Cut Nails – The Hand Made Kind

So far most of the wood removed from the house has been the redwood stem walls and sill plate that rested on the sandstone foundation. The nails used to secure the wood pieces were steel cut nails. I set out to remove these nails and learn more about them. As I removed each one I thought of the person who nailed them into the piece of wood almost 145 years ago and imaging what it was like at that moment the hammer was driving the nail into place. As I researched nails I learned these nails are actually cut nails. I had always referred to them as square nails but a closer look at my nails revealed a rectangular head instead of a square head. Nails have been around for a long time. Hand made nails, made of bronze, have been found from as far back as 3000 BC. The Romans made many of their nails from iron, which was harder, but many ancient iron nails have rusted away since. For thousands of years, the traditional hand-forged nail was square and tapered, with a hammered head attached by the blacksmith. One nail at a time was heated and laboriously pounded out to shape with a hammer on an anvil. Next, the smith cuts off the taper, and inserts it into a nail heading tool with a square hole. The top of the taper is hammered downward to form a head. Nails were fairly valuable, and ruined buildings were often burned and nails were scavenged from the ashes to reuse. These hand-forged nails changed little until well into the 1700’s. The next phase of progress in nails was the appearance of “cut” nails, beginning in the very late 1700’s. As plates of flat steel became available, a simple hardened steel knife was used to “cut” one tapered rectangular nail at a time. The new cut nails had rectangular heads attached by another machine, one nail at a time. This greatly accelerated the manufacture of nails, and these rectangular nails quickly became dominant by the early 1800’s. These cut nails are often called “square,” but they are really markedly rectangular, as are their heads, and easy to distinguish from the truly square and entirely handmade earlier variety. What many of us are unaware of, however, is that those old nails were actually superior in design to modern wire nails, with several times the holding power, and being less likely to cause wood to split. The reason for this is the shape of the shank, which usually tapers on two opposite sides from head to tip, resulting in a point that is chisel-shaped. The four edges of the shank also tend to be very sharp. When driven with the correct orientation (non-tapered sides parallel to the grain), the tip and edges shear the wood fibers rather than push them apart as wire nails do, and the shank finally wedges itself tightly into the wood. Because of their shearing ability, square-cut nails tend not to split wood, and can be used closer to the edge or end of a board than a wire nail. Modern wire nails were invented in the late nineteenth century, when improved industrial processes simplified the formation of round wire rods from soft steel. Nailing machines were then retooled to cut nails from less expensive round wire. The cheaper, mass produced cut-wire nail met with instant market success during America’s westward expansion, and it forced the manufacturing of square-cut iron nails into eclipse. By 1910, wire nails were 90% of the total market. Nails are one of many clues to the age and authenticity of building construction. I think I probably won’t find any cut nails used in the construction of the cottage as it was built about 1905.


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