The Secrets of Nails
Nails can tell you a lot about an antique. Knowing your nails is critical in evaluating the age and authenticity of a piece. Understanding how they were used and why can help to unfold the antique's story.
We've Always Had Nails
Well, at least since the beginning of the Bronze Age - ca 1800 B.C. They were used much as we use them today - to fasten pieces of wood together. They were made by hand at a forge, a very time consuming and tedious job. It was not until the invention of the nail cutting machine, in the late 1790s, that a labor saving method was discovered.
The nail cutting machine cut the nail's shank and reduced the hand work to creating only the head of the nail. These machines were used to produce nails throughout the 19th century. By the 1890s nails were made completely by machine, including the shank, which was round, as it is today.
American Hand Made Nails
Prior to about 1800 all nails were made completely by hand. They were fashioned by blacksmiths from a nail rod which was a bar of iron sourced from an iron mill, the earliest being imported from England.
The shank was formed by hammering it into a rough point, which could be clenched, or to a flattened square tip Then the nail head was formed, again by hand, into either a nail which was intended to show above the surface of the wood, or one that was meant to be level with the wood.
Antiques purported to have been made in the 18th century or before will have all hand made nails (often with later reinforcing nails), but the majority of, and all the original nails, will have been made completely by hand. The shanks will be roughly round, but hand hammered, so not smoothly round. The heads will either be "rose heads" - raised hammered nails which sometimes resemble a rose blossom, or "T" heads," L" heads or flat heads, all meant to be finishing nails, and not showing above the surface of the piece.
A lot can be learned from the nail hole - a piece made prior to 1800 will have a roughly round, or evenly square appearance to the hole. Between 1800 and 1900 the nail holes will be rectangular, and after 1900, they will be uniformly round.
This is a T head nail on an interior drawer of an 18th century desk. Note that it is flush with the wood. Also note the extreme oxidation around the nail.
The rose head nail pictured above is on the underside of a 1750 tea table. Since it does not show on the surface, a rose head was used - its head is raised above the surface of the wood.
At the beginning of the 1790s the first nail cutting machine in America produced nail blanks - rectangularly cut nails without heads. Blacksmiths then created heads on these blanks, similar to the earlier hand wrought nails. The heads, however were square or rectangular, T shaped or L shaped.
Cut nails were used throughout the 19th century, until about 1890, when wire nails, produced entirely by machine came into use.
The nails at the left are cut nails - one with a square head meant to show above the surface, and one with almost no head, which would be flush with the surface. Note that the shafts are rectangular, tapered but with a blunt tip.
Machine Made Nails
Starting in about 1890, or so, machine made nails became ubiquitous. They were cheap and plentiful, and they looked much like the nails we buy today in the hardware store. They were wire nails with round heads of varying sizes, - very uniform in appearance.
They can be identified by the very evenly round shape of the head. You may see some in early pieces because they were often used as reinforcing nails if the piece became loose.
Usually, but not always, you see oxidation around a nail that's been in place for over 100 years. If the piece has been painted the oxidation may not develop and cannot be seen.
On unpainted wood oxidation is usually evident. This is the black stain around the nail or nail hole.
Wrought iron rusts black, not orange. Over time the rust stains the wood surrounding the nail, indicating that it's been there a while. A square black hole with no nail also indicates that an old nail had been there.
Cast iron reproduction nails will rust orange, so beware. New wire nails don't oxidize.
Examining one nail on a piece does not give you a full picture of the age of a piece and may lead to the wrong conclusion as to age. You can have late, round nails evident but they should be reinforcing nails, not original ones. Look for the markers of early wrought nails - size, shape, and oxidation - which give a better clue as to age.
Screws were not common in early furniture except in high stress areas. They were hand made, and expensive to buy from a blacksmith. The earliest screws were made of wood in Europe. Iron ones were made here in the early days and they varied widely in size, depth and turns.
The screw at right is on an 18th century desk. It fastens the lock to the lid. The best way to identify an early screw is to notice where the indentation in the head is. It is usually slightly off center, indicating that it is hand made.
When evaluating a piece to determine its age you should not look at one piece of evidence only. Sometimes old nails are salvaged from old wood and reused - look for evidence of black oxidation around the nail, or note the shape of the oxidation - is it the same as that of the nail? Sometimes reproduction nails are used - look for orange-ish oxidation or no oxidation at all. Is the nail in a place you would expect? Roseheads should not show on a table surface, for example.
Because wood shrinks with age newer nails were often used when things became loose. But if all the nails are machine made then the piece is not likely to be 19th century or earlier.
Know your nails!
"Emyl Jenkins' Guide to Buying and Collecting Early American Furniture" by Emyl Jenkins, Crown Publishers, 1991.
"How to Know American Antique Furniture" by Robert Bishop, E.F.Dutton, 1973.
"Nails as Clues to Age" by Mark Chervenka - google search.
"American Country Furniture 1780-1875", Ralph and Terry Koval, Crown Publishers, 1965.