Nail (fastener)

A pile of nails
Classification fastener
Used with wood, concrete

In woodworking and construction, a nail is a pin-shaped object of metal (or wood, called a treenail or "trunnel") which is used as a fastener, as a peg to hang something, or sometimes as a decoration.[1] Generally nails have a sharp point on one end and a flattened head on the other, but headless nails are available. Nails are made in a great variety of forms for specialized purposes. The most common is a wire nail. Other types of nails include pins, tacks, brads, and spikes.

Nails are typically driven into the workpiece by a hammer, a pneumatic nail gun, or a small explosive charge or primer. A nail holds materials together by friction in the axial direction and shear strength laterally. The point of the nail is also sometimes bent over or clinched after driving to prevent pulling out.


Nails can be hammered or shot into materials such as wood.

The history of the nail is divided roughly into three distinct periods:

Forged nails

Boat nail production in Hainan, China

To make a wrought-iron nail, iron ore is heated with carbon (to create wrought iron) and shaped into square rods. To make a nail, a blacksmith heats the rod in a forge and tapers the end of the bar while keeping the cross section square. Next, the smith cuts off the taper, and inserts it into a nail heading tool with a square hole. The top of the taper is hammered downward (upset) to form a head.

Nails date back at least to Ancient Egypt bronze nails found in Egypt have been dated 3400 BC.[2][3] The Bible provides a number of references to nails, including the story in Judges of Jael the wife of Heber, who drives a nail (or tent-peg) into the temple of a sleeping Canaanite commander;[4] the provision of iron for nails by King David for what would become Solomon's Temple;[5] and in connection with the crucifixion of Christ.

The Romans made extensive use of nails. The Roman army, for example, left behind seven tons of nails when it evacuated the fortress of Inchtuthil in Perthshire in the United Kingdom in 86 or 87 CE.

The term "penny", as it refers to nails, probably originated in medieval England to describe the price of a hundred nails. Nails themselves were sufficiently valuable and standardized to be used as an informal medium of exchange.

Until around 1800 artisans known as nailers or nailors made nails by hand – note the surname Naylor.[6] (Workmen called slitters cut up iron bars to a suitable size for nailers to work on. From the late 16th century, manual slitters disappeared with the rise of the slitting mill, which cut bars of iron into rods with an even cross-section, saving much manual effort.)

At the time of the American Revolution, England was the largest manufacturer of nails in the world. Nails were expensive and difficult to obtain in the American colonies, so that abandoned houses were sometimes deliberately burned down to allow recovery of used nails from the ashes. Families often had small nail-manufacturing setups in their homes; during bad weather and at night, the entire family might work at making nails for their own use and for barter. Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter: "In our private pursuits it is a great advantage that every honest employment is deemed honorable. I am myself a nail maker."[7] The growth of the trade in the American colonies was theoretically held back by the prohibition of new slitting mills in America by the Iron Act of 1750, though there is no evidence that the Act was actually enforced.

The production of wrought-iron nails continued well into the 19th century, but ultimately was reduced to nails for purposes for which the softer cut nails were unsuitable, including horseshoe nails.

Cut nails

Originally, nails were handmade, and the nail-making process was slow; nails were relatively few and expensive. This naturally produced a desire to create machines to speed up and automate the nail-making process. The slitting mill, introduced to England in 1590, simplified the production of nail rods, but the real first efforts to mechanise the nail-making process itself occurred between 1790 and 1820, initially in the United States and England, when various machines were invented to automate and speed up the process of making nails from bars of wrought iron. These nails were known as cut nails or square nails because of their roughly rectangular cross section. Cut nails were one of the important factors in the increase in balloon framing beginning in the 1830s and thus the decline of timber framing with wooden joints.[8] Though still used for historical renovations, and for heavy-duty applications, such as attaching boards to masonry walls, cut nails are much less common today than wire nails.

The cut-nail process was patented in America by Jacob Perkins in 1795 and in England by Joseph Dyer, who set up machinery in Birmingham. The process was designed to cut nails from sheets of iron, while making sure that the fibres of the iron ran down the nails. The Birmingham industry expanded in the following decades, and reached its greatest extent in the 1860s, after which it declined due to competition from wire nails, but continued until the outbreak of World War I.[9]

Wire nails

As the name implies, wire nails are formed from wire. Usually coils of wire are drawn through a series of dies to reach a specific diameter, then cut into short rods that are then formed into nails. The nail tip is usually cut by a blade; the head is formed by reshaping the other end of the rod under high pressure. Other dies are used to cut grooves and ridges. Wire nails were also known as "French nails" for their country of origin.[10] Belgian wire nails began to compete in England in 1863. Joseph Henry Nettlefold was making wire nails at Smethwick by 1875.[11] Over the following decades, the nail-making process was almost completely automated. Eventually the industry had machines capable of quickly producing huge numbers of inexpensive nails with little or no human intervention.[12]

With the introduction of cheap wire nails, the use of wrought iron for nail making quickly declined, as more slowly did the production of cut nails. In the United States, in 1892 more steel-wire nails were produced than cut nails. In 1913, 90% of manufactured nails were wire nails. Nails went from being rare and precious to being a cheap mass-produced commodity. Today almost all nails are manufactured from wire, but the term "wire nail" has come to refer to smaller nails, often available in a wider, more precise range of gauges than is typical for larger common and finish nails.


Formerly made of bronze or wrought iron, today's nails are typically made of steel, often dipped or coated to prevent corrosion in harsh conditions or to improve adhesion. Ordinary nails for wood are usually of a soft, low-carbon or "mild" steel (about 0.1% carbon, the rest iron and perhaps a trace of silicon or manganese). Nails for concrete are harder, with 0.5–0.75% carbon.


Different types of nails: 1) Roofing nail, 2) Umbrella head roofing nail, 3) Brass escutcheon pin, 4) Finish nail, 5) Concrete nail, 6) Spiral-shank nail, and 7) Ring-shank nail (the barbs are a leftover component of the feed system of a nail gun)
Horseshoe nails
Nail-maker's work-bench or anvil in a storeroom of the Black Country Living Museum
Railroad spikes of the old Jezreel Valley railway (part of the Hejaz Railway), found near Kfar Baruch (Israel).

Types of nail include:


Most countries, except the United States, use a metric system for describing nail sizes. A 50 × 3.0 indicates a nail 50 mm long (not including the head) and 3 mm in diameter. Lengths are rounded to the nearest millimetre.

For example, finishing nail* sizes typically available from German suppliers are:

Length Diameter
mm mm
20 1.2
25 1.4
30 1.6
35 1.6
35 1.8
40 2.0
45 2.2
50 2.2
55 2.2
55 2.5
60 2.5
60 2.8
65 2.8
65 3.1
70 3.1
80 3.1
80 3.4
90 3.4
90 3.8
100 3.8
100 4.2
110 4.2
120 4.2
130 4.6
140 5.5
160 5.5
180 6.0
210 7.0

United States penny sizes

Main article: Penny (unit)

In the United States, the length of a nail is designated by its penny size.


The Iron Roland of Mannheim (1915)

Artistic use

Nails have been used in art, such as the Nail Men – a form of fundraising common in Germany and Austria during World War I.

Before the 1850s bocce and pétanque boules were wooden balls, sometimes partially reinforced with hand-forged nails. When cheap, plentiful machine-made nails became available, manufacturers began to produce the boule cloutée — a wooden core studded with nails to create an all-metal surface. Nails of different metals and colors (steel, brass, and copper) were used to create a wide variety of designs and patterns. Some of the old boules cloutées are genuine works of art and valued collectors items.

Once nails became cheap and widely available, they were often used in folk art and outsider art as a method of decorating a surface with metallic studs. Another common artistic use is the construction of sculpture from welded or brazed nails.

nail beds

See also


  1. Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0) Oxford University Press 2009. Nail II. 4. a.
  4. Bible, Judges 4:21: "Then Jael Heber's wife took a nail of the tent, and took an hammer in her hand, and went softly unto him, and smote the nail into his temples, and fastened it into the ground: for he was fast asleep and weary. So he died."
  5. Bible, 1 Chronicles 22:3: "And David prepared iron in abundance for the nails for the doors of the gates, and for the joinings; and brass in abundance without weight[.]
  6. Hanks, Patrick; Hodges, Flavia (1988). A dictionary of surnames. Oxford: Oxford university Press. p. 384. ISBN 0192115928. Naylor [...]: occupational name for a maker of nails [...].
  8. Kirby, Richard Shelton. Engineering in history. 1956. Reprint. New York: Dover Publications, 1990. 325. ISBN 0486264122
  9. G. Sjögren, The rise and decline of the Birmingham cut-nail trade, c. 1811–1914, Midland History 38(1) (2013), 36–57.
  10. Notes on building construction arranged to meet the requirements of the syllabus of the Science & Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education, South Kensington. Eds 1–8. ed. London: Rivingtons, 1875,1915. 441.
  11. G. Sjögren, 54–5.
  12. "A New English Nail Machine". Hardware. 7 Feb 1890. Retrieved 19 April 2013.
  13. Brad def. 1. Whitney, William Dwight, and Benjamin E. Smith. The Century dictionary and cyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Century Co., 1901. 654–655. Print.
  14. Brad def. 1. Davies, Nikolas, and Erkki Jokiniemi. Architect's illustrated pocket dictionary. Oxford: Architectural Press, 2011. 56. Print.
  15. Tack def. 1. Whitney, William Dwight, and Benjamin E. Smith. The Century dictionary and cyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Century Co., 1901. 6153. Print.
  16. Sprig. Def. 1. Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0) © Oxford University Press 2009
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