scratch awl vs center punch

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Two of the most underrated woodworking hand tools are the woodworking awl, also known as “scratch awl,” and the center punch. We use a scratch awl more than we realize and even improvise with other available accessories like a sharp nail and pin. However, a center punch is more specific, and even if you improvise, you would have to do a bit of repreparation to use anything other than a punch for its purpose.

In this post, we look at the scratch awl vs. center punch, the possible variations, and discuss the various uses of each hand tool. Read on to know more about these two popular woodworking tools that woodworkers use daily.

Awl vs. Center Punch

An awl is always pointed, whereas a punch may not be, but a center punch usually is. You can use your hands or a hammer on an awl, but we usually use a hammer on a punch. We get spring-loaded center punches that don’t need a hammer.

A punch is a rod with a tapered, narrow tip. We hold the broad end in our hand and strike it with a hammer or a mallet, directing the narrow tip on the workpiece. The punch tip makes an indentation in the workpiece depending on the shape of the tip.

A ball-peen hammer is the most convenient type of hammer to use on a punch. You can also use a mallet. Your choice of mallet would depend on the type of punch you have. We discuss various types of mallets in another interesting post.

Types of Punches

We get various types of punches, one of them being the center punch. Before getting into the details of the center punch, let’s take a brief look at the different types of punches:

Prick Punches

Mayhew Pro 23001 5/16-Inch Prick Punch
Mayhew Pro 23001 5/16-Inch Prick Punch (Image: Amazon)

It is the commonest type of punch, also called “dot punch,” which enables you to place a reference mark on wood or metal. We use this type of punch to transfer a printed pattern onto metal or wood. Prick punches are widely used in intricate metalwork and wood carving.

The prick punch has a much sharper angled tip for a deeper and narrower indentation. If required, you can enlarge the indentation later with a center punch. The angle of the tip of a prick punch is typically 40°, but it can vary according to the job requirement.

Decorative punches

Hollow Punch Set, 20pcs 5mm Carbon Steel Flower Punch Hole Tool Leather Craft Belt Puncher DIY for Wallet Belt Decoration (5mm)
Tool Leather Craft Belt Puncher DIY for Wallet Belt Decoration (5mm) (Image: Amazon)

Decorative punches have a decorative motif on their tips, and you can use them on metals, leather, and paper. These punches play a prominent role for typesetting in the printing industry.

Letter or Number Punches

INNETOC 37 pcs Letter and Number Stamps Punch Set for Leather Craft Punching Tools A-Z Alphabet Letters 0-9 Numbers Stamp Tool Leather Easy-to-Do Stamp Set Alphabet
INNETOC 37 pcs Letter and Number Stamps Punch Set for LeatherCraft Punching Tools (Image: Amazon)

When we need to identify similar-looking items, these punches are what we use. We also call these punches letter stamps or number stamps, and we use them for embossing a letter or number on a workpiece. These usually come with reverse images so that you can read the impression on the surface.

Center Punch

BENECREAT 4Pcs 5 Inch Automatic Center Punch Tool Adjustable Spring Loaded Puches and Metal Engraving Pen for Metal Wood Working
BENECREAT 4Pcs 5 Inch Automatic Center Punch Tool (Image: Amazon)

We use a center punch to mark a point for reference, usually with a mind to drill a hole at the location. The purpose is to prevent the drill from “wandering” if it does not find a recess to dig into and start the hole.

The point of a center punch usually comes from the apex of the angle, which typically varies between 60° and 90°. This tool forms a dimple on the surface of the material. For larger holes, you will use larger drill bits, in which case only a center punch may not suffice. In such a scenario, you would need to drill a pilot hole at the center punch point.

We get automatic center punches as well. So you do not need to use a hammer on this type of center punch.

Case Study

A person who makes guitars for a living was trying to build a drilling jig for drilling string holes in guitar bodies. He has a basic spring-loaded center punch but could never get the much-needed accuracy for the hole locations.

When he posted his query online, a useful reply that he got was as follows:

The person who replied to his query recommended that he first scribe the lines with a prick punch. Then if he scribed cross-lines at the exact location of the holes, the sharp tip of the prick punch would create a small dimple. He could later use a regular center punch to make accurate indentations for his jig.

The solution here was simple but needed a thorough understanding of using each tool for a particular task.

Types of Awls

Awls are not as diverse as punches, although they may vary slightly in shape and size. The two primary functions of woodworking awls, also known as brad awls, are scribing lines or making holes in soft material.

Other than woodworking, you can get awls that find use in leatherwork, bookmaking, textiles, and metalwork.

Other names for awls are scriber’s awls, stitching awls, scratch awls, stabbing awls, shoemaker’s awls, sailmaker’s awls, and pegging awls. Different types of awls are similar to each other and the way we use them.

Awl vs. Center Punch: Differences and Similarities

There are some differences and similarities between an awl and a center punch. They are given in the table below:

Parameter Awl Center Punch
Purpose Guide for drilling or marking for cutting Only guide for drilling
Profile Pointed Tip Angle between 40° and 90°
Mode of use Only handheld Usually used in combination with a hammer or mallet
Types Multiple types exist The basic structure remains the same
Spring-loaded No Manual and Spring-loaded available
Used in Multiple Fields Yes Yes

The differences between an awl and a center punch are rather subtle. However, each tool has its distinguishing features. There is a way of using each one, and each one serves a particular purpose.


In this interesting discussion of scratch awl vs. center punch, we have touched upon the scratch awl and various punches, including center punches. These two seemingly insignificant tools in a woodworker’s workshop each serves a particular purpose.

Like all tools discussed in our previous posts, even the humble awl and center punch occupy a particular position of importance in the woodworking process. You need to know a few things about these two tools, and we hope that the information provided here is sufficient to help you use them appropriately.

If you are building up your tool collection and you find that you don’t have either of these two tools, add them to your woodworking toolbox as soon as possible. Once you start using them, you will be surprised to see how useful these two tools can be.

Happy Woodworking!