What is an Awl?
About five years ago, my partner and I, at the time, decided to combine our love of backpacking and travel gear with creativity and construction. So on that particular day, we decided that the best way to express this was through an Etsy shop. Here we would sell hand made leather and canvas backpacking gear. With my partner already having had a few lessons in handbag design, she had procured many leather making tools. But the one device that caught my attention the most was the stitching awl.
Having never seen one, it went to the top of my tools list that I wanted to get to know and play with. After all, it was the tool that changed the course of communication and led to Braille for the blind. So what is an awl you ask? This is precisely the second thing I asked my partner, with the first being, how do I use it.
Awls have existed for almost 7000 years. In fact, in 2007, the oldest metal object was a copper awl that was discovered during excavations at the Tel Tsaf gravesite in the Middle East. The pointed tool relic was found amongst the belongings of an upper-society middle-aged female. When analyzed, metallurgists confirmed that the awl originated in 4713 BC. Even then, scientists concluded that the awl was used for the same purpose as it is today. That is to make holes and markings into heavy textiles and wood.
Types of awls.
The stitching awl.
A stitching awl is a multi-purpose pointed tool typically used by those involved in sewing heavy grade material such as leather. It looks like a sizeable heavy-duty needle mounted on a handle (usually wooden). It is, in fact, a tool that serves the same purpose as a small sewing machine.
When working with leather, the artisan will usually glue the two pieces of leather together when using the awl. They will make a row of evenly spaced holes. Using these holes, they will run the heavy-duty thread through the two pieces of leather and stitch them together.
Here is a fun fact, the original Swiss Army Knife had an awl attachment, which could be used for heavy-duty sewing. When looking back, I always wondered what this attachment was on my Dad’s Swiss Army Knife.
A scratching (or scratch) awl is used in woodworking to mark a line (a shallow groove) that is to be cut using a saw or when using a chisel. In leatherwork, they are used to scratch a design onto the leather. They are sometimes used to punch a hole in sheet metal.
A Bradawl is similar in appearance to a stitching awl. Where it differs is that the stitching awl has a needle, the bradawl has a blade that is very sharp and straight. It is used for several jobs.
- It is used for marking stitch holes and increasing their diameter.
- They are used for making a starting point when screwing or nailing.
- They are used for making an indent in materials.
You will have experienced occasions when you have been trying to hammer tiny nails. Having to hold the nail down without hitting your fingers with a hammer can be difficult. With a bradawl, you can make a small hole to grip the nail in position and then, with your fingers well clear, hit the nail. Similarly, it is a great way to start a screw buy manually screwing it into the hold before using the screwdriver to complete the job.
Uses for camping for a stitching awl.
When camping, we often use a lot of different heavy-duty materials (the most prominent example is the canvas tent). Sometimes the hole where you affix a guy rope can rip. Utilizing an awl, it is possible to construct a new hole close to the original one that can serve as a replacement.
Stitching awl and bradawl.
Perhaps a piece of canvas develops a rip with the wind. Using an awl, it is possible to create two parallel rows of holes either side of the cut and using thick thread, sew the canvass and repair the hole. For more secure repairs, it is usually best to fold over and glue the torn edges and use the awl to push through all four layers. Punching through very thick layers of material can sometimes be easier with a bradawl, then sewing with a stitching awl.
The sewing awl and bradawl are very versatile tools to have with you.
Awl trivia & tips.
The awl was responsible for the invention of braille.
Louis Braille created Braille as a result of losing his sight as a child. The reason he lost his sight was that one eye was punctured by an awl and instantly destroyed. He then, unfortunately, lost his other eye through infection.
The awl was part of the history of the wild west
In the western era, the rifle belt and saddle were an essential part of the development of the USA. The sewing awl was instrumental in making and maintaining them and a necessary tool for a cowboy’s repair kit.
A quick tip.
A quick tip.
Use pliers to insert an awl into thick leather or canvass. You need a lot of pressure to pierce the material and applying pressure using both the handle and the needle (using pliers) can help.
Cheap essential tool for a camping trip.
The great advantage of the awl is the relatively small size of the tool. It can slide into your camping bag without even noticing, it is so tiny. Yes, this versatile tool is a useful emergency tool (together with some strong thread).
Here are some links to my favorite awls that you can purchase for your emergency kit.
Sewing Awl Kits on Amazon
Scratch awl on Amazon