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Nailing it!
Identifying age by nails


1815’s to late 1830’s

Nails of this period are distinguished by their irregular heads, which vary in size and shape, usually eccentric to shank, though they were more uniform by 1830’s. Nails were irregular in length and width, but more uniform by end of period. Nails generally have a rather distinct rounded shank (under head), caused by wide heading clamp. These nails were more readily available than finishing nails, and were often locally modified by hammering the sides of the heads, thus making them into finish nails which could be countersunk. The direction of iron fibers also distinguishes nails of this period from later nails.

ate 1830’s to present

Box or Flooring Nails Common Nails Finish Nails
Heads tend to be uniformly convex on each side, and uniform in size and shape, depending on nail style. After c. 1840, cut-nails were generally made with the iron fibers running lengthwise (and later were annealed), which made them capable of clinching without rupture, thus almost completely displacing the hand-wrought nail for building construction. There are many "modern" nail styles not illustrated here; but after the 1840’s, cut nails are not readily distinguished from those made today, so that other factors, i.e. decorative details, etc., are better indicators for dating purposes.

1830’s to the present

Flooring Brads Finish Nails Common Nails Roofing
These nails are usually manufactured from steal wire, which is held in gripper dies and headed (producing gripper marks on shanks); then wire is advanced and sheared to length with cutter die; and wire stock is then advanced to repeat operation. Earliest wire nails were only available in very small sizes (for picture frames, etc.). Larger sizes were not widely available or used in American building construction until the third quarter of the 19th century. By the late 1880’s, they were fast superceding cut-nails because of their relative cheapness. Wire nails are not readily datable, though early examples have bulbous heads that are eccentric to shank. In more recent years, wire nails have been made in a great variety of sizes, head shapes and shank designs (e.g. threaded nails), although cut nails continue to be made for specific purposes.

For the complete story, please see the July/Aug. 2001 issue of Decoy Magazine.

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