Last year I got to tour one of the Lee Valley Tools warehouses in Ottawa, Ontario. No wait, don’t leave just yet. A Lee Valley warehouse is like the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory.
Yes, there are huge metal racks filled with bins for garden equipment, tools and Painters’ Pyramids. But the Lee family also has a tendency to pick up odd items and preserve them in the warehouse. Example: an entire old-school hardware store , packed up and stored in boxes. There were entire pallets of odd-shaped metal parts or leftover factory stock of very old screws that Leonard Lee or his son Robin picked up while on an adventure.
Sometimes these finds end up in the catalog (remember the awesome French knives a few years ago, or the bronze hinges?). Other times, the items just sit and wait for the right purpose.
As Robin Lee was showing a group of us around his newest warehouse, his hand reached into a waist-high bin and pulled out a tidily wrapped cardboard box.
These were Swiss horseshoe nails, he explained. Every nail was perfectly formed and shiny. (Would you expect anything less from the Swiss?) And he had hundreds of these boxes.
The nails looked familiar to me. And because I took an interest in them, Robin gave me a box. It was a fun time getting them through U.S. Customs. (“Yes sir, Swiss horseshoe nails. No, I’m not a farrier. No, I have no idea what else they could be used for.”)
When I got home, I realized that these nails looked a lot like ancient Roman nails, which were the forerunner of the classic cut nail of the 18th and 19th centuries. Roman nails have a square shank and taper on all four edges to a point. Some were shaped very similarly to these farrier’s nails. Other have a head that was obviously designed to be proud of the surface. Cut nails have a rectangular shank and taper on only two edges.
I toyed with the idea of using the horseshoe nails in the 18th-century dry sink I recently finished building, but my experiments with the nails made me think twice. Because the Roman-style nails taper on all four sides, they have an even greater tendency to split the work. I tried a variety of pilot holes, but all I got were lots and lots of splits.
Perhaps the nails were better used in wetter wood, which would be more plastic. Perhaps I’m doing it wrong. I do know one thing: These nails hold like crazy. I had a heck of a time pulling them out, even from a badly split board.
In the end, I didn’t feel sorry for myself that I couldn’t figure it out. But I sure feel sorry for the Swiss horses.
- Christopher Schwarz