Chris Schwarz's Blog

Wonderful Wedgies With Cut Nails

Some of the best workholding ideas rely on simple wedging action. This weekend I stumbled onto one more great wedging trick using cut nails.

This might be old hat for you. If so, forgive my waste of bandwidth (which should be the motto of my blog).

I’m creating some wide panels from narrow boards using an early woodworking technique of nailing cross-stretchers across the joints of the panel. There’s no glue involved in this panel. And no Bessey K-bodies, either.

The technique calls for placing your boards on your bench and securing them edge-to-edge by nailing into your bench around the perimeter of the panel. Then you nail the cross-stretchers down to the panel and clench them.

As you probably know, cut nails taper along two of their edges. The other two edges are parallel. When you build furniture you orient the taper so the tapered edges of the nail bite into the end grain of your top board. This reduces the chance of your work splitting.

So when I nailed into my bench using this principle, two things happened. First, Managing Editor Megan Fitzpatrick exclaimed: “Oh my! What are you doing?” I just cracked a wicked grin.

And second, the edges of the panel came together OK.

I thought about this for a minute, then I pulled two of the nails out of my benchtop and oriented them so the tapers bit into the edge grain , both of my panel and the workbench.

Then my joints closed up so tightly I could plane the entire panel and the pieces didn’t slip. Dang. The slight wedging action of the nails was surprisingly effective (and no, it didn’t split the top of my 4″-thick benchtop).

If you are interested in learning more about the history and use of cut nails, I wrote a lengthy story about building furniture with hammer and nails in issue five (Spring 2006) of Woodworking Magazine.

- Christopher Schwarz

10 thoughts on “Wonderful Wedgies With Cut Nails

  1. Christopher Schwarz

    Bill,

    Gads.

    You don’t have a nail puller? They are awesome because they work so much better than the "claw."

    I think I paid 50 cents for mine at a Maine flea market. I know I overpaid. Sorry!

    Chris

  2. Bill T.

    Except that those tapered cut nails can be a bear to pull out. You might even break a wooden-handled hammer trying to pull a cut nail out of your workbench, leaving the head lying neatly on the bench with the nail smiling up at you from between the hammer’s claws, and leaving you gripping nothing but a snapped-off wooden hammer handle.

    Do Not Ask Me How I Know This.

  3. Christopher Schwarz

    Sampson,

    The only real advantage is that you can work without clamps — like using hot hide glue for a rub joint.

    And you make your bench into a great toothpick holder!

    Chris

  4. Corey

    Chris, this is not a waste of bandwidth. I love learning the old ways of doing things and this is new to me. I have been reading and learning about woodworking for 20 years and I’ve never come across this. Maybe it just seems like common sense to the old timers. I really appreciate these posts, I never would have thought you could exert enough pressure with just a few nails.

    Keep it up.
    Corey

  5. Samson

    Thanks, Chris. Don’t get me wrong, I find this interesting and am glad you explored it. I just wondered if it provided some advantage I was missing.

  6. Christopher Schwarz

    Samson,

    I did it simply to try a new (actually very old) technique.

    I have been amazed at how few tools and clamps you really need to build furniture if you try some of these old-school techniques. So I’m happy to explore things such as this.

    Chris

  7. Samson

    Two questions:
    – why would you need to do this? As opposed to just using clamps?

    – If you did need to do this, why not use a scrap piece of 3/4" ply and save your bench top?

  8. Luis Madeira

    I have to admit that I grinned as well when I saw the photo at the beginning of this post…and if you keep up this practice, your bench will begin to look like my grandfather’s in another 20 years or so.

    I’ve seen too many people treat their benches like fine mahogany dining room tables. To qualify, there’s nothing wrong with taking care of your bench – it is, after all, one of the most important and versatile tools in the shop…but it is a TOOL. I can understand the reluctance to "pepper it with holes", especially considering the amount of work required to build one.

    Having said that, beech and hard maple don’t accept steel penetration as readily as SYP…and pre-drilling holes for nails as workholding devices would be a bit of a pain.
    I didn’t think to try cut nails (as opposed to regular round nails) for this application…would they be more robust than regular nails? I’ll have to give it a try…

COMMENT