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Square Nails

February 8, 2016


 So I like Kijiji....well...I love it! It sure saves a lot of time driving around to garage sales, yard sales, flea markets and such like. Not only that: the search engine is phenom. So....suffice it to say: I am hooked to online classified ads.













So one day I started looking at barrels for my re-enactment camp sites, and lo and behold: I found these....barrels of square nails! The story that follows comes from some of my research of the fascinating company that made them, and the many many years (over a century) they stayed safe in a Barn in Northern Alberta! Now I am the proud curator of this little piece of history!


I believe everyone is a little familiar with the square nail. You may have seen one hammered out by a blacksmith at a history village, or in a camp with some re-enactment troupe...or in a barn door somewhere. 


However...what many may NOT know, is that the square nail was and still IS superior in design to the round wire nails with  several times the holding power and also being less likely to split the wood it's being driven into!


I thought I possesed the last barrel in history! I was the unexpected curator of the last 60 thousand square nails ever produced by a defunct company in 1929 when they shut their doors.......but I was wrong! There is still a company TODAY producing these very same nails, using the very same machine over 150 years old!!! And they still sell them in bulk orders at a reasonable price, considering the labour intensive process to make them! Lee Valley tools actually sells these nails, but at a very high price: $15 a pound! 


 Wire nails stopped the common framer from using square nails, as they were much cheaper to buy!

Different alloys started being used, to cheapen the price even further, and coatings stopped the nails from rusting, and this became a very popular desgn feature!



Left: comparing the two  nails on a viking table I am making! Which one is prettier?

A 3.5″ (16 penny, or 16d) square-cut bright common nail and it’s equivalent wire nail cousin. This 16d square-cut common nail costs about 17 cents, while the wire nail goes for about 7 cents, based on the Tremont catalog and my local Home Depot, respectively. The square nail is about 2.4 times as expensive as the wire nail, but is estimated to have about 4 times the holding power. Interestingly enough, in terms of the old penny weight costing system, either nail would’ve cost about 0.2 cents a piece back in the old days, albeit in Colonial pennies, not modern mint pennies. Colonial pennies were actually made of 100% copper!



                                                                                        The nails below were found in a roof on                                                                                                       our farm.

                                                                                        Estimated date is 1869!!

Hand-forged iron nails predate the ancient Romans, and the basic form of the modern wrought square nail was developed in sixteenth century Europe. When the first settlers began arriving in the New World in the early seventeenth century, they brought large quantities of wrought nails with them. Nail making was never done on a very large scale in the American colonies, as nails were primarily imported from England, right up until the Revolution.


 Can you imagine?? Boat loads of hand wrought nails travelling thousands of miles by sea to a new colony to help build North America! And those nails are still holding some of it together! (There is a metaphor in there somewhere) Here is a great link to the History of the Nail!  http://www.glasgowsteelnail.com/nailmaking.htm



Two 2.5″ (8d) square-cut iron nails I extracted

from a door jamb, causing an oyster shell to

break free from surrounding plaster

(oyster shells were used as thickeners in

early plaster walls).










Around the 1790’s, American inventors had prototyped the first nail making machines, which produced square-cut nails by cutting them from iron rods. And by the early 1820’s, nail-making machines had become so efficient that America soon became the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of nails.


Square-cut nails are fundamentally superior to modern wire nails because of their superior holding power. If you’ve ever attempted to extract a square-cut nail from a board, you know what I’m talking about. They hold so tenaciously that you’ll often break the board or the nail itself before removing it. The reason for this is the shape of the shank, which usually tapers on two opposite sides from head to tip, resulting in a point that is chisel-shaped. The four edges of the shank also tend to be very sharp. When driven with the correct orientation (non-tapered sides parallel to the grain), the tip and edges shear the wood fibers rather than push them apart as wire nails do, and the shank finally wedges itself tightly into the wood. Because of their shearing ability, square-cut nails tend not to split wood, and can be used closer to the edge or end of a board than a wire nail. Viking furniture found in grave sites lend credence to this ability.


Modern square-cut steel nails by Tremont Nail Company. From left to right: 4″ (20d) cut-spike (HDG), 3.5″ (16d) cut-spike (HDG), 3.5″ common, 2.5″ (8d) fireboard clinch (HDG), 2″ (6d) rosehead common, 2″ wrought nail, 1.5″ (4d) wrought nail, 1″ (2d) wrought nail, 1″ brad, and 1″ headless brad (for fine finishing) (HDG=hot dip galvanized)




Modern wire nails were invented in the late nineteenth century, when improved industrial processes simplified the formation of round wire rods from soft steel. Nailing machines were then retooled to cut nails from less expensive round wire. The cheaper, mass produced cut-wire nail met with instant market success during Canada’s westward expansion, and it forced the manufacturing of square-cut iron nails into eclipse. Today, wrought square nails are still used in historical restoration projects, and can be obtained directly from blacksmiths or ordered through primitive hardware suppliers. Also, many of the larger living history museums, such as Colonial Willamsburg, maintain their own blacksmith shops that supply their sites with historically accurate, forged nails. Roy Underhill in his incredible series The Wood Wright Shop shows this in a few episodes!





Simple wood floor mock-up I created using 2x4s and oak scants of different widths. I’ll often build simple prototypes like this to experiment with different combinations of wood species, stain, and nail types. In this particular one, I am comparing common rosehead nails (first three boards, left to right) and wrought nails (fourth and fifth boards on the right).


(I have yet to apply any stain to these boards). I’m not sure I like the look of the roseheads when face nailed — I think they would look better counter sunk. We’ll try that next…) The wrought nails look much better for face nailing in oak, in my opinion. We’ll have to see how they look with different stains and an Danish oil overcoat.




Square-cut nails, on the other hand, are still available from the Tremont Nail Company, of Mansfield, Massachusetts. Tremont, which today is a division of Acorn Manufacturing, was founded in 1819 in response to the Federal Period demand for low-cost nail production. It is the only remaining American nail company producing square-cut nails. Today, Tremont makes square-cut nails out of steel, rather than iron, with their common nails being made from hardened, high-carbon steel. They even offer hot-dipped galvanized versions of their nails for outdoor applications. But the truly amazing thing about Tremont is that they still use their own vintage nail-cutting machines, which date back to the 1850s. Over the years, they’ve managed to keep these machines running by fabricating replacement parts when necessary.


Three rare articles I found describing the end of the hand-made nail making trade.




So these reproduction nails are hardly reproductions at all. Harder and stronger than iron, they are more of a generational advancement in square-cut nail technology, rather than simply copies of historic artifacts. I have since ordered 50 pounds of these beautiful pieces of history! I intend to be making a viking village soon, and need all the nails I can get! Doors, floors and tables will be adorned with these fabulous nails! Because of the time consuming process, it makes sence to order the nails pre made. However, as we teach blacksmithing, I think that students will appreciate and like the feeling of making their own hardware! In Roy's episode on nailmaking, I believe the blacksmith apprentice could make 600 nails a day! I think that is very impressive!


So, the next time you’re touring an historic home or viking settlement museum, keep in mind the old adage that a wooden structure is only as strong as its fasteners, and you may more fully understand just why some of these old buildings are still standing. The construction techniques of our forebears were not necessarily inferior to our own. Some were actually better, only succumbing in the end to that ages-old practice of trading utility off in favor of reducing costs.

 Tremont Nail company tour...Enjoy!



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