Awl in a Day's Work

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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
  • Assemble

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.

Grind to shape. Chuck the rod in a corded drill (Don’t waste your expensive cordless model on this.) and grind a 11⁄2–2"-long pointed taper on the end of the rod. Spin the rod against the rotation of the wheel. 
Smooth it out. Hold the blade in a machinist’s vise and file away the grinder marks with an 8" bastard file while refining the shape.

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. 

Use the torch, Luke. Heat the blade to a dark cherry red with a propane torch. Work in dim light to better see the color of the metal. At the point where the color doesn’t immediately fade when you move the flame away, plunge the blade quickly into a can of room-temperature water (right).

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. 

Temper, temper. To temper the blade so it isn’t quite as brittle, place it in a cold oven and set the temperature for 400°. Allow the blade to soak in the heat for 1-2 hours, monitoring its color. At the end of the time, it should be the color of pale straw. Turn the oven off and leave the blade in place to cool down slowly.

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.

To everything, turn, turn, turn. Mount the handle blank between centers and turn it to shape with the blade end toward the tail stock. The exact shape isn’t critical, you just want it to fit comfortably in your hand. Consider sanding a flat on one side later to keep the awl from rolling off your bench.

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. 

Slick ferrule fitting. The trick to fitting a snug ferrule is to first turn down the end of the blank enough for the ferrule to easily slide onto the dismounted blank. Then remount the blank with the ferrule riding on the end, and turn the adjacent section for a snug fit inside the ferrule. 
Drill the blade hole. Cut off the extra at the blade end of the handle. Swap the live center in the tailstock for a Jacobs chuck, and drill a 1⁄4"-dia. hole in the handle 11⁄4" deep. 

Fix the blade in place. Check to make sure the tang end of the blade fits into the handle before slathering the inside of the hole with epoxy. Then slide the blade home and allow the epoxy to cure. If necessary, you can epoxy the ferrule in place, too.

Final assembly

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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