What are awls and how to use them?

An awl (also called a gimlet) is a tool used to make a hole for a nail or screw. It is one of the oldest carpentry tools and can perform simple tasks such as drilling holes. Although power tools such as drills are also used for drilling, awls may be more convenient in some situations because they require less preparation and take up less space.

What is an awl?

An awl is a carpenter's tool for making narrow holes. Making a pre-hole before hammering in nails or screws will help to clean up the finish without splitting the board. Doing the groundwork by using an awl to make a pre-hole is especially important if you are not familiar with woodworking. Although awls do not have the power or flexibility to change the size of the hole compared to drills and other power tools, they have the advantage of being easy to use.

Gimlets can be classified into several categories according to the shape of the blade. There are four main types of awls or gimlets. In this article, we have used the commonly known Japanese names, for those who may be interested in buying these awls from Japan.

Mitsume-giri/ three-eyed awl (has a head and three sides)

Suitable for drilling holes for screws.


Youtsume-giri/ four-eyed awl (has a head and four sides)

The hole is smaller than that of the three-eyed awl, so it is mainly used for pre-hole of nails. It is characterized by the small hole.


Tsubo-giri /pot awl 

It is mainly used for holes in wood and dowel holes. Even soft wood can be drilled cleanly.


Nezumi-ba-giri/ rat-tooth awl 

It is often used for holes in wood, dowel holes, hanging holes, etc. along with the tsubo awl. It can also be used on hard wood, and can be used when precision drilling is required.


These are useful for making a few preliminary holes. They are suitable for tasks that do not require the preparation of an electric drill and offer the convenience of being able to use them right out of the toolbox. They are lightweight, easy to carry, and do not require a power source, making them a handy tool. There are different sizes and types of awls, so make sure to choose the appropriate one. While rat-tooth awls and tsubo awls are rarely used, four-eyed awls and three-eyed awls are tools that are used more often.

How to use awls

After applying the tip to the hole to be drilled, clasp the handle between the palms of both hands and press down while rubbing. Move your hands slightly downward to exert downward pressure. Leave space under the board so that the awl may stick out under the board.

Keep in mind that you are drilling a straight hole, and adjust the awl so that it is always vertical. Also, the trick is to move the awl slowly at first to prevent the hole from shifting, and then push it in harder when it becomes stable. At the start of the awl, apply force within a narrow range, as the axis of rotation tends to become unstable. However, this makes it difficult to apply downward force and less efficient, so move your hand downward as if you are rubbing them when they are stable. Also, since the position of the pressure point cannot be determined at the beginning of kneading, the hemispherical hole should be pushed around with only one hand.

It is dangerous to hold the board with one hand while holding the awl with the other hand without fixing the board. Be sure to place the board on the workbench and apply force from the top down. If the awl gets stuck and cannot be pulled out, twist it out with one hand. Avoid pulling it out while struggling with both hands, as it may suddenly come loose and the handle may hit your face.

Also, since the tip of the awl is delicate, do not tilt it and remember to use it vertically. The tip may break if it is used at an angle. If the tip breaks, it can be sharpened with a file. Use a stick whetstone for the tsubo awl. If the blade is severely damaged, replace the blade only, as they are sold separately. At that time, clamp the blade in a vise or pliers, insert a small crowbar and pull it out, then insert the new blade into the hole you pulled out and tap it with a hammer.


The awl is useful for making the pre-hole for driving nails and screws. When drilling several pre-holes, an awl is more convenient and easier to use than an electric drill. Pre-hole making is an important process to make the finished product beautiful, so do not hesitate to use awls. It's a tool that can be used by a wide range of people, from beginners to experts, so it is worth learning how to use it.