On the Strength of Nails

July 21, 2013 Comments Off on On the Strength of Nails

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A few posts back I talked about the removing of moldings and trim from a doorway in our old house. There are several things that can wrong when doing this, even if you’re being very careful. You run the risk of breaking the wood, dinging up the plaster, or both. We assume the woodwork is original to our house (1894), or at least close to it. I predicted wood that old wouldn’t want to come out easily. And given the age of the house, I suspected that steel cut nails were used, potentially making the job even tougher. I started slowly on one side, and indeed discovered cut nails holding everything in place. I kept the ones that came out reasonably straight, and they are almost indistinguishable from the fine finish nails made by the Tremont Nail Company. It was slow going, as those nails produced an absolute death grip on the wood.

On the other (bathroom) side of the door I started slowly again and the first molding propped free almost immediately. I thought for sure I split the wood, but no, everything was intact. I looked behind the wood and…wire nails. Once I pried it enough to get my hand in I could literally just pull the pieces from the wall. It’s a mystery as to why there are two sets of nails here. The bathroom was added later onto the back of the house, and by that time wire nails were beginning to replace cut nails. I can only assume that the moldings on the bathroom side were put in later in an attempt to match the rest of the house. When the bathroom was originally built they may not have seen the need for such adornment.

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Tremont nails on the left, nails removed from moldings on the right

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Tremont nail on the left, old nail on the right

One thing is not in question, however. The cut nails were much more difficult to pry loose than their wire counterparts. It probably took me 1/10 the time to remove the moldings with wire nails as opposed to the other side. Now I’ll entertain a few mitigating circumstances. It’s possible that when the cut nails were installed, the wall studs were a little greener, and they shrunk around the nails, improving their grip. But still, if you are looking for a nail that will forever hold tight, I suggest you get some fine finish cut nails from Tremont.

Joel Moskowitz illustrates how cut nails provide a better grip than wire nails in this blog post. In addition to ordering the nails directly from Tremont, you can buy select types through Joel at Tools for Working Wood, as well as Lee Valley.

A  third alternative for nails is a blacksmith-made wrought iron nail. Traditional blacksmithing is undergoing a bit of renaissance, so look around your area for someone trying to revitalize the craft. While nails might not be the most glamorous thing on their plate, they may be willing to make you a batch. Peter Follansbee writes about his fondness for them here (and his lack of fondness for Tremont’s cut nail that is supposed to look hand wrought).


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