An awl is the most simple yet versatile tool used in various crafting activities. If you are a DIYer and don’t already have an awl in your toolbox, you should definitely consider picking one up!
What is an awl used for? An awl is used for puncturing holes into or scribing lines onto various materials. The aim is to create a starting point or guide for other tools.
Keep reading to learn about the different types of awls and what they are used for in woodworking, metal work, and stitching, among other crafts.
Types Of Awls
For those who do not know what an awl is, let’s define it. An awl is pointed metal on a handle. It features a steel rod or shaft often attached to a wooden or plastic haft.
This is the general design but there are multiple variations. The tip may be curved, pointed, rounded, diamond, beveled, etc. The haft can be a short bulbous knob or elongated like a screwdriver’s handle.
They also come in many sizes. For example, the length of the steel shaft and the width of the spiked point varies across awls. All these awls have diverse and sometimes similar functions. Some have different names across trades but perform identical jobs.
There are more awls than we could simply cover in one post. So let’s focus on the following common types of awls:
- Scratch Awl – A scratch awl is also known as a scribe awl. It is made of a sharp pointed shank. It is the most versatile awl utilized across trades and can go by different names depending on the craft.
- Sewing Awl – A sewing awl features a needlepoint tip with an eye for threading. It can be straight or slightly arched and is often used in leatherwork and textiles. It is also called the stitching awl or leather awl.
- Bradawl – A bradawl is specific to woodworking. It is designed with a flat tip.
- Bridle Awl – The bridle awl, also known as the harness awl, is particular to leather work. It is made of a long shaft with a diamond-shaped tip.
- Stabbing Awl – The stabbing awl can easily be identified by its smooth tapered sharp pointed shaft. It punches holes in tough fabrics. It is also known as a tapered awl, sailmaker’s awl, or pegging awl.
Uses Of An Awl
While an awl is used to either make a hole or scratch a surface, each type is uniquely designed for specific crafts such as woodworking or leatherwork.
Let’s look at how a variety of awls are used in different crafts and the type of awl best suited for the job.
Uses Of An Awl In Woodworking
A scratch awl is the predominant type of awl used in woodworking. You wouldn’t miss it on the workbench of serious carpenters. It features a round pointed steel shaft and a wooden bulbous handle.
There are two main uses of a scratch awl in woodworking. The first one is to scratch lines on the wood to act as a guide for wood cutting tools to follow a straight path and not veer off the precise location.
When you scribe the wooden surface with an awl, it takes away a bit of the material, leaving behind a shallow groove. Once you set the blade of a saw or a chisel into the groove, you can saw the wood without wandering off the mark.
To scribe wood using an awl, you must use a ruler with the awl. The first step is to make a mark where you want to scribe using a pencil. Then, positioning the ruler across the wood while holding it down firmly, drag the awl along the straight edge. You can now place the saw in the groove and saw the wood.
The second way a scratch awl is of use when working with wood is by making a pilot hole. An awl is used to mark a point on wood where you’d like to drive in a screw or nail or drill a hole.
Pushing the pointed tip of the scratch awl into the wood dents it. The purpose of the indentation is to be a starting point for a screw, nail, or drill bit.
By placing the screw or drill bit in the indentation, you can drive it through the precise spot without straying. This is especially helpful if you do not have a steady hand.
The scratch awl can be used on its own in softer wood. By just holding the handle firmly and pushing in the spiked end, you can easily make a hole in soft wood like pine, or cedar.
However, for the likes of teak, mahogany, oak, and other hardwoods which are denser, your hand strength alone may not be enough. You could use the help of a mallet or hammer to knock on top of the awl lightly to create a hole.
Once the hole is made, position the tip of the nail and screw or drill it into the hole to hold it in place before driving the tool in.
Another type of awl that is employed in creating pilot holes for brad nails and screws is the bradawl. The only difference between this awl and the scratch awl is that the tip of the bradawl is chiseled.
This beveled tip purposefully prevents the wood from splitting along the grain. How does that work?
First, you’ll place the chiseled tip on the face of the wood with the edge against the grain. You’ll then press the awl, making a slit before rotating it at 90° to make a round hole.
As the beveled tip rotates, it twists the wood fibers in the opposite direction, at the same time compressing them. This seals the inner part of the hole, which deters splitting.
Uses Of An Awl In Leather Work
You can always substitute an awl while working with wood or even do without it. However, an awl is indispensable in leatherwork.
Punching holes is necessary whether making leather shoes, bags, belts, saddles, or even something as simple as a wallet. You need to punch holes to stitch, make notches, eyelets, etc.
Leather being the tough fabric it is, an awl always makes the whole process smoother. There’s a variety of awls used in making leather crafts, some very advanced. Still, basic leather working awls are all you need.
The first awl crucial to leatherwork is the sewing awl. It is as essential as a needle is to dressmaking.
This awl is a dual-purpose kind of awl. It will punch holes in leather but also has an eye that can be threaded and used for sewing. It has a hollow section where a tiny bobbin sits.
Stitching awls are used to sew leather crafts using the lock stitch. It goes through two pieces of leather, pulling the thread as it retracts and goes to the next point.
For extra thick leather, a harness awl is preferred for making holes. This awl is most preferred by saddlers, though many leather crafters can use it.
It has a diamond-shaped tip that cuts through very thick leather. It makes an X rather than a round hole which makes for a tight and less obvious opening, thus a stronger saddle stitching.
Now before cutting and stitching leather pieces, crafters will normally create a layout by marking where to cut or punch holes and outline templates. Although a pencil is the best tool for the job on many materials, it doesn’t draw well on leather.
A scratch awl is what leather crafters use to scribe lines where the leather will be cut and make impressions where holes will go.
Lastly is the tapered awl. It punches various hole sizes depending on its diameter and how further up you push the leather. It may be used to make tiny holes in the leather before stitching with an ordinary needle, or eyelets with smooth edges for grommets or lacing.
Here’s how to stitch leather using an awl from The Leather Guy on YouTube.
Uses Of An Awl In Metal Work
Prior to cutting and fabrication of metal, steelworkers will first lay out patterns on metal sheets. Accuracy is paramount to obtaining the perfect fitting, hence an awl is used to mark and scribe the metal sheet. A scratch awl or a scribe awl is the tool for the job as it produces sharp crisp lines and marks.
In addition, you can turn to the scratch awl to dimple metals before drilling.
For more information on using awls for metalworking, take a look at this video from Tractorman44 on YouTube.
Uses Of An Awl In Textiles And Sewing
A sewing machine is typically what sewists use to sew fabric. However, when the fabric is too thick, a sewing or stitching awl is the alternative tool for lock stitching.
The sewing awl is normally used for sewing canvas, thick denim, and upholstery as well as sails. However, a stabbing or sailmaker awl is the correct awl for punching holes in sails or the other fabrics where you need to make eyelets for grommets, decorative hand-sewn eyelets, lacing, rivets (for denim), or button holes.
A tailor’s awl is typically what you would use when sewing everyday lightweight fabric. And when you happen to have that awl in hand while using a sewing machine, it also aids in feeding fabric under the foot as well as popping open the throat plate instead of unnecessarily hurting your fingernails.
An awl has also found uses in quilting. A ballpoint or quilter’s awl is typically used to pull out foundation papers in foundation paper piecing, pulling out errant stitches, and holding down thick quilt layers when going under the needle for neat, even stitching.
And because the tip is rounded rather than sharp, it doesn’t pierce through the fabric while doing all this.
Here’s how to use an awl for sewing from Sailrite on YouTube.
Uses Of An Awl In Shoemaking
Are you into shoemaking? A shoemaker’s awl is a shoemaking staple. This awl is very similar to a stitching awl except that it is arched or hooked.
It is used to attach soles to the shoe upper. You may also want to use a stabbing awl to punch the shoelace eyelets of shoes and boots.
Uses Of An Awl In Bookbinding
An awl is necessary for piercing through papers and book boards to enable all pages to be stitched together before gluing.
If you bind new books or restore old ones, you can use a tapered awl for this purpose. Nonetheless, there’s a specialized awl known as the bookbinder’s awl. It has an even shaft all the way and only tapers to a sharp fine point towards the tip.
Uses Of An Awl In Beading And Jewelry Making
In beading and making of jewelry such as knotted pearl bracelets and necklaces, a special awl known as a beading awl is used.
Manipulating the cord to knot at the precise position you want is notoriously difficult if not impossible without some help from an awl.
The beading awl is used to push the knots as close to the bead as possible, including down into the bead tip’s cup. It also helps probe knots you want to hide under bigger beads as well as undo knots easily. If making leather jewelry, this awl will also punch holes through them.
Things To Consider When Choosing An Awl
We’ve already covered the most important part of choosing an awl and that is the type and purpose. By familiarizing yourself with the various awls, you can select the right one for your kind of handicraft.
But there are other considerations to make when choosing an awl. Let’s quickly go over them.
Length Of The Spike
How long the spike is depends on how deep the hole can go as well as the reach of the tool. Longer awls have better reach to tight spots but are also mostly used for light work. Short awls tend to be stronger and are preferred for heavy-duty crafts.
Diameter Of The Spike
The diameter or the width of the spike determines how tiny or wide your hole will be. Therefore, consider a width that suits your particular crafting needs.
Type Of Handle
Consider the material and shape of your awl’s handle. Wood and rubberized metal are not only comfortable to handle but also provide a strong grip.
Plastic handles make cheaper awls but the material tends to be slippery. Moving on to shapes, bulbous hafts offer more pressure against your palm, making deeper holes.
Narrow longer handle designs are better suited for pushing actions, for example when stitching. Therefore, these are best for stitching.
Do You Need An Awl?
Yes and no, depending on what craft you are partaking in.
If it is leatherwork or any craft that involves stitching and making holes in thick textiles like canvas, upholstery, sails, shoes, or books, you certainly do need a couple of awls.
However, for wood and metal workers, an awl is good to have but not essential. You can use one of the many available substitutes for dimpling and scribing surfaces in place of an awl.
These include a compass, a pair of dividers, the tip of a knife, sharp tweezers, a sharpened screwdriver, or a sharp nail.
That was a lot to take in, right? Let’s quickly summarize the main uses of awls:
- Scribing lines on metals, wood, leather, glass, ceramics
- Making pilot holes on wood, metal, and drywalls
- Sewing leather, canvas, denim, sails, ballistic nylon, and upholstery
- Making pre-stitching holes and eyelets on leather, heavy fabrics, upholstery, and shoes
An awl is clearly a simple yet nifty tool to have around if you are a crafty person or even a handyman.
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