What’s This Then? It’s A Nail In Me Pocket

by John Foster

There have always been satisfying feelings for me in connection to nails. One of my first childhood memories consists of my father and I nailing down our hardwood floor. I’m sure I didn’t drive in a single nail but by being there I was watching how and by what our house was being held together. Probably forming a simple understanding of what a nail was I doubt I ever reconsidered the issue until my interest in metals arose. Nails though are everywhere and in many varieties and usages but they get unfairly lumped by the mind into a category of things that just are without really considering how they must have come into being. My conceptual appreciation of nails did not really change even after researching their history; it took the attempt of making a nail to truly know what one is. First I shall attempt a definition. A nail is a sharp pin shaped piece of metal used to fasten separate things together and is fixed into these separate elements by applying pressure along it’s axis of length, either by striking it pushing it. It holds these elements together through the strength of it’s metal and by the friction between it and the separate pieces. Many items fit this bill from thumbtacks to railroad spikes, and, until modern industrial times, they have been manufactured by hand, one at a time. Nails may very well be the most abundant things made by man.

I was unable to find a precise date as to when iron nails first came into being. This is perhaps due to the nature of iron and its tendency to oxidize into oblivion over time. Iron’s adoption over thousands of years from an extremely valuable commodity to something very commonplace also makes a time and place of invention very difficult. When the first signs of iron use are seen in ancient Egypt and Sumer around 4000 BC the high value of such a rare material recovered from meteorites would probably have made the lowly nail an unlikely candidate for fabrication. Even 2000 years later, after the process of smelting iron ore had been discovered, iron was still considered more expensive than gold and was used largely for ceremonial objects. Only as iron became the dominant metal used for tools and weapons would nails have become a more prominent fastener. The earliest reference to the widespread use of nails I was able to find was the remarkable horde of nails discovered at Inchtuthil, Scotland at a Roman fort built in 83 A.D. Ordered to assist the legions in mainland Europe the garrison was evacuated. Not wanting the Caledonians not reap the reward of a fully stocked Roman fort, the retreating troops systematically destroyed or removed everything of value. They decided they could not carry away their 7-ton stockpile of hand made nails, but not wanting this valuable source of iron to fall into the wrong hands they buried the nails in a deep pit and demolished the building over top. There they sat undisturbed until the 1960’s when the fort was excavated and a thick layer of iron oxide concealed the perfectly preserved hand forged roman nails within. There were a variety of sizes from 2 inches up to 16 and there were apparently over seven hundred and fifty thousand of them. Unsurprisingly, their simple square tapered design and square head was essentially the same as the nails produced more recently. Nails gradually became more diverse over time as more and more specific uses were created. Their forms ranged from fine finishing nails and staples, to horseshoe nails and to railroad spikes.  With the ever-increasing population of North America during the 17th century and the fact that the most common construction material there was wood, nails became a highly desirable commodity. At first this industry was largely based in Europe as the colonial trade system dictated that the colonies provide the raw materials and the home country make the product, but soon nail making became one of the first industries among the settlers. By the mid 1700’s with the industrial revolution looming ahead British nail makers numbered approximately 10,000 and accounted for 80% of all ironworkers. Fifty years later nail makers numbered close to 30,000 in the area of Birmingham alone. The conditions of those poor workers were dreadful. Usually shops were very small home run affairs, with no ventilation and very dirty. A day would run from four in the morning, Monday to Saturday and would often employ the whole family, with the children working the bellows. Workers were usually in great dept to the ironmongers who would provide them with the iron needed and then sell the nails produced. The stock would be weighed before production and the nails would be weighed after, and if there was any more discrepancy than was allowed, the nailer would be fined for the loss. The invention of the nail making machine in 1780-1790 spelt the end of this trade but a few nail makers lasted even into the early 20th century.

Due to the simplicity of it’s design and the timeless nature of basic smithing techniques, the hand forged iron nail has not really changed in the thousands of years that people have been making them. There are only three elements to a nail: the head, the shank or length of the nail, and the point. These three parts though can be shaped in many ways depending on its use. The head size and shape can vary, the shank can be round or square or twisted, the point can be either pointy or chisel shaped and the nail can be of any size. The nail rod or stock used to make the nail is a round or square bar with a diameter of the nail just below the head. Nail rod was at first formed by simply hammering the freshly smelted iron into bars of suitable length and diameter, but with the rise of machines it was produced by rolling machines which would cut flat stock into multiple bars. To make almost the whole variety of nails possible you would need only the simplest of tools. Through time and cultures their appearances have changed but the basic functioning remained the same. The tools are: hammer, nailer’s anvil, cut off hardy, and a heading tool. The nailer’s anvil has only a hardy hole and a pritchel hole and its base is either hammered into a stump or set into a heavy box. The heading tool has a hole punched through it depending on the shape and diameter of the shank and can be countersunk or not. The nailer’s forge would hold sections of nail at an steady temperature until the nailer was ready to form them formed. The nailer would grab the nail rod, taper it out to the desired length and shape and then place it back into the fire. After reheating, it is cut most of the way through on the cut off tool, placed into the hole of the heading tool and snapped off. The nailer then quickly places the protruding point into to the Pritchel hole, hammers down the head, waits for it to cool and contract  and drop, then starts over again. Sounds easy eh? Nailer’s in Belper, England were said to have been able to make over 1000 nails in a single day, striking with the hammer 42,000 times. In illustrations that I have seen of American nailing tools a bench could be attached to the anvil’s stump so that the worker could sit and work, but no such a luxury was visible in any of the diagrams of European workshops.

Nails though aren’t entirely functional objects devoid of meaning other their function. There is a symbolism connected with nails of which I wish I knew more. Obviously there are several rather important nails in the Christian tradition. These four, or more recently, three nails were used to attach Jesus to the cross. I wonder if the nail maker ever found out. As legend goes these nails were buried in Christ’s tomb and later miraculously appeared to Constantine’s mother, Empress Helena, when she prayed for their recovery after the True Cross had been unearthed. She placed one of these nails in her son’s helmet or crown and the other was formed into the bridle of his horse. The third nail was thrown into the Adriatic Sea to stop a whirlpool. Afterwards Louis of France took the nails to Sainte-Chapelle. Nails, which were then touched to these Holy nails, were said to be sacred. In symbolic representation the buds of the clove flower are used to represent the Holy Nails.  The word ‘clove’ actually derives from the Latin word “clavus” meaning nail. Apparently nails are also associated in other cultures with the North Star and the Earth’s axis. Nails are also useful tools for studying archaeological sites. A metallurgical analysis of a nail can tell from which source of iron it was produced and thus the time and people who produced it.  This is particularly valuable at sites such as forts which have been occupied by various peoples at different times.

The modern nail has become almost a meaningless objects; far too plain compared to other fasteners such as screws, they serve their function well but contain no humanism. A few blacksmiths will still make nails for certain restoration projects and some early splitting machines which make square taper nails are still in operation but it’s largely become a lost art. Certainly it’s probably better that there aren’t people engaged in that repetitive and exhausting trade anymore, there’s enough of those still, but we should remember the skill and rapidity of those who toiled like machines for lifetimes, making nothing but nails. I suppose superficially it is the most boring and repetitive of all the metalworking trades, but once a rhythm are established I imagine I could make nails all day…probably only for the one day though