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What is a Scratch Awl?

M. McGee
M. McGee

A scratch awl is a tool used to make marks on solid objects. These awls are generally used to mark a line on a wood or metal surface to indicate the location for later work. A scratch awl is a very simple tool, basically a metal spike with a handle on one end. These tools are similar in appearance to a stitching awl or a bradawl, but have a subtly different construction.

The design of the common scratch awl hasn’t changed in a very long time. The work part is a metal spike that is sharpened to a fine point. This spike is typically made of hardened steel so it will keep a better point. When the point does begin to dull, it is possible to sharpen it with a metal file. On the end opposite the point, there is a handle, often made of wood. This handle is usually ball-shaped so the user can hold the tool in a wide range of orientations.


The general purpose of a scratch awl is to make noticeable marks on a hard surface, often metal, wood or stone. These marks often show where work is going to happen at a later time, such as making a screw hole or a cut. Since the area marked will likely be further deformed during the work process, the marks made by a scratch awl are often very rough.

On material without a grain, such as most metals, a scratch awl is a preferred method of marking areas. On materials with a grain, they are only used to make small marks or lines that go along the grain. When going against the grain, most workers use a marking knife. This chisel-like knife will easily cut surface fibers that would disrupt the awl’s path. On the other hand, when going with the grain, the knife will often get caught within grain valleys that the awl easily avoids.

While all types of awls are very similar, small variations exist to differentiate one type from another. For instance, a bradawl looks nearly exactly like a scratching awl except for a small variation in the tool’s point. A bradawl’s tip is flattened slightly to allow it to both bite into wood and then, by using a twisting motion, make a small divot to use as a screw hole. A stitching awl has a modified tip that allows it to puncture canvas or leather easily and push thread through the hole at the same time.

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