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Types of nails

There are dozens of different kinds of nails, many listed in the fastener index. Many are from before the Second World War, after which plastic and corrugated cardboard made most wooden shipping containers obsolete, which doomed the specialized nails used to construct them (typically, the ones with “box” in their names). Nails in the construction trades remain, though the rise of power nailers has changed them.

The homemaker is most likely to encounter:

Size of nails

In most of the world, nails are described by their dimensions in millimeters, for example “150 × 4” is a nail 150 mm long and 4 mm in diameter. A description of the head and finish is typically added. In the United States, however, some types of nails are sized in pennies (symbol, d), a system that originated in England centuries ago.

For the problem of substituting nails sized in newer formats for nails sized in pennies, see nails spec'ed in pennys in the age of nail guns.

Length

In the United States, the lengths and diameters of some types of nails are indicated by their size in pennies. An 8d finishing nail and an 8d common nail are about the same length, but have different diameters.

chart showing length, in inches of four penny to 60 penny nails, with their gauge

As rules of thumb,

Longer is not necessarily better; the longer the nail, the greater the danger of splitting the wood.

Diameter

Several types of small nails are sized by length and wire gauge. The wire gauge used for nails is a particular version of the steel wire gauge. The bigger the number, the thinner the nail. The industry is moving away from the use of gauge numbers, to specifying the actual diameter to a thousandth of an inch.

Packaging

Most nails are sold by weight, usually in 1-pound boxes. Some stores still offer them in bulk, to be bagged by the purchaser. Contractors purchase bulk nails in corrugated cardboard cartons holding 50 pounds. Five-pound, 10-pound, and 25-pound boxes are also sometimes available. Internationally, 5 and 10-kilogram boxes are common.

The wooden nail keg of an earlier era, usually holding 100 pounds (but 150 lbs of wrought spikes or 200 lbs of boat spikes) is now rare.

The entries for types of nails give the number of nails per pound for each size. From this information and the number of nails  needed, the number of pounds required can be calculated.

Finish

Bright nails have no finish. They can cause rust streaks if they are used in siding or decking, for example.

A common way of making nails corrosion-resistant is to coat them with zinc. Hot-dipped (H.D.) nails have been galvanized by dipping them in molten zinc. Electrogalvanized nails are plated with zinc, and are not as corrosion-resistant as hot-dipped nails. A third process peens zinc onto the nail. By roughening the nail's surface, all these treatments – but especially hot-dipping – increase the holding power of the nail.

Blued nails have very little resistance to corrosion and are meant to be used indoors.

Shanks

Most nails have smooth shanks. 

Ring-shank nails are used with softwood, in situations where the nail will be pushed from side to side, which tends to enlarge the hole and free smooth-shank nails.

drawing of spiral shank nail.

Spiral-shank nails are mostly used with hardwood.  They have great holding power.

Heads

Most nails have flat heads, in some cases very large ones.

The brad head is found on finishing nails and brads. Usually it is cupped; that is, it has a small depression in the middle of the head that serves to steady a nail set.

Duplex heads are used where the nail must  later be removed, for example, in constructing movie sets.

Points

Most nails have a diamond point, a 4-sided pyramid.  Some however, have needle points, and a few types have a chisel point or a duckbill point.

Materials

Besides high-carbon and low-carbon steel, nails are available in types 304 and 316 stainless steel.  Stainless steel nails are slightly less strong than ordinary steel nails and are about three times as expensive as galvanized nails, but they are much more rust resistant.

Aluminum nails are not strong enough for most structural framing and are primarily used to fasten aluminum siding or screening.

Copper nails are used in roofing and in marine applications.

Special types

Cut nails

photo of coil of nails

© iStockphoto.com/CFPhotography.

When the term “wire nail” is used to refer to the method of manufacture, it means any nail made from wire, in contrast to a forged nail or a nail cut from a plate. In this sense, almost all the nails made since 1900, of every type, are wire nails.

In earlier times the cut nail was more common. Cut nails, which are still made, are cut from a steel or iron plate and so have a rectangular cross section. In most fields they are now a specialty item prized for their quaint appearance. They are not inferior to wire nails, however; in fact their holding power is about 1.5 times greater than that of a wire nail of the same length – even more in end grain – but they are more expensive to manufacture.

Power nailer nails

photo of cut nail

© iStockphoto.com/Gary Talton.

Nails for power nailers, the professional's replacement for the hammer, are sold by count, not by weight. These machines require nails that have been stuck together in coils or sticks (like the staples for an office stapler). A typical coil holds about 100 to 300 nails and a stick about 100. Each machine has particular requirements (for example, in some sticks the nails are tilted at 31° and in others 22°). Nails should be purchased with a specific make and model of nailer in mind, though there is some interchangeability.

National standards

Germany: DIN 1151, 1152
Romania: STAS 2111-90
United Kingdom: BS1202

Sources

David Moyer
Nails for Historical Archaeologists.
An extensive bibliography: www.digitalpresence.com/histarch/nails.html

Thomas D. Visser.
Nails: Clues to a Building's History.
www.uvm.edu/~histpres/203/nails.html

A brief history of nailmaking in America.

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