The Natural History of the Nail, or, There Will Be Blood

And David prepared iron in abundance for the nails for the doors of the gates, and for the joinings; and brass in abundance without weight…  1 Chronicles 22:3

History

Were King David still acting as the contractor for the construction of  Solomon’s Temple, it’s doubtful that he would be using iron nails. Instead, his workers would be slapping  coils of coated steel Ardox nails into a pneumatic gun and tapping them into the framing. Modern steel nails are softer than iron nails, come in 20 or so varieties intended for a multitude of uses from tacking carpets to penetrating concrete to securing coffin lids. They’re inexpensive, wonderfully practical and entirely without aesthetic merit.

Nails, like everything else used in construction, were originally made by tradesmen called—naturally enough—“nailers.” The industrial revolution saw the end of that trade, and nails were machine “cut” in a tapered rectangular shape from sheets of iron and steel. Nowadays, they’re most often made from coils of wire that are mechanically shaped, tumbled clean, shined, and even lubricated.  In the United States, nails are still measured by a centuries-old English system that expresses length in “pennies.” Everywhere else, it’s the metric system.

For the past couple of months, nails have been objects of irritation, not fascination, for me. I’ve pulled hundreds of needle-sharp little finishing nails from the cheap panelling used to hide loose plaster, and groaned as I wrestled out six-inch (Whoops, sorry. Make that fifteen-centimeter) wire nails previous owners of this house have used to secure tiny picture frames to the wall. I’ve bloodied the inside of my work gloves with nail sticks more than once and stepped on boards that drove them through my thick soles and stopped just short of my foot.

Safety

I feel compelled to add a safety note here. Before undertaking work of this sort, you should speak with your doctor about having a tetanus booster. You should invest in gloves that protect your hands without comprising your fingertips’ ability to feel what you’re about to touch before you fully grasp it. You should wear boots with steel where it counts.  And you should keep a little first-aid kit at hand. You will get hurt, but there’s no sense taking the sorts of risks that promote “hurt” to “sutured,” or worse.

Yesterday, I gave the gentlest of tugs to a 3-metre-high, wall mounted kitchen cabinet. It suddenly collapsed and showily crashed down a hair’s-breadth short of my toes. It had fifteen-centimetre nails sticking out of it. Old mouse shit rained on me when it fell. It could easily have broken my foot. When I told Patricia, she banned me from further demo until I bought proper boots. I refused. She pulled out the big guns: If I didn’t buy steel-reinforced work boots, she would buy them for me. The moral: Listen to those who care about you.

Aesthetic Merit

As I stripped off the modern layers of the house and got closer to the original framing, something marvelous started to happen. The nails I was pulling out, unlike wire nails, didn’t bend. There was a strong hint of blue on their rectangular shanks that reminded me of seeing my grandfather heating and then cooling steel to harden it before making a knife blade. The blue on the shank was the result of the nail’s having been annealed—as the original nailers must have done—to a certain hardness. When I first hit one of these nails sideways to lay it flat against the face of a board, it didn’t bend. It snapped, and flew through the air and hit my safety glasses with enough force to scratch them. Held in the hand and shaken, the nails make a satisfyingly crisp sound, a little like money. Now, this was a nail.

When I’m pulling these lovely blue nails and they come out straight, I can’t bring myself to throw them out. It’s too easy to imagine these things being annealed in a hellishly hot Victorian factory, and to imagine, as well, the skilled human oversight that accompanied their making.

The Happy Man with a Modest Tool

Most of my life, I’ve done things on the cheap. I’ve kept five-dollar claw hammers with wobbly heads for decades rather than spend $25 dollars on something that, I imagined, looked good, but worked the same as any other tool. Wrong.

One day, while I was watching Mike Holmes demolish someone’s basement, I noticed that when a member of the crew hit a wall, a shelf, or part of a 2×4 frame with his or her hammer, things broke. When I hit something other than a nail with my hammer, it bounced off. Could everyone be so much stronger than me? I wondered. As a result, male vanity led me to the hardware store.

My first venture into quality hand tools was an Estwing nail puller. It provided just the right leverage for lifting the edges of panels, it was strong and sharp enough to be forced between or under recalcitrant panels, it could punch through loose plaster and pry it from the lath, and it was even great for pulling nails. After ten minutes of use, it never left my hand.

Next, I bought a 16-ounce Stanley hammer for around $20. It wasn’t a demolition hammer, but when I hit the bottoms of shelves with it, they flew off the frame supporting them. 2x4s couldn’t stand up to it either. Its balance and grip were so much better than my old claw hammers that it transferred the entire force of my swing into the object I was striking. The business end of the claw was thin and sharp and it slipped under the heads of nails and held them.

Last week, I bought a medium-size Estwing pry bar/nail puller that’s earning its stripes in the demolition wars, as well. Who could have guessed that such simple devices could become such natural extensions of my hand?

Next comes a true demolition hammer, which I’ll buy with a Canadian Tire gift certificate I got for Christmas. Really, I can’t wait.

About Terence Byrnes

Terence Byrnes is a writer and photographer who teaches at Concordia University in Montreal. Visit www.terencebyrnes.com to see his photography.
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