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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