Nails

Choose the right fastener for every application

When it comes to fasteners, it doesn’t get much more basic than a nail. Due in part to their utility and simplistic design, these pointy, metal items are still the fastener of choice in countless applications. Choosing the right nail for the job can be a daunting task without a little guidance. Common nails, box nails, hard-cut masonry nails and hot-dipped roofing nails are just a few of the available options. Fortunately, just as every tool has a proper place in your workshop, every nail has a proper use. Understanding a bit more about head types, points, shanks and finishes will help you accomplish the high-quality work you expect from yourself. Keep the following questions in mind when deciding what types of nails you’ll need for your next project:

  • What types of nails are available?
  • How does the point of a nail affect its use?
  • What finishes and designs are available?
  • What is the proper technique for driving nails under various conditions?

Design, Types and Techniques

All nails consist of a head, shank and point, each of which comes in numerous styles. Nails are differentiated in part by the characteristics in each of these three sections, and it is these differences that make one nail best for use on shingles and another better suited to finish work. No matter what kind of nail you’re using and what surface you’re working on, utilizing proper technique is essential to getting the desired finish.

Nail Design: Nail heads come in a number of configurations. Flat heads are the most common, providing a large striking surface and solid holding power. Checkered flat heads are textured to prevent slippage and are well suited to framing applications. Countersunk heads have a conical shape and are designed to be countersunk, or pushed below the surface, which allows them to be concealed with putty for a nail-free finish. Points are available in multiple types, including diamond, long diamond and blunt. Shanks also come in different configurations. Smooth shanks are the most common and provide versatility for everyday use. Barbed nails feature a herringbone pattern that provides better holding power, though not as strong a hold as a screw shank, which is designed for use on hard woods and other dense materials. Ringed nails provide a strong hold in soft- and medium-density woods. Fluted, or knurled, shanks feature a vertical thread and are used on cinder blocks and other masonry to help prevent cracking while providing a strong hold.

  • Large flat heads offer even more surface area and are ideal for sheathing and insulation
  • Countersunk heads are designed for finishing jobs
  • Cupped heads are concave to facilitate concealment and are often used on drywall
  • Diamond points are the most common and are good for general use
  • Long diamond points are easier to drive into harder materials and work well on drywall
  • Blunt points reduce the chances of splitting wood but are more difficult to drive
  • Gauge determines how thick a nail is, with lower numbers indicating greater thickness

Nail Types: Nail sizes are classified in a rather unusual way. Length is defined by the word “penny,” which has its origins in England, where nails were originally named for how much 100 of a given size cost. If, for example, 100 nails cost four pence, they were “four penny” nails. Today, this terminology corresponds with a nail’s measurement from the head to the tip of the point. The letter “d” is used to denote “penny” (this comes from the word “denarius,” a Latin name for the Roman equivalent of a penny). Two penny, or 2d, nails are 1" long, and subsequent measurements are given in 1/4" increments up to 10d (i.e., 4d nails are 1-1/2" long, 6d nails are 2" long, etc.). After that, the system becomes a little trickier. 12d nails are 3-1/4" long, 16d nails are 3-1/2" long and 20d nails are 4" long. From there, each 10d adds another 1/2 inch, so a 50d nail is 5-1/2" in length. Nails are often sold in 1 lb. boxes, but they are also available in larger boxes, such as 10 lbs. or 50 lbs., and in bulk. The following chart details a number of different applications, what nails are commonly used for and a few points of consideration.

Application Nail Type Points to Consider
Flooring
  • Underlayment
  • Provide superior holding power
  • Feature a ringed shank
  • Used to fasten particleboard, plywood and subflooring over existing wood floors or joists
.
  • Hard-cut flooring
  • Used to secure hardwood strip flooring to subfloor
  • Used to secure wood framing or furring strips to brick, block or concrete
.
  • Hard D/S flooring
  • Used to secure hardwood strip flooring to subfloor
Framing and General Construction
  • Common
  • Ideal for many framing and construction applications
.
  • Box
  • Usually have a lighter gauge
  • Typically feature a cement-coated or galvanized finish
.
  • Sinker
  • Shorter and thinner than common nails
  • Easy to drive
  • Commonly feature a cement-coated finish
.
  • Duplex
  • Feature two heads
  • Ideal for temporary construction
  • Easy to remove
Masonry
  • Hard-cut masonry
  • Used to secure wood framing or furring strips to brick, block or concrete
.
  • Hard-fluted masonry
  • Used to secure wood framing or furring strips to brick, block or concrete
Roofing
  • Roofing
  • Used to apply asphalt shingles and insulation board
  • Feature a large head and heavy gauge
.
  • Shingle
  • Used to secure thinner sidewall shingles
  • Feature a large head
Trim Work
  • Bright finish
  • Used for light fastening of interior trim
  • Ideal for finish carpentry
  • Work well when nail must be concealed
.
  • Bright casing
  • Used in situations where trim requires additional strength
  • Work well when nail must be concealed

Nailing Tips and Techniques: Hammering can take its toll on your wrist, elbow and shoulder, particularly if your stroke isn’t smooth, so it is important to pay attention to proper technique. Use all parts of your arm when swinging the hammer to avoid unnecessary strain on any part in particular. Grip the nail near its head and tap it gently to get it started. There are three basic nailing techniques – face nailing, end nailing and toe nailing. When working with harder woods or nailing into the end of a piece of wood, drilling a pilot hole will reduce the likelihood of the wood splitting when you drive in the nail. You can also turn the nail upside down and tap on it a few times with the hammer to blunt the point. Blunt nails are harder to drive, but they’re less likely to split wood. Driving nails at an angle, or toe nailing, can help you achieve a strong hold in situations where you can’t use as long of a nail as you’d like because the backing material is too thin. If appearance isn’t important, use nails that are long enough to drive all the way through the backing, and then hammer the exposed tip down until it’s flush with the surface.

  • Face nailing entails driving a nail through the face of one surface into the face of another
  • End nailing involves driving nails through the end of one material into the end of another
  • Nails driven through, or against, the grain lock into place while nails driven with the grain will slide out more easily
  • Avoid driving multiple nails on the same grain line, as the increased stress is likely to cause wood to split
  • Heavy mallets may be better than hammers when it comes to driving in masonry nails

Features

Finishes: Finishes provide an array of benefits. Cement and vinyl coating provide greater holding power while hot-galvanized and electrogalvanized finishes provide rust resistance.

Aluminum and Stainless-Steel Nails: If you’re concerned about rust affecting nails, use aluminum nails, which resist rust even better than rust-resistant finishes. They are used most frequently on aluminum siding or screening. If you’re hammering into cedar or redwood, you’ll need to use stainless-steel nails, which won’t corrode or break down. They also won’t streak or stain your wood.

Brads: For very fine work, brads may be just the thing you need. They are similar to nails, but feature smaller heads and lighter gauges that allow them to be concealed more easily.

Nail Set: Once you’ve pounded finishing nails most of the way in, you’ll need a nail set to countersink them. Some feature protective guards that keep your knuckles safe from the hammer’s head, internal pins that make striking the mark easier and even hammer-free construction, whereby a spring-loaded head attached to the nail set is used in lieu of a hammer.

 
Don't Forget

Hard D/S flooring used for securing hardwood strip flooring to subfloor.

Safety First: Always exercise caution when using tools. Wear eye protection, such as safety glasses when hammering any nail.