Looking at antique furniture, we often seek clues
for authenticity and age. There are many factors that show true
historic construction, but one clue that is often overlooked is the
type of nail used to hold the piece together. Nails in antique
furniture are often barely noticeable, but they are another key to
unlock the history of wooden pieces. The quest for the ideal nail
has taken centuries of development. As Churchill noted, “To improve
is to change, to be perfect is to change often.”
The ancient Egyptians and Romans used organic
glue for wood furniture, especially with decorative veneer
techniques, but like much advanced technology, glue for wood became
a lost art after the collapse of Rome in 476 until the Renaissance,
around 1400, when glue and veneer techniques reappeared. During the
Middle Ages, furniture was held together with pegs, dovetails,
mortise and tenon joints and a few nails.
Archaeologists have found hand made bronze nails from as far back as
3000 BC. The Romans made many of their nails from iron, which was
harder, but many ancient iron nails have rusted away since. The
hand-forged nail changed little until well into the 1700's.
For thousands of years, the traditional
hand-forged nail was square and tapered, with a hammered head
attached by the blacksmith. One nail at a time was heated and
laboriously pounded out to shape with a hammer on an anvil. Nails
were fairly valuable, and ruined buildings were often burned and
nails were scavenged from the ashes to reuse.
Carpenters still speak of nail sizes by the
“penny,” abbreviated “d” for the Latin word for penny, denarius. The
name refers to the price of nails in England in the 1600's: the
price of 100 nails for one penny gave the size: 100 4d (4 penny)
nails cost 4 English pennies or pence. One hundred larger 10d (10
penny) nails cost 10 pence.
Most local blacksmiths made nails. Thomas
Jefferson, a true Renaissance man, made nails on his plantation.
Until the very end of the 1700's, most nails in better furniture had
a head that was rose-cut or faceted like an old miner's cut diamond.
Here are examples of hand-forged nails with tapered square shafts
and hand-hammered heads from the 1700's:
This immigrant's pine trunk was made about 1800,
and has the original hand painted inscription: “Catherina Iud aus
(from) Konigsberg (in East Prussia, Germany) uber (via) Bremen nach
(for) Neu Iork (New York).” Although some hardware has been added ,
it has beautiful rose-cut, hand forged nails securing the original
Some nail heads were “butterfly” shaped, with
visible facets where the iron head was hand-hammered, one nail at a
The next phase of progress in nails was the
appearance of “cut” nails, beginning in the very late 1700's. As
plates of flat steel became available, a simple hardened steel knife
was used to “cut” one tapered rectangular nail at a time. This new
technology was also employed by Jefferson, and the new cut nails had
rectangular heads attached by another machine, one nail at a time.
This greatly accelerated the manufacture of nails, and these
rectangular nails quickly became dominant by the early 1800's. These
cut nails are often called “square,” but they are really markedly
rectangular, as are their heads, and easy to distinguish from the
truly square and entirely handmade earlier variety.
Very tiny nails, used especially for trim and
moldings, were made with a single cut, resulting in an “L-shaped”
nail. Here are examples of small cut nails from the early 1800's:
Cut nails continued as the standard until the end
of the 1800's, and were used in building construction, ships and
furniture. These nails fairly accurately date furniture to the
1900's, although it is worth remembering that sometimes modern nails
were added in subsequent repairs.
Machinery was developed to produce cut nails in
the 1900's, and they are still used in flooring and concrete
applications, where holding power is paramount, and power nailing
tools are standard. Machine made cut nails are also made for use in
reproduction or hobbyist replica furniture, but they are so perfect
and identical that it is usually easy to see that they are new. This
is an example of a replica cut nail:
In Europe in the 1850's, steel wire was made into
tiny nails known as “brads,” with only a very small widened head.
These continue to be used to attach small moldings and trim.
About 1880 in America and in Europe, the modern
wire nail was developed. Machinery was invented to cut pieces of
steel wire, sharpen a point at one end, and put a flat round head
onto the other end. These nails were much cheaper to produce.
Because their sides were straight rather than tapered, they have
only a fraction of the holding power of cut nails with tapered
sides. Nevertheless, the reduced cost factor made wire nails the
standard very quickly. By 1910, wire nails were 90% of the total
market. A reasonable date for furniture originally constructed with
round wire nails is after 1880. Here are examples of the modern
straight-sided manufactured wire nail:
The simple nail serves as a key to furniture
dating. Until about 1800, nails were hand-forged – tapered square
shafts and hand-hammered heads. During the 1800's, cut nails have
tapered rectangular shafts and rectangular heads. In the 1900's, the
round wire nail with straight sides and a round head are the
standard. Nails are one of many clues to the age and authenticity of
antique furniture and building construction as well.
Author Ken Melchert has taught Art History for many years. Since 1985, Ken and his wife Rebecca have operated the Harp Gallery Antiques in Appleton, WI.