A Reminder on Cut Nails: Not the Tip


There is only so much book and video editing I can do before my head starts to feel like a wheel of gouda. Lucky for me, I can go to the shop at any point (What are they going to do, fire me?) and clear up my digital daze.

This weekend, I’ve been working on a couple of long-time-coming personal projects. One is a 16th-century square that I’ll be writing about later this week. The other project has been to finish my Holtzapffel workbench, which I began building almost seven years ago.

Today I finally added a shelf, which is made from maple that has been shiplapped and beaded. The shelf pieces are nailed to four ledgers that are screwed to the stretchers between the legs – pretty standard stuff.

For the most part, I use cut nails in my shop because they hold better and look better.

I was reminded of this today because the nails were a bear to drive. That’s because I was nailing through maple and into old yellow pine. Also, I had correct-sized pilot holes for my 6d nails.

What is a “correct pilot hole?” It’s a hole that doesn’t allow any of the boards to split and that permits the nail to really wedge everything tight. If your boards are splitting, you are doing it wrong. If the nails are easy to drive, you are (again) doing it wrong.

Here’s how I determine the pilot hole for any given situation.

1. If I’m nailing soft white pine, I do an experimental joint to see if I can get away without a pilot hole. Sometimes I can. Great success!

2. Otherwise, I select a drill bit diameter that matches the diameter of the tip of the cut nail. For many furniture nails in casework, this is 3/32” or so.

3. Then – and this is important – I make a test joint with the pilot hole in the same material I’m going to nail and with the pilot the same distance from the end of the board.

4. And then – and this is even more important – I drill the pilot hole to a depth that is only two-thirds the length of the nail. (For example, if the nail is 1-1/2” long, the pilot should be 1” deep.) If your pilot is the full length of the nail, then the joint is too weak. The nail should be difficult to drive. Conversely, if your pilot is too shallow, the nail is likely to bend before it reaches full depth.

I didn’t make this stuff up. This is information in the old books. Ignore it at your own peril. Or use drywall screws.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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12 Responses to A Reminder on Cut Nails: Not the Tip

  1. 4gallonbucket says:

    Not that you need one, but it looks like you could make a nice Moxon vise fairly easily with the old face vise. I know you’re looking for the ability to change from leg to face as needed, but if you just made a Moxon-style back for the face, it could make it even more versatile. You have plenty of time to spare, right?

  2. tswift1110 says:

    Thanks Christopher, You never cease to amaze me with your insight on woodworking. Something as simple as hammering in a nail takes foresight and planning and what should be common sense stuff that I never thought of.

    Beautiful bench. I have major bench envy.


  3. Soft maple really cleans up! Just got done making my first bench out of hemlock, made the whole thing for 60$ out of 4″x6″. Saving for a nice leg vice!

  4. Bob Jones says:

    Driving them in hardwood is not easy or quiet. I drove some (working outside) in cherry late one night and woke the baby inside and my neighbors. I was in trouble, but the joints were tight.

  5. m46opie says:

    Ugh. Drywall screws. I have developed a particular aversion to them.Previous owner of my house used them everywhere he could. I have even found them fastening electrical outlets into their boxes.

    Mark Singleton
    Santa Maria, Ca

  6. vowelfree says:

    First, I want to start off by saying that I understand what you did and why you did it with regards to the convertibility of your twin screw front vise to a leg vise on your Holtzapffel.

    While I am guessing you are used to using one side of your bench as the “normal” side to work from, did you consider leaving your twin screw vise in its original front left location and mount the new Benchcrafted Leg Vise on the “back” leg that is diagonally opposite to the corner where the twin screw vise lives? This would give you both vises to use without the (minor) hassle of switching from one to the other. Furthermore, you can set up your twin screw vise for one task and still use your Benchcrafted Leg Vise for a different task.

    Of course, this suggestion only makes sense if your bench is set up in the middle of a shop versus up against a wall and window. And needless to say, it is not authentic.

    • LostArtPress says:

      I’ve made partner’s benches before with a vise at each corner.

      As you not, I prefer to be able to put the bench against the wall to stabilize it during heavy planing and sawing.

      • vowelfree says:

        Even though I am a one man shop, I am thinking of incorporating the “partners bench” feature on my Roubo Moxon hybrid bench, but not set on doing so. How did you feel about the partners benches you’d built? What were your likes and dislikes to this concept?

        • LostArtPress says:

          The Partner’s Benches I’ve built have been for people who work in their shop with a child or apprentice. For that, they are fantastic.

          I wouldn’t build one for myself because of the aforementioned reason: I want to be able to brace the bench against a wall at times. Just my 2 cents.

          I’ve talked a lot of people out of these benches because the reason they want them is they cannot decide on which vises to install, and so they decide to install one on every corner of the bench.

  7. Nailing it can be so fun



  8. pathdoc70 says:

    Chris, If you have time, I have a Curiosity Question on your Holtzapffel bench photo. What are the two upside-down pieces of wood with the @ 1.5″ holes in them ( left side and center) , that are coplanar with the front edge of the bench, used for. A beautiful bench it is indeed. Thanks, Mike O’Brien Valley Head, AL

    Sent from my iPhone 5s


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