Bookbinding 101: Awls

An awl is used for poking holes in paper and leather (two alternatives are mentioned at the end of this post). There are a few book structures that don't require holes for sewing, but most do, and an awl is one simple tool that does the job well.

What we like is an awl that makes a hole about the size of a needle with thread on it. We also prefer that the diameter, or width, of the awl's "needle" is uniform along the length (except for the pointed tip). This allows us to punch as far in as we wish without being concerned about the hole getting bigger the further we poke through. See photo above.

Some awls (example at right) have a point that keeps getting fatter the further you get away from the point. When using this type of awl for poking holes in pages for sewing, it takes extra care not to punch too far, because the further this style of awl goes into the paper, the bigger the hole will be. With too big of a hole, the binding may be loose in some book structures. Also, a largish hole may or may not not be the look you're going for. 

With this style of awl, it may also be difficult to make the holes of a uniform size, as the hole size changes depending on how deep you punch in. One way to solve this is to wrap a piece of masking tape around the awl point, marking a line on the awl point that indicates how far you want to punch in. However, it's often not so much of a concern when poking holes in leather, as the leather is more resilient and may "shrink" back down a bit. The hole is still bigger, but it can close up a bit, and may not visibly look larger.


Handmade awl — While an awl isn't very costly, it can be even cheaper if you make your own. At left is one we made with a wooden peg, a drilled hole into the end, and a needle stuck in the hole with a dab of glue to help it hold in. Not as strong as the others, but gets the job done.

Corrugated cardboard is a tool of sorts we use with an awl, placing it under our pages or leather as we punch holes. It allows the awl to poke through deeper than just the point.

Alternatively, you can use an open phone book or a thick catalog as a "cradle" in which you place pages to punch them. There are also commercial cradles available, or you can make your own out of wood or bookboard.

Alternatives to an awl include a Crop-A-Dile or a saw. A Crop-A-Dile makes large holes, and will be discussed in an upcoming post. A saw is used for making holes in pages for sewing, and requires a means of clamping the pages together, such as a lying or finishing press. A photo of sawn holes may be found in this post by Henry Hébert (after clicking the link, scroll down to the second photo).