Monday, December 25, 2006

Old Nails and Spikes

Early old nails and spikes can make for some unique finishing accents for building interesting items and decorating. Early wrought nails were first forged by tapering all four sides and then pounding the top to create the head of a nail. After 1800 cut nails were machine made having only one side tapered. I have collected several different kinds of nails using them in ways that I would like to share with you. The best and most original to find are the hand wrought nails of the 1700’s. In 1988, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, there was a fire that destroyed the roof of a famous three story federal house built in 1795. I had the occasion to sift through the remains, finding many hand wrought nails found in the burned out wood. It also happened that the demolition crew was also saving the nails, pulling them from the boards with great care. I appreciated it when I was given a coffee can full of the rare old nails knowing I was going make use of them in my work, which I still do today. Later I created memorable pieces of this historic house using the nails mounted on wood. These were used in a fund raising auction to rebuild and bring an uplifting spirit to the owners who had just recently completed restoring the house. With the money raised it helped to rebuild the roof and the destroyed cupola before winter. The Lord Timothy Dexter house was saved, standing tall on High Street minus those hand wrought nails that held on the roof planks.

I also happened to find copper nails from the house’s slate roof. There was a circle with a star embossed on each one. I cleaned these nail heads with copper cleaner bringing out the star’s raised pattern. I used these to nail on latches I carved for different boxes and furniture pieces I designed. Rusty nails should be cleaned by using a wire brush and then varnished if they are going to be used for show. They might be just the accent to use on an old beam to hang some herbs for instance.

One time I noticed piles of old railroad spikes along tracks that were going to be replaced. I gathered as many as I could. Some were very rusty with lots of pits but I liked them the best. Choosing some of them, I went to a local forge operating at the time and had the ends cut off. I then had a wood screw braised on so it could be screwed into a beam making for a unique kind of hook. I have a variety of nails all cleaned and ready to use or just to enjoy arranging them as accents around the studio.

Where would we be without nails and spikes? It’s nice to have a few arranged here and there for their historical memory and to make us wonder what they might have held together at one time.

You are invited to the Studio/ Gallery at 1313 Main Street, Glastonbury, Connecticut. Please call 860 -633 -7707 for more information or go to

1 comment:

Carole said...

I am still confused about hand-wrought and machine cut nails. I have lots of 'square' nails from the archaeological dig at my ancestral farm but can't tell if they are hand-wrought or machine cut. some of the problem is that they are so rusted. One is definitely hand cut because it has a rose-head. Can you twll me where I can find good pictures of these two kinds of nails? I have seen Visser's drawings but they are not as clear as I need.