Hand-forged nails were the first manufactured fasteners and they date back to Biblical times. As people first used hewn beams, timbers, planks, and whole logs to build with, the early hand-made versions were spikes. With the development of the split wood shingle, nails of about 1″ long came into use. When sawyers, and then sawmills, began cutting dimension lumber, the sizes and varieties greatly expanded. Thus, over time, nails developed in different sizes, shapes, and used different heads to fasten lumber and wood.
These fasteners have always been in demand. Some blacksmiths made only nails and they were called “Nailers.” Nails were so scarce (and expensive) in pre-1850 America that people would burn dilapidated buildings just to sift the ashes for nails. They did so because pulling the fasteners would have damaged most of them. After the nails were recovered, a blacksmith could easily straighten any nails that had been bent during construction.
We still use the term “penny” when referring to a nail’s size. It is believed that this term came into use in the early 1600’s in England. The English monetary unit was the Pound Sterling (£) which was divided into Shillings and Pence. The cost of 100 nails in Pence in the 1600’s is how we refer to nail sizes to this day. For example, 100 small nails that sold for 4 pence were called 4d nails (4 d is the abbreviation of 4 pence). 100 larger nails that sold for 16 pence are 16d nails. And so on.
Setting the price of nails did not standardize their size. But it is apparent that the price of nails was constant, or near constant, for a long period of time, and thus, led to standard sizes as a result. For quite some time, nails have been sold by the pound–usually 1 lb. and 5 lb. boxes for small finishing and specialty nails and 50 lb. cartons for framing nails such as 8d and 16d. Nails are also sold by keg weight.
The cut nail made its appearance in the mid-1700’s. For example, Thomas Jefferson established a nail factory at his Monticello plantation as a way to increase his farm income. His nail factory made both hand-forged and cut nails. It would not be until the middle-1800’s that cut nails began dominating the marketplace. Cut nails are not actually “cut”–they are sheared from steel plate that is the thickness of the nail shank. Although routinely referred to as “square nails”, the cutting machine tapers the nail shank as it is sheared from the steel plate. A second machine forms the head of a cut nail. The square nails in the above photograph are made in this manner. With the hand-forged nail, all four sides are tapered. With the cut nail, two sides are parallel because they represent the thickness of the plate they were sheared from.
Cut nails could be manufactured much faster than hand-forged nails. As the process was mechanized, the cost per nail was less. However, cut nail factories employed operators and attendants for each machine so the process was still labor-intensive. The noise in those mills was deafening as well. Cut nails had their heyday from about 1820 (development of the Type B nail) to 1910, the advent of the wire nail.
Wire nails are round. Steel wire is fed into a machine that grips the wire, cuts it, makes the head, and chisels the point, all in one operation. This process is totally mechanized, requiring only someone to turn the machine on and off. Wire nail machines can make thousands of nails per minute.
Wire nails have all but replaced the cut nail. Cut nails are still used but mainly for restoration and masonry work. Though wire nails are cheaper to produce, the cut nail has a holding power of approximately four times to its modern, round cousin. Compared on that basis, cut nails win the day easily.
In modern construction, more and more nail-driving is being done with air-operated nail guns. Nails of nearly all sizes are available. However, since the air nailing gun is large and cumbersome, it is most often used to fasten sheathing, such as plywood, to the framing. The nails are prepared to fit in the air gun’s clip or nail sleeve (much like a stapler and the way staples are loaded) and are driven one-at-a-time. The air gun nail resembles the cut nail of old with the exception that the head is “T”-shaped rather than battened on all four sides.
“Dead as a Doornail” is a phrase that comes from the “dead nail”. A dead nail was one whose tip was clenched back into the wood. This was a common way to fasten door and gate hinges to prevent the nails from working loose.
Info courtesy of Blacksmiths Guild of the Potomac newsletter.