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Tool Tales: The Case of the Rattling Awl

Tool Tales: The Case of the Rattling Awl

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“Tool Tales” is a new addition to our Tuesday lineup. We’ve been running “Toolsday” reviews for almost two years, now, and in the future, we’re going to continue to bring you new product reviews in this space. But we also want to humanize the subject and have a bit more fun with it. Tools are a lot more than just a commodity—they’re a fundamental part of our cultural, and very often individual, identities.


The first car I remember my parents owning was a 1977 Chevrolet station wagon—blue, with fake wood paneling on the sides. A few months after buying the car, something within the passenger-side rear compartment wall, near the spare tire stowage, began to rattle. Soon, the noise irritated my father enough that he disassembled the interior paneling to find and silence it.

The Rattling Awl

Which is where he discovered this tool, a hand awl, presumably lost or abandoned there by an upholstery installer on the assembly line. Dad, who has never been a big fan of organized labor, at least once advocated the latter theory, that the awl was abandoned in the car, on purpose, by a worker exploiting union regs to the effect that he or she could not be required to work unless provided with the correct tool. Being considerably more liberal, I am prepared to give that long-ago UAW member the benefit of the doubt and believe it was left there by accident.

Rattling Awl Detail

Dad put the awl in the top drawer of his toolbox and it’s lived there ever since, though the car it came in is now thirty years gone. It’s heavy, solid, and quite well made, with a turned aluminum handle and replaceable pommel- and tip-fittings. I use it fairly often, and every time I wonder about the worker who walled it up, so many years ago, and about how the world has turned since then.

Do you have an antique, heirloom, handmade, or other special tool with an interesting story? If so, we’d love to share it in this space. Please let us know, below, or e-mail to Thanks for reading!

48 thoughts on “Tool Tales: The Case of the Rattling Awl

  1. Joel Finkle says:

    I’m a victim of the opposite situation: A very nice Stanley pry/wrecking bar disappeared during our bathroom remodel project. It was great for removing studs as we moved the wall out, breaking through drywall, popping out nails, etc. etc. By the time we realized we were missing it, the new drywall was hung, taped and painted — we weren’t ripping it open again.

    Whoever next tears open the walls will get a gift of a very useful tool.

    1. FredB says:

      My friends had their cat disappear during a similar remodelling. Yup, walled in. The cat is OK. This was a second floor bathroom and he found his way out through the attic.

      1. Sean Ragan says:

        I very nearly did the same thing. In grad school, I rebuilt the staircase in my condominium, and I had to take the treads off, one by one, to do that, exposing the space underneath. Cats are naturally curious about new spaces to explore, and I was on the point of starting the first screw back into the replaced tread when I thought to look for her.

  2. Cementtruck says:

    A friend of mine had a Jeep whose wheel would go out of balance at higher speeds and cause some serious tire hop. He took it to the shop and they balanced the wheel over and over again, and it seemed like the wheel would go out of balance immediately after balancing it. After a couple of wheel weights were put on and taken off, the frustrated tire balancer took the wheel off the machine and took the tire off the wheel he found a cheap 2 D Cell flashlight inside the tire. Apparently, the flashlight would slide inside the tire at low speeds, but when the vehicle started going faster, the centrifugal force caused the flashlight to grip the wall of the tire and wreaked havoc on the balance, but once the vehicle slowed down to a certain speed the flashlight would slide back down to the bottom again and all would be fine. My buddy kept the flashlight as a memento. I wasn’t there, but I don’t doubt the veracity of his story.

  3. Sean Ragan says:

    In college, the front passenger-side window on my girlfriend’s car rolled down, broke, and wouldn’t roll back up. You could push it up into place, but it would fall back down. We fixed it by taking off the interior door panel, sliding the window back up, jamming it in place, and clamping a set of Vise-grips to the track. Then we put the door back together. The window and, presumably, the pliers were still in place when she sold that car years later.

    1. antonolsen says:

      There’s a pair of vice grips in my passenger door for that very reason.

  4. Aboxman says:

    In college, I had a 1979 Camaro that was on its last legs. I had it at a shop to get something fixed. Someone had the brilliant idea to break into it (it was unlocked, the lock was broken). They broke the window, and tossed the contents. And took nothing, because there was nothing to take, because I couldn’t lock the doors. But they left their hammer, crowbar, screwdrivers and name brand Crescent Wrench. The shop fixed the window, no charge, and I kept the tools. I still have the Crescent Wrench and Hammer.

    1. Michael Colombo says:

      You mean you got robbed and profited from it? What a deal…

    2. Alan Dove says:

      A friend of mine in grad school had a very similar experience. Thieves pried the multiply-locked door of his apartment open with considerable effort and a crowbar. On entering the apartment, which contained little more than a bed, bookshelf, and desk, they apparently threw down their crowbar and a nice pair of sunglasses in frustration, then left. The landlord fixed the door and my friend got a free tool and new shades.

  5. ka1axy says:

    Not “in the car”, but I found my favorite set of electrician’s pliers on the road. My wife brought home a drill bit she found on the road. Just before Thanksgiving, I noticed something yellow in a ditch. A nice DeWalt laser leveller! I ended up leaving it on the side of the road, where it could be seen, in case the guy who left it on the roof of his truck drove by looking for it… (missing the battery and the tripod, it wasn’t much use)

    I have a lot of great hand tools I didn’t buy. Many are hand-me-downs from long dead relatives.

    1. SkUrRiEr says:

      That is, incidentally, how both my father and I obtained our folding-plier style multi-tools.

      He ran over his in his car, stopped, found it, then took it home and fixed the damage (car and tool), I was turning off a gravel road, looked to my left, looked to my right, looked down, saw a Leatherman Wave lying in a puddle, took it home, cleaned it and it’s been in my pocket ever since.

  6. chuck says:

    I do maintenance on rental properties and whenever I have to do dry wall I like to leave time capsules behind. I may leave a sheet of newspaper with a timely story, a drawing or message, or just some strange artifact to make future repairmen say WTF?!? A friend of mine once tore out a plaster wall and found a German officer’s knife and a handful of gold krugerands stashed by some long dead occupant. The coolest thing I ever found was a complete possum skeleton, but I keep looking.

    1. Scott Thisse says:

      @chuck: What a great idea! I now have a purpose for all those no-longer-wanted Happy Meal toys.

    2. Gillian BenAry says:

      How charming! I love the idea of a time capsule hidden in the wall… maybe the Top 40 track listing, or the NYT Bestseller list.

    3. EC says:

      I often leave a bottle of wine in the wall when I’m doing drywall work.

  7. Nick Howard (@nickhoward) says:

    As I like to say when I take the awl out of the toolbox, “AWL YEAH!!”

  8. Doug says:

    A few decades ago my dad (a carpenter) built our first house and his friends and relatives occasionally helped. They all liked their beer and they’d drop empties into the space between the studs. This was before insulation was common so the bottles were not snugly held. I found that if I jumped hard enough in just the right spot, I could make the bottles clink together inside the walls. The house is quite near the San Andreas fault and the occasional earthquake used to clink them together as well. I often wonder if the people now living there have heard the bottles and wondered about the noise.

  9. James Patrick says:

    My father had a Craftsman 1/2″ socket wrench that he bought as a teenager. When I bought my first car(truck actually) a few years ago, we broke the socket wrench trying to free a seized lug nut. He brought the wrench to Sears and they replaced it with a brand new one on the spot. Last month, we were working on another old car, and ended up breaking a different socket wrench and a few extensions that were 30+ years old. Sears did a swap right there in the store, free of charge. We were able to get back to work within an hour.

    1. sewinsl says:

      Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.

    2. Sean Ragan says:

      Great piece, thanks for the link. I had heard stories of sabotage, of course, but usually involving nuts, bottles, or other junk placed to damage the car or just rattle and annoy. Deliberately sealing up a tool seemed less likely, but after reading that NPR piece, I can see it. Didn’t really know things were that bad.

      1. steve says:

        Yup, my Dad bought a brand new ’77 Dodge Diplomat and the driver’s door always had a rattle when closed. Finally he took the door panel off, and two large bolts were tossed in on the bottom. Could have only been from a disgruntled employee….

  10. Chris says:

    1946 Shopsmith: When my grandfather returned from WW2 in Europe, he purchased a Shopsmith. He soon realized he had no mechanical skill and sold the Shopsmith to my great-grandfather, who used it successfully for many years to make furniture. My great-grandfather handed it down to my uncle, who also used it to make furniture. My uncle handed it down to me, and I have been using it for the past several years to make stuff for Cub Scout events.

    While the Shopsmith has been useful and carries a lot of sentimental value, it has to be used with care. It has no modern safety features, such as a blade guard for the table saw, and parts tend to loosen up during use. In fact, my father had two fingers cut off when he was a teen and his hand got pulled into the saw. The fingers were reattached, but that Shopsmith earned a fearsome reputation.

  11. asciimation says:

    My first MGB always had an annoying rattle I could never find. When I partially restored it I removed the rusty floors to put in new floor pans and found about an inch long section of 1/4 inch drill bit inside a crossmember. With the floors on that’s a closed section so there was no way to get it out normally. In the same car I also found a small toy locomotive a far corner of the boot when I first bought it.


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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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