The Trouble With Nails

When you take a close look at old furniture you can’t help but notice , and wonder about , the nails that are beaten into the piece with either great care, wacky abandon or both.

My grandmother owned an early 19th-century grandfather clock that I used to puzzle over. The clock was clearly made in a workshop, not a factory. There is evidence of toolmarks all over the piece, from the hand-sawn back boards to the clear toolmarks all over the moulding at the top of the case.

The puzzle is this: While the clock was made with a high level of skill, the casework and moulding are pocked with nails, and the nail holes aren’t filled. The nails have rectangular heads, the heads are black and the iron in the nails has even stained the surrounding wood just a bit.

Were the nails added later on by someone who refinished the clock? Or did the putty somehow come out if the piece was refinished? Or did the maker set the nails and walk away?

What about other antique pieces that have their nail holes filled? Were they filled by the maker? Were they filled by the grime of time or when the piece was refinished? And why is the putty usually as ugly as a booger on the lip of a supermodel?

A nail hole filled with a commercial putty after five years. The wood is cherry that’s finished with an aniline dye.

Anyone who has been working wood long enough has struggled with the problem of filling nail holes. You can fill nail holes with color-matched putty, but after a few years, the wood either fades or darkens and the putty starts to stand out like either freckles or pimples on your moulding.

Looking at old pieces offers no firm answers. And looking at old books isn’t especially helpful either. Peter Nicholson’s “The Mechanic’s Companion” (1842) discusses filling nail holes during its explanation of brads: “The intention is to drive it within the surface of the wood, by means of a hammer and punch, and fill the cavity flush to the surface with putty.”

Nicholson might just be discussing filling nail holes for painted work. In his section on painting, he says that putty is made of whiting (chalk or calcium carbonate) and linseed oil, beaten together. That putty would look a lot like plaster.

Several decades later, Paul Hasluck writes in “The Handyman’s Book” that for painted work, you should use putty. For other finishes, “the holes are stopped with beeswax and shellac colored to match the wood.”

Also floating out there is the technique of “blind nailing” your moulding, which is where you use a small gouge to lift up a shaving, drive a headless brad below that and glue the nail back down. It’s a clever solution and one we plan on investigating a bit to see how much trouble it is.

Senior editor Glen D. Huey and I have discussed the trouble with nails at great length. We have pored over hundreds of antique examples and photos from auction catalogs for clues. And we both leave our nail holes alone without putty or filler. Why? Because we think it looks better after the piece has seen years of service. I’d rather see an oxidized black dot than a splotch of off-colored putty.

But Glen and I also agree that we don’t have all the answers on this issue. If you’ve stumbled over a historical tidbit of information on filling nail holes, leave us a comment. Likewise, if you know of a putty recipe that darkens (or lightens) as the wood does the same thing, we’d like to hear that, as well. (By the way, I haven’t had much luck with putty made with sanding dust , it doesn’t seem to change color like I hoped.)

– Christopher Schwarz

13 thoughts on “The Trouble With Nails

  1. steve stahlman

    I work in a paint store and have a wood shop. I also have access to many different products and contractors with their tips. I concur with the others about using wood dust and glue. However, sometimes the "patch job" gets darker and the only product I’ve used and I also have demonstrated to others is the "soy based" stain by Flecto varathene. You can use one of their ready made stains or find a really sharp paint person to custom mix a stain. So far, I have seen their stain go on different woods and the stain looks identical butt to butt. I have personally matched a stain for a contractor that was using three different woods.. hemlock, pine, and oak.I only used one can, one stain, for all and they looked nice. Also try some whiting or other universal tints and mix with wood dust and glue. Test it on scrap pieces and let dry for a few days. If the stain is going to lighter than the "patch", test some more and make the test putty lighter. good luck to all!!

  2. Thomas Bingham

    My Dad taught me to use some of the saw dust you get when sanding. Mix it with a lettle wood glue then work it in the hole like you would putty.
    Tom

  3. Anthony Marzella

    I found when doing a whole house in cherry trim, wainscoting, coffered ceilings, ect, that if you put a little glue in the whole, (the tightbond dark style) wait until it starts to set then lightly sand over a bit of the area the natural color from the surrounding area makes for a killer putty. It almost matches to a T, use cab. scaper to make sure all glue is gone from the surrounding area. If you were careful with your glue… not a problem.

  4. dave brown

    regarding using sawdust and hideglue: does that work better than sawdust and PVA glues? I was never happy with the PVA/sawdust mixture. Hideglue seems like it would accept finishes better than PVA’s and potentially let the sawdust age more naturally. Just a guess . . . .

  5. Gustavo Orellana

    There is another method to fill nail holes, and cover small blemishes. I learned this from my grandfather, an old school dentist with many skills. Save the saw dust from the workpieces as you work with them, then mix some of it with hide glue (most modern glues will also work) and fill the hole with the paste, leaving s small space that is filled with additional saw dust. Make sure it is well packed. The filler matches the work, after all, it is the same material and stock. I have used this method many times, it also stands to time very well. I have a chest I built wiht him over 40 years ago, and it still looks great and can’t see where the nails are set.

  6. Howard M. Radwin

    We have dealt extensively in 18th and 19th century antique American furniture. The hand cut nails which are visible are an important part of the authenication of the piece as is the evidence of aging. The specifics of the nail type also are of interest and add to its attractiveness.

  7. John Zahurak

    Nailing molding on a piece made of cherry, I use a black burn in stick to fill the hole. Cherry often has small black knots, so it tends to be not too obvious after everything mellows with time.

  8. Justin Frazier

    Having applied 100’s of feet of molding in old and new houses I tend to try my best to hide the nails if possible. If the molding is going to be painted this is usually not a problem. But a filled nail hole in stained molding stands out like a sore thumb. Especially if I am trying to match exhisting molding in the house. I use a tool I am not sure where I got it from but it raises a small shaving of wood that you then nail under and glue the shaving back down to hide the nail. I have also started to use pin nails more and more because they are so small and headless they tend to disappear on their own.

  9. FS Gilbert

    You never notice the nail holes in my pieces after I make my cuts with a chainsaw and beat it into place with a tire iron.

  10. Christopher Schwarz

    Chris,

    Many mouldings are too difficult to clamp effectively while the glue sets, hence the nails. Also, moulding applied cross-grain (across the side of a case, for example) cannot be glued in place across the side of the piece. It will crack the case side or the moulding will come loose.

    Again, this is where the nails come in. You glue the moulding at the miter and use nails at the rear. The nails bend and allow the case side to move.

    The other option to nails is to apply the moulding using sliding dovetail joinery. This requires a significant investment in time. I haven’t seen it done much in period work.

    Chris

  11. Chris C.

    What about old pieces(or new actually) that avoid
    the problem by not using nails at all? My understanding
    is that hide glue can be used to make "rub" joints
    because it forms a fast initial tack. Could this
    be used for applied moldings, etc to avoid the
    nails completely?

    I’m sure it wouldn’t work in every case. but are
    there historical examples that were not nailed at all?
    Could the secret be the glue in some of these cases?

    Chris

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