Nail History Notes

In modern days of salvaged wood and treasured timbers, it's difficult to imagine that nails once held more value than the lumber they connected. Yet stories are told of American settlers' torching abandoned buildings so they could sift through the ashes and reclaim the nails for their next homestead.

In the pioneers' economy, trees were plentiful; metal fasteners were not. Because of the scarcity of nails, carpenters and woodworkers often employed other joinery methods such as mortises and tenons, pegs or dovetails. Those methods now seem painstakingly slow, but making nails was at least as arduous. Early-18th-century methods of forming nails had not changed since the first forgings around 3000 BC. Blacksmithing specialists called nailors heated iron and formed square rods; then they cut them into various lengths and pounded each one to form a point at one end and a domed or bent head at the other.

Helping to shape ancient civilizations, the mighty nail secured shelters, ships and fortresses. During the first century AD, the Romans built Fort Inchtuthil, near Scotland, in which they forged (and stored) seven tons of nails. Around 90 AD, the legion was called to another post, forcing it to abandon the fort. The nails (ranging from 2 to 16 in. long) could not be hauled away or burned, so to keep the precious metal from enemy hands, the soldiers buried their steel stash. It remained hidden until archeologists discovered it in 1961.


The shape of a nail indicates how (and when) it was made: Wrought (pounded) nails taper on four sides.


A cut nail tapers on two sides and is flat on the opposing two sides. When aligned with the wood grain, the cut nail does not split wood fibers (unlike the wire nails commonly sold today).

The first big change in nail production came with the 1786 invention of a nail-making machine. New England inventor Ezekiel Reed devised a machine that cut steel bands (in varying widths, depending on the intended nail length) into narrow wedges and then bent or flattened the wide end to form the nail's head. One machine could turn out 200,000 pieces in a day, making nails much more affordable and readily available. However, it was the invention of wire nails in 1851 that altered the pace and practice of carpentry and construction. Today's machinery produces more than 1,000 common wire nails in a minute.


This nail-making machine, invented during the late 1700s, could cut the nail forms and shape the heads of the nails. The Tremont Nail Co. in Mansfield, Massachusetts, continues to make authentic cut nails that are appreciated by hardware purists and restorers of antique buildings and furniture.

Because there are three distinct phases of nail making methods (hand-wrought, machine-cut and wire) defined by specific time periods, nails give clues to the past. And because they outlast wood and most other building materials, these little artifacts have preserved history. As small and simple as it is, the basic metal nail holds profound significance as a game-changing, world-shaping tool.

A thought for your pennies
Nail sizes have been defined in penny units since Middle 15th-Century England, when the cost (in pence) for 100 nails was calculated according to the size of the nail. In defiance of inflation, we still refer to a 1-in. nail as a two-penny nail, a 2-in. nail as a six-penny nail – and so on, up to a 4-in., 20-penny nail.