Nailing Techniques

There is more to nails than you think.

Photo: Flickr

Nailing a nail isn’t just a matter of ready, aim, and swing. Other elements enter in, like the size of the nail, the angle at which it is driven, and the nature of the pieces being joined. When it comes to understanding the advantages of face-nailing versus toe-nailing, for example, a lot of people have a lot to learn. Here are some issues and options to consider.

Nail Size. A general rule of thumb is that to attach one piece of wood to another, you should use a nail that is three times the thickness of the piece being nailed. While that’s a good starting point, it isn’t the whole story.

If the nail will pass through the second piece, then a times- three-length nail is too long (except when clinch nailing). Another consideration, especially when doing finish work, is the potential for splits. These are most likely to occur when nailing through the end grain, and oversized nails may be the cause.

A little practice, experience, and, if you’re unsure, some experimentation on scrap pieces will tell you what you need to know in individual cases.

Hammer Size. Choose your hammer properly, too, matching the weight and shape of the hammerhead to the job you are doing. Small nails are a great deal easier to nail with lighter hammers, and large nails difficult to drive with small hammers. A well-balanced, 20-ounce, bell-faced hammer will perform the widest range of tasks.

Face-Nailing. This is the rudimentary nailing we learned first. It can be used in the widest variety of situations, when the nail is driven straight into the face of the workpiece, through to the second piece. Face-nailed joints aren’t particularly strong (especially when the workpieces being fastened are perpendicular to one another), but the technique is fast and easy.

Toe-Nailing. In contrast, toe-nailing produces a strong joint. The technique requires a pair of nails, driven at opposing 45-degree angles. It isn’t suitable for all joints, as the grain of one workpiece needs to be at an angle to the other.

Dovetail nailing. This technique is akin to toe-nailing, as it involves driving nails on a bias. Nailing pairs or sets of nails at alternate angles strengthens the nailed joint. In this case, however, it is the face of the board that is nailed (rather than the opposite sides of the board).

Blind Nailing. Tongue-and-groove boards are blind nailed. The nail is driven at about a 45-degree angle into the tongue of the board. Then the groove of the next piece is slid over the tongue, obscuring the nail.

Clinch Nailing. A commonplace technique in the past, this is less often employed today. A clinched (or clenched) nail is driven through the pieces being joined, and the protruding tip is bent and nailed flush for extra holding power. Batten doors were traditionally made using this technique, leading to the cliché “dead as a doornail.”

Pilot Holes. If you are working with hardwood or nailing any thin stock near its end grain, you will need to drill a pilot hole first in order to avoid splitting the wood.