Leather working and leather craft requires relatively few tools to produce great pieces. A leather awl is one of the tools that should always be on the workbench.
A leather awl is a tool with a sharp metal point used for marking, piercing, punching, or sewing leather and leather goods. The are available in various sizes, and with differently-shaped points, each with a helpful purpose. When kept sharp, leather awls are an incredibly useful tool.
These come in very handy. Depending on the type of project you’re working on, you might have a few different styles of awl that you prefer. Let’s explore more about what types are available.
What is a Leather Awl?
A leather awl is a hand-held leather working tool that can be used for a variety of purposes. Mainly, they are used for marking or piercing small holes in leather, usually for later running thread or stitches through. When used for making holes, sometimes, they are referred to as leather awl punches. This is due to their use being used in those instances for punching small holes.
This is a very relaxing video showing awls being made by hand:
There are also leather sewing awls, with a specially-shaped tip that makes pushing thread or lanyard through much easier. The shape of the tips is one of the main elements that makes awls different. Some are pointed, others diamond shapes.
Some awls are fixed blade, meaning the blade is permanently attached to the handle. Other awls are available with interchangeable blades, where the blades can be removed and switched out, keeping the same handle.
This helps keep tools costs down, as it is generally less expensive to buy a single blade, than it is a new blade/handle. Also, it takes up less space to store one handle and several blades, than storing several individual tools.
How Does a Leather Awl Work?
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A leather awl, as a hand-held tool, works by a a hand gently pushing the sharp point of the tool through a piece of leather. Awls with rounded points can be used to mark the location of holes, such as those that will be later made larger with a hole punch.
Awls with diamond tips can be used to poke small holes that will later be sewn through. The diamond shape of the blade makes a small “x” pattern cut in the leather. The small “flaps” made via this shape close more tightly onto each other when thread is passed through, making it look more tightly finished. A rounded hole would leave space around it, while the “x” cuts are less noticeable.
Also, an awl with a sharp tip can be lightly dragged across the leather, leaving a mark or line on it. This can be helpful when measuring leather, marking it off for further working, or marking the location of holes or other design elements. Generally, where some marks are made with a pencil or pen, some can also be made with the tip of an awl.
Types of Leather Awls and Related Parts
A leather awl haft is essentially a handle that can fit interchangeable awl blades. This allows you to have a single handle and multiple blades, instead of many separate awls taking up space on your workspace. It can also make having several useful tools less expensive, as blades are typically cheaper alone than as a fixed part of a handle.
For an awl haft, it’s important that the handle is sturdy, and fits comfortably in your hand. The size should feel good and provide a nice gripping surface. Some awls are basic and functional. Others come made from exotic or rare woods, and have unique, ergonomic shapes.
At the top of the haft (where it might be struck with a hammer or maul), the awl should have some sort of abrasion protection such as a metal or leather end. This will keep the wooden part of the handle from being damaged when used for a task that requires hitting it on the top to provide more force when using it.
Hafts are a handy way to widen your leather working tool set in an efficient way.
Collar awls are usually used by saddle makers. They feature a long tang (about 8″-10″) with sharp cutting edges on the end. They pierce leather, creating a slit that will allow you to either push or pull thicker lacing through.
The slit shape will allow the leather to sit more flat (than if it were just a round hole) after the lacing is pulled through. This leaves a much more pleasing visual appearance to the finished piece.
Since these are generally used for larger holes through ticker leather, the longer design of them helps provide the leverage needed to make the work easier.
Curved awls are very helpful for creating holes for stitching rounded or curved leather pieces together (as opposed to those that are flat). When joining two pieces that will be over a curved surface, the curved awls create an opening that will more naturally reflect the curve of the final stitch, allowing for tighter stitching and more overall control. It also looks much nicer as a finished piece.
Here is a demonstration of a curved awl being sharpened:
These awls also work well when you don’t want to fully penetrate the leather. You can use adjust the pressure applied by hand and go only as deeply into the leather as needed. The curve allows for more agile precision with this task. It takes a little practice to get used to, though then becomes another helpful tool and skill for leather craft.
When looking for a tool that can make a hole in leather without leaving a large opening, try a leather diamond awl. They are awls with a diamond-shaped (think 4 corners coming to a point) blade and a very sharp point. These are a very popular type of awl.
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The sharp point allows it to cut into the leather, while the diamond tip pushes through. The result is a tiny “x” cut in the leather. Due to the material flexibility of the “x” cut, when thread passes through along with the additional space needed for the needle, it forms a tight seam, a benefit of the leather diamond awl pattern.
This is better than just a hole punched into the leather, as holes created like that would often be larger than the thread used and leave a loose-fitting seam once complete. This wouldn’t look as great, so often diamond tipped awls are used in work that will be stitched.
Leather diamond awls come in various sizes so the crafter can choose what size hole is most appropriate for the project. This is definitely a recommended leather working tool.
Here is a video of a diamond awl being made and used for a project. You definitely don’t need to make your own 🙂 Though, it’s enjoyable to watch:
This type of awl is used for pulling leather lacing through holes. The tip usually has a small hooked end, or an eye (like on a needle, just much larger). The lacing awl is pushed through the material, lacing hooked onto/through the end, and it’s pulled back through the material (with the lacing with it). This is repeated for each hole the lacing will be pulled through.
Lacing is usually much heavier and thicker than thread, so it requires a larger, sturdier tool to hook and pull it through. The lacing awl works great in these situations.
Here is what a lacing awl looks like:
Sewing Awl/Needle Awl
A sewing awl (also referred to as a needle awl) is an awl with a pointed needle end and an eye on it. This is one of the most helpful leather stitching tools. This allows threads to be passed through the needle and pushed through leather material when stitching two or more pieces together.
It essentially functions like a thick, strong needle. Instead of being pushed through by hand, or with a finger thimble, it can be pushed through via the handle, held by the hand. This is usually helpful, and sometimes necessary, as leathers can be very tough, thick materials. Having a sturdy way to pass thread through them can make things much easier.
Curious how do you use a leather awl stitch? Let’s explore some more about this type of awl and how to use a hand leather stitcher.
Leather Stitching Tools – Sewing Awl
When looking at leather stitching tools, the sewing awl is often the most popular. It’s easy to use, especially for folks already comfortable with hand sewing. There are also a few elements to this leather stitching tool that are helpful to know about, including the needles, techniques, thread, and how to use them.
Sewing Awl Needles
Sewing awl needles are strong needles shaped and intended for use with a sewing awl haft. Since leather can be a heavy material, sewing awl needles are generally larger than hand-sewing needles. They also come in different sizes, to accommodate different thread thicknesses.
The smaller the needle, the smaller the hole it makes in the leather when used. In general, the smaller a hole is, the more pleasing to the eye the finished product might be. Thus, choosing the sewing awl needle size closest to your thread needs is often a helpful choice.
Sewing Awl Techniques
If you’re curious about sewing awl techniques, or how to use an awl to sew leather, let’s explore how they can be used. Technique can vary based on preferred stitch pattern and finishing, which is part personal-reference, and aesthetic preference of the finished piece.
Wind the Thread on the Bobbin
First, wind the thread around the sewing awl bobbin. This will provide the source of thread throughout the sewing/stitching process. Some bobbins can be purchased with the thread already wound.
Thread the Needle
Wondering how do you thread a leather awl? It’s mostly easy. Pull thread from the bobbin, feed the end of the thread through the needle, pull the thread through the metal cap, and secure the cap in place. Secure the thread around the tensioner, and ensure the end cap is in place.
This will allow the needle to carry the thread through the leather as it pierces the material. Here is a helpful video that demonstrates sewing awl threading and use, with the popular Speedy Stitcher:
Push Needle Through First Hole
With the thread in the needle, push the needle through the first hole. This is part of the fist stitch.
Pull Thread Through
With the needle through the leather, pull enough thread slack off the bobbin to cover the length of the material that you will sew. It should be loose and allow plenty of freedom for movement. Feed this thread through the loop created by the first stitch and pull tight, making the first stitch.
Add Additional Stitches
Repeat the pushing and feeding and tightening process for the length of the area being stitched. It is essentially functioning like a hand sewing machine, just making each stitch one-by-one, by hand, with the sewing awl.
Knot the Final Stitch
When you’ve complete the length of the stitches being made, make a knot in the thread at the end of the last stitch. This should be secure, ensuring the thread (and previous stitches), do not come loose.
Some leather workers, when using nylon thread, will heat up the knot with a lighter or small flame. This essentially melts it together (since nylon is plastic), ensuring it will stay tight and not loosen up over time.
Sewing Awl Thread
Sewing awl thread is a type of thread used mostly in sewing awls. It is generally heavy-duty thread, intended for thicker materials such as leather or heavy sail material used on boats and ships.
The most common material for sewing awl thread is waxed nylon. The nylon is strong, and the waxed coating helps to protect the nylon strands underneath, while also making it easier to slide through holes while sewing.
These threads come in different colors, and different sizes, often referred to as thread “weights”. The range most commonly from around #46 thread for common fabric sewing, to #346 for much heavier application. In general, a thread in the 200 weight works well for most sewing awls and leather work. Though, depending on application and aesthetic preference, a lighter or heavier thread might be preferred.
Speedy Stitcher Sewing Awl (for leather)
A Speedy Stitcher sewing awl is a hand tool that essentially functions as a large hand sewing needle. It has a bobbin, and thread, incorporated into the handle, that makes it easy to handle.
Generally, they are used for sewing heavy materials, such as leather, canvas, and materials used in making boat sails. They are used for such heavy applications as the thick materials require more force to push the needs through than typical fabrics. Thus, a sturdy handle can be pushed comfortably through with the hand (easier than trying with a thimble and just one finger).
The Speedy Stitcher can also be used to sew canvas tents and other outdoor items. The Speedy Stitcher is the most common and popular model of leather sewing awl available. It was originally patented in 1909 by a gentleman named, Francis Stewart, from Massachusetts.
The Silver Creek Leather Company produces the Speedy Stitcher, still made in the USA. Click here to view their page with more history about it. It’s available through many leather tool shops.
Here’s a great video demonstrating its use:
Saddler’s Harness Awl
These awls usually come in an elongated diamond shape. Primarily used by saddle makers, they help make holes in thicker leathers for stitching and sewing. Often available in different sizes, they can be either single awls, or awl bladed that can be fit into a universal awl haft.
Scratch awls are pretty universal leather working tools, almost every leather worker will have one or several. They have a sharp, rounded point and are used for piercing holes in leather. Sometimes, they are referred to as a leather awl punch.
Available in a range of sizes, they can be used on thinner leathers or thicker leathers, depending on preferences and needs. The holes made can be used for stitching, or most other uses for pierced holes.
These awls can also be used for scratching, or marking, leather. Sometimes when cutting leather or planning where holes will go, it is helpful to leave a mark. Where a pen or pencil might work, but not be preferred to leave a graphite or ink mark, the scratch awl can be used to leave point marks. They can mark, for example, where a hole might go, or lines (where a cut line might be). Just apply less pressure to the awl by hand and push or drag it across the leather.
Scratch awls and universally helpful and really handy leather craft tools.
With so many great leather tools available, it’s likely you’ll find a leather awl among one of your favorites. They’re very simple tools, and very effective. Over time, you might even end up with more than one 🙂 If you’d like to see my recommended awls, click here.
How do you sew leather to leather?
Leather can be sewn to leather by hand-stitching with a needle and thread, or with a leather sewing awl. The sewing awl makes it easier to push thicker thread through thick leather material, making the process quick and easy.
How does a hand sewing awl work?
A hand sewing awl works by pushing its large needle, with thread attached, through the leather, stitch by stitch. This allows sewing to be possible, where material might be too thick for a machine, and easy on the hands.