Using Awls Without Hurt­ing Your Hand

How you hold an awl in use is import­ant for a couple of reas­ons. You need to hold it in a way that gives you good con­trol over what you’re doing but allows you to apply suf­fi­cient force while redu­cing a tend­ency to lever the blade (which will surely snap it); but you also need to hold it in a way that doesn’t dam­age your hand.

It’s very tempt­ing when you first pick up an awl to butt the end of the haft into the hol­low of your palm, and use your hand like that to push the awl through the leath­er. The prob­lem is that right in the middle of the palm of your hand there’s a nerve called the Medi­an nerve that branches out to your thumb, index, middle, and half of your ring fin­ger. It’s respons­ible for the “cutaneous innerv­a­tion” of those parts of your hand. “Cutaneous innerv­a­tion” is a the tech­nic­al way of say­ing it’s respons­ible for the feel­ing in your skin — i.e. most of the use­ful feel­ing that you rely on for dex­ter­ity in half your hand.

Deep palmar nerves from plate 817 of the 1918 edition of Gray's anatomy.  Ganked from Wikipedia.

Deep pal­mar nerves from plate 817 of the 1918 edi­tion of Gray’s ana­tomy, ganked from Wiki­pe­dia. You can see the medi­an nerve clearly.


If you use an awl with the haft but­ted into this bit of your palm for any length of time you’re likely to bruise that nerve, which hurts and can also affect the dex­ter­ity of the fin­gers whose sen­sa­tion comes from this nerve.

Most pur­pose-made shoe­makers awl hafts that I’ve seen have a num­ber of fea­tures in com­mon, regard­less of their shape and size:

  • a rel­at­ively long fer­rule; and
  • an approx­im­ately oval or tapered haft body; and
  • a groove near the base capped by a ‘but­ton’ or a ball shape that forms the butt of the haft.
Different shapes of awl haft but all with common features.

Dif­fer­ent shapes of awl haft but all with com­mon fea­tures.

These fea­tures all help you use the tool. The long fer­rule is where your thumb and index fin­ger sit to give you con­trol, the oval body (on short­er hafts) or gen­er­ally tapered body (on longer hafts) makes for a com­fort­able grip, and the groove near the base is used to help pull stitches tight (the exact tech­nique for which is the sub­ject of an upcom­ing post).

Correct way to hold a short awl haft

Ring fin­ger in the groove of the haft provides most of the force trans­fer. Thumb and index fin­ger on the fer­rule provide con­trol.

Holding a short awl haft

Short awl haft in closed hand. Held like this the butt of the haft avoids the centre of the palm.

How not to hold a short awl

This is how many people will nat­ur­ally hold an awl. It’s a recipe for a sore hand.

How not to hold a short awl

Bad way to hold a short awl show­ing the hand closed.

I have quite big hands and find it easi­er to hold long awls cor­rectly. The one in the pic­tures below is a good shape for me for big­ger awl blades. It’s not so good for small fine awls for me, but with big awls like the heav­ily curved heel seat awl blade in it it works well. I wrap my little fin­ger around the groove near the base.

Good way to hold a long awl haft.

The right way I’ve found to hold a long awl haft. Little fin­ger hooked around the groove at the base.

Hand closed around long awl haft

Thumb and index fin­ger on the fer­rule for con­trol, little fin­ger in the groove and ring and middle fin­ger press­ing the haft against the meaty bit of my hand at the base of my fin­gers.

Bad way to hold a long awl haft

Hold­ing the haft like this can feel like it offers more con­trol and can be easi­er to push but butts the awl straight into the medi­an nerve.

Bad way to hold a long awl haft

Fin­gers closed around a long awl haft held incor­rectly.

I’ve found it much easi­er to hold make­shift awl hafts incor­rectly pur­pose-made ones. The make­shift hafts I have tend to be short­er and all lack the groove at the base of the haft.

Makeshift haft held incorrectly

With a short make­shift haft (this one is a small file handle) it’s much easi­er to hold them incor­rectly.

It is pos­sible to hold them the right way, but it takes more of a con­scious effort and prac­tice. The steps to get­ting a short haft in hand cor­rectly are as fol­lows:

Right way to hold a makeshift awl haft

With a make­shift awl I use my ring fin­ger to cap­ture the haft.

Right way to hold a makeshift awl haft, fingers partly closed

Roll the haft into your hand with your ring, index and little fin­ger. The idea is to catch it between your fin­gers and the meat of your palm at the base of your fin­gers.

Holding a makeshift all correctly

Even with a short and wide fer­rule like this one, the thumb and index fin­ger can close on the haft to provide con­trol.

The worse haft I have is the first one I put togeth­er from a tool handle and a dia­mond blade. I used this haft to make my first few pairs of shoes and I haven’t used it since. The shape of the handle with the swell right at the butt of the haft and the taper in towards the flared rim up by the fer­rule lends itself per­fectly to but­ting into the centre of the palm of my hand and it’s quite dif­fi­cult to avoid.


Awl haft made from tool handle is difficult to hold

This haft shape lends itself per­fectly to but­ting into the centre of the palm right where you don’t want it.

Awl haft from tool handle is easy to hold wrong

Fin­gers very nat­ur­ally curl into the taper and push it right into the centre of the palm.

The file handle haft is bet­ter to use than this one, I don’t use it any more and I’d advise against any­one else mak­ing awl  hafts out of this type of tool handle.

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