Tool Framework

This document briefly outlines the structure of the tool system in the GAL canvases.


The GAL (Graphics Abstraction Layer) framework provides a powerful method of easily adding tools to KiCad. Compared to the older "legacy" canvas, GAL tools are more flexible, powerful and much easier to write.

A GAL "tool" is a class which provides one or more "actions" to perform. An action can be a simple one-off action (e.g. "zoom in" or "flip object"), or an interactive process (e.g. "manually edit polygon points").

Some examples of tools in the Pcbnew GAL are:

  • The selection tool - the "normal" tool. This tool enters a state where items can be added to a list of selected objects, which are then made available for other tools to act on. (pcbnew/tools/selection_tool.cpp, pcbnew/tools/selection_tool.h)

  • The edit tool - this tool is active when a component is "picked up", and tracks the mouse position to allow the user to move a component. Aspects of editing (e.g. flip) are also make available for use by hotkeys or other tools. (pcbnew/tools/edit_tool.cpp,pcbnew/tools/edit_tool.h)

  • The drawing tool - this tool controls the process of drawing graphics elements such as line segments and circles. (pcbnew/tools/drawing_tool.cpp,pcbnew/tools/drawing_tool.h)

  • The zoom tool - allows the user to zoom in and out.

Major parts of a tool

There are two main aspects to tools: the actions and the the tool class.

Tool actions

The TOOL_ACTION class acts as a handle for the GAL framework to call on actions provided by tools. Generally, every action, interactive or not, has a TOOL_ACTION instance. This provides:

  • A "name", which is of the format pcbnew.ToolName.actionName, which is used internally to dispatch the action

  • A "scope", which determines when the tools is available:

  • AS_CONTEXT, when the action is specific to a particular tool. For example, pcbnew.InteractiveDrawing.incWidth increases the width of a line while the line is still being drawn.

  • AS_GLOBAL, when the tool can always be invoked, by a hotkey, or during the execution of a different tool. For example, the zoom actions can be accessed from the selection tool’s menu during the interactive selection process.

  • A "default hotkey", which is used if the user doesn’t provide their own configuration.

  • A "menu item", which is the (translatable) string shown when this tool is accessed from a menu.

  • A "menu description", which is the string shown in the menu item’s tooltip and provides a more detailed description if needed.

  • An "icon", which is shown in menus and on buttons for the action

  • "Flags" which include:

  • AF_ACTIVATE which indicates that the tool enters an active state. When a tool is active it will keep receiving UI events, such as mouse clicks or key presses, which are normally handled in an event loop (see TOOL_INTERACTIVE::Wait()).

  • A parameter, which allows different actions to call the same function with different effects, for example "step left" and "step right".

The tool class

GAL tools inherit the TOOL_BASE class. A Pcbnew tool will generally inherit from PCB_TOOL, which is a TOOL_INTERACTIVE, which is a TOOL_BASE. Eeschema tools inherit directly from TOOL_INTERACTIVE.

The tool class for a tool can be fairly lightweight - much of the functionality is inherited from the tool’s base classes. These base classes provide access to several things, particularly:

  • Access to the parent frame (a wxWindow, which can be used to modify the viewport, set cursors and status bar content, etc.

  • Use the function getEditFrame<T>(), where T is the frame subclass you want. In PCB_TOOL, this is likely PCB_EDIT_FRAME.

  • Access to the TOOL_MANAGER which can be used to access other tools' actions.

  • Access to the "model" (some sort of EDA_ITEM) which backs the tool.

  • Access with getModel<T>(). In PCB_TOOL, the model type T is BOARD, which can be used to access and modify the PCB content.

  • Access to the KIGFX::VIEW and KIGFX::VIEW_CONTROLS, which are used to manipulate the GAL canvas.

The major parts of tool’s implementation are the functions used by the TOOL_MANAGER to set up and manage the tool:

  • Constructor and destructor to establish whatever class members are required.

  • The TOOL_BASE class requires a string to be passed for the tool name, which normally looks like pcbnew.ToolName.

  • Init() function (optional), which is commonly used to fill in a context menu, either belonging to this tool, or access another tool’s menu and add items to that. This function is called once, when the tool is registered with the tool manager.

  • Reset() function, called when the model (e.g. the BOARD) is reloaded, when the GAL canvas is switched, and also just after tool registration. Any resource claimed from the GAL view or the model must be released in this function, as they could become invalid.

  • setTransitions() function, which maps tool actions to functions within the tool class.

  • One or more functions to call when actions are invoked. Many actions can invoke the same function if desired. The functions have the following signature:

  • int TOOL_CLASS::FunctionName( const TOOL_EVENT& aEvent )

  • Returning 0 means success.

  • These functions are called by the TOOL_MANAGER in case an associated event arrives (association is created with TOOL_INTERACTIVE::Go() function).

  • These can generally be private, as they are not called directly by any other code, but are invoked by the tool manager’s coroutine framework according to the setTransitions() map.

Interactive actions

The action handlers for an interactive actions handle repeated actions from the tool manager in a loop, until an action indicating that the tool should exit.

Interactive tools also normally indicate that they are active with a cursor change and by setting a status string.

    int TOOL_NAME::someAction( const TOOL_EVENT& aEvent )
        auto& frame = *getEditFrame<PCB_EDIT_FRAME>();

        // set tool hint and cursor (actually looks like a crosshair)
        frame.SetToolID( ID_LOCAL_RATSNEST_BUTT,
                wxCURSOR_PENCIL, _( "Select item to move left" ) );
        getViewControls()->ShowCursor( true );

        // activate the tool, now it will be the first one to receive events
        // you can skip this, if you are writing a handler for a single action
        // (e.g. zoom in), opposed to interactive tool that requires further
        // events to operate (e.g. dragging a component)

        // the main event loop
        while( OPT_TOOL_EVENT evt = Wait() )
            if( evt->IsCancel() || evt->IsActivate() )
                // end of interactive tool
            else if( evt->IsClick( BUT_LEFT ) )
                // do something here
            // other events...

        // reset the PCB frame to how it was when we got it
        frame.SetToolID( ID_NO_TOOL_SELECTED, wxCURSOR_DEFAULT, wxEmptyString );
        getViewControls()->ShowCursor( false );

        return 0;

The tool menu

Top level tools, i.e. tools that the user enters directly, usually provide their own context menu. Tools that are called only from other tools' interactive modes add their menu items to those tools' menus.

To use a TOOL_MENU in a top level tool, simply add one as a member and initialize it with a reference to the tools at construction time:

class TOOL_NAME: public PCB_TOOL
    TOOL_NAME() :
        PCB_TOOL( "pcbnew.MyNewTool" ),
        m_menu( *this )

    TOOL_MENU m_menu;

You can then add a menu accessor, or provide a custom function to allow other tools to add any other actions, or a subset that you think appropriate.

You can then invoke the menu from an interactive tool loop by calling m_menu.ShowContextMenu(). Clicking on the tool’s entry in this menu will trigger the action - there is no further action needed in your tool’s event loop.

Commit objects

The COMMIT class manages changes to EDA_ITEMS, which combines changes on any number of items into a single undo/redo action. When editing PCBs, changes to the PCB are managed by the derived BOARD_COMMIT class.

This class takes either a PCB_BASE_FRAME or a PCB_TOOL as an argument. Using PCB_TOOL is more appropriate for a GAL tool, since there’s no need to go though a frame class if not required.

The procedure of a commit is:

  • Construct an appropriate COMMIT object

  • Before modifying any item, add it to the commit with Modify( item ) so that the current item state can be stored as an undo point.

  • When adding a new item, call Add( item ). Do not delete the added item, unless you are going to abort the commit.

  • When removing an item, call Remove( item ). You should not delete the removed item, it will be stored in the undo buffer.

  • Finalize the commit with Push( "Description" ). If you performed no modifications, additions or removals, this is a no-op, so you don’t need to check if you made any changes before pushing.

If you want to abort a commit, you can just destruct it, without calling Push(). The underlying model won’t be updated.

As an example:

// Construct commit from current PCB_TOOL
BOARD_COMMIT commit( this );

BOARD_ITEM* modifiedItem = getSomeItemToModify();

// tell the commit we're going to change the item
commit.Modify( modifiedItem );

// update the item
modifiedItem->Move( x, y );

// create a new item
PCB_SHAPE* newItem = new PCB_SHAPE;

// ... set up item here

// add to commit
commit.Add( newItem );

// update the model and add the undo point
commit.Push( "Modified one item, added another" );

Tutorial: Adding a new tool

Without getting too heavily into the details of how the GAL tool framework is implemented under the surface, let’s look at how you could add a brand new tool to Pcbnew. Our tool will have the following (rather useless) functions:

  • An interactive tool which will allow the user to select a point, choose from the items at that point and then move that item 10mm to the left.

  • While in this mode, the context menu will have more options:

  • Use of the "normal" canvas zoom and grid options

  • A non-interactive tool which will add a fixed circle at a fixed point.

  • A way to invoke the non-interactive "unfill all zones" tool from the PCB_EDITOR_CONTROL tool.

Declare tool actions {#declare-actions}

The first step is to add tool actions. We will implement two actions named:

  • Pcbnew.UselessTool.MoveItemLeft - the interactive tool

  • Pcbnew.UselessTool.FixedCircle - the non-interactive tool.

The "unfill tool" already exists with the name pcbnew.EditorControl.zoneUnfillAll.

This guide assumes we will be adding a tool to Pcbnew, but the procedure for other GAL-capable canvases will be similar.

In pcbnew/tools/pcb_actions.h, we add the following to the PCB_ACTIONS class, which declares our tools:

static TOOL_ACTION uselessMoveItemLeft;
static TOOL_ACTION uselessFixedCircle;

Definitions of actions generally happen in the .cpp of the relevant tool. It doesn’t actually matter where the definition occurs (the declaration is enough to use the action), as long as it’s linked in the end. Similar tools should always be defined together.

In our case, since we’re making a new tool, this will be in pcbnew/tools/useless_tool.cpp. If adding actions to existing tools, the prefix of the tool string (e.g. "Pcbnew.UselessTool") will be a strong indicator as to where to define the tool.

The tools definitions look like this:

        AS_GLOBAL, MD_CTRL + MD_SHIFT + int( 'L' ),
        _( "Move item left" ), _( "Select and move item left" ) );

        AS_GLOBAL, MD_CTRL + MD_SHIFT + int( 'C' ),
        _( "Fixed circle" ), _( "Add a fixed size circle in a fixed place" ),
        add_circle_xpm );

We have defined hotkeys for each action, and they are both global. This means you can use Shift+Ctrl+L and Shift-Ctrl-C to access each tool respectively.

We defined an icon for one of the tools, which should appear in any menu the item is added to, along with the given label and explanatory tooltip.

We now have two actions defined, but they are not connected to anything. We need to define a functions which implement the right actions. You can add these to an existing tool (for example PCB_EDITOR_CONTROL, which deals with many general PCB modification operation like zone filling), or you can write a whole new tool to keep things separate and give you more scope for adding tool state.

We will write our own tool to demonstrate the process.

Add tool class declaration

Add a new tool class header pcbnew/tools/useless_tool.h containing the following class:

class USELESS_TOOL : public PCB_TOOL

    ///> React to model/view changes
    void Reset( RESET_REASON aReason ) override;

    ///> Basic initialization
    bool Init() override;

    ///> Bind handlers to corresponding TOOL_ACTIONs
    void setTransitions() override;

    ///> 'Move selected left' interactive tool
    int moveLeft( const TOOL_EVENT& aEvent );

    ///> Internal function to perform the move left action
    void moveLeftInt();

    ///> Add a fixed size circle
    int fixedCircle( const TOOL_EVENT& aEvent );

    ///> Menu model displayed by the tool.
    TOOL_MENU m_menu;

Implement tool class methods

In the pcbnew/tools/useless_tool.cpp, implement the required methods. In this file, you might also add free function helpers, other classes, and so on.

You will need to add this file to the pcbnew/CMakeLists.txt to build it.

Below you will find the contents of useless_tool.cpp:

#include "useless_tool.h"

#include <class_draw_panel_gal.h>
#include <view/view_controls.h>
#include <view/view.h>
#include <tool/tool_manager.h>
#include <board_commit.h>

// For frame ToolID values
#include <pcbnew_id.h>

// For action icons
#include <bitmaps.h>

// Items tool can act on
#include <class_board_item.h>
#include <class_drawsegment.h>

// Access to other PCB actions and tools
#include "pcb_actions.h"
#include "selection_tool.h"

  * Tool-specific action definitions
        AS_GLOBAL, MD_CTRL + MD_SHIFT + int( 'L' ),
        _( "Move item left" ), _( "Select and move item left" ) );

TOOL_ACTION PCB_ACTIONS::uselessFixedCircle(
        AS_GLOBAL, MD_CTRL + MD_SHIFT + int( 'C' ),
        _( "Fixed circle" ), _( "Add a fixed size circle in a fixed place" ),
        add_circle_xpm );

  * USELESS_TOOL implementation

        PCB_TOOL( "pcbnew.UselessTool" ),
        m_menu( *this )


void USELESS_TOOL::Reset( RESET_REASON aReason )

bool USELESS_TOOL::Init()
    auto& menu = m_menu.GetMenu();

    // add our own tool's action
    menu.AddItem( PCB_ACTIONS::uselessFixedCircle );
    // add the PCB_EDITOR_CONTROL's zone unfill all action
    menu.AddItem( PCB_ACTIONS::zoneUnfillAll );

    // Add standard zoom and grid tool actions
    m_menu.AddStandardSubMenus( *getEditFrame<PCB_BASE_FRAME>() );

    return true;

void USELESS_TOOL::moveLeftInt()
    // we will call actions on the selection tool to get the current
    // selection. The selection tools will handle item disambiguation
    PCB_SELECTION_TOOL* selectionTool = m_toolMgr->GetTool<PCB_SELECTION_TOOL>();
    assert( selectionTool );

    // call the actions
    m_toolMgr->RunAction( PCB_ACTIONS::selectionClear, true );
    m_toolMgr->RunAction( PCB_ACTIONS::selectionCursor, true );

    const SELECTION& selection = selectionTool->GetSelection();

    // nothing selected, return to event loop
    if( selection.Empty() )

    BOARD_COMMIT commit( this );

    // iterate BOARD_ITEM* container, moving each item
    for( auto item : selection )
        commit.Modify( item );
        item->Move( wxPoint( -5 * IU_PER_MM, 0 ) );

    // push commit - if selection were empty, this is a no-op
    commit.Push( "Move left" );

int USELESS_TOOL::moveLeft( const TOOL_EVENT& aEvent )
    auto& frame = *getEditFrame<PCB_EDIT_FRAME>();

    // set tool hint and cursor (actually looks like a crosshair)
    frame.SetToolID( ID_NO_TOOL_SELECTED,
            wxCURSOR_PENCIL, _( "Select item to move left" ) );

    getViewControls()->ShowCursor( true );


    // handle tool events for as long as the tool is active
    while( OPT_TOOL_EVENT evt = Wait() )
        if( evt->IsCancel() || evt->IsActivate() )
            // end of interactive tool
        else if( evt->IsClick( BUT_RIGHT ) )
        else if( evt->IsClick( BUT_LEFT ) )
            // invoke the main action logic

            // keep showing the edit cursor
            getViewControls()->ShowCursor( true );

    // reset the PCB frame to how it was we got it
    frame.SetToolID( ID_NO_TOOL_SELECTED, wxCURSOR_DEFAULT, wxEmptyString );
    getViewControls()->ShowCursor( false );

    // exit action
    return 0;

int USELESS_TOOL::fixedCircle( const TOOL_EVENT& aEvent )
    // new circle to add (ideally use a smart pointer)
    PCB_SHAPE* circle = new PCB_SHAPE;

    // Set the circle attributes
    circle->SetShape( S_CIRCLE );
    circle->SetWidth( 5 * IU_PER_MM );
    circle->SetStart( wxPoint( 50 * IU_PER_MM, 50 * IU_PER_MM ) );
    circle->SetEnd( wxPoint( 80 * IU_PER_MM, 80 * IU_PER_MM ) );
    circle->SetLayer(  LAYER_ID::F_SilkS );

    // commit the circle to the BOARD
    BOARD_COMMIT commit( this );
    commit.Add( circle );
    commit.Push( _( "Draw a circle" ) );

    return 0;

void USELESS_TOOL::setTransitions()
    Go( &USELESS_TOOL::fixedCircle, PCB_ACTIONS::uselessFixedCircle.MakeEvent() );
    Go( &USELESS_TOOL::moveLeft,    PCB_ACTIONS::uselessMoveItemLeft.MakeEvent() );

Register the tool

The last step is to register the tool in the tool manager.

This is done in the frame’s setupTools() function for whichever EDA_DRAW_FRAME support that tool.

Build and run

When this is all done, you should have modified the following files:

  • pcbnew/tools/common_actions.h - action declarations

  • pcbnew/tools/useless_tool.h - tool header

  • pcbnew/tools/useless_tool.cpp - action definitions and tool implementation

  • pcbnew/tools/tools_common.cpp - registration of the tool

  • pcbnew/CMakeLists.txt - for building the new .cpp files

When you run Pcbnew, you should be able to press Shift+Ctrl+L to enter the "move item left" tool - the cursor will change to a crosshair and "Select item to move left" appears in the bottom right corner.

When you right-click, you get a menu, which contains an entry for our "create fixed circle" tool and one for the existing "unfill all zones" tool which we added to the menu. You can also use Shift+Ctrl+C to access the fixed circle action.

Congratulations, you have just created your first KiCad tool!