for some work, cut nails don’t cut it

nail comparison

There’s lots of talk about nails these days. For me, the most easily available “old-timey” nail is just awful – the cut nails marketed today as approximating a blacksmith-made “wrought” nail. They are made in Massachusetts, here is the description for these nails:

“Decorative Wrought Head Black Oxide Finish   Designed to simulate the hand-forged nails of the late 1700’s, the head is three-sided and the nail has a black oxide coating.”

For the 17th-century work I do, the only choice is an actual wrought nail. These are the only type you would find on an original piece of furniture from that period.

Here’s one of the factory-made nails.

In this view, you can see the heavy, thick head these things have. The photo at the top of the page shows the bulge in the center of the shank. This results from how the nail is held to shape the head…the nail gets pinched in such a way that you end up with a bump in the midst of the shank. This is a true cut nail that is altered to mimic a wrought nail. I often compare it to using a router to cut dovetails, versus cutting them with a saw and chisel. Both are dovetails, but one is an imitation of the other. If you need 10,000 nails, these are clearly the way to go. If you need a few  dozen nails, or even a few hundred, you can do way better.

On the right is a hand-made nail, by my friend Mark Atchison. I know I’m comparing a large and small nail, but disregard the scale. The manufacturing process is the same regardless of size.  Notice the very slight, slender shank on Mark’s nail. Pointed tip, not a blunt tip like the cut nail beside it. Very thin head. Here’s the view of the hand-made nail’s head. Four hammer blows to make the head.

faceted head wrought nail
right and wrong nails

Some smiths these days rework these cut nails/wrought nail items…thinning out the heads and removing the bulge. That’s a good way to approach it if you are clapboarding a house. But as I said, if it’s a few nails you need – a blacksmith who knows what’s what is the way to go.

Period wrought nails are usually rectangular in their shank, the hand-made ones shown here are more square. That was at my request, I was using these with students last month at CFC in Rockport, ME.  The rectangular shanks just require a little more care in lining up the nails with the grain in the wood. Not a big deal..

Where do you get ’em? Your not-even-local blacksmith of course. Nowadays, you can sit right at home & get connected to a first-rate smith. Here’s three I know.

I’ve written before about the work Mark Atchison does  Sometimes you can cajole Mark into making you some nails, just don’t cut in front of me!

Another great choice is Peter Ross Peter made the nails (and hinges) when I taught carved boxes at Roy Underhill’s Woodwright’s School last spring. Drop Peter a note – he’s interested in making small quantities so that people can experience a real nail…

Another smith I have had the pleasure of working with over the years is Tom Latane – not sure if Tom is interested in making nails, but you have to see his work anyway…

I have paid up to $1.50 per nail. A perfectly reasonable price for a hand-made nail. Many of my carved boxes have 2 dozen nails in them, so just under $40 for the nails. If you’ve used the fake-cut-nail-as-wrought-nails, do yourself a favor – splurge for a special project & use some real wrought nails. You’ll be glad you did.

nails in oak

5 thoughts on “for some work, cut nails don’t cut it

  1. Totally agree with this. Theoretically tremonts can be re-forged and the final product looks pretty good—but its a pain and takes far longer than is worth it vs an original nail. Its not worth it. Though Ive forged a lot of my own nails and hardware, Ive reached a point where I cant do both…its faster to go with a professional blacksmith So over the years Ive cultivated good working relationships with a number of blacksmiths who know exactly what I need for projects. Just communicate well.

    One thing I think thats important to note is why forged nails work better….they cut through the fibers, leaving thousands of little fingers that then cling to the surface of the otherwise imperfect forged nail…its a match made in Heaven.

  2. In a lot of Hadley boxes and drawers, they use what I call slithead or flattened rosies alias floor nails. I prefer them to rosies. Because you can bury them flush with the surface. Are rosies desirable because they won’t tear through?

    • Yes Robert, correct. I have a 1650 carved “Bible” box that has very thin nails. I just noticed how thin they were today actually….showing a friend.

      They arent unlike flooring nails in some ways….in terms of the head.

  3. I need small faceted cut nails for replacing lost nails on ivory crucifixes.I have been making them from the tangs on files,but that is very labor intense, requiring a great deal of filing on shaping. can you help me on this project. Thank you, Edward Yontef

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s