Last weekend I took a great workshop with Frank Klausz. One of the fascinating hand tool skills he demonstrated was using a bradawl to start holes for screws prior to drilling the complete hole. I've read about bradawls in a number of woodworking books and it was on my list of tools to acquire. But after seeing how quick and effective it was for accurately locating holes (especially for hinge screws, where exact placement is very important), I was much more interested in trying one out (while Frank demonstrated using one, we students didn't end up with time to try it out).
I was reminded of the bradawl this last week when I was working on the cross braces for a warping mill I'm making for a friend (For those interested, a warping mill or warping reel as it's sometime's called is a device used by hand weavers to create the warp - the yarn fixed onto a loom through which the weft yarn is woven). As I was looking at the mortises I'd chiseled out for some hinges used on the braces, I remembered watching Frank take a cheap, plastic-handled awl and give a mini-lecture on the proper shape of a bradawl. He described how the tip of the awl should be triangular and then described and demonstrated grinding the round point into a triangle using the side of a grinding wheel. As he was working, he said the high-speed grinder was not an ideal way to form the point; using a file would be just as fast and not risk burning the steel.
At that point, I remembered an old awl I'd inherited from my dad, which was originally my grandfather's. I've actually inherited a couple of items which might be awls or might be ice picks. One of them was short and stubby, with a wooden handle of just the right size to fit into your hand, and with a rounded end. Going over to the rack where I keep it, I eyed it and decided maybe it had been a bradawl all along, or maybe it was an ice pick that had been worn down over them. Either way, it looked like it might make a good bradawl. A few minutes with a hand file and I was ready to try it out.
My new bradawl works amazingly well. The tip is very sharp and it's easy to place it in exactly the spot you want. A few twists and you have the start of a hole exactly where you want it. For fun, I then chucked a drill bit into my Millers Falls #2 hand drill and drilled the holes using it. I really enjoyed how quickly I could work and how quietly my work went. As time goes by, I find I'm gravitating more and more to hand tools whenever using them won't dramatically slow me down. I'll never give up power tools, but as one man building single items I'm finding many hand tool techniques to be more than fast enough and much more enjoyable than turning on the big power tools. And now I have a bradawl that is helping me build better and enjoy the process more.