A few thoughts on nails

** EDITED POST – Added link to TFWW Nail Shop **

Recently there have been a few posts around the the blogo-sphere, the best being on the ever fantastic blog Village Carpenter, about the WIA class on nailed furniture.  I recently had a similar revelation in my shop while working on my “Anarchist’s Saw Bench Box” (more on this later) about the use of nails.

I had spent an entire evening of my precious time wresting with a series of doweled joints for the side of the box, and was prepping for doing the same thing for the bottom of the box.  It struck me then, that all the effort and wrestling and balancing of the boards didn’t seem very efficient.  What would have my theoretical counter part have done in my stead?

He would have nailed the damn thing down and have done with it.

I think we tend to over-complicate, and over-analyze the methods of work they used, and focus entirely too much on the show piece joints.  The fascination with dovetails leads us to use them in places that are more than is needed.  People spend hours and volumes of words debating angles, and tails vs. pins when our craft ancestors would have just done the quickest method and moved on. And don’t even go anywhere near sharpening!

So, some thoughts on nails…

The first project in the The Joiner and Cabinet Maker is a simple nailed box.  No dovetails, or fancy joints, just a simple nailed box done with care and pride.  Dovetails ARE an appropriate and beautiful joint, and I fully intend to make many a piece with them, but do they belong on every thing?  Sometimes a simple rabbet joint, and a few nails is all you need.

I’ve used a couple different kinds of more or less period nails lately and enjoyed the look of them, and the ease of use.

The wrought head nails from Rockler work quite well, and the look of the box after completion was great.  I loved the look of them, and have been using them more and more.  The shaft is not perfectly smooth, which gives it a bit more grip.

The Tremont Nail Company is still making nails the old way.  They are bit more expensive than your ordinary hardware store nails, but they give the work a bit of panache that would be missing with an ordinary nail, as well as the ability to “clinch” a nail through the wood for greater holding power.

There is one small note of caution though on the use of these nails.  You can’t simply poke them into the wood and hammer away freely, because you’ll likely end up splitting the wood.  The shape of these nails is more of a wedge generally, and can force the wood apart.  You need to dig into the past a little to complete the picture.  To prevent splitting you’ll need to open up a small hole first all the way through the wood with a tool of some kind.

There are a couple different ways to do this, one of which I’ve been experimenting with lately is the use of a “brad-awl” which looks like a small flat bladed screwdriver and is driven into the wood with a twisting back and forth motion to open up a hole.  When done right it doesn’t so much as drill a hole as move the wood fibers to the sides.  This allows the fibers to grab the nail as they are driven into the hole.  This works best in softwoods like Pine as far as I can tell from my experimentation. In hardwoods like Oak, I’ve found that “birdcage awl” or a gimlet bit works best to make a hole through the wood.

I’ve made my own from regular scratch awl blades I picked up at HF, and cut the two flat facets on the blade on the grinder.   I initially made my angles way to steep and the metal bent and twist at the tip because it was too weak.  I’ve been experimenting on a broader angles to good success.  To make a “birdcage awl” I ground a four sided pyramid shape into the tip of another scratch awl (I bought a handful of these things for cheap) and it works wonders on Oak with a simple twisting motion.  I can get a hole through a 1/2″ board quicker than I could have found my bits and got it chucked up in the cordless drill (which is usually out of juice most of the time anyway).  For multiple holes, it can be a pain, but for a few holes it’s super easy and quick.

And finally, I leave you with a link to an article I found on the net titled “Forged and Cut Iron Nails” by Gregory LeFever.

— Badger

P.S. Tools for Working Wood has opened up a new “Nail Salon” on their site, selling Tremont Nails in small lots, which is a good idea to order a few different kinds to experiment with.


  1. Martin F. Pope (@cobwobbler) October 17, 2011

    Hi Badger, a good read on nails. I love nails because they’re quick and they work. I’ve returned to wood working after dabbling as a young boy, getting my first woodworking book and tool set for my 10th Christmas. In that book there must have been the phrase “glue and pin” mentioned 100’s of times. No fancy joints, like you say, a simple rebate , line of glue and some nails to hold. If you wanted to get real fancy you could sink the pins or round headed nails with a punch and cover the hole with filler. I’ve used nails to make a simple storage crate from an old pallet, you can read about it on my blog.
    Keep it nailed! Cobwobbler

  2. Gye Greene October 27, 2011

    Hiya! Hey, for both the bradawl and the old-fashioned nails: they work best if you put the “blade” perpendicular to the grain. (i.e. the “wedging action” is longitudinal to the grain, compressing the ends of the fibres). Thus they sever the grain, rather than splitting it. (I don’t know if that’s how you’re doing it.)

    Used in that manner, my bradawl works just fine on hardwoods as well as softwoods. 🙂


  3. Badger October 29, 2011

    That makes a lot of sense. I’m still looking for a good solution for the brad awl in my shop. I had ground one from a cheap awl, but the point is too fragile, and gets torn up way too quickly in Oak. I think I made the angle too steep and my next one will be a shallower angle. I’m hoping to get away with simply grinding because I don’t have a torch for tempering.

  4. Eric November 1, 2011

    Hey thanks for that post! I will be Stateside for a few months and am interested in picking up some nails to bring back (maybe carry-on so I don’t screw with my luggage allowance!). Where’s a good place for cheap (but decent) ones?

  5. Badger November 2, 2011

    As luck would have it, yes! I just ran across a page on Tools for Working Wood that sells Tremont nails in small enough lots to play with while finding the right nails.

    Tools for Working Wood Nail Salon.


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