Types of Awls

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Most of you must have heard the word “awl,” and you would know it as a tool. But we usually associate the awl with stitching as in shoemaking and shoe repairing.  Another area that we use awls in is in the woodworking field.

We use different types of awls in woodworking, and in this post, we take a closer look at the various types you can get. We also touch upon why you need an awl and the basic ways to use an awl in woodworking.

What is an Awl?

Scratch Awl - Woodworking layout tool
Image Credit: The original uploader was SilentC at English Wikipedia. via Creative Commons

An awl is a tool that we use to make marks on surfaces and holes in wood and similar soft surfaces. When we refer to an awl used for woodworking, we call it a “scratch awl.” Some call them “piercing awls” and “brad awls.”

An awl is a metal rod sharpened to a point at one end and a handle, typically wood on the other. The existence of awls has been traced down to 7,000 years ago. It also features in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in the first act, first scene:

Truly, sir, all that I live by is with the awl: I meddle with no tradesman’s matters, nor women’s matters, but with awl.” Here, Shakespeare indulges in amusing wordplay on the words “awl” and “all,” which the cobbler uses satirically with the tribunes (government officers) when they ask him what his trade is.

Uses of Awls

An awl is an insignificant-looking tool that woodworkers use. But these are very handy tools to have, and you will find awls in most woodworking workshops. Here are a couple of common applications of awls:

To Scribe Lines

We often use an awl to create a starting point for other tools. For example, we use them to scribe lines along the direction of the wood grain. However, woodworkers avoid scribing across the grain as they cause tear-outs and subsequent damage to the wood’s surface.

You need to drag the tip of the awl along the wood where you are going to use a saw. The groove that the awl creates provides a kind of guide for a hand saw blade or chisel.

To Make Holes

We can use awls to make a starting point for a drill bit or a screw. If the wood is soft and the screw is small, you don’t even need to drill a hole. Instead, you pierce the wood where you want the screw and dig into the wood. You can then drive the screw in directly.

Types of Awls

Shoemaking awls tools
Image Credit: The original uploader was Dominique grassigli at French Wikipedia. via Creative Commons

An awl is a sharp, pointed tool used to create holes in different materials. We get different types of awls, one being a bradawl.

We use Bradawls in woodworking, but there are other awls for leatherwork, bookmaking, textiles, and metalwork. Other common types are scratch awls, shoemaker’s awls, stitching awls, and scriber’s awls.

All types of awls are very similar in the way we use them, and even their names overlap greatly.

Another name for an awl is a ‘pricker’ used to describe a bradawl, stabbing awl, sailmakers awl, or pegging awl.

What differentiates awls is the material they are used on, the shape of the tip, and, subsequently, the hole they create. The only other feature that varies is the shape of the shank: on some awls, it is straight. Other awls have an S-shaped profile.

Bradawls have a straight shank, whereas some shoemakers’ or stitching awls may be curved. The woodworker’s awl typically has a round, pointed tip.

How to Use an Awl

  • The traditional use of awls is to poke screw holes into wood, rather like a pilot hole, to guide a twist drill. Following these easy tips should put you on the right track:
  • When drilling holes in wood, the drill bit tends to wander. This issue is prevalent if you use a twist drill bit rather than a brad point bit.
  • Measure and make markings in a “cross” with a pencil where you want to drill your holes.
  • Take the awl and pierce to wood on each cross. You might have to give a knock to the handle of the awl with your hand for hardwoods. You would possibly have to give it a light tap with a hammer for harder materials.
  • It provides you with a center point to aim at and a guide hole for your drill bit, which you will need for softwood if you make holes near a growth ring.
  • The advantage is that you can even use a larger brad-point bit into the tiny hole without using a smaller drill bit first.
  • Using a woodworking awl while drilling holes can improve accuracy, regardless of the type of drill bit you have.

Handy tip

You can make your own awl out of a sharpened nail and a soft piece of wood for a handle.


We hope we have given you a better insight into what an awl is. You might not have been aware that you can use an awl in woodworking.

My father always had an awl in his toolbox. I inherited it with the rest of his tools when he passed on. I had helped him in his handyman jobs at home for years using this awl but never realized what it was called.

Over the years, my father’s awl became shorter and shorter thanks to repeated sharpening. Today it sits in my toolbox with a stub of a tip, but I still keep it for the sake of the memories it brings and not to mention the fine pinewood handle.

So, make a woodworker’s awl an indispensable part of your woodworking toolbox. You will find it one of the handiest tools that you have.