Using a Square Awl

Using a Square Awl Keyframe

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What is the square awl used for? Also known as a birdcage awl, it is used to mark or prepare a hole for a screw and can also ream out a deeper round hole without splitting the wood.


  1. cagire on 10 August 2018 at 10:45 am

    Thanks Paul, I made mine from an old flat head screwdriver….now a beautifully sharp 1/4″ square awl. Thanks for the pyramid point tip…. didn’t know the value of that., Aidan.

  2. peterjonespipeorgans on 10 August 2018 at 12:11 pm

    Thanks for another interesting and useful video.

  3. SharpPencil on 10 August 2018 at 1:31 pm

    Simple…dimple and SUCH useful info ….thanks Paul……John2v

  4. SharpPencil on 10 August 2018 at 6:08 pm

    Just turned a scrap of pine to your hexagonal shaped (London pattern??)
    Used a piece of 1/2″ copper tube for a feral, drilled a hole then knocked in a 4″ nail, cut off the head and filed four sides… a treat

  5. tim ziegler on 10 August 2018 at 8:59 pm

    Thanks Paul. I have a birdcage awl and find reasons to use it all the time.

  6. Ed on 10 August 2018 at 9:27 pm

    Funny coincidence..I just made one a couple days ago. I made it because I was tired of being off my mark when starting holes. I find that a center punch, which works well in metal, doesn’t work well in wood because, when you tap it, it follows the path of least resistance through the grain and can end up off the mark. It’s not much, but it’s not zero. Various kinds of bits will walk without a starting point. The square all, though, cuts and it cuts slowly enough that I can watch it and make sure it stays exactly where I want it. I’ve tried starting with small twist bits, spur buts, starting bits, and the square awl seems to beat them all. Once I have a divot from the square awl, I can move to a conical twist bit.

    I don’t know if this is the intended use of the tool, but it seems to work for me better than alternatives for defining the starting point in face grain in wood.

    • ballinger on 16 August 2018 at 11:17 pm

      That’s what I use mine for and for the very reasons you outlined.

  7. Anonymous on 11 August 2018 at 5:14 am

    Sure wish I could find a video of how they made the bird cage with that. Another lost art? I can only find references with making the awl.

  8. Andrew Sinclair on 11 August 2018 at 12:03 pm

    Nice video about a tool I have been wondering about acquiring.

    My dad showed me how to fit a new chisel handle to an old tang, a method he was shown by a very old man c.50 years ago. The tang is used exactly like the square awl to bore out the hole to match its taper exactly. Presumably the reason tangs of old were shaped as they were (?).

    • SharpPencil on 11 August 2018 at 12:49 pm

      Andrew ….all I did was turn a handle x5″ long….fit copper tube as a feral and drill a hole x2″ deep x just under the diameter of a 4 or 3″ nail ….nock in nail …cut off head and file square….bingo

      • Andrew Sinclair on 12 August 2018 at 11:25 pm

        Thanks for the encouragement Cornflowers, I may well make one then! I’ll try Paul’s method for an octagonal file handle as I dont have a lathe yet.

    • Ed on 11 August 2018 at 12:56 pm

      @STOCHASTICFISH In the method your father showed you, do you bore any sort of pilot hole before using the tang? Do you drive the tang a bit beyond the hole that you bore with it? Do you heat the tang and burn it in as a final step? Could you give a few more details?

    • harry wheeler on 11 August 2018 at 3:51 pm

      If you Google “fitting a chisel”, Paul did a YouTube video years ago about that. He drills a series of holes to get rid of most of the waste but then uses the chisel tang exactly like a birdcage awl to finish seating the chisel. I would imagine you could do it without the drilling if you filed the tang first to make sharp edges, but why struggle with it if you have a drill. I think you’re right. Fitting the chisel to the handle is most likely why they decided to shape the tang the way they did.

      • harry wheeler on 11 August 2018 at 4:10 pm

        Incidentally, the tapered tang on a file is installed the same way. Even though those tangs aren’t square like that of a chisel, it still works.

        • Andrew Sinclair on 12 August 2018 at 11:22 pm

          Sorry, I wasn’t clear. There are indeed a series of pilot holes to estAblish the basic taper, then clamp chisel blade into vise and twist handle around tang using it like awl, lastly a couple of solid whacks with a hammer to drive it the last 1/4″ or so (6mm). Important the thinnest pilot hole is slightly deeper than tang to reduce chance of splitting.

          Thanks for the pointer Harry, I’ll look up Paul’s video on it, sounds identical.

  9. joeleonetti on 13 August 2018 at 2:30 am

    How often do you find that you need to draw file to sharpen it?

  10. btyreman on 16 August 2018 at 11:44 pm

    I found a good seller on etsy called daegrad tools in sheffield, he makes some very good awls, the awl he made for me is great, and it can be sharpened.

  11. tomleg on 16 August 2018 at 11:48 pm

    I bought a stubby phillips (cross) screwdriver on sale at a shop, and filed the tip into a square awl. The original screwdriver pattern left little groves up each flat surface, so it’s doubly effective.


  12. Sarrienne Cousland on 17 August 2018 at 4:41 pm

    How does the Awl compare to, or differ from, things like a Bradawl and a Gimlet?

    • Philip Adams on 20 August 2018 at 12:42 pm

      The birdcage awl or square awl has the square cross section mentioned in the video. People seem to use bradawl to describe many things, but generally is has a round cross section and a small flat screwdriver tip to it. They have a tendency to split wood more often, particularly near the edge of a piece. A gimlet is essentially a small drill bit of various types on a handle, and can cause the wood to split if not careful.
      Hope that helps clarify things. Phil

      • Larry Geib on 22 August 2018 at 12:23 am

        Apparently gimlet is as ambiguous a term as awl.

        There are several types. Most of the modern ones have a snail on them like an Irwin or Jennings bit, and they do tend to split wood if you aren’t careful.

        Some antique ones are more like old spoon bits or a spiral version of a spoon bit with no snail at all, and they don’t split wood.

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