Monday, March 26, 2012

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.

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 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.

Some 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 Jeff Peachey "sawing sewing stations into his text block" may be found here.

Anything to add to the discussion? Please leave a comment.


Lizzie said...

Yay, a phone book "cradle" - my favourite tool!
I made an awl, using a wooden handle and long needle. Gorilla Glue is the best for this - nothing's going to shift that needle now!
I like my awl the best, as it's straight and makes exactly the "right" holes for me!

Unknown said...

How effective would you say that an awl with the spool included with it is? Im trying to decide on my first awl tool and I only want to buy one once...Thanks...

Unknown said...

Not sure what you mean about a spool with it. Most packages will say "light duty" or "Medium" or "heavy duty" awl. There are awls that are packaged for different uses like beading or ceramics. I don't have any awls that have lasted more than a few years. The tips end up getting bent or worn down. My suggestion is to buy either a medium or heavy duty awl. When they are packaged for different uses than bookbinding, it's hard to know if they'll be good or not. That said, my favorite awl and the one that lasted the longest was sold in a pottery tool kit.

kaiami said...

Hey! Do you happen to know the name brand of the pottery kit, or where you got it? I'm trying to find one.. I was told by a few people that the Lineco Ball Handle Extra Heavy Duty Awl is the best. I bought it from Amazon and got a cheaply made knockoff. I emailed them and complained, so they had me order another from a different seller, and it's not authentic either. I'm new to bookbinding (I haven't done it at all, actually), and I'm wondering if it's really the best? I'm also going to be doing leather working, and thought this might be good for both, but maybe I need a different one for each use? Thanks for the article, and I hope to get your opinion on my situation. :)

KDS said...

Looks like Kaiami never got a response here. Disappointing. Here are a few of my thoughts, based on some limited experience and without being able to call myself anything like a "book binder":

An awl, any awl, that is made with high-carbon steel (e.g., "music wire"), no matter where it is manufactured, is going to work for this purpose. Music wire/ Piano wire is very durable, uniformly round (see the Wikipedia article on it), and will make a decent awl.

An awl needs to have smooth sides in order to punch a clean hole. Though usually highly uniform, I have found that not all piano wire is perfectly smooth. A brief sanding with a high-grit sandpaper or steel wool (grade 0000 wool or 2500 grit sandpaper and up to 12000 grit) will make it ready for this purpose.