In 1900, Frederick and Harriett Pigott built “Persimmon Hill”, their two-story, Victorian-style house [A] at Dola, WV. The collection of cut nails that you see above were used in its construction. The house was renovated in 1995, and carpenters Jim and Hank Carder saved the nails and made the above display.
The woodwork in the Victorian-style [A] house was intricate. Why else would a carpenter need 17 different-sized nails ranging from 4″ to 3/4″ in length with different heads? The house is wood-framed with wood flooring and sub-flooring throughout. “Shiplap” wood siding covered the exterior. The original roof was covered with slate tiles. The interior stairway is curved with wood paneling. Though lacking traditional “gingerbread” trim, the fascia is adorned with scalloped escutcheons. The largest nails were used for framing. At the time, dimension lumber (2 x 4, 2 x 6, etc.) measured the full dimension. An estimated 15,000 nails were used in building this house.
[A] “[…] Victorian is not a style, it was an era. It was named as such for HM Queen Victoria of England who reigned from 1836 – 1901. …[T]he house’s style is called Italianate which ran from roughly the 1840’s though about the turn of the century.” From Jeremiah B. Huson, Associate AIA, AWS; Blacksmith/ Designer.
Photo: Persimmon Hill, ca. 1920. Pictured are Carl and Ina Pigott and their son, Frederick Pigott, Jr.
Hand-forged nails were the first manufactured nails, and they date back to Biblical times. As people first used hewn beams, timbers, planks, and whole logs to build with, the early hand-made nails were spikes. With the development of the split wood shingle, nails of about 1″ long came into use. When sawyers, and then sawmills, began cutting dimension lumber, the sizes and varieties of nails greatly expanded. Thus, over time, nails developed in different sizes, shapes, and used different heads to fasten lumber and wood.
Nails have always been in demand. Some blacksmiths made only nails and they were called “Nailers.” Nails were so scarce (and expensive) in pre-1850 America that people would burn dilapidated buildings just to sift the ashes for nails. They did so because pulling the nails would have damaged most of them. After the nails were recovered, a blacksmith could easily straighten any nails that had been bent during construction.
We still use the term “penny” when referring to a nail’s size. It is believed that this term came into use in the early 1600’s in England. The English monetary unit was the Pound Sterling ( £ ) which was divided into Shillings and Pence. The cost of 100 nails in Pence in the 1600’s is how we refer to nail sizes to this day. For example, 100 small nails that sold for 4 pence were called 4d nails (4 d is the abbreviation of 4 pence). 100 larger nails that sold for 16 pence are 16d nails. And so on.
Setting the price of nails did not standardize their size. But it is apparent that the price of nails was constant, or near constant, for a long period of time, and thus, led to standard sizes as a result. For quite some time, nails have been sold by the pound–usually 1 lb. and 5 lb. boxes for small finishing and specialty nails and 50 lb. cartons for framing nails such as 8d and 16d. Nails are also sold by keg weight.
The cut nail made its appearance in the mid-1700’s. For example, Thomas Jefferson established a nail factory at his Monticello plantation as a way to increase his farm income. His nail factory made both hand-forged and cut nails. It would not be until the middle-1800’s that cut nails began dominating the marketplace. Cut nails are not actually “cut”–they are sheared from steel plate that is the thickness of the nail shank. Although routinely referred to as “square nails”, the cutting machine tapers the nail shank as it is sheared from the steel plate. A second machine forms the head of a cut nail. The square nails in the above photograph are made in this manner. With the hand-forged nail, all four sides are tapered. With the cut nail, two sides are parallel because they represent the thickness of the plate they were sheared from.
Cut nails could be manufactured much faster than hand-forged nails. As the process was mechanized, the cost per nail was less. However, cut nail factories employed operators and attendants for each machine so the process was still labor-intensive. The noise in those mills was deafening as well. Cut nails had their heyday from about 1820 (development of the Type B nail) to 1910, the advent of the wire nail.
Wire nails are round. Steel wire is fed into a machine that grips the wire, cuts it, makes the head, and chisels the point, all in one operation. This process is totally mechanized, requiring only someone to turn the machine on and off. Wire nail machines can make thousands of nails per minute.
Wire nails have all but replaced the cut nail. Cut nails are still used but mainly for restoration and masonry work. Though wire nails are cheaper to produce, the cut nail has a holding power of approximately four times to its modern, round cousin. Compared on that basis, cut nails win the day easily.
In modern construction, more and more nail-driving is being done with air-operated nail guns. Nails of nearly all sizes are available. However, since the air nailing gun is large and cumbersome, it is most often used to fasten sheathing, such as plywood, to the framing. The nails are prepared to fit in the air gun’s clip or nail sleeve (much like a stapler and the way staples are loaded) and are driven one-at-a-time. The air gun nail resembles the cut nail of old with the exception that the head is “T”-shaped rather than battened on all four sides.
You can learn more about hand-forged nails and machine-made nails in Part 4 of Antebellum Ironworks at this website.
 Regarding the burning of buildings to recover nails, Bobby Floyd of the Old Dominion Blacksmiths Association submitted this Act of Virginia’s House of Burgesses passed in 1645.
“And it is further enacted by the authoritie aforesaid, That it shall not be lawfull for any person so deserting his plantation as afore said to burne any necessary houseing that are scituated therevpon, but shall receive so many nailes as may be computed by 2 indifferent men were expended bout the building thereof for full satisfaction, reservinge to the King all such rent as did accrew by vertue of the former grants or planting of the same from the expiration of the first seaven years.” [This law is further described as: Persons deserting their plantations not to burn the houses, & to receive as many nails as were expended in building it.] See this webpage for the House of Burgesses Acts — http://www.vagenweb.org/hening/vol01-12.htm#page_291
 Regarding the use of “penny” in naming nail sizes, William Steinman, a woodworker from Kentucky, relates this information (July 23, 2008):
“I was doing some reading yesterday, and my copy of “Audels Carpenters and Builders Guide” (My copy is a second edition, copyrighted 1923, re-printed in 1937) on page 29 says this about the “penny” system:
“The ‘Penny’ System.- This method of designating nails originated in England. Two explanations are offered as to how this curious designation came about.
“One is that the six penny, four penny, ten penny, etc., nails derived their names from the fact that one hundred cost six pence, four pence, etc.
“The other explanation, which is the more probable, is that one thousand ten penny nails, for instance, weighed ten pounds. The ancient as well as modern abbreviation for penny is d, being the first letter of the Roman coin denarius; the same abbreviation in early history was used for then english [sic] pound in weight. The word penny has persisted as a term in the nail industry.”
(Editor’s note:) Another source for the English designation of “penny” is found at Glasgow Steel Nail Ltd.’s website. See their history section for information on nails and about Roman-era nails founds in Scotland. Glasgow Steel Nail Ltd. www.glasgowsteelnail.com
Nail manufacturing at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello http://www.monticello.org/plantation/work/nailmaking.html
Nail Industry at “Nail City”–Wheeling, WV http://wheeling.weirton.lib.wv.us/history/bus/nails.htm
Glasgow Steel Nail Ltd. www.glasgowsteelnail.com
By Dave Allen, Editor, Appalachian Blacksmiths Assn.
References for historical research.
Courtesy of Bobby Floyd, President/Editor of the Old Dominion Blacksmiths Assn.. Mr. Floyd is writing “The Ghosts Are Talking”, the story of how he identified the date of his historic Virginia home. He says, “You can identify the dates of most cut nails from 1790 up to 1835. There were a lot of changes in the process of making these cut nails and they can be identified in the nail.”
Bear, James A., Jr.; 1957-58; Mr. Jefferson’s Nails. The Magazine of Albemarle County History, 16:47-53
Betts, Edwin Morris; 1999; Thomas Jefferson Farm Book. Published by Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Inc.
Condit, Carl W.; American Building: Material and Technology from the First Colonial Settlements to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Edwards, Jay D.; 1993; Historic Louisiana Nails: Aid to the Dating of Old Buildings. Geoscience Publications.
Keene, John T.; 1972; The Nail Making Industry in Early Virginia. The Chronicle of Early American Industries, 25 (1): 759-67
Knopf, Alfred A; 1972; A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America.
Lounsbury, Carl R.; 1999; An Illustrated Glossary of Early Southern Architecture and Landscape. University Press of Virginia, Prepared at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
Mercer, Henry C., 2000; Ancient Carpenters’ Tools. Dover Publications, Inc.
Nelson, Lee H.; 1963; Nail Chronology as an aid to Dating Old Buildings. History News (Madison) 19(2)
Nelson, Lee H.; 1968; Nail Chronology as an Aid to Dating Old Buildings. Nashville: American Association for State and Local History, technical leaflet No. 48.
Noel Hume, Ivor; 1972; A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Stuff, Steve; 2003; Real Wrought Iron Company. Personal correspondence, in author’s (Floyd) possession.
Topp, Chris; 2003; Real Wrought Iron Company. Company literature. www.realwroughtiron.com
Wells, Tom; 1993; Historic Louisiana Nails: Aids to the Dating of Old Buildings. Geoscience Publications.
Wilbur, Keith C.; 1992; Home Building and Woodworking. The Globe Pequot Press.
“Dead as a Doornail” is a phrase that comes from the “dead nail”.
A dead nail was one whose tip was clenched back into the wood. This was a common way to fasten door and gate hinges to prevent the nails from working loose.
Info courtesy of Blacksmiths Guild of the Potomac newsletter.
World’s Smallest Nail