Why cut nails are better - part one...

May 11 2016 0 Comments

After helping my father-in-law a few years ago to demolish a very old house in Nelson, I had my first encounter with “Cut Nails”. At first I was quite curious about the shape and the fact that some of them were hand forged, but most of all about how hard it was to remove them from the timber. They definitely hold into the wood way better than wire nails.

First of all, a little bit of history about these nails taken from the substance of an article entitled “Traditional Cut Nails – worth preserving” and some video links I found.

Imagine the limited aspirations of the first pre-bronze age constructor to join two pieces of wood with a sharp implement. History does not record who it was, but the incredible results of that inspirational moment are all around us - in the houses we live in, the bridges we cross, the furniture we sit on. Nails have been around for a long time. And as soon as man discovered that heating iron ore could form metal, the ideas for shaping it quickly followed.

Wrought handmade nails  (Wrought = beaten into shape by hammer blows)

In the UK, early evidence of large scale nail making comes from Roman times 2000 years ago. Any sizeable Roman fortress would have its 'fabrica' or workshop where the blacksmiths would fashion the metal items needed by the army. They left behind 7 tons of nails at the fortress of Inchtuthil in Perthshire.

For nail making, iron ore was heated with carbon to form a dense spongy mass of metal which was then fashioned into the shape of square rods and left to cool. The metal produced was wrought iron. After re-heating the rod in a forge, the blacksmith would cut off a nail length and hammer all four sides of the softened end to form a point. Then the nail maker would insert the hot nail into a hole in a nail header or anvil and with four glancing blows of the hammer would form the rosehead (a shallow pyramid shape).


This shape of nail had the benefit of four sharp edges on the shank which cut deep into timber and the tapered shank provided friction down its full length. The wood fibres would often swell if damp and bind round the nail making an extremely strong fixing.

In Tudor times, there is evidence that the nail shape had not changed at all as can be seen by the nails found preserved in a barrel of tar on board the 'Mary Rose' - the Tudor flag ship of Henry VIII built in 1509 and recovered from the mud of the Solent in 1982.

Machine made nails

It was not until around 1600 that the first machine for making nails appeared, and that tended to automate much of the blacksmith's job. The 'Oliver' - a kind of work-bench, equipped with a pair of treadle operated hammers - provided a mechanism for beating the metal into various shapes but the nails were still made one at a time.

Eventually, in the USA, towards the late 1700's and early 1800's, a nail machine was devised which helped to automate the process even further. This machine had essentially three parts. Flat metal strips about 600mm in length, with the width slightly larger than the nail length, were presented to the machine. The first lever cut a triangular strip of metal giving the desired width of the nail, the second lever held the nail in place while the third lever formed the head. The strip of metal was then turned through 180° to cut the next equal and opposite nail shape off the strip. These nails are known as cut nails.

Because the nail up until then was handmade, the first machines were naturally designed to re-produce the same shape of product - a square tapered nail with a rosehead, but only tapered down two sides of the shank.

Soon nail making really took off, primarily in the USA and also the UK with its captive markets of the British Empire. The cut nail was produced in large numbers and various other shapes were devised to suit different purposes.

In the heartlands of the industrial revolution, many nail factories had row upon row of these nail machines and the incessant clatter from them created a deafening sound.



But still, the process was labour intensive with a man (or woman) attending each machine.

By the start of the 1900's, the first coils of steel round wire were produced and quickly machines were designed to use this new raw material. The first automatically produced wire nails with no human intervention other than to set up the machine immediately showed that this was the way to produce a cheaper nail.

The fact that the nail had a round parallel shank that had up to four times less holding power didn't matter so much. Thinner timbers were being used in construction and other forms of fastening were becoming available if a strong fixing was needed.

The wire nail quickly became the nail of choice as it is today because of its price and the cut nail's day was numbered.

In the 21st century, the nail making process through the ages is now being used by the restoration industry to help to establish when a building was built. Hand made nails suggest the building was built before 1800. Cut nails suggest the building was built between 1800 and the early 1900's. Wire nails will be found in a building put up in the period from then to date.

To be continued…..

Cheers, Gaston.

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