Heirloom Awl | Popular Woodworking Magazine

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Heirloom Awl

Metal and wood are the basic ingredients in most woodworking tools. As carpenters, we are familiar with woodworking, but what about metal? In reality, the level of metalworking required to make some woodworking tools is pretty straightforward. If you’ve never created your own tools, try this project. There is something enormously satisfying about using a tool you have created yourself.

We chose the scratch awl for this item because it is an easy everyday tool to make. This project will teach you the basic principles of heat treatment of steel and turning a wooden handle with a metal ferrule. This awl will be the first milestone in your journey of creating custom tools.

Note: This project involves grinding metal and working with an open flame, be sure to follow these basic safety guidelines:

  • Thoroughly clean the work area of ​​all wood chips and dust before using the torch or grinding steel.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher on hand for emergencies.
  • If possible, heat treatment on the outside.
  • Wear protective eyewear for all grinding operations.
  • Never use engine oil for heat treatment.


  • Fire extinguisher
  • Drill shaft diameter 1/8, 3/16 or 1/4 ”in oil hardened steel
  • Propane or Mapp gas torch
  • Pint of olive oil
  • Locking pliers
  • 8 inches or 10 inches. mill file
  • Electric drill
  • 10 inch Abrasive disc mounted on 3/4 in. plywood or MDF support.
  • 2 inch x 2 inch x 4 inch piece of dry hardwood
  • Copper plumbing fitting, brass or copper pipe, brass nut or brass compression nut for ferrule material
  • Metal jar with lid
  • Lathe tools: roughing gouge, detail gouge, parting tool and optional inclined chisel
  • Scroll mandrel • Sandpaper (usually 100, 150, 180 and 220)
  • Jacobs style chuck for the tailstock of your lathe
  • A 1/64-inch drill bit. larger than the drill rod
  • Epoxy
  • Optional; Tempilstik between 450 and 500 degrees


1. Round off the handle blank and fit the ring nut at the end. Different materials can be used for a ferrule; this is a solid brass nut with a tapered end section.

Choose any hardwood for the neck: cherry, hard maple, oak, walnut, American walnut, ash, rosewood, goncalo alves, purple heart, etc. (Now, aren’t you glad you saved all those really cool little pieces of wood?) Determine the diameter and length of the handle you want. Make sure you take into account the length of the ferrule.

Mount the wood in the slide spindle and create a cylinder with the roughing gouge.

With the parting tool, cut a small cylinder at the end to fit the metal ferrule (Photo 1). Be careful to get a snug fit. The tip stock can be a copper coupling (1/4 inch to 1/2 inch depending on the desired look), brass nuts, brass or copper tubing. If you are using a brass nut, simply pass it over the wood.

2. Rough out the basic shape of the handle with the detail gouge. The shape and size of the handle is up to you.

Shape the handle with the gouge or angled chisel (Photo 2). The possibilities are endless and depend on the style of the handle, the size of your hands and whether the tool is meant for delicate or heavy duty. I rarely make two the same. Take the opportunity to add your fine details to distinguish your awl from production versions. When you are happy with the shape, finish the 220 grit sand.

3. Remove the flats of the nut and shape the ferrule with a detail gouge. Lathe cutting of brass and copper is similar to cutting wood. However, take some light cuts.

Form the ferrule with the gouge (Photo 3).

Use a Jacobs chuck to drill a 1-1 / 2 inch. (minimum) deep hole for the steel shaft (Photo 4).

Separate the handle from the spindle and sand the end by hand. You can leave the handle unfinished or use a drying oil.


4. Drill the hole to accept the steel drill rod. Use 1/64 inch bits. larger in diameter than the drill rod to make room for the epoxy.

The drill rod is too soft to be used as a tool. On the other hand, mild steel is easy to work with, so we’ll leave it that way for now and tackle hardening later.

5. Make the awl steel shaft from a piece of drill rod. Cut it to size using a hacksaw.

Cut the drill rod with a hacksaw to the desired length of the awl rod (Photo 5). I normally use 3 to 6 inches. lengths. Choose a length and diameter that fits the desired look of the awl.

6. Form a conical tip on the shaft using a drill and an abrasive disc mounted on the lathe. With the drill running, grind the tip on the near lower quadrant of the rotating disc. Wear eye protection!

To shape the stitch on the machined end of the shaft, first fix it with a drill. Then, drill while holding the shaft against a grinding disc mounted on a rotating lathe (Photo 6). Run the lathe at a low to medium speed (400 to 800 rpm).

7. Harden the shaft by heating the pointed half until a uniform cherry red color is obtained. Hold the shaft in a pair of locking pliers.

Don’t try to put a delicate spot on the steel on stage. It will only be burned in the heat treatment process. And don’t worry if you “blue” the steel right now as overheating is only a problem once the steel has been heat treated.

8. When the steel is uniformly bright red from tip to center, turn it off quickly and mix it into a can of olive oil.

Prepare the torch and can of olive oil. With the shank held in a pair of locking pliers, turn on the torch and apply heat to the steel. Rotate the barrel as if you were slowly cooking a marshmallow (Photo 7). Try to get an even, bright cherry red color from center to tip, then quickly dip the hot steel into the olive oil and shake quickly for about 30 seconds (Photo 8).

Note: Never use engine oil for this as it emits noxious fumes and can even catch fire.

9. Check the hardness of the shaft by sliding it along a file. The hardened part should slide out of the file, not bite.

Use a bur file to test the shaft tip hardness (Photo 9). If the steel fails the file test, heat and cool again.

10. Sand the steel onto a clean, shiny surface with 220 grit paper. Wash it with soap and water to remove oil residue first.

Sand the rod by hand to obtain a clean and bright surface (Photo 10).

The second stage of the heat treatment is called tempering. This is where the final degree of hardness is established. Tempering involves heating the hardened area to a specific temperature, then quenching immediately in water. The higher the temperature, the softer the tree will be. As an end user, you are free to determine the degree of hardness you want in your instrument. You may want an awl that is very hard and capable of scratching deep lines in hardwood. The downside is a very hard shaft that will have a brittle tip that is prone to breaking. At the other extreme you can temper the shaft so that the tip does not break but it could bend so easily that the awl becomes useless. I suggest making a couple of awls, each tempered to different temperatures to see which one best suits your needs.

The temperate “sweet spot” for my awls is a temperature between 450 and 500 degrees. There are three ways to accomplish this:

11. Temper the shaft with a torch held just below the heat treated area. Hold the flame there and rotate the shaft until the hardened area takes on a uniform dark gold or bronze color. Then, quickly turn it off in the water.

Heat the steel slowly with a torch well behind the hardened area (Photo 11). When the hardened area takes on a golden or bronze color, immediately cool in water to stop the process.

Use a temperature-indicating substance such as Tempilstik. Choose a Tempilstik that fits the desired heat range. Rub the area around the tip with the wax-like stick. Then, heat the shaft as described in option A. When the steel reaches the desired temperature, the Tempilstik will smoke and liquefy. At this point, quickly cool the tree in water.

The simplest, but slowest method is to bake the steel in a conventional oven for about 30 minutes at 450 degrees. Make sure you preheat the oven and place the steel on a baking sheet. Lift the steel with rolled-up pieces of aluminum foil so that it heats up evenly. Take the steel out of the oven and let it cool. It is not necessary to extinguish a tree that has been baked in an oven.


12. Place the shaft into the handle using some slow-setting epoxy. Put the epoxy in the hole with a toothpick. Rotate the shaft slightly as you push it to evenly distribute the epoxy.

If you need a sharper tip on the awl, put it back into the drill and lightly shape the tapered area on the disc mounted on the lathe (use a finer grit for this, such as 150 or finer). Do this slowly, as the bluish tip may make the tool too soft for your purposes.

Fit the steel into the handle (Photo 12). I put a small amount of epoxy in the hole, then pushed the handle down onto the steel with the tip in a scrap piece of wood. Use the awl for a while; you may find that you want a harder or a more flexible one – decide based on your hardening temperatures.

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