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Last edited 25 Jan 2021
The history of nails
Generally, nails have a shaft with two ends. One end is pointed and the other has a flattened boss (usually called the ‘head’) that is hit with an implement such as a hammer to force the point into a material and so form a fixing. In the past, nails were generally made of iron; today they are mostly steel, although copper varieties are also available. The nail’s shaft may be smooth or ribbed for applications that require greater grip in the substrate material.
Various lengths and sizes are available. For example, nails for plasterboard have a relatively large, flat, round head which comes into contact with a larger surface area to give a more robust fixing eg, when on the underside of a ceiling.
Nails are also available without a head; when used, these leave very little evidence on the surface as the shaft is usually totally buried in the material being nailed into. They are useful for furniture-making where the appearance of nail heads might otherwise be unsightly.
 Historical manufacture
The use of nails extends as far back as Ancient Egypt and even the Bronze Age, but in the UK, they make their first large-scale appearance in Roman construction. Most Roman fortresses would have a workshop that produced nails needed by the military. The fortress at Inchtuthill, Perthshire, had seven tons of nails left behind when the garrison was evacuated in 86 AD.
Today, nail heads are typically round. However, in the middle ages, they were also square-shaped and often ornamental: they would be used not only to fasten ironmongery to a door but the door might also be studded with them. This formed an attractive pattern and could impart a sense of robustness. Medieval nail heads could be very elaborate, sometimes comprising three or four parts.
Roman nails were made of wrought iron created by heating iron ore with carbon that was then formed into square rods with a pointed end. When cooled, the rods would be reheated and cut into individual nail lengths and given a head resembling a flattened pyramid (or ‘rosehead’). The square shaft, or shank, continued to be used into Tudor times, as evidenced by nails found on King Henry VIII’s ship the Mary Rose.
During the Tudor period (1485-1603), nails continued to have a square shank and were handmade, but around 1600 the first nail-making machine appeared. This took some of the labour out of making nails but they still had to be fashioned individually. It was in the US around the early 19th century that what can be described as the first automated machine appeared. But even then, and during the ensuing industrial revolution, the process was labour intensive, noisy and required a worker attending each machine. Many 19th century factories had numerous nail-making machines churning out the nails needed by industry.
A breakthrough came in the early 1900s when coils of round steel wire became available – with the nail machines to use them quickly following. These allowed nail production with no manual intervention, producing round-shank nails (‘wire nails’) that were cheaper than before.
 Restoration clues
The huge variety of nails produced through the ages can give clues to restoration professionals as to when a building was built. If the nails were handmade, the building was probably built before 1800; if they were cut nails the building probably dates between the 1800s and early 1900s; while wire nails indicate a construction in the period between the early 1900s to the present.
Restoration professionals may need to replicate a period construction and so use nails that are appropriate. Worldwide, there are very few manufacturers of cut nails: one is the Glasgow Steel Nail Company (www.glasgowsteelnail.com) – which supplied nails for the rebuilt Globe theatre in London; another is the Crown Nail Company (www.crownnailcompany.com ).
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