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Making Shenandoah Toolworks Awls

by J. Norman Reid
Delaplane, VA

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

Shenandoah Tool Works Birdcage Awls are crafted by Jeff Fleisher and Norm Reid from selected domestic and exotic hardwoods and feature a hand-forged, twisted shank. The shanks, made of O1 steel with a Rockwell hardness of 62, are sharpened to a fine four-sided point. In case you're not familiar with birdcage awls, they differ from scratch awls in that they are used by hand tool woodworkers to start holes for screws or drilling in order to achieve a high degree of accuracy.

We begin by selecting a piece of 8/4 hardwood from which we will shape the handles. Shown is a piece of padauk, which will yield a gorgeous and highly sought-after tool. We cut the blank into 2X2" sections and crosscut these into 4" blanks from which the handles will be turned. Then we mark the centers (with a birdcage awl, of course!) and drill a 23/64" hole 2" deep in one end before screwing a mandrel into the hole.

With the mandrel inserted, the block is mounted on the lathe. Now the turning process begins. To turn the awls to their basic rough shape we employ a Vega D-36 duplicator to copy the shape of a maple pattern onto the blank we are turning. The result is a rough awl handle with a tenon attached to the tailstock end. We use an Easy Wood Tools Finisher to further shape the handle.

Before cutting the tenon off the handle, we wet sand it with walnut oil to 400 grit. Then we part off the tenon and sand the end so it is smooth and blended in with the remainder of the handle shape.

Now we are ready to apply a finish. We use Doctor's Woodshop's walnut finishing oil and Pen's Plus finish. Using the walnut oil, we wet sand with 600 grit until a slurry is formed on the handle. The slurry helps fill grain pores as the walnut oil penetrates the wood and forms a permanent bond with it. Following that, we apply four coats of Pens Plus finish—a walnut oil, shellac and wax mixture—to the spinning awl handle, then buff it until the heat of the friction dries and seals the finish, resulting in a high shine and a durable finish.

The awl shafts are made by a Shenandoah Valley Blacksmith, Ed Thomas. This video shows Ed forging the shafts and giving them their hallmark twist. Once forging is completed, we sharpen the four-sided shafts to a razor edge using a belt sander so they will give excellent performance in use. Then we mount the shafts into the handles with epoxy glue, after which they are ready for their new homes with proud woodworkers worldwide.

We produce the awls in a variety of hardwoods. Awls in padauk are available exclusively from Highland Woodworking .

CLICK HERE to find out more about Shenandoah Tool Works Birdcage Awls

J. Norman Reid is a woodworker, writer, and woodworking instructor living with his wife in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains with a woodshop full of power and hand tools and four cats who believe they are cabinetmaker's assistants. He can be reached by email at nreid@fcc.net .

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