Chapter 10.  Units and Coordinate Systems

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Extension Units

Inkscape extension documentation page has a units page. Inkscape units themselves are not complicated, and the difficult part is how Inkscape projects units in user coordinate system to viewport coordinate system.

Most common units in Inkscape are pixel, point, millimeter, and inch. The inkex/ module defines a CONVERSIONS dictionary. The base unit is pixel or px. The dictionary value is the converting factor from other unit to px. For example, 1 in equals 96.0 px, and 1 point or pt equals 1.3333 px.

# a dictionary of unit to user unit conversion factors
    'in': 96.0,
    'pt': 1.3333333333333333,
    'px': 1.0,
    'mm': 3.779527559055118,
    'cm': 37.79527559055118,
    'm': 3779.527559055118,
    'km': 3779527.559055118,
    'Q': 0.94488188976378,
    'pc': 16.0,
    'yd': 3456.0,
    'ft': 1152.0,
    '': 1.0,  # Default px

When we are working on a drawing, we often use different units to describe different elements. We describe the line stroke width as 1px or 2px, line length as 20mm or 1.5in, font size as 12pt or 10pt, paper size as letter (8.5in x 11in) in the US, or A4 (210mm x 297mm).

The 1px stroke width is an commonly picked number. If we want narrower width, 0.75px is a good choice. We can choose 1.5px or 2px width when we need a bolder line. Microsoft Word default font is 11pt Calibri, and it was 12pt Times New Roman in earlier versions. An 10pt font size is still considered legible when printed on paper, and smaller font size is often considered too tiny to read.

Coordinate Systems

When we create a Line element and add it to the drawing, we usually do not need to specify a unit for line length. For example, here is the code for el11 in previous chapter.

el1 = Line()
el1.set('x1', '10')
el1.set('y1', '10')
el1.set('x2', '40')
el1.set('y2', '40')

We do not need to specify the units for the SVG file either. The default A4 page SVG file has those lines.

   viewBox="0 0 210 297"

What do those numbers mean? The width and height attributes of svg tag mean the Inkscape canvas size. It is also called viewport coordinate system. It is on the right hand side of the following drawing. The default size 210mm x 297mm is the same size of a piece of A4 page. When we export the drawing to an PDF file, it will have the same size. If we print the PDF file on a piece of A4 paper, it is supposed to be 100% of the PDF.


When we create a line from (10, 10) to (40, 40), the coordinates are in the user coordinate system or user space. It is on the left hand size of the above drawing. The user coordinate system origin and size are defined as the viewBox attribute of svg tag. The viewBox attribue values (0 0 210 297) also do not have units.

What are the units of those values? The svg specification says that the default user space unit is pixel. If we set the line start point as (10px, 10px) and end point as (40px, 40px) the result will be the same. However, the line will show up on the canvas as from (10mm, 10mm) to (40mm, 40mm) because line is mapped from user coordinate system to viewport coordinate system. This is confusing here. We set the coordinates in pixel, but they show up on canvas in mm. So it is better to leave the units out.

el1.set('x1', '10px') # same as `10`
el1.set('y1', '10px') # prefer no unit
el1.set('x2', '40px')
el1.set('y2', '40px')

If we set the line from (10mm, 10mm) to (40mm, 40mm), it will be the same as set the coordinates from (37.795, 37.995) to (151.18, 151.18) in the user space. Inkscape will automatically convert those numbers to pixels.

Unit Conversion

What if we know the size of an element on canvas, what value should we set in user space? For example, we want a line with a stroke width of 1px, what value should we set for the stroke-width attribute? The stroke width of 1px is the same as 1/3.7795 = 0.2646mm. When we set the stroke-width value as 0.2646, it will show up as 1px width on canvas.

We can also call unittouu method (property) of BaseElement class to do the conversion for us. It will convert a value in viewport coordinate system to user space. This covers most of what we need to know about Inkscape units and coordinate system mapping.

sw = self.svg.unittouu('1px') # sw is .2645...

If we want 10pt font size text, we set the font-size to the below value. This is a more natural way to describe element sizes.

fz = self.svg.unittouu('10pt') # fz value is 3.5278

You may find coordinate mapping confusing if you do not have prior experiences on computer graphics system. The Inkscape 1.0 changes the y-axle of the viewport coordinate system to increase fom top to bottom, and origin to the top left corner. Before Inkscape 1.0, the origin is at the bottom left corner. You can imagine that the coordinate systems are even more confusing then.

Units Module

The inkex/ Python module is independent of other modules, so it’s easy to understand code in this module. Let’s experiment the module in Python interpreter. Start the python interpreter with /usr/bin/python3 command if the system has multiple python versions installed. This is the system Python with lxml module installed.

george@Inspiron-5515:~$ /usr/bin/python3
Python 3.9.5 (default, May 11 2021, 08:20:37) 
[GCC 10.3.0] on linux
Type "help", "copyright", "credits" or "license" for more information.

If we simply import inkex, the interpreter can’t find where the module is located. We can add the path to the sys.path.

>>> import inkex
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
ModuleNotFoundError: No module named 'inkex'

>>> import sys
>>> sys.path.append('/usr/share/inkscape/extensions')

>>> import inkex
>>> dir(inkex.units)
>>> help(inkex.units)

The help(inkex.units) command will show the functions defined in the module and a short description for each function.

  • are_near_relative(point_a, point_b, eps=0.01)
    Return true if the points are near to eps

  • convert_unit(value, to_unit, default='px')
    Returns user units given a string representation of units in another system

  • discover_unit(value, viewbox, default='px')
    Attempt to detect the unit being used based on the viewbox

  • parse_unit(value, default_unit='px', default_value=None)
    Takes a value such as 55.32px and returns (55.32, ‘px’)
    Returns default (None) if no match can be found

  • render_unit(value, unit)
    Checks and then renders a number with its unit

It is nice to have source code available. But it is easier for us to understand how to use those functions through examples. We can grep the Inkscape system extensions to find out how they are used.

>>> from inkex import units
>>> p = units.parse_unit('55.32px')
>>> p
(55.32, 'px')

>>> p = units.parse_unit('55.32pt')
>>> p
(55.32, 'pt')

>>> p = units.parse_unit('55.32bt')
>>> p # returns None

>>> p = units.parse_unit('55.32')
>>> p
(55.32, 'px') # default unit is pixel

>>> units.are_near_relative(0.123, 0.121)
>>> units.are_near_relative(0.123, 0.122)
>>> units.are_near_relative(0.1234, 0.1232)

>>> units.discover_unit('210mm', 210, default='px')
>>> units.discover_unit('8.5in', 210, default='px')
'px'  # default
>>> units.discover_unit('8.5in', 215.9, default='px')
'mm'  # letter size

>>> units.convert_unit('8.5in', 'mm')

>>> units.render_unit(10, 'in')

>>> units.convert_unit('8.5', 'mm')
>>> units.convert_unit('1px', 'mm')
>>> units.convert_unit('10pt', 'mm')