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Cut nail head detail © Daniel Friedman History & Photo of Nails
Age of Antique Nails & Cut Nails Indicate Building Age

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Antique & modern Nails, including wood treenails, hand-wrought nails, cut nails, wire nails, compared.

Here we describe antique and modern cut nails focusing on tree nails, wrought nails, and cut nails used in wood frame construction or interior finishing or carpentry work.

We include useful dates for the manufacture of different nail types.

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.

This article series 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.

We also provide a MASTER INDEX to this topic, or you can try the page top or bottom SEARCH BOX as a quick way to find information you need.

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

Hand wrought iron spike pre-1830 © Daniel FriedmanAs a carpenter’s nails are divided into wrought nails and cut nails; so mankind may be similarly divided. Little Flask was one of the wrought ones; made to clinch tight and last long. - Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

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.

[Click to enlarge any image]

A close observation of the type of fasteners used in a building is one of the most popular means of estimating its age.

The three types of nails found in North American construction include hand wrought nails, machine cut nails, modern round "wire" nails.

Nelson (NPS) and other nail chronologists point out, however that a wealth other details can describe the date of production and use of each of those three general nail types. In turn, nail details can establish the time of original construction of a building and the time of modifications to the structure.

In addition to nails, building material, wood saw cut marks, and other hardware details can further assist in determining building age.

The nail shown above in the photo and detailed further below was hand-made in the Northeastern U.S. before 1800 but could be still earlier.

To provide a chronology of the production and types of nails we first describe wooden nails or "tree nails" followed by a chronological list of useful dates for iron nails.

Wooden nails - Tree Nails or Treenails, Post & Beam Construction

Post and beam connection detail in a barn in Wappingers Falls NY (C) Daniel FriedmanAt AGE of a BUILDING, HOW to DETERMINE we note the following:

Post and beam construction (1700 - est. in North America): (timber framing) uses horizontal and vertical timbers that are connected (joined) using mortise and tenon joints pinned with wood pegs (treenails).

Timber frame construction initially used hand hewn beams, later manually or mechanically sawn beams cut by a pit saw. Later timber frame beams were sawn in mills using circular saws.

Timber framing using post and beam construction with mortise and tenon joint connections was used in Europe for at least 500 years before it was first employed in North America.

In our photo you can see the round sawn-off peg that secured the tenon of the lower vertical post into the mortise that had been cut into the horizontal beam.

The posts and beams were cut to size, mortises and tenons were cut, and the builders marked the corresponding joint components with numbers or letters - in my photo you can see the

I I I I

and
_
_
_
_

stamped into both the vertical post and horizontal beam to aid in assembly.

Below you can see the Treenail joining two rafters at the ridge of this 1790 home near Poughkeepsie New York.

Roof framing 1790 © Daniel Friedman at InspectApedia.com

By 1650 a typical timber frame building used multiple bents and girt beams, may have been more than one story tall, and included an exterior made of horsehair-reinforced cement stuccoed over hand-split lath.

More examples of uses of wooden pegs or treenails are at

Below is a machine-made 3-inch cut nail spike produced by Tremont Nail Co.

A Tacky Little History of Iron Nails

Antique headless nail, probably a sprig nail (C) InspectApedia.com AngieNail Head & Nail Body Details Help Set Nail Age

Photo: sprites, small headless hand-wrought nails, discussed in more detail

at NAILS & HARDWARE, AGE FAQs.

Adapting from various sources including Nelson's article cited below we give a rough chronology of types and uses of nails, focusing on North America but including other earlier nail production and use as well.

Hardware Merchandising magazind discussing new nail making machine, 7 February 1890 (C) InspectApdedia.com Hardware Merchandising magazind discussing new nail making machine, 7 February 1890 (C) InspectApdedia.com

Above: Hardware Merchandising magazine article discussing a new English nail making machine, 7 February 1890. [Click to enlarge any image]

Nail Gun description in Popular Mechanics, Marchn 1950 (Google) at InspectApedia.com

Illustration above: Popular Mechanics, March 1950, p. 96 describing the new "nail gun".

Illustration below: Paslode nail gun nails sold in strips are still "wire nails" but are no round in cross-section.

 Paslode nail gun  nails sold in strips (C) InspectApedia.com

Hand Wrought Nail Details

Hand-wrought nails were used in North America in the 17th, 18th, and 19th century in American building 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.

Hand wrought iron spike pre-1830 © Daniel Friedman

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

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.

Withdrawal-Resistant Hand-Wrought Spike

Wavy iron spike, hand wrought, Florida (C) InspectApedia.com LaCorte Wavy iron spike, hand wrought, Florida (C) InspectApedia.com LaCorte

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The interesting hand-wrought spike shown here, contributed by InspectApedia.com reader TL, was accompanied by these comments:

Found this in an old town in Florida while metal detecting. Any idea how old? Looks hand forged.

Found in Lake Helen, fl. Not to far from an 1880 Indian head penny and an 1899 barber dime so yes I believe it is a period piece without a doubt. I just thought it may have been older than that era.

The town was incorporated in 1888. But like I said I have items dating back to 1880 while metal detecting. - T.L. by private email 2018/10/11

Closeup of hand wrought iron spike (C) InspectApedia.com LaCorte

Our OPINON: I agree that the spike looks hand forged, with the off-set dents and waves so regular as to appear deliberate, perhaps to create a spike with great withdrawal resistance.

It is certainly possible to make such a nail today, by hand, but the laminar splits near the nail head (marked in the red rectangle) suggest old iron, likely to have been forged before 1900. Sorry but I don't have a more precise dating suggestion.

The fact that the delaminating or split in this nail run lengthwise (parallel to the nail shank) suggest that the nail was of iron whose fibers ran lengthwise, making the nail one probably made after the late 1830s.

First Nail Making Machines in North America - 1790 "Cut Nails"

The first nail making machines in North America appeared during the late 1700's - earlier than one might have guessed.

The slitting mill, introduced to England in 1590, simplified the production of nail rods, but the real first efforts to merchandise 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. (Kirby 1956)

Machine made cut nails used to nail accordion lath in a New York home (C) InspectApedia.com Preston According lath nails, machine made help date this structure (C) InspectApedia.com Preston

Above are nails used to secure accordion lath - a plaster base found in a rural U.S. post-and-beam home in Wyoming County, New York.

More about the accordion wood lath in this building and our estimate of the building age are at WOOD LATH, TYPES.

Below: our green arrow points to the characteristic edge ridge that illustrates a machine made cut-nail.

The red arrow points to a split in the cut nail, characteristic of the effort to align the fibres of iron running down the length of the nail - discussed just below.

Machine made nails found in an older New York home (C) InspectApedia.com Preston

These photos of antique cut-nails were provided by an InspectApedia.com reader June 2018.

As I mentioned about a different nail in photos on this page, the fact that the delaminating or split in this nail run lengthwise (parallel to the nail shank) suggest that the nail was of iron whose fibers ran lengthwise, making the nail one probably made after the late 1830s.

For these nails, because it appears that the two cutting/stamping burrs appear on the same side of the nail suggest the nail may have been made after 1840.

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. - source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nail_(fastener) retrieved 2018/06/15

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.

Also see Pitt (2003) cited below,.

Modern Reproductions of Antique Hand-Wrought Nails

Cut nail differences before and after late 1830s - adapted from Nelson, NPS - at InspectApedia.com

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Above, adapted from Nelson (NPS) we summarize some observations that can help separate early cut nails from later cut nails used in North America.

If your cut nail is irregular in shank width and has the "A" type side burrs it's likely to have been made before the late 1830s.

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.

Below is a modern cut nail showing the uniformly convex head on both sides of the nail head.

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

Above is the head of a modern machine-made cut nail.

Tremont Nail Company continues to manufacture reproduction nails which in appearance are quite like those made by hand more than 100 years ago.

The original factory was established by Issac and Jared Pratt in 1819 on the site of an old cotton mill which had been shelled and burned by the British in the War of 1812.

Known originally as Parker Mills Nail Company, it later became known as the Tremont Nail Company. - Tremont Nail, http://www.tremontnail.com/about.htm

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

Above is 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

More Images of Tremont's Modern Reproductions of Antique Nails

The ruled Tremont nail photo below is followed by four additional photographs of all four sides of this nail.

3-inch cut nail spike made by the Tremont Nail Co. © Daniel Friedman

[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

Below 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.

Cut nail head detail © Daniel Friedman

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.

Tremont reproduction of antique cut nails, all types -(C)InspectApedia.com

Tremont supplies restoration contractors and others working on historic buildings and for historians, Tremont offers a reference set of modern reproductions of old nails fasteners, shown above.

Modern Round or Wire Nails

Galvanized joist hanger nails, modern, (C) Daniel Friedman at InspectApedia.com

Above, an example of modern round or wire nails, galvanized fasteners. These 4d 1 1/2" galvanized nails are designed for use with steel joist hangers.

Wire nails were produced in North America from about 1850 to the present. Early wire nails were made first in smaller sizes.

If we exclude nails coated with a galvanized or other material, most modern wire-type nails will show parallel indentations across the top of the nail below the head, indicating the grip on the nail shank as the nail's head was formed.

Wire nails show gripper marks that hold the nail as its head and tip are formed - adapted from Nelson, NPS cited at InspectApedia.com

Research on History of Hand Wrought Nails, Cut Nails & Wire Nails

Cut nail production details show  burrs and shear marks - US NPS Nelson cited in detail at InspectApedia.comDrawing: details of cut-nail production explain why you will see shear marks and burrs on machine-cut nails or sprigs.

This image is adapted from the US NPS Nail Chronology article by Nelson cited in detail below. Some of these citations are from Nelson, NPS.

[Click to enlarge any image]

Nail advertisement in The Iron Age 1893 cited in detail at InspectApedia.com

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Continue reading at NAIL AGE DETERMINATION questions & answers, or select a topic from closely-related articles below, or see our complete INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES below.

Or see NAILS & HARDWARE, AGE FAQs - questions & answers posted originally at this page and additional photos of old and newer nails

Or see these

Nail & Hardware Age Determination Articles

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NAILS & HARDWARE, AGE at InspectApedia.com - online encyclopedia of building & environmental inspection, testing, diagnosis, repair, & problem prevention advice.

INDEX to RELATED ARTICLES: ARTICLE INDEX to BUILDING AGE

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