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"The Blueprint"
Vol. I, No. 2
April 27, 1992

A Two-Bit History of Nails

By Paul Fourshee
Copyright © 1992

    The lowly nail’s history goes back several thousand years. While the nail has almost always been produced for fastening and joining, historically some other fairly imaginative applications have been made of this versatile product, such as mayhem and punishment.

    Bronze nails, found in Egypt, have been dated 3400 BC. The Bible give us numerous references to nails, the most well known being the crucifixion of Christ. Of course we should not forget that model wife in Judges who in 1296 BC drove a nail into the temple of her husband while he was asleep, “so he died.” (Thelma and Louise where is your imagination?)

    Exactly what do we mean when we refer to nail sizes by “penny?” You’re in good company if you have no idea.

    With 2,200 varieties of nails being manufactured today and everyone using them from the hobbyist to the professional builder, one would think, if it is such a good idea, that somebody would know what the term “penny” means and who started it. At long last an answer to the question you never asked.

    The term “penny”, as it refers to nails, is thought to have originated in medieval England to describe the price of 100 nails. (e.g. 100 3-1/2” nails would cost 16 pence, while 100 2-1/2” nails could be bought for 6 pence.) This system of classifying nails by size according to price was in place by 1477 AD. The letter “d”, which means penny, stands for the Latin name given to Roman Coins, Denarius.

    The size of the nail is determined by measuring its length. Nails start at 2d, which is 1” in length, and range up to 60d which is 6” in length. From 2d to 16d the penny length increases by quarter inches. Above 16d, the size increases by half inches. Nails longer than 60d or shorter than 2d are described in inches or fractions thereof.

    Just prior to the American Revolution, England was the largest manufacturer of nails in the world. Nails were virtually impossible to obtain in the American Colonies so it was quite common for families to have a small nail manufacturing setup in their homes by the fireplace. During bad weather and at night, entire families made nails not only for their own use but also for barter.

    This was not a practice restricted to the lower classes, Thomas Jefferson was quite proud of his hand made nails. In a letter he wrote, “In our private pursuits it is a great advantage that every honest employment is deemed honorable. I am myself a nail maker.” From the president to the pioneer, nail making was an important facet of life. Jefferson was among the first to purchase the newly invented nail-cutting machine in 1796 and produce nails for sale.

    Such value was placed on nails that it was common practice, when moving, to burn one’s home in order to retrieve them.

    The invention of the nail cutting machine rapidly put the United States in front in the manufacturing of nails and has lead the world ever since.

    In the 1850’s several manufactures were established in New York which made wire nails. These machines were most likely imported from France. The earliest wire nails were not made for construction but for the manufacture of pocket book frames and cigar boxes. It was not until after the American War Between the States that wire nails began to gain acceptance in construction. Even through the 1890’s many builders preferred using cut nails because of their holding power. It was well into the twentieth century before wire nails became the dominate type and only then because they were so much cheaper.

    It is because of the tremendous holding power and hardness that cut nails are still used today for specific functions such as flooring nails, boat nails and masonry nails.

    The Tremont Nail Company of Wareham, Massachusetts was established in 1819 and has manufactured cut nails continuously under several owners and names ever since. This company, now owned by Maze Nails, still makes 20 different types of cut nails with 100 year old machines. Their nails are still packaged in 100 # wooden kegs.

    Did you know that the holding power of common nails drops by half within two days after being driven? After about a month the holding power will increase slightly as the wood fibers straighten out and grip the nail.

    Cement coated nails hold more securely than common nails but wet wood will loosen the cement coating in a matter of days. Threaded or ring shank nails loose their holding power when subjected to sudden pressure (e.g. staircases) which can cause a thread to pop with each shock. Therefore a twist or spiral shank nail will have the best holding power. 


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