Awl in a Day's WorkComments (0)
This article is from Issue 93 of Woodcraft Magazine.
Toolmaking in a woodshop
As much as I like working with high-end hand tools, my budget for them can only stretch so far. That’s why I started making some of my own tools, a passion that has grown over time. While I am still primarily a woodworker, I find making tools to be a nice change of pace and scale from the rigors of furnituremaking. If you’re looking to try your hand at tool making, an awl is a great place to start. Not only is it a useful tool, it doesn’t take a lot of time or materials, and you probably already have the necessary equipment in your shop. The most exotic thing you’ll need to acquire is a length of water-hardening drill rod. As far as equipment goes, you’ll need a grinder, a corded drill, a propane torch, and a lathe. After a little grinding and turning, the next thing you know, you’ll be ready to try out for the History Channel’s Forged in Fire.
Order of Work
- Shape and polish blade
- Harden and temper blade
- Turn handle
- Fit ferrule
A three-piece tool
This awl consists of a blade epoxied into a wooden handle, with a metal ferrule for added strength. The blade is made from a tool-steel rod tapered to a point. The ferrule is a short length of 1/2" I.D. copper pipe.
Make the blade/tang
The awl’s blade, with its integral tang, is made from a 6-7" length of water-hardening drill rod. (See Buyer’s Guide page 70.) This is a high-carbon tool steel that can be hardened and tempered so it holds an edge (or point, in the case with an awl). When it arrives, the steel will be relatively “soft” and workable. Cut the piece to length with a hacksaw, then taper one end to form the point. Refine the shape with files and sandpaper before polishing it.
Final polish. Again, with the rod chucked in your corded drill, polish the spinning blade, working your way from 80 grit through 600 grit. For an even higher level polish, you can finish up on a buffing wheel loaded with compound.
Harden and temper the blade
Before attaching the handle, you need to harden and temper the blade. This is a two-step heat-treatment process that enables the blade to retain an edge. First, heat the blade and quench it quickly to harden it. Then, heat it again to a lower temperature to dial back a little of the hardness so the tip won’t be quite as brittle—a process called tempering.
Heat Treatment: The Basics
Heat-treating steel changes its molecular structure. Heating the metal to a certain temperature and quenching it locks that molecular change in place. At this point the metal is as hard as it can possibly be. Confirm that the process worked by attempting to file the piece. If the metal is hardened properly, a file won’t bite in.
Hardening is great for edge retention, but it also means the metal is quite brittle. To make the blade a little tougher, you’ll need to temper it, or remove a little of its hardness so it isn’t as likely to break. To do this, heat it up again, but only to a certain temperature. This second heating will create a rainbow of oxide colors on the surface of the metal. Edge tools such as your awl require dialing back just a little of the hardness as indicated by a pale straw color. Tools such as wrenches that need to be tougher than they are hard, are tempered in the purple/blue range.
Make the handle
Dig into your offcut stash for a piece about 1-3/4" square and 4-6" long, from which to turn the handle. Any dense hardwood will work—maple, hickory, cherry, or maybe an exotic such as the bocote shown here. Turn the blank to shape. Feel free to get creative here; just make sure to include a transitional stepped-down section to accommodate a ferrule. Make a 3/4"-long ferrule from 1/2" I.D. copper pipe, and fit it to the transitional section as shown before boring a hole to accept the blade.
To finish up, remove the handle from the lathe and cut away any excess from the non-blade end. Sand that end to a comfortable fit in your palm. Polish the blade again to remove the oxide colors before epoxying it into the handle. Then give everything a final sanding before applying a finish. I used tung oil.
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