Updated: Mar 10, 2021
How to pimp an awl, Masterclass style
Learn the essential techniques you need to complete beautiful stitching.
View our most popular course to date: 'The Techniques Of Hand Stitching'.
Well, it’s no secret that I love using the awl!
Practical use aside, I simply love the history and techniques of awl usage in leathercraft.
Although sometimes redundant for small or thin leather goods, and in an age where modern pricking irons are more like ‘awl irons’, I still think that no other tool besides the round knife can epitomise our craft quite as well.
In this blog post, I will be taking you through a recent modification of an existing awl to show you how I added some essential characteristics that I think all awls should have - flexibility.
This awl will be primarily used for bag and case making where I need an awl haft of a decent size to generate pressure, yet it accepts various blades for different tasks.
The ability to switch out blades to match a project and rotate a blade so that the angle matches your pricking iron, allows you to become intimately familiar with the awl and how it handles.
You don’t have to change to a completely different awl if you need a smaller or larger blade should the project call for that, just change the blade quickly and easily with minimal fuss - no tools needed.
But the ability to change the angle of the blade is only valuable if the haft (handle) doesn’t have the ability to rotate or has at least has some sense of direction.
This is why you see flat spots on most awls. Outside of preventing it from rolling off the table and greeting your foot, it is mainly done so that you can quickly orientate the awl into your hand.
Two flat spots on an awl haft indicate that it is ambidextrous (i.e. Blanchard), but with two flat spots, you can’t simply pick it up off the table and tell which way up it is without looking.
So I started with a standard J Dixon awl which doesn’t have any flat spots at all, it’s just completely round with a blade at the end, supported by a steel ferrule. This is my blank canvas to begin this build.
For this project, I have purchased a double ended pin vice which is a tool used to take small drill bits and make tiny precision holes by hand.
The pin vice is made from chrome plated solid brass, and the collets (which hold the bits inside), are made from chrome plated steel.
I began by cutting the pin vice in half with a Dremel and a diamond disk, then making a series of relief marks on the shaft so that the epoxy resin that I’m using will anchor the assembly in place and provide some mechanical lock.
Next it’s time to shorten the haft’s overall length to counter the extra length added by the collet.
I’ve intentionally left some of the steel ferrule in place to maintain strength and prevent splitting over time. Plus it transitions better from the haft to the locking nut without too much of a step down in size.
Once trimmed it’s time to drill a hole in the haft to accept the pin vice.
Now, if you have a wood turning lathe, that would probably give you a more accurate and concentric hole. Being primarily a leather workshop, I held the haft in one hand and drilled an 8mm hole with a hand drill in the other - real fancy like.
Turned out to be pretty dead on, all things considered. The pin vice shaft is 8.1mm in diameter, so it fit quite nicely.
To avoid any unsightly exposed threads à la Barry King collet awls, I took a 3mm awl blade and placed it into the collet, screwed in tightly, and kept drilling the hole deeper into the haft until there was about 1mm clearance between the locking nut and ferrule.
Once everything was in place I cleaned all surfaces with acetone and prepped to glue in the pin vice permanently.
I added some wax to the exposed threads and the locking ring to avoid excess glue fixing moving parts into place after curing.
Using a 3mm drill bit in the vice to help make sure everything is straight, I applied epoxy to all contact areas and pressed the pin vice into the haft, making sure to wipe away any excess epoxy.
After 24 hours, the epoxy had fully cured and the awl was ready for finishing.
To make things more comfortable and give the awl an anchoring point in the hand, I used a small wood plane to shave off a flat spot at the bottom of the awl.
I also gave the rear of the haft a smoother slope that fits in my hand better using a Dremel and a sanding drum.
After a quick overall sanding and clean up with acetone, I mixed linseed oil with mineral spirits (aka white spirit) in a 1:1 ratio.
This gives a nice finish to the awl that protects the bare wood from stains and drying out, yet you don’t have a varnish like coating on the surface. You can still retain the 'grippiness' of the wood in your hand.
The locking ring is made from solid brass with chrome plating according to the manufacturer, so I sanded off the chrome by spinning it in a drill and rubbing over with a sanding block before polishing.
I think it gives a nice look to the awl compared to the chrome plated locking rings.
For now I am using the excellent blade that comes with the titanium Jerome David awl, but I can also use the awl blade that comes included with the 6T Leather Works awl and even the Crimson Hides Pipe awl.
My next project is to make my own awl blades from 3mm High Speed Steel rod, which I have coming in the post as I write this.
If you are interested in learning how that’s done, let me know and I can show that process in the next blog post.
Now, having an awl for hand stitching is one part of the equation, the other is knowledge of the essential techniques you need to complete flawless stitching with a consistently high decorative angle.
That's why I created what has turned out to be the most popular Masterclass course to date: 'The Techniques Of Hand Stitching'.
In the course you will learn how to:
- Correctly saddle stitch
- Understand casted vs non-casted stitches
- Start and finish a seam without melting threads
- Neatly backstitch without thread overlap
- Perform edge binding
- French binding
- Turned edges
...and much more.
Materials used in this project:
J Dixon oval awl
Small Pin Vice
Drill Bit Set
Small Block Plane
Dremel 5000 Rotary Tool Kit