A tale of four arrises

To buy tools, or make them? That is the question.

On one hand I have made enough tools to appreciate the precision, care and expertise of tool makers who can create such functional pieces of art that I feel absolutely privileged to use them. On the other hand, I’ve bought enough of these tools that my bank account can appreciate when I make my own.

Every once in a while I break down and finally buy a tool that makes me wonder why I didn’t buy it long before. Such is the case with this bird-cage awl:

This story starts nearly a year ago on my way home from a conference when I stopped by the home workshop of local(ish) cabinet maker Chris Black to check out some tools he had restored. I bought a Stanley no. 80, a card scraper and burnisher, and even a nicely restored tenon saw. I drove away from Chris’ shop having spent more than I could afford, but much less than I wanted to. I was blown away not just by the tools that he had for sale, but also by the care that Chris had taken to bring these lovely old tools back to life.

I was also impressed with the idea that Chris not just restored tools, but made them. How audacious, I thought. Who makes their own tools?

The burnisher that I bought a year ago (pictured above) was also of Chris’ design and making. I bought it when I bought the card scraper because I knew I would need it to ready the scraper for use. He had them sitting right with the bird-cage awls, but I had no idea what a awl like that was for, or why I would need one.  I passed them over, and then, for the past year I have regretted that decision as I read about them one place after another.

This week I was getting ready to set the lock in the schoolbox and after reading young Thomas’ method I finally decided it was time to purchase one. One twist of the wrist and I understand what all the fuss is about.  This tool is fantastic.

Full confession. For the past year I have been using an old ice pick as a scratch awl. It works great for marking lines and it reminds me of making ice cream on the back porch as a kid.  It’s a pretty lousy way to start a pilot hole though. As it turns out, a bird-cage awl will not just start a hole it will darn near finish it. Thanks to the four sharp arrises on the tip it’s really an edge tool of sorts and it bores into Eastern white pine effortlessly. It’s hard to explain how effortlessly until you’ve tried it for yourself.


Chris makes a fine tool, by the way. The steel is excellent high carbon tool steel hardened to Rc60 which he then sharpens and polishes up to 8000 grit on water stones.

The handles on the awl and burnisher are both turned from some lovely walnut. They fit the hand comfortably, allowing you to apply very precise pressure to the work thanks to the lip by the ferrule where you place your fingers. This is an improvement (in my opinion) over the stubby handles on some awls that make you use palm pressure. They are fixed securely with epoxy in brass ferrules and made to last.

If you’ve been wondering to yourself if you really need a birdcage awl, let me answer that question for you: Yes. The answer is yes. And I encourage you to send Chris an email and buy one from him. They are excellent tools at reasonable prices. I paid full retail for the awl ($40 USD at the time of this entry) and I would do it again in a heartbeat. The quality and value of this tool far surpass most of the (so called) square awls on the market right now.

Even if you don’t need an awl you may still want to drop Chris a line and ask what he’s got for sale. He loves, lives and breathes old hand tools, and he always has some great ones that are tuned up and ready for another lifetime of service. There are a couple of Disstons in my saw till that bear witness to that.





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