Nail Making

A Short History of Nails

Man has been making and using nails for a long time, at least 5000 years and maybe longer. Along with forging of weapons and knives, nails were one of the first metal items made in volume from copper and then iron. Copper and bronze nails continued to be used in shipbuilding as iron came into wide use in other construction. Iron nails from the Romans have been found in Britain. All of these nails were hand forged one at a time.

For centuries, the stock for nails would be hand slit into square cross section from iron that had been pounded out. The "sheet" was most likely made with waterpower heave hammers. Then in 1606, a major improvement was made with the invention of the slitting mill by Englishman Bevis Bulmer. This slitting mill could cold shear a series of square sections from a thin bar of wrought iron. Bundles of these nail rods were "loaned" to local folks who would convert them to nails often using the home hearth as their forge. They would then be paid by weight of good nails returned less some allowance for waste. Most of this work took place on British farms and everyone made nails from kids to grandparents. The pay was very low.

Nail making in America followed a similar pattern with most of the nail rods coming from England. Nail stock has been found at Jamestown so local forging of nails took place from the very start in the USA.

In 1775, Jeremiah Wilkinson, a Rhode Island inventor devised the first machine to make cut nails from iron sheet. By 1795 there where machines that could cut and head nails in one operation.

Nail making didn't really change again until after the large volume production of mild steel by the Bessemer Converter process. By 1880, mild steel wire was being produced and the wire nail became king because of its lower material / high volume production. Most nails today are wire based with some cut nails still being produced. Increasingly, nails being driven by pneumatic nail guns to the point where some construction workers today don't seem to know how to hand drive a nail.

from the Old Dominion Blacksmith Association article on Blacksmithing Potpurri

"Why did the House of Burgess of Virginia pass a law in 1645 that people relocating could not burn their houses down? Because the nails were so rare and expensive when people moved they would burn their houses down to retrieve the nails. Here is a copy of the Law:

‘And it is further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That it shall not be lawful for any person so deserting his plantation as afore said to burn any necessary housing that are situated thereupon, but shall receive so many nails as may be computed by 2 indifferent men were expended bout the building thereof for full satisfaction, reservinge to the King all such rent as did accrew by vertue of the former grants or planting of the same from the expiration of the first seaven years.’"

"Dead as a Doornail" is a phrase that comes from the "dead nail". A dead nail was one whose tip was clenched back into the wood. This was a common way to fasten door and gate hinges to prevent the nails from working loose.
Info courtesy of Blacksmiths Guild of the Potomac newsletter.

Nails: Clues to a Building's History
Thomas D. Visser
Hand-wrought nail, before circa 1800
Type A cut nail, circa 1790-1830
Type B cut nail, circa 1820-1900
Wire nail, circa 1890 to present

Nails provide one of the best clues to help determine the age of historic buildings, especially those constructed during the nineteenth century, when nail-making technology advanced rapidly. Until the last decade of the 1700s and the early 1800s, hand-wrought nails typically fastened the sheathing and roof boards on building frames. These nails were made one by one by a blacksmith or nailor from square iron rod. After heating the rod in a forge, the nailor would hammer all four sides of the softened end to form a point. The pointed nail rod was reheated and cut off. Then the nail maker would insert the hot nail into a hole in a nail header or anvil and form a head with several glancing blows of the hammer. The most common shape was the rosehead; however, broad "butterfly" heads and narrow L-heads also were crafted. L-head nails were popular for finish work, trim boards, and flooring.

Between the 1790s and the early 1800s, various machines were invented for making nails from bars of iron. The earliest machines chopped nails off the iron bar like a guillotine, wiggling the bar from side to side with every stroke to produce a tapered shank. These are known as type A cut nails. At first, the heads were often made by hand, but soon machines were developed to pound a head on the end. This type of nail was made until the 1830s.

By the 1820s, however, an effective design for a nail making machine was developed: it flipped the iron bar over after each stroke. With the cutter set at an angle, every nail was chopped to a taper. Nails made by this method are known as type B nails.

Cutting the nails leaves a small burr along the edge as the metal is torn apart. By carefully examining the edges for evidence of these burrs, it is possible to distinguish between the earlier type A nails and the later type B nails. Type A nails have burrs on the diagonally opposite edges, while the type B nails have both burrs on the same side. This kind of evidence can be used to establish the approximate period of construction or alteration of a building.

Type B cut nails continued to be the most common through most of the greater part of the nineteenth century. With the rapid development of the Bessemer process for producing inexpensive soft steel during the 1880s, however, the popularity of using iron for nail making quickly waned. By 1886, 10 percent of the nails produced in the United States were made of soft steel wire. Within six years, more steel-wire nails were being produced than iron-cut nails. By 1913, 90 percent were wire nails. Cut nails are still made today, however, with the type B method. These are commonly used for fastening hardwood flooring.
c. 1996 University of Vermont Historic Preservation Program
Adapted from A Field Guide to New England Barns and Farm Buildings by Thomas D. Visser, published by the University Press of New England.
For further information contact:

A number of drawings used here I discovered at the site. They come from a book "Museum of Early American Tools, by Eric Sloane. I've marked those drawings for approppriate attribution to their source. I think they're very interesting.

Examples of hand-made vs machine-made nails
(Courtesy of Museum of Early American Tools, by Eric Sloane)

Different types of nail heads
(Courtesy of Museum of Early American Tools, by Eric Sloane)

Making Nails in Colonial Williamsburg
by Kenneth Schwarz, Master Blacksmith

While you are watching the bricks and mortar component of the Armoury project, the blacksmiths are busy with hardware manufacture. Later in the summer when the framing is set in place, the carpenter’s crew will need thousands of nails to fasten siding, roofing and flooring in place. Current estimates call for nearly 30,000 nails to be used on the building. How does one make 30,000 nails? Well, nails are made one at a time- just like all of the other components of the building. Making nails by hand might seem laborious, but in the context of hand manufacture of building materials, nails are actually the quickest and easiest component to make.

Nails begin as "nailrod," iron bar that is about one quarter of an inch square. The rods are broken down into lengths of about 36 inches in order to be handled conveniently. One end of the bar is heated to a bright yellow- about 2,500°F- in order to soften it and make it respond to the hammer. By turning the bar back and forth one quarter turn in between each hammer blow we reduce the width and thickness of the bar, and increase its length, creating a smooth taper and forming a point. In blacksmiths terms, this is called "drawing out". Next the bar is brought to the near edge of the anvil and a shoulder is created on two sides of the bar by striking the metal with the hammer half-on, and half-off of the anvil and turning one quarter turn between hammer blows. This shoulder will act as a stop when the head is being formed, determining the length of the finished nail. The shank is drawn out to blend the taper into the point.

Next the bar is held on a "hardie"- a cutting chisel that fits into the square hole in the anvil- where the bar is still full size, and it is cut most of the way through, isolating a small lump of the full sized material to form the head. This is then broken off and held upright in a "heading tool" while the head is hammered into shape. Typically it takes about six hammer blows to form the head and complete the nail. The finished nail is dropped on the floor to cool. The goal is to complete the nail while the metal is still glowing red- about 1,000°F. This entire process can be completed in less than 30 seconds by a competent workman (or woman). By contrast, it probably takes the carpenters eight to ten minutes to form a shingle, which will be held in place by one nail.

So how do we make 30,000 nails? Again, one at a time. But knowing that this project requires great quantities of nails, we don’t wait till the last minute to make them all. We have been making nails since last summer. We try to average about one hundred nails per day, in between our other work projects. We might warm up in the morning by spending twenty or thirty minutes making nails(40 to 60 nails made) and late in the day when a project is finished and there is not enough time to start on another, we can finish out the day making nails (another 40 to 60 nails made). Averaging one hundred per day will give us over 30,000 in the course of a year- enough for a major structure like the Armoury.

The bulk of the nails are 8 penny common nails for siding and roofing, but we will have some specialty nails for applying trim, nailing down the rafter feet, attaching hardware, building double thickness doors, etc. Those are required in much smaller quantity and are often made shortly before they are needed.

Colonial Nailmaking Station

Colonial Williamsburg Nailmaking Station, use courtesy Kenneth Schwartz, Blacksmith, Master of the Shop

"The tooling is quite simple, the flat square work surface is used to draw a point and taper a shank on the nail, the upright rectangular tool in the left foreground is a form of "hardie" or cutting tool- the smith cuts most of the way through the nail, the dome-shaped section of the cross bar supports the nail upright so that the head can be fashioned, and finally the piece in the right foreground is a "rocker" which, when struck with the hammer, ejects the nail from the heading tool.

While this is an ancient technology, it survived in some cultures well into the twentieth century. You can see an early film documentary of the process on this archival film. You can also find a brief video of our nail making on the Facebook page for the Anderson Armoury. While we are not using this particular nail making set-up, the operation is much the same.

Also, two recent issues of the Early American Industries Association publication "The Chronicle" have articles about nail making, one that I authored in December of 2011, and one in their most recent issue authored by the smith from Plimoth Plantation."

Kenneth Schwarz
Blacksmith, Master of the Shop
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

This is a homemade version of the Williamsburg nail making station

Two more examples of nail making stations.

A nailer's forge
(Courtesy of Museum of Early American Tools, by Eric Sloane)

Nail header

My nail headers: 316", 14", 732", 38", and 12"

Interesting nail header
that fits into the
anvil's hardy hole

One tool that fits into the swage category is the heading tool. These tools are used for making bolts and nails. A different size tool is required for each size of bolt or nail. With a nail heading tool, the hole through the tool is generally square to fit the requirements for making square nails. Also, the top of the nail header is quite often slightly rounded. The bolt header is generally flat on top to help give the best shoulder between the bolt shaft and the head. The hole through the bolt header is round. The hole through each of these headers is punched with a taper punch from the bottom side.
Info from Blacksmiths Gazette ( - no longer reachable).

Another version of a header that fits into the hardy hole. This one has a handle built-in.

A variety of nail headers, nailer's anvil, and a real gem, an Oliver treadle hammer. The Oliver hammer was an
early foot-powdered treadle hammer which took up little space and utilized the smith's existing anvil.
(Courtesy of Museum of Early American Tools, by Eric Sloane)

Three Rivers Forge
Nail Header made from a 5/8" flange bolt from Three Rivers Forge.
Recently purchased - some nail making tongs (I thought?)

I bought these tongs because:

  1. I was intrigued at the idea of there being such a thing as "nail tongs"
  2. I regarded it as a challenge to figure out how they could be used to make nails

Obviously, one rein could be a nail header. But the real question is the purpose of the other rein with the slot in it.

Pat McCarty's method
My class nails; not very good
  1. Start with end of metal off of the anvil
  2. Shoulder metal on anvil, turn 90°, strike again (puts a bulge on two sides)
  3. Draw out as you slide the metal back onto the anvil's face

This gives a longer taper without cooling the metal too much. This method allows the part off of the anvil to keep it's heat better. Otherwise the anvil will quickly draw the heat out of the metal.

My Nail-making Goal

    Gee Mom, look what else I've found!

"One thing to remember is to talk to the animals. If you do, they will talk back to you. But if you don't talk to the animals, they won't talk back to you, then you won't understand, and when you don't understand you will fear, and when you fear you will destroy the animals, and if you destroy the animals, you will destroy yourself." -- Chief Dan George

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