Cut nail head detail © Daniel Friedman History & Photo Examples of Nails
Nails or Screws as Indicators of Building Age

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Building hardware age: door & window hardware, knobs, latches, hinges, & screws & nails.

This article describes and illustrates antique & modern hardware: door knobs, latches, hinges, window latches, hardware, nails & screws can help determine a building's age by noting how those parts were fabricated: by hand, by machine, by later generations of machine. The history, number and types of nails is both interesting and enormous, even if we confine our discussion to just those used in the construction of buildings. We continue to add examples and photographs here and welcome readers to CONTACT US with contributions or suggestions.

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History of Nails & Building Hardware - Nail Photographs & Nails as Indicators of Building Age

A close observation of the type of fasteners used in a building is one of the most popular means of estimating its age. Hand wrought nails, machine cut nails, modern round "wire" nails and other details offer considerable information about the time of original construction of a building as well as of the time of modifications to the structure.

Other framing material & hardware details can assist in determining building age. An examination of nails and fasteners and other building hardware is a complimentary effort useful in determining the age of a building and its components.

Hand wrought iron spike pre-1830 © Daniel Friedman 3-inch cut nail spike made by the Tremont Nail Co. © Daniel Friedman

At above left and detailed further below was hand-made in the Northeastern U.S. before 1800 but could be still earlier. At above right is a machine-made 3-inch cut nail spike produced by Tremont. Below are additional photographs of all four sides of this nail. [Click to enlarge any image.]

Tremont nail co cut nail spike detail © Daniel Friedman Tremont nail co cut nail spike detail © Daniel Friedman Tremont nail co cut nail spike detail © Daniel Friedman Tremont nail co cut nail spike detail © Daniel Friedman

Cut nail head detail © Daniel FriedmanAt left is a close-up of the head of the cut nail spike described just above. This view is important since if you are examining a completed structure, the nail head may be about all you can see of the fastener.

The Mansfield, Massachusetts Tremont Nail company's historical notes indicate that nails have been made (by hand) dating back to 300 B.C. Tremont further explains that in North America nails were made by hand, often as a winter activity. But the first nail making machines appeared during the late 1700's - earlier than one might have guessed.

Ezekiel Reed from Bridgewater Massachusetts developed the first machine that could cut a nail including its head in one operation. The Parker Mills nail company was built in 1819 on the original site of the Parker Mills cotton mill that had been burned by the British during the War of 1812. The Parker Mills nail company became the Tremont Nail company that continues to produce traditional machine-made "cut nails" today. [1]

The development of machine made nails that could be produced in high volume was critical to this change in construction methods. But even in the 1930's and 40's nails were a meaningful cost of construction. When our friend Paul Galow worked as an assistant to his uncle who built homes in Pennsylvania in the 1930's and 40's, his job was to salvage nails and hammer each bent one straight. Nails cost more than his labor.

Here are some close-up details of the hand wrought spike we introduced earlier. Compare these details to the machine made nail photographs throughout this article.

Hand wrought iron spike pre-1830 © Daniel Friedman Hand wrought iron spike pre-1830 © Daniel Friedman

Just above are details of the hand-wrought iron spike-nail that we retrieved from a post and beam structure framed before 1830 in New York's Hudson Valley. A close examination of iron nails and spikes can quickly indicate whether the fastener was hand wrought or machine made, both by the irregularity of surfaces of the hand wrought nails and the presence of die-cut stamping marks on machine made nails.

Even most reproduction nails that simulate hand-wrought fasteners will show regularity: the same simulated-hand-hammered head will appear on every nail, and you may observe the straight--edged raised rib of die cut nails made by machine.

Cut nail, shingle style, Tremont Nail Co. © Daniel Friedman Cut nail head, wrought style, Tremont Nail Co © Daniel Friedman

Tremont Nail Company continues to manufacture reproduction nails which in appearance are quite like those made by hand more than 100 years ago. Tremont supplies restoration contractors and others working on historic buildings and for historians, Tremont offers a reference set of old fasteners. [1] At above left is a machine cut shingle nail head and at above right a "hand wrought style" machine made cut nail, both produced by Tremont.

PHOTO of a steel clout nail from Tremont Nail Company.Shown at left is Tremont's standard Clout Nail: Similar in design to Shingle Nails, but made from lighter gauge steel. this nail was (and is) used for the application of thin siding and paneling. It was and is also used for furniture repair, cabinet work, batten doors and counter tops. (Photo courtesy Tremont Nail Company).

Below, using a Tremont machine-made boat nail as an example we illustrate the sharp edge profile (below left) and the line left along the shank of the cut nail by the stamping machine (below right) that characterizes machine made "cut nails" appearing in widespread use as early as the 1830's in the Northeaster U.S. and appearing later in other locations.

Machine made cut nail from the Tremont nail company, head profile of a boat nail © Daniel Friedman Machine made cut nail from the Tremont nail company, head profile of a boat nail © Daniel Friedman


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