Monday, September 30, 2013

what's wrong with nails?

Years ago when I was just starting out as a professional woodworker, I read James Krenov's book, A Cabinet Maker's Note Book. In it Krenov explained that the best work was done without nails or even screws... that dovetails, and various forms of mortise and tenon joints were superior and were the mark of a craftsman. To cut those joints requires skill and precision. They require exacting attention, an understanding of the materials, and practice of hand, body and eye in the use of tools.

Not all work is done or has ever been done at the highest level of craftsmanship. Not every child will aspire to craftsmanship, and yet every child should have the experience of being a maker. Every child and every adult should have the experience of holding something they themselves have made through the use of their own hands. To become a maker is to see oneself in a new and different light. Having made something for the first time means that you are no longer simply a consumer of things made by others, but are instead a creator, aligned with the creative forces of the universe. And that in itself, may open the doors through which a child can find reason to aspire toward making finer things.

So that can be where nails come in. As a teacher, I cannot start children to work doing things that are beyond their capabilities. But nails make things easier for young hands, and even in the use of nails, there are things to learn that are challenge enough. For instance, anyone who has actually tried to hammer nails will have learned that they can either bend as they are driven, or if poorly placed can split wood:
There is one little secret to nails that many of the finest carpenters will not know but that can keep you or your students from splitting wood. To make use of this secret requires close observation of each nail as it is positioned to drive into the wood. This secret is an unintended consequence of the way in which they are made, but can be used to your advantage. When nails are made, wire is pressed between two dies that form its head and point. The process leaves a small mark across the top of the head, and two sharp edges at the point on opposite sides and parallel to the mark on the head. These sharp edges when properly aligned cut into the grain, allow the nail to pierce the wood without splitting if the sharp edges are positioned at a 90 degree angle to the direction of the grain. If the nail is positioned so that these edges parallel the grain, the point of the nail works as a wedge splitting the wood. On very small nails like those used by kids in woodworking projects, the line at the top, and the tiny edges require close scrutiny. The edges are also sharp enough that you can determine proper orientation by feel. But learning the value of close observation is one more thing that students can learn in wood shop. This can be presented as a lesson on the value of close observation. And students can test the theory themselves to see if the lesson is true.
Today I am making a box with hand tools, and using nails to make things easier. Even adults need a simple starting point.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Learned something new today, and I do use nails on some things.


  2. Anonymous9:45 PM

    yeh thanks for teaching the world this. i paid at carpentry school to learn things like this and you guys just blab it out to everyone.
    you are the reason why us professionals get robbed constantly from people who ("know how to do carpentry") shame on you! leave the secrets in the hands of the pros.

  3. Any thoughts on the old carpenters trick of slightly blunting a nail (light tap on the point with your hammer) before using it? This is the "trick" my dad taught me to reduce splitting wood.

    This might have come from "old school" nails before they were made with a pinch method?

    Think it might be less / more effective? Would it matter if using hard versus soft wood?

  4. In days gone by my father taught me the "trick" he learned from his father, and so on up the family tree. The trick to not splitting wood was to slightly blunt the nail point with a light rap from the hammer before using it on wood that might split.

    Any thoughts on this approach (perhaps it was born before nails were made in dies)?

  5. I made a shaker hanging cabinet together with my 2 boys, and Asger (7) exclaimed while sawing, that he soon wanted to do some real woodworking i.e. use a hammer and some nails.
    I suppose the allure of hammer and nails is that the child is able to go 3 dimensional, and that immediately transforms any project from some sticks to a purpose built beauty (or at least something along those lines).
    But I suppose that one reason for nails to be frowned upon could be that a lot of people have seen things built with nails that did not last, probably because whoever did the job didn't do it correct.

  6. The trick we'd learned from our dads of blunting the tip, in my experience may be intended for the same purpose but is less effective.

    On the other hand, it takes attention to get each nail in the right orientation, whereas to hit the nail on the tip, takes time, but no close observation. One approach is mindless and the other mindful.

    The old cut nails were blunt on the tip, but were generally used in green wood that was available during the time that the nails were in use.

    Here in the Ozarks you'll find square cut nails driven into oak... a thing that could never happen in dry wood.

  7. Jonas,
    Nails can bridge gaps between poorly fitted pieces of wood, so they can be used on work where the maker lacked skill in joinery.

    Where good joinery skills or good method are present, nails can serve well.

    I think you hit the nail right on the head. Nails can be used on poorly made things that don't last and give the impression that nailed work is crap. But for kids interested in just making things for the joy of it, hammers and nails give them that capability!