The basic tool loadout of most multi tools hasn’t changed much over the years. You’ve got pliers, a knife, a saw blade, scissors, screwdrivers, a can/bottle opener, and a file. One tool a lot of people don’t recognize right away is the awl. What is an awl, you ask? Most people probably just assumed it was a weirdly shaped little knife, if they thought about it at all.
Today we’ll explain what an awl is designed for, how you can use it, and cover some of the multi tools that have high quality awls built right in.
What is an Awl
Awls are tools that are used to punch holes in leather, wood, and other materials. They’ve been around since ancient times and often come with a small thread hole built right in. The purpose of an awl is to puncture a material in a way that doesn’t create a cut line. This gives you a useful hole you can now stitch, grommet, or use to hang an object from.
Leather workers especially are familiar with awls as they are generally used instead of a needle and thread. The awl allows them to make a row of stitching holes that they can then thread heavy leather cord or another strong material through.
Awls are made to puncture materials, and they do this job very well. If you’ve ever found yourself needing to add a hole to your belt you might have noticed a knife is a really poor substitute for a good metal punch. The tip of any knife is the weakest point on the blade and will often break off or chip when too much force is applied to it. The width of the blade also makes it hard to cut a useful sized hole.
Awls are significantly thicker and much narrower than standard knife blades. They do a great job standing up to hard downward pressure and can punch right through tough materials.
Different types of Awls
There are as many different kinds of awl’s as there are materials. In its most basic form an awl is a just thin piece of sharpened metal that you can push through a material to make a hole. Beyond that you can find different shapes, thicknesses, notched vs solid, and a whole host of other features. Some of the most common types of awl include:
- Diamond Awls
- Tapered Awls
- Threaded Awls
On multi tools you’ll usually find a basic awl that’s shaped like a narrow but thick rounded knife point. Some have a thread hole for stitching while others don’t. The rounded shape of the awl makes it possible for you to puncture something then twist it around to smooth and round out the opening.
Uses for an Awl tool
So now you know what an awl is, but what do you use it for? The most common thing people use multi tool awls for is to add a hole to their belt. If you’ve have an especially delicious lunch you might feel a little tightness from your overworked leather belt. Having an awl on your multi tool makes it easy to add some much needed room to your jeans.
Because awls are designed to stand up to hard impacts they’re excellent for breaking or chipping ice. If you’ve ever gone camping in a northwoods winter you know the unique annoyance of melting the layer of ice off your morning water pot. An awl lets you quickly shatter the top layer without risking your expensive knife blade.
Need to get a screw started in wood? Multi tool awls work great for creating a precise little hole to securely plant your screw. They’re also well sized for scouring out things like grit, corrosion, or built up gunk from screw threads, spark plugs, or other (disconnected) electrical contacts.
If you’re in the building trades you probably find a lot of situations where you need to mark wood or another material. An awl is a great way to make a small scribe mark without dulling your main knife. The thickness of the awl’s blade prevents it from being damaged even when used on harder materials like sheet metal or hard woods.
Don’t tell my wife this, but they also make pretty great tools to clean under your fingernails and can even be a makeshift toothpick in a pinch.
Best multi tools with an Awl tool
Awls are a mainstain on Swiss Army Knives and other classic pocket knives. Sadly they aren’t as well represented on modern multi tools, to their detriment. Most major manufacturers seem to go the route of an extra screwdriver or other tool instead of the trusty old awl.
Thankfully, new multi tool offerings from several major manufacturers are giving the awl a comeback.
The Signal is Leatherman’s first entry into the ‘survival’ tool market. Its tool loadout is focused on providing things that will be useful during backcountry camping or an actual survival situation. One of the best decisions they made to that end was the inclusion of a high quality awl with a thread loop.
It’s difficult to exaggerate the benefits an awl provides in a true survival situation. It lets you modify your clothes, repair damaged equipment, and even process animal hides to create new garb or hide blankets. You can bore a hole or carve a notch through wood without risking your essential knife blade.
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Leatherman Juice CS4
The Leatherman Juice CS4 looks a lot like Leatherman shoehorned a pair of pliers onto an old school Swiss Army Knife. It’s a great little multi tool with 15 useful features, including a very nice awl. It lacks the thread hole of the Signal but still does a great job punching through leather, wood, and other materials in the backcountry or on a job site.
One thing to keep in mind though is that the Juice’s awl is a true awl. It lacks any blade surface and is only useful for puncturing materials.
The Gerber Center Drive is one of the only tools from Gerber that includes an awl. This makes sense from the company’s perspective as the Center Drive was designed with workman, contractors, and other extra handy types in mind. The awl on the Center Drive has a distinctly triangular shape compared to most other pocket tool awls but still does a good job punching through tough materials.
The blade on the Center Drive’s awl is a bit smaller than on the Leatherman Signal but still gives you several options for scouring, scribing, and starting screws.
Read our Gerber Center-Drive Review