Of all the tools in your woodworking shop, the awl is among the simplest. That pun was intended, too.
A simple tool with the simplest of purposes, an awl is a point-making tool similar to an ice pick that is used to make holes in whatever material you are working with – soft wood, hard wood, leather, metal, fabric, and more. It is a steel spike with a handle made of plastic or wood.
What Is The Purpose of An Awl?
Why would we need a hole punched into a piece of wood, you might ask? Good question.
A small hole punched into the wood you are working with at the point you have measured for drilling a hole will act as a guide for the drill bit. It can help make an exact drill hole at the exact measured spot on the wood.
If your hand is not steady with a drill, or if you simply wish to be accurate in your drilling, this little starter hole will take the tip of your drill bit in the place you carefully measured. The surface of the wood can be protected from a wandering drill bit that could leave a scar. The steel spike end of the awl can make that line both with and against the grain.
Leatherworkers and shoemakers use them all the time to punch holes and make marks where stitches will go during assembly. It’s the holiday season as this piece is being written, and if you are considering a present for a leatherworker (belts, aprons, and such) or a shoemaker, an awl would make a great gift.
Bookbinders even regularly use an awl for their work. Punching holes in the binding material for the threads that will do the binding work is an essential part of the process. Awls serve this purpose well.
A scratch awl is used to create a woodworking layout or make points along a line on wood. Carpenters will use this scratch awl results to create lines that guide a hand saw or a chisel. A straightedge and a scratch awl can make that line, and a steady hand with a saw or chisel can make an educated and accurate cut. The spike end of the awl can make that line both with and against the grain.
Do You Need An Awl?
While an awl is not an essential tool in your woodworking shop, it certainly is a useful one to have handy. Unfortunately, they are not always viewed as important to have handy.
Leatherworkers and shoemakers, however, do consider them as necessary in their workshops, and for good reason. Different spike end sizes can meet hole size needs easily, and belt and shoelace holes benefit from the accuracy an awl can provide.
However, that same holds true for the woodworker. Here’s a video we found for using an awl in your woodworking shop. It’s short but informative.
It will provide all the reasons you might need to have an awl among your shop tools.
What Can You Use If You Don’t Have An Awl?
But what if you don’t have one? Is there an alternative? Sure, and actually, there are plenty of options.
- Compass. A compass tool, the tool you used in high school math classes to draw circles and arcs, has a pointed tip that holds the tool in place as you draw those circles and arcs: same principle, different implement, same results.
- Nail. Pick a nail of your desired gauge and hammer it gently into your wood. Give it a little twist to remove it, and you have your hole.
- Tweezers. If tweezers are sturdy enough and have a pointed edge, they, too, can be used to make that needed hole.
- Knife. You get the idea. Press the tip in at the measured point, and you have your hole.
But, and even though these alternatives will do the job, having an awl handy is just so much more convenient and easy.
What to Consider When Buying an Awl
Like all other tools, awls come in a variety of sizes, gauges, and handle styles. Determine what kinds of projects you are likely to undertake in your shop, and that will help you determine an awl that will fit with them and their likely need for making holes.
- Gauge refers to the width of the steel spike and determines the size of the hole it will make in your wood. Pick the gauge that will meet your likely project needs.
- Handles come in various styles and sizes, including bulbous and grip-friendly like those on your screwdrivers. The bulbous handles give you a little more to press against with your palm for a deeper hole or a hole in a hardwood.
- Length of the spike and size of the handle will have a bearing on its usability, depth of hole, and reach (if the wood is recessed or in a hard-to-reach place).
As for price, awls can be very inexpensive, ranging from $5-$6 up to higher-priced Japanese awls that can run in excess of $25. A general purpose common awl for $6 won’t break your budget and will come in very handy in your shop. If you don’t have one, get one. You’ll be glad you did.