What is an Awl? And What’s it Used For?

What is an Awl? And What’s it Used For?

Last Updated on January 14, 2021 by William

What is an Awl? And 10 Cool Uses for One!

Awls are handy tools that craftsmen use to punch holes in a wide variety of materials, including wood, leather, and more. Awls have quite a long history, as they were used throughout ancient times. More often than not, they come with a built-in thread hole.

While awls serve many purposes, their main purpose is to puncture materials without creating cut lines. When you use an awl to punch a hole in a piece of material, you can hang it, stitch it, or grommet it.

Awls are very familiar in the leather world, as they are used to punch holes instead of needle and thread. Punching a line of holes in a piece of leather with an awl allows users to string through a heavier leather cord or similar stitching materials.

While many people use knives or other sharp hand tools to punch holes in leather, the inaccuracy makes them a lousy substitute for awls. The weakest point of any knife is the tip. If you apply too much force to the tip of a knife, you risk breaking it. To cut a hole that is of useful size with the thin width of a knife blade, it takes a lot of effort.

Because awls are much thicker and narrower compared to standard blades found on knives, they do a far better job handling heavy downward pressure, helping to slice through thick materials with ease.

Different Types of Awls

Just as there are plenty of different types of materials out in the world, there are also plenty of different types of awls as well. Awls, in their most basic form, are thin pieces of sharpened metal that users push through thick materials to create holes.

Different types of awls present different thicknesses, shapes, solid vs. notched, and more.

Here are some of the most common types of awls out there:


A bradawl is a tool that is often used in woodworking. It is very similar to the shape of a standard screwdriver and allows users to create pilot holes for nails and screws. The difference between a bradawl and other types of awls, such as a stitching awl, is that a bradawl has a sharp, straight blade.

Bradawls are often used for increasing diameters in stitch holes, making starting points before screwing, or making indents in a wide variety of materials. You may have been in situations where you were struggling to hammer in small nails without smashing your fingers. Bradawls can be used to create a small, indented hole for the nail to rest in before going at it.

Collar Awl

Collar awls are popular tools among saddle markers. They have sharp cutting edges on the end and a long tang, which typically runs about 8-10”. They create slits in heavier pieces of leather, allowing crafters to push or pull thick pieces of lacing through. Collar awls are typically used for large holes in thick pieces of leather.

Thanks to the long design of collar awls, they help make work a bit easier by providing leverage.

Curved Awl

Curved awls are best for creating larges holes in curved or rounded pieces of leather rather than flat ones. It can be difficult to join two separate pieces of leather together that will sit over a curved surface. Curved awls help to create openings that naturally reflect the final stitch’s curve. With a more natural fit, users can create tighter stitching and feel more in control throughout the process.

Those who don’t want to penetrate leather completely will often use curved awls as well. Users can adjust the overall pressure they are laying on to only go as deep into the leather as necessary. Overall, curved awls provide far more precision.

Stitching Awl

Stitching awls are common tools that are used to puncture holes in a variety of materials. They can also be used for sewing heavy materials together, such as canvas or leather. They are made up of a thin, tapered metal shaft, either slightly bent or straight, that comes to a sharp point.

Typically, stitching awls come with interchangeable needles and have an eye-piercing at the tip to thread holes and sew. In fact, stitching awls were the first true sewing machines.

Artisans will typically glue two pieces of leather together before using the awl. Once the pieces have dried, he or she will make a row of holes, evenly spaced. Even the very first Swiss Army Knife had a stitching awl attachment for those who needed to sew heavy-duty materials.

Scratch Awl

Scratch awls are used in woodworking and point-making. They are typically followed with a chisel or handsaw. Scratch awls have a fine pint on one end that can be drawn across timber to leave behind a shallow groove.

Scratch awls have sharp, rounded points and come in a wide variety of sizes for both thick and thin pieces of leather. Holes made with scratch awls can be used for stitching, though people also use scratch awls to simply scratch or mark leather. Simply apply pressure on the awl and drag it across your chosen material.

Lacing Awl

Lacing awls are used to pull leather lacing through smaller holes. The tips on lacing awls usually have small hooks or eyes, similar to what one might find on a needle. Lacing awls are pushed through the material and pulled back with lacing. The process is repeated again and again until all of the holes are filled with lacing.

Diamond Awl

Diamond awls are becoming more and more popular, as the shape helps part the leather gently, making holes that can seal back up once stitching is all done. Those looking to create a clean look often use diamond awls.

Diamond awls come with sharp points that help them to cut into the leather. The end result is a small “x” cut. When a thread eventually pushes through the “x,” it closes back up to form a tighter seam. Compared to simply punching a hole in the leather, this creates a more complete design.

Diamond awls, otherwise known as diamond tip awls, come in a wide variety of sizes, allowing crafters to choose the right size depending on the project at hand.

See our list of the best hand tool brands here so you get an awl that’s built to last.

Saddler’s Harness Awls

Saddler’s Harness awls typically come in diamond shapes, though more elongated than a standard diamond awl. These types of awls are used primarily by saddle markers, as they help to create holes in thick pieces of leather for sewing or stitching. Saddler’s harness awls come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, including single awls or awl blades, which can be integrated into universal awl hafts.

Tapered Awls

Tapered awls are an excellent choice for detailed work, including feeding cloth into a sewing machine or shaping edges. They are wonderful for opening holes in thick fabrics, such as leather, pulling out corners, and widening spaces.

Awl Haft

Awl hafts are tools that can fit multiple, interchangeable blades. Essentially, crafters use awl haft to keep all of their awl blades in one portable tool, rather than having a myriad of blades spread throughout the workspace.

A great awl haft will have a sturdy handle that fits comfortably in your hand. The top of the awl haft should have a bit of added abrasion protection, such as leather or metal. Having this added protection helps to protect the integrity of the wood on the handle, especially if you ever have to hit it with a maul.

Awls hafts make leatherworking far more efficiently while helping to widen your toolset. A great haft doesn’t need to cost a fortune either. Overall, a great haft should simply feel comfortable. Just make sure that the blades are of high quality, as you want to be able to cut your heavy materials with efficiency.

antique awls

10 Cool Uses for an Awl

1. Use It Instead of a Knife

If you feel like you need your knife for something but you aren’t sure if what you’re using it for will break the tip, consider using an awl instead. You’ll get a far more effective cut with a cleaner look!

2. Get Rid of Grime

Thanks to the fact that awls have sharp, fine points, people often use them to clean out dirt, grit, and grime in hard-to-reach spaces. Awls can clean dirt in fine cracks of wood, tile, or other materials.

3. DIY Manicure and Pedicure

Can’t afford to have a serious manicure or pedicure? Maybe you just want to do a quick self-clean. Awls are great for cleaning under your nails on your fingers and toes. Just be careful during the process!

4. Keep In Your First Aid Kit

Camping or hanging out in the wild? Keep an awl in your first aid kit. Awls are great for getting nasty splinters out. Awls can also be used to thread stitches in the case that you get a bad cut. Make sure to have something to bite down on!

5. Create a New Belt Loop

It’s difficult to end the holiday season without packing on a bit of extra weight as we all know. We understand that you’re planning on kicking that diet into high gear this year, but until then, your old belt might not be doing the trick. Give yourself a bit of extra breathing room by adding a hole to your belt.

6. Hang Some Art

Forget the dust and destruction that comes from pounding out huge nails or driving thick screws into your wall. Start with an awl. You can easily puncture a small hole to get yourself started.

7. Pry Away

You might not have access to a pry bar but you also might need to pry something loose. An awl can help pry just about anything!

8. Clean Your Teeth

We’re not dentists by any means, but we do know that toothpicks have been around for hundreds of years. If you don’t have a toothpick in reach, use your awl. Of course, you probably shouldn’t take it out to dinner with you.

9. Start a Fire

Have you been in an endless camping battle trying to get a fire started with the back of your knife and your fire steel? Instead of the knife, consider using your awl. It might not necessarily work better than your knife, but you can go a bit harder and not have to worry about doing damage to it.

10. Defend Yourself

You never truly know what the world will throw out you. From burglars in the city to grizzly bears in nature, having a bit of protection on you never hurts. An awl is a great little tool that doubles as a solid weapon for protection.

Awl History

Awls have been around for many centuries. In fact, one of the oldest awls ever discovered is said to be almost 7,000 years old. That awl was discovered back in 2007 during a Middle Eastern Tel Tsaf excavation. Historians said that this awl likely belonged to a middle-aged, upper-society female,

Metallurgists’ analysis provided confirmation that this particular awl originated back in 4712 B.C. Scientists came to the conclusion that the awl was used for many of the same reasons that people use then for today.

Awls were often used in the wild wild west era. Saddles and rifle belts were essential pieces of American equipment back then. To manufacture and maintain hem, people needed to have awls with them at all times. They became crucial tools for the average cowboy.

One unique awl fact is that this tool is attributed to the invention of Braille. As a result of losing his sight when he was young, Louis Braille created a language that is used all around the world today. One of his eyes was punctured with an awl and as a child, instantly destroying it. He eventually lost his other eye to a bad infection.

Awls are wonderful tools that can be used in a wide variety of crafting. For leather workers, awls are absolutely invaluable. There is a reason that they have been around for almost 7,000 years.

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