Don’t Bite Your Nails!

The next time you head over to the hardware store, walk down the fastener section and take a gander at the MANY different types of nails. And if the types of nails makes your head spin, don’t even try to figure out the sizes…8d, 16d, 3d…take heart, by the time you finish this month’s HomeWorks, you may not be a nail expert, but you won’t have to worry about someone selling you the wrong type of nail for your current project.

Let’s start off with something simple, sizes. Nails are not sized by how long they are, but by how much they cost…in the Middle Ages. In London during the Middle Ages, you could buy 100 nails about 2.5″ long for 8 pennies, 100 3.5″ nails for 16 pennies, 100 4″ long for 20 pennies, or 100 1.25″ nails for 3 pennies (sizes are approximate). Several hundred years later, we can still buy 8 penny nails, they just cost more now. The term “penny” no longer refers to the cost, but the length. The letter “d” is used as an abbreviation for “penny”, so an 8 penny nail will be labeled as 8d and so on. The length of some common sizes are: 4d, 1.5″; 6d, 2″; 8d, 2.5″ and 16d, 3.5″ (read on to find out why “d” stands for “penny”).

As you work on your house, you will use many different types of nails. A roofing nail is mainly used to secure roofing shingles, but are also used to hold material that might tear with a smaller headed nail (roofing felt or plastic sheeting for example). Common nails are used for rough carpentry work, like framing a house. Box nails look like common nails, but are thinner and are used for lighter work, such as installing subflooring. Drywall nails are used to install drywall, but you can also use them where you might want a nail to have more grip, due to the rings along the length of the nail. Ring-shank and spiral nails also grip better and are specifically designed for this purpose.

Masonry nails are hardened and can be driven into mortar joints, brick and even concrete. I have tried to drive masonry nails into concrete by hand and it is not fun. If you plan to drive masonry nails into concrete, rent a hammer gun, which will drive the nail with the help of a small charge of gunpowder. Be sure to wear hearing protection when using a hammer gun.

Finally, casing nails, finishing nails and wire brads are used for finish carpentry…installing trim around windows and doors, for example. Casing nails are thicker than finishing nails and are used for heavier duty, while wire brads are used for very fine work. Casing and finishing nails have a small head so they can be set below the surface of the trim and the small hole filled with a putty or wax, thereby hiding the fastener.

Confused yet??? If not, this may do the job…some nails are available with special coatings. A galvanized nail is coated with zinc, which will help keep the nail from rusting and is a good choice for working on a fence or deck. Galvanized nails can be either elecroplated or hot-dipped. Spend the extra pennies for the hot-dipped nails, since they will last longer. Nails are also available as cement-coated, which are easier to drive and have a stronger hold.

That’s about it on the types of nails. About all that’s left is how to determine which size is right for the job at hand. The length of nail you use depends on the thickness of the material you are fastening and should be about three times the thickness. To attach a 2×4 (1.5″ thick), a 16d nail (3.5″ long) is commonly used. To nail down 1/2′ thick plywood, a 4d or 6d nail can be used.

And now for the answer to the question that has plagued the minds of handypeople for ages…why does a “d” stand for “penny”? The “d” comes from the word “denarius”, a small, silver Roman coin used in Great Britain that was often equated with a penny. There you have it…drop that tidbit of information into your next hardware store conversation and your status as a great handyperson will be greatly enhanced.