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JOEL Joel's Blog

Why Cut Nails Are Better


Why Cut Nails Are Better 4Up until the mid 19th century all the nails used were either forged or cut, that is either heated in a forge and then shaped, or sheared off of strip stock and upset at one end to form a head. These styles of nails largely disappeared during the late 19th century as cheaper nails made from steel wire took over.

Cut nails however, grip better than wire nails for a bunch of reasons.

1 - Nails hold in place for the same reason Japanese plane irons keep position. When you bang in a nail you push the fibers of wood down. After nailing, in order for the nail to pop out the nail has to overcome the force of thousands of wood fibers acting like little barbs that grip the nail (fig 1). Wire nails are round and only taper at the tip, so the wood fibers along the shaft of the nail are only bent a little. With cut nails, which are tapered throughout their length, the taper increases as the nail goes deeper so more and more wood is bent away with increasing force resisting pullout.

2 - More wedging action all around also mean more forces that can split the wood. When you hammer in a wire nail the pointed tip wedges the wood in all directions. A large wire nail will have more force holding it in than a small wire nail, but also more force trying to split the wood. Cut nails are only tapered in one dimension and when installed properly with the wedge parallel to the grain of the wood, the taper of the nail is with the grain so it doesn't force a split, and the parallel sides of the nail won't cause a wedging action that would split the wood. So, for a given size and length of nail you get a lot lot more holding power with a cut nail.

Why Cut Nails Are Better 53 - The wedging action of a wire nail is fixed by the diameter of the point. Far more wedging action can be achieved in the continuous increasing taper of a cut nail. Some cut nails (boat nails) have a wider section in the middle so that the wood at the top of the nail can swell back around the nail for even more strength.

4 - The square section of a cut nail resists attempts at twisting the wood which is easy to do with a round wire nail. This reduced movement helps keep the nailed structure stable.

5 - A cut tail is tapered top to bottom so that the top piece being nailed down is held down by the taper of the nail and you don't need much of a nail head. This allows for a much smaller nail head that is easily set flush with the wood. With a wire nail, with less gripping force, the head is an important part of keeping the joint from separating with a more visible result.

6 - While not related to holding power the tops of cut brads are smooth and don't deflect away from the hammer blow as much as the pinched top of a wire brad. So the cut nail is more reliably easily nailed in.
Why Cut Nails Are Better 6
Where do you get cut nails? Funny you should ask that. Take a visit to our new nail salon for cut nails in small or large quantities. We are stocking a large selection of cut nails made in USA by Tremont Nail - the oldest maker of cut nails in the US. Tremont has been making cut nails since they were invented in the early 19th century. We are repacking the nails into convenient small, resealable bags. We understand that you don't always need a huge quantity of any specific type of nails so our bag sizes range from 1/8 of a pound for small finishing nails, to typically a 1/2 pound for everything else. Some of the large nails are sold by the pound. If you order 4 or more packages of any mix of nails you automatically get 10% off.

Join the conversation
11/01/2011 Ron Jones
What finishes do you have available for these cut nails? The pictures appear to show at least two kinds, including galvanized. However, the ordering options only list size not finish.
11/01/2011 Jeff
Ah....but you are behind the times. The guild of 18th century woodworking re-enacting fashionistas will settle for nothing less than wrought nails. :-)

And eggbeater drills are the next passe tool. I predict a flurry of bow-drill blog posts in 2012.
With the exception of the decorative nails - which are blackened all the nails we are stocking are plain not galvanized. If there is a demand for more shapes and sizes we are happy to add them in.
11/01/2011 Joshua Pierce
So I've used nails in a couple of things now. I like it.

I like to have a small collection of little things in the "shop" that let me proceed on projects without thinking about gathering much more than the wood. It took me a while to figure out what were good sizes of screws to have around for projects around the house and shop.

Do have any suggestions of what types/sizes of nails to pick up to have a decent assortment for different projects?
I think Fine Finish nails in various lengths might be a good start. Them maybe add a few short headless brads to the mix on the fine end and maybe one longer box nail for rougher work on the long end. Frankly it really depends on the kind of work you do.
11/01/2011 Fred West
I have been using cut nails for about a year now and they are as good if not better than Joel mentioned above. However, that fine artwork is what really drove the point for me. :o
11/02/2011 Don
Could you please explain the proper procedure to crimp the ends of the cut nails over cleating them back into the wood.
sure click here:
11/03/2011 Dean

It has been said that the blunt tip of cut nails rend to crush fibers downward instead of forcing them outward. This is another reason that splitting is reduced. I believe his to be true because of experience. My grandfather taught me to always flatten the sharp point of nails with a hammer tap. This may be nothing more than superstition, but I rarely ever have wood split with a flat tipped round nail.
11/05/2011 Bobby Evans
No superstition from your grandfather. I spent years as the art technician in a university, time after time I found that when working with brads, flatten the tip a bit and the wood is likely to split. Until Joel's drawing I didn't know why flattening the tip worked.

Regressing to an air powered brad nailer, which has flat ends, is the way to go when a lot of work needs to get done fast. Teaching the students how to use the pneumatic brad nailer was quick and probably safer than a hammer in inexperienced hands.
11/13/2011 Dan
I think you are right about those boat nails. As the wood swells when it gets wet it tightens between the head and the swollen part of the nail. The wet plank and nail become a sort of dovetail joint. At least that's how it looks to me. I'd love for some enineer to test it.
12/03/2011 Mark
Question: If the ideal direction of the wide cross section of the cut nail is with the grain (to counter wood splitting), how do you handle cross grain planking ? i.e. if I have a rectangular carcass (box) and wish to attach floor boards using cut nails to the bottom of the sides, which part of the project receives the wide cross nail section, the floor boards or the carcass (deeper penetration in the carcass) ? Would you pre-drill the floor boards to alleviate splitting if the carcass side is chosen for the wide nail section ?
Align with the top board. there is less taper on the bottom part of the nail, and towards the bottom the section of the nail will be either square or thinner than square.
02/13/2012 Dick
FWIW, I don't know for sure why cut nails hold, but they sure do. My house used to have 3/4" face nailed pine clapboards, and every summer I had to resink dozens of wire nails that had popped 1/2" to 1-1/2". A few years ago, I took down a face nailed pine clapboard sided railroad depot built in 1880. It was nailed with cut nails, and though it had more square feet of siding then my house, there was not one single siding nail that wasn't still flush.
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