Have you ever wondered about the history of nails? Well, because I’m an old house lover I have. I’ve noticed the variety of nails styles in the different age houses I’ve worked on and it’s been intriguing to see how nails have evolved over the centuries.
The style of nail used in a home’s construction can even help you date its construction and research your home’s history to get a better picture of its past.
In this post, I’ll walk you though some of the changes and innovations so you can follow along the history with me. Hopefully, you’ll see some of these nails in your house and that will help you date those old houses with uncertain dates of construction.
Early Hand-Forged Nails
The concept of nails dates back to ancient times. Early civilizations, such as the Egyptians and the Romans, used crude nail-like fasteners made from various materials like bronze, iron, and even precious metals.
Until the 18th century, nails were individually hand-forged by blacksmiths. Skilled blacksmiths would heat iron or steel rods and hammer them into shape, creating nails with heads and points. It was slow and expensive and resulted in a huge disparity in the quality of each nail. This cost and inconsistency meant that nails were used sparingly as most woodworkers preferred joinery like mortise and tenons and a slew of others to join pieces of wood. It wasn’t until the cut nail was invented that the way nails were used really changed.
The Invention of the Cut Nail
The invention of the cut nail is credited to Jeremiah Wilkinson of Cumberland, RI. In 1775 he cut slivers of iron with shears and made the heads with a hammer blow to produce the first tacks. At the time many other tinkerers were developing ways to make cut nails and mechanize the process.
In 1794 Jacob Perkins (also credited with inventing the refrigerator), invented a water-powered nail-cutting machine and began producing machine-made cut nails in scale. In 1795 received the first U.S. nail-cutting machine patent. This machine allowed for the mass production of uniform nails in various sizes and lengths. Cut nails were made by cutting them from sheets of iron, which were then shaped and pointed. This new method of nail production was much faster and more efficient than the traditional blacksmithing method.
Cut nails quickly became popular and were widely used in construction, shipbuilding, and other industries. They were much stronger, more durable, and had a consistent quality than earlier handmade nails and could be produced much more efficiently which also served to bring prices down radically.
By the mid-19th century, cut nails had become the standard for construction. The shift from timber framing which used large pegs and complex joinery to the nail reliant balloon framing was sped up greatly by the availability of cut nails. Homes could now be built faster and cheaper than ever before.
Modern Wire Nails
The next significant development in nail manufacturing came in the early 19th century with the invention of wire nails. Wire nails were formed from wire stock, which was drawn through a series of dies to shape it into the desired nail form. The wire nail is the common nail seen on most construction sites today. This process allowed for even more efficient production and lower costs.
Wire nails were so consistent in size and shape that as the years progressed they could be collated and used in air-powered and now battery-powered nailers to speed up construction even more than the cut nail had previously done. Today, wire nails are available in a huge variety of sizes and applications that the early nail makers could only have dreamed of.
The nail has played a pivotal role in the form of our buildings and the construction methods, and that’s what makes them so interesting to me. Understanding the history of this small piece of our history can really help you tell the story of your home. I hope this post has given you some additional perspective on the curious history of nails, and now you may think twice the next time you see an old cut nail head poking out from that loose floor board.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.