Improving a Scratch Awl

I have a tool that is almost perfect, that I use constantly.  I will search for hours for  it, I am so dependent on  it- a little Japanese Socket Awl.

Three Great Scratch Awls

The big one in the picture above is one of the best made western style scratch awls.  You can pound it, mark with it, start a drill hole with it,  punch some holes with it, and break ice with it.  General did a great job on this tool, and it is fairly inexpensive.   The smaller one I got from Hida Tools.   They don’t list it, but I phoned them and they had a very nice deal on it.  I bought two because I lose these guys.  The small ones are light enough to hold in place when lightly jabbed into a board.

The Top one is the one I love best, although functionally it is pretty much the same as the smaller one.  I got one from Schtoo and fell in love with it.  I named it ‘Pointy.’  I probably spent a total of 10 hours looking for the thing over the  month or so I had it.  Finally I lost it.  The thing is fabulous, the perfect marking tool, with one huge fatal flaw.  It is a ninja tool.  It disappears, blends in, fades out without trace.  I got these from the Ebay Store, EastToolWest.   The Japan Woodworker has the awl I love and an even larger one, that I have not tried.

I bought another, named it ‘Jabby,’ and lost it in a week.   So now I have four Japanese Scratch awls, just in case.  The current one I use is named ‘Stabby,’ but I keep a smaller one handy, ‘Stabby Jr., because I like working with two of them.  The great thing about this tool is that I can push it in where I want to scribe a mark, Line up the straight edge to it, take it out and make the mark.  This gives me fast precision marks.  Two of these will let me line up two lines, and speeds me up even more.

Or they would speed me up If I didn’t lose them instantly.  So enough was enough, I had to improve this tool.

Here is about half a quart of vinegar, half a quart of water and five packages of Kool-Aid.  Don’t get this on your shirt, it will  stay there.

The stuff I am using here is Black Cherry Kool-Aid.  It makes a deep lovely color, if you use less vinegar and less water so it is more concentrated.   In this case I wanted the color to be rich but bright, so I went for a lower concentration.

The wooden ball was dyed with it about eight years ago, and has been in weather and even played with by a dog.  It has lost some of the original vibrance, but dyes, unlike good pigments fade over time.  I will be pretty happy if I can keep track of these tools long enough to notice them fade.

Notice the nice bright cherry red hue on two of the handles.  They were boiled for about ten minutes.  The smaller blade turned black,  vinegar causes a type of rust that is black.  Some old timers used to use vinegar to put just this finish on a blade.  This black finish will actually give a certain level  of self healing, protection from other rust.  So I don’t mind it at all.  Stainless Steel or Chrome will not discolor as easily, that is why the larger one is not discolored.

Boiling the wood expands it, so I was able to remove the blades from the wood.

This shows them to be a simple enough project, so next time I may just make my own.

I super glued the ones I pulled apart back together, and then I boiled them for a bit in my wax mix to preserve them and boil out the water a  bit.

Here is the finished product,

Used to be these tiny tools would hide better than anything amongst the  wood, wood shavings, and parts.  Now they stand out a bit more,

The tiny red tool is much easier to find than it used to be.  The file with a handle the same shade as the original awl, was dropped onto the shavings from the same height.  Despite burrowing in a bit, the awl is still quick to spot.


11 comments to Improving a Scratch Awl

  • Skip J.

    Excellent article! A drive-by lesson in dying and finishing handles at the same time. I would never have thought of boiling new handles in your wax mix, no wonder you can use a lot at one time!

    To use them as you describe, you mark between them with a knife I presume????

    And you must be marking a lot of lines – to cut or whatever…


  • Thanks, Skip!

    The scratch awl, is the marking knife. It leaves a nice clear cut, Ignores grain better than most knives, and does not have the chance of shaving the straight edge that a casually used marking knife has.

    Normally with a pencil a carpenter draws a ‘bird beak’ with the point marking the line. Then he lines up a straight edge with the point of the beak and then draws the line. This is very clear, but not very precise. Great for construction, iffy for furniture making, horrible for fine work such as dovetails or tool making.

    With a marking knife, the wood is lined up to be measured, and a small cut is made to show where to mark the line. The straight edge is brought in, close to the line and the knife is then used, guided by the straight edge to make an incision. This line is perhaps harder to see in poor light than the pencil mark, but it is thinner and more precise. Additionally the cut line can be used prevent the grain from chipping out. This is a serious improvement. You have to be careful not to take a shaving off the straight edge as you use it, and you have to be quite firm and pay attention to grain to make sure the knife doesn’t wander. Pencils and awls can both wander with grain too, but are much more resistant to the effect. I any case the marker should be ‘dragged’ and the direction the mark is made in should be such that the grain will push the marker toward the straight edge instead of guiding the marker away from the straight edge.

    The scratch awl can be stuck in, right where you want the mark. The straight edge can then be slid right up to the scratch awl, registering where to mark and the offset position perfectly. The awl is then used at an angle so the tip is dragged. It makes a nice clean line, a bit more visible than a marking knife, but perhaps less deep.

    A marking knife can then be used if a deeper cut is needed. An example would be if you want to prevent chip out, on a course grained wood, and need a deep marking.

    Apart from a few instances such as that, in my opinion, a small scratch awl is a superior tool for general use.


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  • Lorem

    Wooooow, very niiiiiice!!

    But I’m still wondering what’s this “Wax Mix” ¿Is that a secret of yours?

    Hehe Thanks.


  • The wax mix is no great Secret. should link to my making the stuff.


  • Lorem

    Woow, thanks…

  • You are quite welcome! All part of the service!


  • Can I purchase these beautiful stainless steel awls?

  • Ken Speed

    Dyeing wood with kool aid is an interesting idea. I’m wondering if one can dye larger pieces without boiling them. I don’t think I want a bright pink chest of drawers but I can see making a deep orange for tiger maple.

  • Bob Strawn

    It might be worth trying, an oily or resinous wood might be more problematic. Pine will take a dye well, unless it doesn’t. Boiling bypasses that. If the wood wets well, it will probably take dye. Worth trying, but consider it experimental.


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