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We’ve all seen the strange thick knife blade on our multi tool, you know, the pointed one that has an edge but is not really sharp. Awls are actually very useful tools that are under utilized because people don’t know what they are or how to use them.
Awls are designed to create holes in leather, wood, binders board, or tough fabrics. Awl shapes are matched to the material being punctured and designed to prevent rips and fraying. Proper technique is important: sewing awls require a plunge motion while punch awls may require a simultaneous push and twist motion during use.
I only really learned about awls after snapping off the tip of my PowerPlay main blade while prying and cutting. Now I know to use the awl, it is a sturdier tool because it is designed to do these functions.
Types of Awls
Harness or Bridle Awl: Designed to pierce leather and make small round holes. Separate from a stitching or leather awl but names are sometimes used interchangeably.
Stitching or Leather Awl: Usually round or diamond shaped with an eyelet to bring stitching thread though the hole with the awl (also called a diamond awl).
Scribe or Scratch Awl: General purpose awl, usually round with a sharp point used for marking points or lines on wood, metals, stone, ceramic and glass.
Bradawl: A carpentry awl with a beveled chisel tip used to make pilot holes in wood for nails and screws for precision work, such as on musical instruments or installing hinge screws. The awl twists and compresses the wood fibers which helps prevent splitting.
Stabbing or Sailmaker’s Awl: Designed to make holes in heavy fabric by pushing apart the fabric strands with minimal cutting. Also known as a tapered awl, these tools can also be used for stitching by punching the hole and then using a needle to form the stitch.
Punch Awl: General term for awls designed to punch holes, usually with a sharp angle edge for basic reaming and they do not have an eyelet for sewing.
Multi Tool Awls: The awls on multi tools are usually hybrid designs made to accomplish multiple tasks. Tips are pointed enough to push through leather but not so sharp that they slice fabric threads. The sharp edge is configured so that twisting the awl cleans and smooths the inside of the hole when working in leather or wood. Victorinox changed their naming convention and now calls the tool a reamer instead of awl on their SAKs and SwissTools.
Common Uses for Multi Tool Awls
- Marking wood and making dimples for drilling, screwing or nailing
- Punching a starter hole through thin wood, metal or drywall to get the saw started
- Opening caulk or adhesive tubes
- Hole depth gauge
- Chipping or breaking ice, glass and ceramics
- Cleaning the inside of pipe and tubing
- Scraping small shavings or striking firesteel, such as with a magnesium fire starter
- Sewing leather, heavy canvas, and ballistic nylon
- As a pry bar
- Reaming wood, metal, and leather holes (awls are also sometimes referred to as reamers)
Save your knife tip, use an awl: Many of these tasks can also be accomplished with the tip of your knife blade, but the awl is a better choice.
Safety First – It can be tempting to work with an awl in your lap, you can hold the material and get great leverage. The danger is that you punch through and the awl goes straight into your thigh. Do your work with a clamp or on a hard surface like a workbench, and keep up with your tetanus shots just in case!
How to Sew with an Awl
Unless you are a primitive survivalist, you are unlikely to be sewing on a regular basis with a multi tool awl but it is a good skill to know. You never know when you are going to be out in nature and need to make a repair to your boots, backpack, or webbing straps. Imagine trying to hike out with the sole of your boot flapping loosely. With an awl and a little bit of knowledge you can make a functional field repair.
Quality waxed thread should always be a part of your outdoor kit, but you can also use the individual strands from paracord in a pinch (Parapocalypse or SurvivorCord if you are a serious prepper).
Sewing a Lock Stitch with an Awl
- For the lock stitch, put about 1″ of thread thru the eye of the awl and hold it with your thumb.
- Start from the backside of the material and push the awl thru. Now pull the working end until you have enough thread on the front to complete the work (about double the seam length plus 3-4 inches for finishing knots).
- Retract the awl to the backside, move to the next stitch location and push the awl all the way thru.
- Retract the awl just slightly, forming a loop. Pass all of the thread through this loop.
- Apply tension to the front side thread and fully retract the awl. Pull the thread taut, using the same tension on both threads. You want the stitch to be buried in the middle of the material.
- Continue stitching until the seam is complete, then knot the two threads together on the backside and trim the ends.
TIP: Angle the holes 45° from the seam. Putting all of the holes directly in line with the seam will make a weaker connection. By putting the holes at 45° the thread is less likely to pull through the material between the stitches. It also leaves a cleaner appearance at corners because all the holes will be aligned.
Sewing awls are designed to make the lock stitch. If you want to sew the stronger saddle stitch you can use the awl to punch the holes and then use two needles to weave the thread.
How to Make Holes with an Awl
To make holes with a punch awl you might think it is as simple as punching the awl through the material – and you would be right if all you need is a crude hole. However, it takes technique and some practice if you want to leave a uniform row of holes in leather.
How to Make a Hole the Same Shape as the Awl
Sharpen the tip: Most multi tool awls come from the manufacturer with dull tips, suitable for use as a reamer but not the best experience for punching holes. Re-establish the same chisel edge angle if your tool already had one, if not a 20° angle is a good general purpose bevel but you can go to 25° or even 30° if you need a stout edge for tough material.
Use a backstop: Multi tool awls are made for strength and normally 0.20 in wide or larger, this creates a large hole. When I want to create a smaller, more reasonable hole I put the material on top of a cardboard spacer and then a wood backstop. The awl penetrates a uniform distance for each hole before it is stopped by the backstop while it is still on the angled tip of the awl.
How to Make a Round Hole with an Awl
In order to round the hole, your awl needs to have a reaming edge on the length of the tool. For making round holes in leather, such as adding another notch to your belt, we found a twisting technique works best. While pushing into the material continue to twist the awl, as if you are screwing it awl through. After the initial hole is created, continue to scrape the inside of the hole to smooth the sides and enlarge the hole to the desired size.
Multi Tools that have an Awl
For everyday use around my house or the job site a punch awl is nice to have, but alternative tools are not far away. I mainly use punch awls for dimpling metal before drilling or making pilot holes in wood before starting a screw.
However when I go into the wilderness hunting, fishing, or hiking I want a sewing awl on my multi tool. Fortunately Leatherman includes sewing awls on most of their best models. Victorinox includes reamers on their SwissTools and SOG has awls on several multi tool models while Gerber only has three multi tools with awls.
Our Favorite Multi Tool Awl
As much as we like the traditional designs on most multitools with sewing awls, Leatherman took a big step forward with the awl design on the FREE P2 and P4. The chisel point is sharp and robust without being dangerous. We also like how they made the reamer blade easier to sharpen and we found it to be more effective at cleaning up inside of holes.
We haven’t tested the new Super Tool 300M, but Leatherman kept the best characteristics of the awl and stretched it to about 2.5 in.
Complete List of Multi Tools with an Awl
|Leatherman Juice CS4
|Leatherman Free P2
|Gerber Center Drive
|Leatherman Free P4
|SOG Baton Q3
|Leatherman Super Tool 300
|SOG Sync 1
|Victorinox SwissTool Spirit
|CRKT Bivy (Marlinspike)