The Tale of Old Nails
This is a piece of 1/8-inch square rolled iron nail stock that was used by a “nailer” to hammer out a handmade nail.
One of the key ingredients in the process of determining the age of a piece of older or antique furniture is how the wood is assembled to produce this functional work of art. Drawers are typically put together using various methods of wood joinery, i.e. dovetails, scallop joints or rabbets. Older case goods generally employ mortise and tenon joints, as do old chairs and doors. But the most straightforward method of all construction techniques is the use of a fastener, an external device that holds two pieces of wood together without additional shaping of the wood and the simplest fastener is a nail—in essence a tapered metal dowel inserted by the brute force of a hammer blow.
Nails, of course, have been around for thousands of years, but their general application to furniture making is fairly recent. Until modern times all nails were hand made, one at a time by a blacksmith or a specialist, called a “nailer.” But since nails are such useful items, not just for furniture but for general building applications, it is not surprising that some of the first modern machinery was devoted to the manufacture of nails.
These are hand-made iron nails from the 18th century. Note the “rosehead” hammered head and the sharp point.
In the American Colonies, one of the early industries to be well established, after glassmaking and spirits distilling, was the nail stock business. Up and down the East coast as early as the late 17th century, rolling mills turned out long, thin, square pieces of iron called nail stock, to be sent to the local nailer.
The nailer then heated a section of the stock and pounded out a point on all four sides. After cutting to length the section was inserted in hole on the anvil called a “swage” block and the head of the nail formed by repeated blows to the top of the nail, giving it the “rosehead” look we identify with hand made nails. A lot of work for just one nail.
But this method had its rewards. The pounding of the nail to shape it made the iron denser and thus more water resistant and durable, as well as malleable (bendable). This malleability was one of the key factors in the success of the handmade nail; it was so flexible that as it was driven into a piece of wood it followed the internal grain pattern, often in an arc, and thus provided a clinching effect that help hold the nailed joint very tightly. The hand-wrought iron rosehead nails leave a very identifiable clue—a square hole—when they are removed from wood. No other type of nail leaves a square hole.
By the early 1800’s, nail cutting machines were in general use in America. These early machines cut angular strips from a thin sheet of metal resulting in a nail with two parallel sides, representing the thickness of the sheet of metal, and two cut angular sides forming the point. The heads still had to be hammered by hand and these nails are easily confused with hand-wrought nails because they both have hand hammered rose-like heads. The difference is in the shape of the hole. The machine made nails leave rectangular holes which are easily distinguished from the square marks of the earliest nails. This type of nail is the kind frequently found in early 19th century Federal and American Empire furniture and just as frequently misidentified as hand wrought.
These nails were all cut from a sheet of iron. The top nail with the “notch” head is from the early 19th century. The middle nail with the rectangular flat head is from around 1830/1840.
Another type of early nail merely had a notch as the head. This wasn’t very effective but it was quick and cheap and machine cut nails became a staple of both the construction industry and the furniture building trade. An even better nail came around 1830. The machines by now were producing nails that actually had flattened protruding surfaces to function as the head. These were made by a single, forceful impact on the top of the nail by the machinery itself and no human work was required. As erratic and small as these new heads were, they were still the best yet.
By the 1840’s, the nail making technology settled down to making the best cut nail yet. This mid-century nail had a large, uniform, machine-made head and it became the standard nail for more than 50 years, and it continued to leave the characteristic rectangular hole. These nails are ones found in late Classicism (C-scroll Empire) and Victorian furniture throughout the rest of the 19th century. As good as these nails were however, they did have a drawback. They did not benefit from the hand pounding reserved for the making of hand wrought nails and thus were more brittle than earlier nails. This stiffness meant that they did not have the same internal clinching power as their predecessors and tended to snap off under duress rather than bend.
This is the standard wire nail first introduced around 1880.
Around 1880 came the next major leap in nail development. A machine was invented that produced a round nail drawn from a piece of steel wire and formed with a perfectly circular, stamped head and a sharp, cut point. This does not mean that all cabinet shops instantly stopped using cut nails when the new style showed up. Cut nails continued to be used early into the 20th century until existing stocks were used up. And hand-wrought nails continued to be made throughout the 19th century for certain specialty applications, such as gate building and other instances where the benefits of the clinching nail outweighed the cost of hand production.
But in the end the round wire nail became the universal standard and still is today. It represents a technology that is still in use and virtually unchanged for more than 100 years; quite a rarity at the beginning of the 21st century.
Even if the nail itself is missing in a piece of furniture, you can sometimes determine its origin by the hole it leaves. Handmade nails leave square holes, cut nails leave rectangular holes and wire nails leave round holes.
Each type of nail leaves its signature hole.
Fred Taylor is a Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).
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