Most of us are familiar with the old square nails used centuries ago. We’ve seen them on display at museum homes, or historical society exhibits, or perhaps being hammered out by blacksmiths in places like Plimoth Plantation or Colonial Williamsburg.
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. And perhaps even less well known is the fact that square nails are still manufactured today, and are even available in bulk quantities.
Top: Hand forged 17th century iron nails and spike in the roof system of the Old Hawkins house, Derby, Connecticut. Bottom: Two 2.5″ (8d) square-cut iron nails I extracted from a door jamb, causing an oyster shell to break free from surrounding plaster (oyster shells were used as thickeners in early plaster walls).
Hand-forged iron nails predate the ancient Romans, and the basic form of the modern wrought square nail was developed in sixteenth century Europe. When the first settlers began arriving in the New World in the early seventeenth century, they brought large quantities of wrought nails with them. Nail making was never done on a very large scale in the American colonies, as nails were primarily imported from England, right up until the Revolution.
Around the 1790’s, American inventors had prototyped the first nail making machines, which produced square-cut nails by cutting them from iron rods. And by the early 1820’s, nail-making machines had become so efficient that America soon became the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of nails.
Modern square-cut steel nails by Tremont Nail Company. From left to right: 4″ (20d) cut-spike (HDG), 3.5″ (16d) cut-spike (HDG), 3.5″ common, 2.5″ (8d) fireboard clinch (HDG), 2″ (6d) rosehead common, 2″ wrought nail, 1.5″ (4d) wrought nail, 1″ (2d) wrought nail, 1″ brad, and 1″ headless brad (for fine finishing) (HDG=hot dip galvanized)
Square-cut nails are fundamentally superior to modern wire nails because of their superior holding power. If you’ve ever attempted to extract a square-cut nail from a board, you know what I’m talking about. They hold so tenaciously that you’ll often break the board or the nail itself before removing it. 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.
A 3.5″ (16 penny, or 16d) square-cut bright common nail and it’s equivalent wire nail cousin. This 16d square-cut common nail costs about 17 cents, while the wire nail goes for about 7 cents, based on the Tremont catalog and my local Home Depot, respectively. The square nail is about 2.4 times as expensive as the wire nail, but is estimated to have about 4 times the holding power. Interestingly enough, in terms of the old penny weight costing system, either nail would’ve cost about 0.2 cents a piece back in the old days, albeit in Colonial pennies, not modern U.S. pennies.
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. Today, wrought square nails are still used in historical restoration projects, and can be obtained directly from blacksmiths or ordered through primitive hardware suppliers. Also, many of the larger living history museums, such as Colonial Willamsburg, maintain their own blacksmith shops that supply their sites with historically accurate, forged nails.
Simple wood floor mock-up I created using 2x4s and oak scants of different widths. I’ll often build simple prototypes like this to experiment with different combinations of wood species, stain, and nail types. In this particular one, I am comparing common rosehead nails (first three boards, left to right) and wrought nails (fourth and fifth boards on the right). (I have yet to apply any stain to these boards). I’m not sure I like the look of the roseheads when face nailed — I think they would look better counter sunk. We’ll try that next…
Square-cut nails, on the other hand, are still available from the Tremont Nail Company, of Mansfield, Massachusetts. Tremont, which today is a division of Acorn Manufacturing, was founded in 1819 in response to the Federal Period demand for low-cost nail production. It is the only remaining American nail company producing square-cut nails. Today, Tremont makes square-cut nails out of steel, rather than iron, with their common nails being made from hardened, high-carbon steel. They even offer hot-dipped galvanized versions of their nails for outdoor applications. But the truly amazing thing about Tremont is that they still use their own vintage nail-cutting machines, which date back to the 1850s. Over the years, they’ve managed to keep these machines running by fabricating replacement parts when necessary. So these reproduction nails are hardly reproductions at all. Harder and stronger than iron, they are more of a generational advancement in square-cut nail technology, rather than simply copies of historic artifacts.
The wrought nails look much better for face nailing in oak, in my opinion. We’ll have to see how they look with different stains and a polyurethane overcoat.
So, the next time you’re touring an historic home or colonial settlement museum, keep in mind the old adage that a wooden structure is only as strong as its fasteners, and you may more fully understand just why some of these old buildings are still standing. The construction techniques of our forebears were not necessarily inferior to our own. Some were actually better, only succumbing in the end to that ages-old practice of trading utility off in favor of reducing costs.