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Until the 19th century, nails were handmade by blacksmiths. Here, Professor Lewis outlines the evolution of nail production from handmade to machine production.


We're about to deal with nails, which were until the 19th century entirely hand made. In fact most early building timber buildings were joined with timber trenails, as they were called, which are just pointed pieces of timber and pegs  or dowels, which are cylindrical pegs.


Traditional trenails from Denmark, Chris How Collection. 1

These nails were a gift from Chris How, the nail expert, and they would have been used in Denmark well into the 19th century. In Australia these were used, but we have no examples from Australia so these three are all Danish examples. Nails were very expensive, metal nails were very expensive, and had to be made by a blacksmith so if a building was demolished, often they were salvaged and recycled. Now, a handmade nail made by a blacksmith might look like this one here, which is beaten out with a hammer, and the process of beating it gives us a fibrous quality and a resilience, so it becomes a strong nail that can be bent.The simplest way of dealing with the head is, is this one, but this is not a building nail this is a horseshoe nail, this gradually tapering nail.

Nail types

Types of Nail Heads - a. rose nails with sharp point; b. rose nail with flat point; c. clasp; d. brad; e. clout. 2

For a building nail you have to form some sort of head, and this is the simplest of them. It's formed only in two dimensions so the nail is uniform thickness back to front, but it has this little clinched overhead at the top.

The next stage is a rose head which is three-dimensional. All these are still being formed by a blacksmith and therefore are quite expensive and quite specialized items. Then you had items like this which is a clout, this has a very wide head, and a short shaft. This is for fixing fabric to walls, like hessian or wallpaper, or even light metal sheeting like zinc sheeting will be fixed onto the frame with a clout.

Then these nails are all used in different ways. This would be in the in the 18th century where you have ordinary nails for the framing, some of which are very long to go through the purlin here. This has a chisel head and the point of that chisel head is that shape is thought to split the timber less
than a sharp point would. Then there are nails for fixing into the masonry. The spike here which would hold something onto the brick wall.

ABP-HBM-3.208 Cut Brad Nail. 3

Now the early developments of these nails tended towards cutting them with machinery in this sort of shape, this is a cut brad and why this is simple to cut is that it's a uniform thing that's back to
front, it's just a profile and it's done by chopping off from a sheet, alternate brad so they go, they go head to toe like this, and there's no wastage. So you have a flywheel with two choppers to go chop chop chop chop, and brads pointing in alternate directions fall off it, so it's a very efficient way of making them. But these have not been beaten by blacksmiths so they're not nearly as resilient as a smith forge nail. They're cheaper  and now used for undemanding situations, like fixing floorboards especially.

Cut brad

Cut brads. 4

The next stage is the invention of the Ewbank patent nail as it's called these are rather like
handmade nails to look at and often they are mistaken for them but they've been produced in the
machine which presses the shaft with cam pressure, so it has some of the effect of a blacksmith
beating it with a hammer, it gives it a fibrous quality it makes these stronger nails that are produced
relatively cheaply by machine.

Ewbank diagram

Ewbank patent pressed nails.5

Now over time, they have some changes, but first they have the same chisel point designed for fixing to timber,  over time the form of the heads differs.  By the 1860s they have a little
star on the head which helps you to recognise them, and these are known as Ewbank from one of the partners in the company, although he was not the inventor, he was a merchant.  But they're especially used in Australia more than any other part of the world because they could deal with the hardwoods in Australia, which were not such a problem in places like Britain.

ABP-HBM-3.300 Ewbank Nails. 6

After the Ewbank nail, which comes in perhaps about the 1830s, but isn't common in Australia until the 1850s, you get the wire nail. Now the wire nail is made as the name implies, by chopping off wire.  Now wire already rolled is already flexible and strong, so it has that quality of being able to be bent, which nails ideally would have. And a nail like this you'll find has  grip marks, where the wire is held in the vice at the top and little marks are left there. And while it's held there, the head is pressed down onto it and the point is made at the same time, though it's really just a piece of wire with a point at one end and a head formed at the other. Over time the heads evolve and the earliest, or the earlier forms tend to be more like this bullet's head, not the flat head of the later nail.

IWire nails

American wire nails: (1) 8d common; (2) 8d common brad;(3) 8d flooring brad; (4) 8d casing;(5)
8d finishing; (6) 6d shingle;(7) 8d clinch; (8) 3d fine; (9) 3d slating; (10) one-inch barbed roofing
nail. 7

One interesting development that's quite unusual is this one here. These are nails which have a slight twist in the shaft, they are screw nails. They were invented by a school master in Britain called Montague Wigzell and rather surprisingly we found examples of them in Australia.

Montague Wigzell

Wigzell's screw nails 8

The idea of the twist is that they hold better and they can be got out by twisting and maybe a little
bit easier to reuse.

This is another unusual nail, or crater nail. It's designed for fixing trellis work and so on, for trailing vines
on a wall. We're lucky here because we found these in Australia, but we found a British patent for
them so we can identify them clearly with this patent of 1891.

Another slightly different object is this. Now this is a spike designed for driving into a masonry wall.  It might be driven in, say, to support a gutter made just the same way by a blacksmith, but a much heavier
gauge. The largest type of nails generally, are referred to as spikes, they go on being handmade even
into the early 20th century, whereas smaller handmade nails are superseded entirely by Ewbank nails
and wire nails.

When you come to the exposed areas in the roof especially, often nails can be galvanized like these
ones. Now this nail here has a chisel point so it's meant to go into perhaps, a roofing batten, but the
whole surface is galvanized with zinc so it's designed for protection from the from the weather. And
here's another one with a domed head. But again it's a galvanized roofing nail, but in this case with a
point so not necessarily for a timber batten for general purpose use. Then you get especially formed
nails for fixing particularly corrugated iron, which have these flat heads. I'll start with one which is
unusual. This one here has on it  the remains of a timber plug. This must have been not in the
conventional roof, but must have been driven into a wall for some reason. So the timber plug is put into
the wall first, the nail was then driven into the into the timber, and it bears on the top of it. The
name of its manufacturer is Coop's patent, and Coop is a Melbourne lead worker and nail

This is a more general example, so you tend to have an iron nail with a normal head, then onto that is
cast soft lead.  The lead then can take up the shape and  be driven to the roof shape of the iron and
seal properly, rather than have gaps into which the water will come. You can see more clearly how
that's done where you have here the nail itself with a rather wide sort of flange around it, and then
on top of it is the lead head, which will be cast onto the top. And then the next stage in the roofing
development is this, which is a roofing screw with a washer attached to it. For the same sorts of
reason there are a number of other types, some of them are shaped with curved washers to fit the
curve of corrugated iron, and especially from about 1890s they're common in Australia and New

Image & 3D model references:

1. Traditional trenails from Denmark, Chris How Collection: Miles Lewis
2. G L Sutcliffe, The Modern Carpenter, Joiner and Cabinet-Maker (8 vols, London, no date),
IV, pp. 403, 1903
3. ABP-HBM-3.208 Cut Brad Nail
4. Miles Lewis, Reworked from Robert Verman, 'The Nails as a Criterion for the Dating of
Building and Building Sites', Papers in Australian Historical Archaelogy (Sydney 1987), p
5. Ewbank patent pressed nails, generic diagram: Miles Lewis
6. ABP-HBM-3.300 Ewbank Nails
7. American wire nails. G L Sutcliffe, The Modern Carpenter, Joiner and Cabinet-Maker (8
vols, London, no date), IV, p 404. 1903
8. Wigzell's screw nails. R S Burn, The New Guide to Carpentry, General Framing and
Joinery (M'Gready, Thomas & Niven, Glasgow, no date [c 1870]), p 312.