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Nail Making

Kit Hackforth
Nails are an important component of any medieval blacksmiths
repertoire, teaching plane and dimensional control with hammer blows,
developing the crucial ability to accurately measure lengths and sizes by
inspection (without need for rulers or other measuring devices), as well as
showing the value of working quickly and striking whilst the iron is hot.
With the absence of any of these skills, the work is distorted, of irregular
lengths, slow to be produced and potentially cracked or fractured around
the head.
As nails were so commonly used, they were often produced in large
quantities. Therefore speed of creation was a defining factor in their
construction, whilst quality control was undoubtedly important, the
variation in extant examples suggests that total uniformity was not a
prerequisite so much as similarity of size and sheer quantity.
Due to the large quantities of nails required and the menial nature of the
labour, the job was often tasked to apprentices as an exercise to develop
their skills and endurance with the hammer whilst still producing a
marketable product for the masters shop.
It is reputedly a hallmark skill that a master blacksmith can produce about
100 nails an hour.
From the colonial era, we have some extant examples of nail making
stations, small setups dedicated to the production of forged nails. Given
the lack of change in production methods this seems to reasonably
suggest the potential for a similar setup in the shop of a period blacksmith
who could reasonably expect to have a large demand for nails.
For reference, the inventory of King Henry VIII reported 48000 horse nails
alone in storage and 3400 nails were reported as used in the construction
of the tower of Langeais, a rectangular, tapering stone tower built in 992994.

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Williamsburg nail making station


To make nails, a couple of tools are required.
First and foremost, an appropriately sized nail header is needed. A hot
cutter is required to indent the shaft so it can easily be broken, and lastly
a hammer and anvil to square and shape the stock into nails.
First, the stock is heated and drawn out into a square taper, this is worked
down to a point.
The trick is being able to do this step in one heat, it requires a lot of
concentration and fine control as when squaring stock, the stock can
easily slip and form a rhombus cross-section if the angle if strike is a
little off.

Next the squared stock is put into the nail header to determine where it
has to be cut.
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After heating, the stock is placed on the hot cutter and cut almost through
at a point just above where the nail would sit in the nail header.

Lastly the stock is heated and placed once more in the nail header, the
shaft is snapped off and the head is quickly flattened and peened over to

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form the head of the nail.

The nail is tapped out, into the water bucket and voila! One done nail.

Usually a smith would have three sets of stock heating to make nails at
any one time, cutting down on the time it takes to make nails by allowing
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the smith to work on one while the other two heated.

This method of nail making is documented in many modern blacksmithing
texts, and is still taught as a skill for beginners. As far as I can tell, this is
the method used by period blacksmiths in making nails, but because
blacksmiths traditionally passed their art down from master to apprentice
and often down through families, there arent any outstanding documents
I can find which detail how to make nails, or blacksmith anything really.
Typical sources would involve examining paintings and extant examples
and reverse engineering techniques shown. In this at least, Ive had some
luck, for while I cant find any pictures of people making nails, extant
examples are everywhere.
This method of nail making has a couple of distinctive traits, firstly the
squared, tapered shaft of the nail. Secondly the slight but distinctive bulge
under the head of the nail, indicating a nail header was used. Fortunately
all of the extant examples Ive found show both these signs, which seems
to indicate that this method has been used to forge nails more or less
continuously from the times of the romans to the industrial revolution
when obviously the wire nail technique was invented, leading to the
modern nail.

Nail comparison. Handmade, Cut, and Wire

And replica nail from the Mary rose, 1509

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14th Century nails

For the sake of completeness; my nail header was forged some time ago,
but recently I cut it down for neatness and a friend welded it to some bar
stock as a handle for me. I then decided to forge out the handle and wrap
it with a leaf as a bit of decoration.
In fact, these nails are FOR that friend as a Thank you for welding up my
nail header because he wants to do some period woodworking.

Im pretty happy with my nails as a first attempt, some of the heads are a
little split which is a result of peening the heads while the metal is cold,
but this stopped once I realised what was happening.
The nails arent sharp, so they will punch through wood rather than pierce,
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though I thought this was how period nails were made. While Im pretty
sure some still were made that way to prevent wood from splitting, I later
found that the pointed nail seems more common.

In the future, my plan is to work on forging faster nails, finer points on the
nails and work on forging the nail heads more uniformly. This mostly
involves keeping more heat in the stock as its flattened and being quicker
to peen the head over.
Im also looking to make another, smaller nail header to make narrower
nails more suitable for modern woodwork, to allow beginner medieval
woodworkers to get into the art.
Id also like to make a nail making station similar to the example shown
from Williamsburg.

A somewhat summarised bibliography:

Inventory of King Henry VIII
Medieval Prices
Williamsburg nail making station
The history of nail making
Patrick Ottaway
14th century nails

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