The Bare Bones Basics of Nail Technology

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Note: Lately I’ve been pouring all of my creative energy into writing my next book (and editing the books of others). And with Jeff Burks on vacation, the content has been a little light here. So here is the draft miniature chapter I wrote on the airplane on using nails.

I’m often asked why I prefer nails to screws. Here are three reasons: Nails look better. They are quick to install with a hammer. And they allow for wood movement during changes in temperature and humidity.

Screws are ugly (I know, this is in the eye of the be-screwer or be-nailer). They should not be installed with a hammer. And they can crack your work when the weather changes ­– unless you take extra precautions.

That said, properly installed screws hold better. It’s a fact. And they are more accepted by the woodworking elite.

Nails, on the other hand, seem to be the herpes of the furniture-making world. I was taught this hierarchy: Wood-to-wood joinery is the best. Screws are OK. Nails are for rough, temporary or indifferent work.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Nails have been at the core of fine woodwork since Roman (perhaps Egyptian) times. We are just too blind to acknowledge it. Nails are often invisible to the eye – they are toenailed under a shelf or divider. Snaking into a plinth. At the back of a piece and facing the wall.

I see nails as important as the hardware you use for a piece – the hinges, knobs and locks. Cheap nails look like crap. Good nails enhance the piece. But what’s a good nail? Allow me to sidestep the question for a moment and present a historical aside. I would rather show this to you than simply tell it.

Blacksmith-made wrought nails.

Blacksmith-made wrought nails.

Wrought, Cut and Wire Nails
Nail nerds (reporting for duty!) divide the nail world into three broad categories based on how the nail was made:

Wrought or Roman Nails: These are blacksmith-made. The nail’s shaft is roughly square in section and tapers to a point on all four of its edges. The head is formed with hammer blows and typically has three facets.

Once you master these nails, they are iron joy. They bend and move readily. They cinch down hard. They will rob your body of a kidney if you don’t have a trust fund. A blacksmith will charge you more than $1 a nail. That will seem like a lot of money until you start to use them in your work. Then you will know that you are being undercharged.

Oh, and they look fantastic.

Rosehead cut nails from Tremont.

Rosehead cut nails from Tremont.

Cut Nails. In the later 18th century (as near as I can tell), ingenious mechanics developed machinery that could shear out a ton of nails in a short period of time. All that was required was a flat bar of steel and a machine that could “cut” the steel.

Cut nails are a rectangular square in section. In one view of the nail it has parallel sides. In the other view, it tapers. And it usually has a head.

Because of the shape of its shaft, a cut nail needs a pilot hole (except in some soft woods) and has to be oriented a certain way to avoid splitting the work. Think of the nail as a wedge. It is. Apply the wedge so it pushes against the end grain of the top board you are nailing down. Otherwise you are splitting mini firewood with your nail.

If this confuses you, don’t worry. You will do it wrong only once.

Wire Nails. OK, these really are the venereal disease of the nail world. They have a round shaft. They don’t hold for squat. They are cheap. They don’t require a pilot hole. They are the reason people think nails are for rough work.

I avoid using wire nails in my work unless I want them to work loose about a week after I drive them in. Which is never.

Bottom line: I use wrought nails when I (or the customer) can afford it. I use cut nails when I cannot afford wrought nails. I use wire nails to sprinkle the driveway of my enemy.

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On the Naming of Nails
Nails have a ridiculous number of confusing names. For the most part, I suggest you ignore the names at first and focus on how they look. That will usually tell you what they are good for. For furniture work, we usually use four types of nails.

Brads. This generic name refers to a nail with a smallish head. The brad is used to lock shelves into dados with what is called a “toenail joint.” Or to fasten one piece of wood to another when the head should be small. Because the head is small, the brad’s holding power is in its shank. So it’s not the best nail for attaching a cabinet back or a chest’s bottom boards.

Clouts or Roseheads. Nails that have a prominent head have the most fastening power. They can keep a cabinet back or chest bottom from being pulled off a carcase. The price of this holding power is that the head is quite visible in the finished piece.

Many times this form of nail is used for “clenching,” which is when an extra long nail is driven through two pieces and the too-long tip is driven back into the work.

Headless Nails. These thin nails have little or no head. They are used mostly for attaching mouldings and hold the work in place while the glue dries.

Pins. These are usually wire nails with a head that are used for attaching lightweight pieces of hardware, such as an escutcheon for a lock, or for temporarily holding pieces of veneer in place.

On the ‘Penny Size’ of Nails
The origin of the so-called “penny system” of sizing nails is murky – on par with the stories surrounding the “nib” on the tips of old handsaw. Suffice it to say that the reason we still use the old penny system is because it is fecking brilliant.

How long is a 5d nail? (The “d” stands for “penny.”) I think I know the answer, but I’d have to look it up first to be sure. The point is that it doesn’t matter how long a 5d nail is, as long as you don’t use the metric system.

Here’s how it works: When you nail things together you have a top board and a bottom board. The nail enters the top board first and then passes into the bottom board.

So how thick is your top board? Let’s say it is 1/2” thick. Now convert that fraction, 1/2”, to eighths – 4/8”. The top number, 4, is the penny size you need: or 4d.

There are exceptions. When working in soft pine, you should increase the nail size by one penny, or 5d in our example. And the second exception is this: Use your intelligence. If the bottom board is very thin, the particular boards at hand are easy to split, you are clenching the nail or you need massive amounts of holding power, you need to adapt and adjust.

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On the Pilot Hole
Wrought nails and cut nails usually need a pilot hole, otherwise you will end up splitting the top board. The size of the pilot depends on many factors, mostly how close your nail is to the end of your board and the species being nailed.

My best advice is this: If you are unsure if you will split the work, make a test joint that is identical in every way to the real joint. Start with a pilot hole that is the same size as the tip of your nail. For example, my 4d clout nails have a tip that is about 3/32”, so that’s where I begin.

Drill the pilot to a depth that is only two-thirds the length of the nail’s shaft, otherwise the joint will be weak. If the top board splits, move up a size in bit diameter. Repeat until the joint holds and does not split.

This sounds arduous. It isn’t. After a few projects you will get a feel for the right pilot hole.

One caveat: With wrought nails, I like to use a drill bit that tapers along its length. This greatly reduces splitting.

Driving & Setting Furniture Nails
If you’ve done your due diligence, then driving the nails is the easy part. I like a hammer with a 16-ounce head for most nails. For pins and headless nails I use an 8 oz. cross-peen hammer. The cross-peen is ideal for starting the nail without whacking your fingers.

If your hammer has a slightly domed striking face, you should be able to set the nail flush to the wood without denting it (called “Frenching” by the “English”).

Setting the nails is done with a nail set, also called a nail punch. You usually don’t set clouts or roseheads because the head will splinter the work badly. For brads and headless nails, set the nail 1/32” below the surface – and no more than 1/16”. Setting the nail deeper will make the nail hole difficult to putty or it will simply call more attention to itself if you don’t putty the nail.

Nail sets/punches for furniture making usually come in three sizes. Use the one that most closely matches the size of the head.

The above description is the absolute shortest treatise I could write on nails. There is a lot more to learn, but the education should come from the end of a hammer, not a book.

So don’t read another word on nails until you’ve driven a few cut nails or wrought nails using the instructions above. Most of the questions in your head right now will evaporate as soon as you get busy.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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44 Responses to The Bare Bones Basics of Nail Technology

  1. Randall says:

    Great article

  2. This answered a lot. This one chapter probably swayed me from just wondering what I would get out of your new book to sold on purchasing it. Good chapter.

    >

  3. John Switzer says:

    Kept me on the edge of my seat, a real nail biter.

  4. turdfighter says:

    I love cut nails.

  5. nealm44 says:

    I particularly appreciate the “mini firewood splitting” analogy. I’ve tried to explain why one drives cut nails in a specific way with indifferent success, and that single phrase makes it crystalline! Thanks, as usual, for the help. Any prediction on when the new book might be published?

  6. occasionalww says:

    Re: Nails vs screws
    Legendary boat builder R.D. (Pete) Culler once famously wrote,
    “Nail were you can, screw were you must, and bolt where you have to.”

  7. therealdanh says:

    After trying cut nails in a tool chest class, I ordered several boxes of different sizes from Tremont. Using cut nails has changed the way I think about joining wood. Thank you for another woodworking revalation.

  8. You forgot cast nails. I’ve got a tree of cast brass tacks looks like pig iron, 17th cent. I believe.

    • The only cast tacks I’ve encountered are for upholstery. But I’ll look into it.

      • nealm44 says:

        I’ve only ever seen cast upholstery nails as items for sale, but there is an interesting piece by Edward Lenik in the journal “Historical Archeology” (Vol.11 (1977), pp.45-57), in which he quotes from an 18th century English patent document describing “the casting of coffin nails and tacks from pig iron and the tinning thereof”. Some nails which are believed to have been cast have been recovered from sites in North America, notably Newfoundland, that date to the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

  9. Some LouisXVI pieces with that brass trim, the trim gets attached with such nails.

  10. gblogswild says:

    where to get? I haven’t seen any square nails at home depot…

    • prlund123 says:

      You won’t. They are made by blacksmiths. The cut nails can be ordered from Tremont Nails in bulk or from places like Joel’s company Tools for Working Wood in smaller quantities.

  11. I often use rose-headed copper nails, mostly in boatbuilding fastening lapstrakes. In this case I use a rove on the inside to cinch the strakes securely together. Discovered soon enough that the rose head is more than decorative (assuming aesthetics were a factor–and maybe they weren’t). The raised head allows you to hammer the nail securely with little chance of dinging (i.e. “frenching”) the surrounding wood.

    • durbien says:

      I always thought the penney thing had to do with weight (i.e. the weight of a certain amount of nails). Incorrect?

      • John Koten says:

        No, the penny thing related to the cost of the nail per hundred at the time the system was first devised in England in the 15th century. The D stands for denarius, a Roman coin similar to a penny. The English don’t use this system anymore. So far as I know, the only place that still uses it is the U.S. A 5d nail equals 1-3/4 inches; a 6d is two inches.

      • As I said, it’s a red herring — designed to confound. You will be a happier person if you don’t chase it.

      • durbien says:

        So you’re telling me the Mother of Dragons’ real name is Penny?

  12. “Screws… can crack your work when the weather changes ­– unless you take extra precautions.”
    Thank you for the delightful read about nails, and for the helpful tips in the comments too. Might I humbly ask what the extra precautions are that may be taken to prevent screws from cracking the wood, for those times when screws must be used?

  13. John Koten says:

    Chris, Sorry, maybe it’s just late at night, but I am not sure I totally get your penny nail system of dividing into quarters. A 4d nail is 1-1/2 inches long. So if you are driving through a 1/2 inch board into a 2 inch board, fine. But if the bottom board is a lot thinner (and you are not driving into its end grain), the nail is going to go right through both. Two 1/2 inch boards will barely accommodate a 2d nail, which is an inch long.

    • John,

      On paper, I know it seems suspect. But as I mentioned in the article, you need to use your intelligence. Why are you fastening two 1/2″ boards with nails? You should be clenching them. You need a long nail. So the system works.

      It’s not my system. It is as old as nails. Try it in the shop on an actual project — not in your head or on sample pieces — and you will see it works in most all cases.

      • John Koten says:

        The smart ass in me wants to say that, actually, no….the invention of nails goes back thousands of years, so thee system can’t be as old as nails. But thanks for your reply and you are correct that my example of nailing two half inch boards together was a bad one. I know there is some controversy about the penny system’s origins. The main source for my info comes from the web site of the Glasgow Steel Nail Company in Massachusetts. They are owned by the same company that owns Tremont. Here’s a link (L
        lot of interesting info about the history of nails): http://www.glasgowsteelnail.com/nailnames.htm.
        One more thing: my grandfathers both had different systems for avoiding splits with nails. One liked to bang the end of the nail flat before hammering it in. The other rubbed soap on his nails.

  14. John Koten says:

    oops. i meant dividing into eighths. need to go to bed.

  15. John Koten says:

    Actually, at the risk of being a windbag, I am going to contribute something positive. toolsforworkingwood (mentioned above) sells some really nice cut nails, including fine finishing nails. They are made by the Tremont Nail Company in the U.S., which has been doing so since 1819. (Really!) Well worth supporting both Joel and and Tremont IMO. Here’s a link: https://www.toolsforworkingwood.com/store/item/BT-FFIN.XX

  16. Jon Quinn says:

    You can start making your own cut nails soon. The labelle cut nail plant in wheeling WV is going to have all its equipment auctioned off this coming September. By the way, the inside of the plant and the machines were also shown in scenes of the History Channel series “The Men Who Built America”, for the parts that showed Andrew Carnegie.
    http://www.auctionzip.com/cgi-bin/auctionview.cgi?lid=2510660&kwd=Wheeling%20nail&zip=15632&category=0

  17. prlund123 says:

    Chris

    With the talk of nails, how did your Japanese toolbox come out? You mentioned it in a couple of blogs and then no more.

    Patrick

  18. Farmer Greg says:

    The original section of our hundred-year-old farmhouse was put together with cut nails — framing, lath, trim, everything. (I learned this during the renovation.) Those suckers were still holding tight after all these years.

  19. wwwessinger says:

    Where upon this hierarchy would the box of bronze ring-shank boat nails, which has been kicking around my shop since what feels like the dawn of time, fit? I’ve only just started finding uses for them!

  20. Just a couple quick adds.

    Nails are, I believe, to be the first mass produced item in the world. Why? Because wrought nails were so expensive. Tremont, whose nails we sell, has been making them the exact same way since 1819 and still use machines that are over 100 years old.

    Regarding hand wrought nails today-I don’t think there is a smith int the USA that can make a profit making them. They are more just a side item to go with the rest of their products.

    • John Switzer says:

      As a smith I have tagged with the second statement. I sell nails for the highest price I think I can get away with and they are my lowest per hour item. You hear of old nail makers making 100+ nails per hour all day long. I’m lucky to make 30 in an hour and then I move on to something more interesting.

  21. Jeremy says:

    Good writing as per the norm. i will only suggest that you do squeeze out a little love for wire nails in your final version. There are two cases where they won’t be surpassed by their more expensive peers. Both of these cases avoid the wire nail’s weakness, that it is easily moved along it’s axis.
    1.) Headed wire nails hold just fine when clenched, especially in a fence or something similar with zillions of nails. (Because it’s actually a rivet.)
    2.) When restraining shear forces across the nailed board. (Because it’s actually a dowel pin.) In many examples of boarded work, wire nails are just fine, because the axial movement is restrained by other geometric mechanisms.

  22. philhuber11 says:

    Do you use a hand drill (egg beater) for drilling with a tapered bit? Every time I’ve tried, there seems to be a lot of resistance and the bit feels as if it’s wedging or binding. Am I missing something? I usually use brad point bits for pilot holes.

  23. Any advice on locating a blacksmith who sells wrought nails? (online or greater DC area)

  24. naugas says:

    Ok, things are put upside down in my head now… My experience with old types of nails are that they easily come out, that they _don’t_ hold so well?

    When removing old window lining, skirting etc., it’s always a blessing if it was built with wedge-shaped cut nails as they just pop loose with no damages. Whereas with modern wire nails there’s always a risk of damaging the wood when prying and pulling on it. Hmm… maybe I haven’t been observant enough to see if nails of the same length have been used? Note that I have no experience in furniture making, just construction carpentry (or whatever it’s called in English, “building houses”).

    Also, when searching around for cut nails, just out of curiosity, I came across an old variety that I’m not sure how and what it’s used for – they look like figure h and i in the nail poster picture above. They are flat with a square point, with parallel straight sides, a little like a blunt chisel. They seem fairly common here, maybe more so than the wedge-shaped cut nail. Anyone that have some knowledge about their intended use, and how they work in practice?

    Johan Larsson,
    Sweden

    (Don’t know if image links work in the comments, but here’s a link to a picture of such a cut nail:

    or maybe

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