call the function build in the script src/wscript, one should write:

def build(bld):

The support for specific languages and compilers is provided through specific modules called Waf tools. The tools are similar to wscript files and provide functions such as configure or build. Here is a simple project for the C programming language:

def options(opt):
def configure(cnf):
def build(bld):
        bld(features='c cprogram', source='main.c', target='app')

The function options is another predefined command used for setting command-line options. Its argument is an instance of waflib.Options.OptionsContext(). The tool compiler_c is provided for detecting if a C compiler is present and to set various variables such as cnf.env.CFLAGS.

The task generator declared in bld does not have a rule keyword, but a list of features which is used to reference methods that will call the appropriate rules. In this case, a rule is called for compiling the file, and another is used for linking the object files into the binary app. Other tool-dependent features exist such as javac, cs, or tex.

A C and C++ project

Here is a script for a more complicated project:

def options(opt):
        opt.load('compiler_c compiler_cxx')
def configure(cnf):
        cnf.load('compiler_c compiler_cxx')
        cnf.check(features='cxx cxxprogram', lib=['m'], cflags=['-Wall'], defines=['var=foo'], uselib_store='M')
def build(bld):
        bld(features='c cshlib', source='b.c', target='mylib')
        bld(features='c cxx cxxprogram', source='a.c main.cpp', target='app', use=['M','mylib'], lib=['dl'])

The method waflib.Tools.c_config.check() executes a build internally to check if the library libm is present on the operating system. It will then define variables such as:

  • cnf.env.LIB_M = ['m']
  • cnf.env.CFLAGS_M = ['-Wall']
  • cnf.env.DEFINES_M = ['var=foo']

By stating use=['M', 'mylib'], the program app is going to inherit all the M variables defined during the configuration. The program will also use the library mylib and both the build order and the dependencies will be modified so that mylib is linked before app.

The use attribute is also working for other languages such as Java (dependencies between jar files) or C# (dependencies between assemblies).

Project-specific extensions

The feature keyword is a high-level reference to existing Waf methods. For example, the c feature will add the method waflib.Tools.ccroot.apply_incpaths() for execution. To add a new method that will add the task generator path to the include path for all C targets, one may use such a declaration:

from waflib import Utils
from waflib.TaskGen import feature, before_method
def add_current_dir_to_includes(self):
        self.includes = Utils.to_list(self.includes)

def build(bld):
        tg = bld(features='c', source='main.c', target='app')

The feature methods are bound to the waflib.TaskGen.task_gen class, which is the class of the object tg in the example. New features can be declared in the same manner:

from waflib.TaskGen import feature, after_method
def print_debug(self):
        print('tasks created %r' % self.tasks)

def build(bld):
        tg = bld(features='c cprogram debug_tasks', source='main.c', target='app')

The declaration can be made more user-friendly by binding new methods to the context classes:

from waflib.Build import BuildContext
def enterprise_program(self, *k, **kw):
        kw['features'] = 'c cprogram debug_tasks'
        return self(*k, **kw)
BuildContext.enterprise_program = enterprise_program

def build(bld):
        # no feature line
        bld.enterprise_program(source='main.c', target='app')

The support code may be turned into a Waf tool by moving it to a separate file. To ease the deployment, the new Waf tool can even be added to the waf file (see https://gitlab.com/ita1024/waf/blob/master/README.md#L20).


This concludes the tutorial. For more information consult the apis, the Waf book and the examples.