THE COMMON NAIL we seldom think about until we need one has a long history, evolving as it did from a simple peg of wood, bone or ivory into the wrought and headed bronze point of the Assyrians and Egyptians and the iron clavus of the Romans.* Nails in one form or another have been a necessary and integral component of civilization for several thousand years. From ancient times to the present the nail has kept pace with the development and evolution of other familiar tools such as the plane, saw, square, chisel and, of course, the hammer. With technological advances in building construction and materials the nail has taken on new forms, most recently as a fired fastener propelled by gunpowder or compressed air from a nail gun. But throughout all of this change, nails still remain generally recognizable as nails.

The two basic types of nails discussed here are wrought and cut. Each has its own advantages and peculiarities, each has its place in history and each bears only superficial resemblance to the other. Roman-era wrought nails and the tools that produced them are well documented from archeological finds. During the following two thousand or more years the nailmaker's anvil, hand-held heading tools and product changed very little in appearance or function and were used until the advent of cut nails.

There were several variations in the form of the wrought nail for particular uses, but most began as a long piece of hand-forged or mill-produced iron nail rod, square in section. The size of the rod and the lengths into which it was cut determined the final size of the nails which ranged from small headless brads to heavy spikes.

Wrought nails were usually tapered for most of their length terminating in a sharp point for general use, a chisel point, formed by one or two blows, for use near the end of a board or with splittable wood and driven at a right angle to the grain, or a spear point for clenching on the back side of gates, door battens, wagon braces, etc, in the form of the letter "J" .

Some common types of nail heads were convex hammer-rounded "rose," made with four or five hammer blows (see illustration a. above), flat, side-hammered "T" shaped, slightly cupping downward, for clasp or flooring nails, also known as planching or plancher nails and set below floor level (b. above), flat, side-hammered "L" shaped used for brads and larger sizes for interior trim, flooring, furniture and cabinetry, usually set and puttied (c. above), and just plain hammered square heads.*

While there are exceptions, hand-wrought nails are generally square in section, taper on all four sides, and are easily spotted
amongst a batch of machine-cut nails by their obvious handmade characteristics, particularly the head. The square nails encountered today in antique shops and described as square nails are just cut nails, rectangular in section. They are easily identified by tapering only on the two rough, sheared sides with the front and back sides smooth and parallel from head to point.


About 1775 a Cumberland, Rhode Island inventor named Jeremiah Wilkinson developed a nail cutting process utilizing a flat sheet of cold iron.* In 1786, Ezekiel Reed invented and patented a little- known device which was, supposedly, the forerunner of modem nail-making machines.* Invention was followed by one refinement after another until the cut nail process was perfected. A new, truly mass produced nail form emerged, cut from iron rather than wrought. By 1800-1810, the use of cut nails was widespread in the U.S. of that era.
During the period 1790-1820, rolled iron plates of varying width and thickness were fed into early clipping machines and diagonally cut across their breadth by a guillotine-like shear set at a fixed angle. In these early, treadle operated machines, the nail plate itself was turned over after each chop of the overhead shear producing wedge-shaped blanks (see illustration below).

Heads were still hammered by hand until heading machines were developed. Since the sheared cuts for each nail blank were made from opposite sides of the nail plate, the resulting two burrs are on diagonally opposite comers of the nail blank (see illustration a. below). Nails thus made until about 1830 are known as "Type A" cut nails.

During the 1820s, machinery was perfected to speed up nail production and deliver a more consistent product, cutting and heading the nail in a single operation.* The iron nail plates were fed into the clipper as of yore, and the overhead cutter or shear was set diagonally at an angle of 4 to 6 degrees but, with each stroke of the shear, the nail plate was alternately angled from side to side producing the desired tapered blank; or, the plate passed under an indexing cutter head which produced the same result. Nails produced in this manner, generally from 1830 through the rest of the century, are known as "Type B" cut nails and have both shear burrs on the same side, that is, the back of the nail which began as the backside of the nail plate. (b. above). The large end of the tapered blank was simultaneously upset in a heading machine pro- viding the desired configuration. Burrs are difficult to detect on rusty or pitted nails but are quite obvious on unused examples and older ones which have been protected by surrounding wood.

The new form of nail, with its blunt end and sharp edges, mashed or cut its way into wood, and properly oriented to grain direction, reduced splitting However, the cut nail had one major drawback: the brittle iron nail plates produced a nail which could not be clenched, nor could a badly bent one be successfully straightened. Because of this weakness, nailmakers remained in business providing many trades with malleable iron nails until about 1870 when clenchable iron cut nails finally became available.

*For more information on nails or the list of source material for this article, write or call Stan:
    423 E. Highland Ave.
    Sierra Madre, CA 91024

You can find Stan at all of our Southern CA Old Tool events with an eclectic assortment of tools for sale. He is always up for a good conversation about the history behind tools.

from the book, Ancient Carpenters' Tools. by Henry C. Mercer

"Holding with his left hand, if long enough or with tongs if short, the nail rod, a thin rectangular strip of forged iron (furnished the iron worker from forges and rolling mills in existence since the mid-18th century), the smith heats it at one end, tapers it on the anvil with hammer blows on all four sides to a point, and cuts or half-cuts it, to the gauged or guessed nail-length, on the projecting, wedge-shaped cutter or hack-iron, called hardy, inserted in a socket in the anvil top.

Having then placed the hole of the heading tool (small diameter up), held in his left hand, upon the anvil top, immediately over an anvil orifice, or over the anvil-edge, and having thrust the red hot point just made (the nail shank), held in his right hand either with or without the tongs, downward into the tool hole, he breaks off or releases said point at the half cut above mentioned.

Thereupon, because with great skill, by eye, or by a chalk mark on the anvil top, he has gauged the upper thickness of the heated point, so as to not have it drop through the hole, but stick fast and protrude about 1/8 to 1/4 inch above it, he can spread, i.e., form, by hammer blows, the protruding metal into the nail head. After which, on turning the heading tool with the finished nail sticking therein, upside down, and tapping it over the anvil edge, or anvil hole, the cooled and shrunk nail drops out of the instrument."

Deader than a

During the 19th century and earlier, utilitarian doors for barns, sheds and cellars were commonly made of vertical boards butted or tongued and grooved together and joined by narrow horizontal boards or battens on the back side. Cut nails were driven through the boards and the battens from the front, or good side, then hammered over and clenched into the battens. Once thus clenched, the nail was "deadened" for it could not be removed without breaking.

Bent & Broken Nails

At the midpoint of the 19th century, most wooden building construction was still based on a hewn or mill-sawn timber frame. In the spring of 1845 a small house was built on the shore of Walden Pond by Henry David Thoreau. He hewed his framing members from white pines he had cut on the site and friends helped him raise the walls on the wood planked floor. His framing joints were mortised and tenoned, or half lapped and pinned with trunnels (tree nails or trenails). The rest of the 10 x 15-foot structure was completed with cut nails. Roof and walls were sheathed with wood from a recycled shanty; the cheapest grade of shingles were applied; door and window openings were framed and trimmed; each of the doors was made the traditional way; and the interior walls and ceiling were lathed for plaster.

In his account of building this tiny house, Thoreau wrote, ". .I was pleased to be able to send home each nail with a single blow from my hammer. ." We've probably all tried this maneuver at one time or another with questionable success. Apparently it took Henry a while to get the hang of it too, for when the house site was excavated in 1945, hundreds of bent and broken nails were uncovered. As frugal as Thoreau was in the construction of his house, the third largest expenditure was for nails. Of the total cost of $28.12 1/2, including a brick fireplace and chimney, the nails came to $3.90. -SH

Sources: Walden, Henry David
Thoreau, "Housewarming" and
Discovery at Walden by Robbins and

Tins and boxes are fun to collect because they have
colorful graphics and served a practical purpose. These
below held assorted sizes of nails and were marketed for
home use so that the do-it-yourself family could be ready
for just about any household project or repair.


The Penn Tack Company


Distributed by Kress Stores