History does not name the constructor who first joined two pieces of wood with a sharp implement, but whoever he was, the results of that moment are all around us. From the desk you’re sat at, to the bridge you’ll cross on the way home, the creation of the nail has changed our lives forever.
In the United Kingdom, the early evidence of large-scale nail making comes from the Romans 2000 years ago, where they left behind 875000 nails, weighing in at 7 tonnes, at the fortress of Inchtuthil in Perthshire. For the nail construction, an iron ore was heated with carbon to form a dense mass of metal, which was then placed into the shape of square rods and left to cool. After re-heating the rod, the blacksmith would cut off a nail length and hammer all four sides of the softened end to form a sharp point. He would then insert the hot nail into a hole in an anvil and with four strikes of the hammer would form a rose head. This nail design had the benefit of four sharp edges which cut deep into timber. When the wood fibres were damp they’d swell and bind around the nail, ensuring an extremely strong fixing. To reference how strong these nails were, we have evidence that on board the Mary Rose (the Tudor flag ship of Henry VIII) which wasn’t built until 1509, a thousand years later, that the nail shape had not changed at all. Eventually in the USA, towards the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, a nail machine was designed which helped to automate the process. This machine had three essential parts; the first lever cut a triangular strip of metal, giving the desired width of the nail. The second lever held the nail in place while the third lever formed the head. The strip of metal was then turned through 180 degrees to cut the next equal and opposite nail shape off the strip. These are known as cut nails. Seeing as the nail up until then was handmade, the first machines were naturally designed to re-produce the same shape of product. Soon, the construction of nails really took off, primarily in the USA and UK with its control of the British Empire. In the heartlands of the industrial revolution, nail factories had rows of nail machines and the continual racket from them created a deafening noise. Despite the great strides made in the development process, each machine was still labour intensive and had to have someone manning them.
By the start of the 1900’s, the first coils of steel wire were produced and quickly machines were altered to occupy this new raw material. The first machine that automatically produced wire rails with no human intervention immediately showed that this was a much less costly way of producing nails. The fact that the nail didn’t have as much holding power didn’t matter as much; thinner timbers were use in construction and if needed, there were other forms of fastening. The wire nail quickly became the nail of choice, as it is to this day, because of its price.
There is currently an enormous interest in preserving our heritage and much of that heritage is found in the form of buildings. It is very important for a restorer that all the correct raw materials are used in an attempt to preserve the buildings authenticity. The nails are no exception. Whether the project involves restoration or the building of a replica, the process of making a hand forged nail has not changed. In the 21st century, the nail making process is now being used by the restoration industry to help establish when a building was built.
The process of making nails is as much a part of our heritage as the products produced and it will be necessary for those involved in the restoration industry to change the mind-set of trying to compare cut nail and wire nail prices, if the process is to survive. A recognition of the value cut nails offer is needed to ensure that the process is not lost forever.
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