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Shoes and Craft

A shoemaker's blog about shoemaking

Why do awls worth to post about them? They do. All makers know this – awls are essentials to make really nice sewn shoes. You got to realize this, when you make your first welting – which might take several hours, if you don’t use the proper tool, you don’t use your proper tool properly… etc.

So, what make an awl really good?

1. Material. You can find nicely shaped old awls on Ebay easily, but if the material is usually too old – they break in a second or after a few hours of using. Not much fun.

2. Shape. Very-very important. A bit difference in the curve and you can’t make the holes on the shank part, the small stitches break through, etc.. I use a bunch of different shapes for different shoes.

3. Thickness. A too small hole makes the thread kinky which result an ugly stitch appearance. A too big let’s through the needles easily, but the holes stays visible, which is not so attractive on an expensive shoe. I use different awls for different thread thicknesses, it works well.

4. Length. Some makers prefer long ones, some others short awls – but the actual task determines – one of the most crucial part of sole stitching is the medial shank – a short awl would mess up the upper leather.

5. Haft. Different awls come with different hafts, someone else’s awl just doesn’t work well in your hand, you have to get used to your own one. Actually when I started to get manufactured awls, I started with copying old hafts from rosewood, walnut, sometimes amaranth tree – the shape was a constant problem. The good haft is just shapes into your palm let’s you push it, not too thick. Surprisingly sometimes pretty small – which let’s you make delicate work.

I always admired the old toolmaker’s awesome work. Most probably it comes from the hard competition, but I can imagine they wouldn’t sell anything, which did not meet their quality standards. It is so sad, that nowadays, when we have CAD applications, computerized machines, high speed grinders, polishing machines, etc. they produce worst tools than a 100 years ago.

These are my awls. I use for my shoes. From left to right: 1. welting awl for English welt, walnut haft, made by my toolmaker 2. sole stitching awl (pretty old piece served several years on my hand, made several pair of bespoke shoes. I love this piece) 3. welting and sole stitching awl for goiser construction. Slightly wider and less curved, amaranth haft. Made to my special order by my toolmaker 4. half amaranth-half rosewood by my toolmaker, given me as a present. I use it for sole stitches for different constructions. A bit longer then a regular awl which makes it a great tool to reach problematic parts. 5. Also an old piece. Look at that small haft! Doesn’t seems comfortable to use, but it is – very short, very much curved, good for shank stitches and german welt construction. I also use it sometimes to welt the shank part. I don’t know about the haft, but the blade is a German product. 6. A regular awl from my web-shop. Good for many things. Walnut haft. Made by my toolmaker.

A insole prepared for a Norwegian shoe. Good work needs good tools.
The numbers are for documenting the process for a book.

I have several more, but these are the ones I use almost every day. And one more thing – we shoemakers don’t share awls (and knives and plenty other tools) especially with apprentices. Why? Because reckless use can break them in one blink of the eye. Let me share a story. Since my first apprentices broke my old awls (one of them 3 in a single day), I decided to make new ones, so I did. We tested several designs and metals with my toolmaker and get to a certain combination, which we believed to be indestructible. It wasn’t. One of my student could manage to twist it out from the hole every single time, so even the awl didn’t break, it bent so much. It was an nightmare to finish the welting with it. All the way to the end… Both shoes. Sorry, I can’t tolerate if someone abusing tools.

ps. broken awls can be replaced if you can remove the old blade (and why you couldn’t?), or you can make a great scraper from them.

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