I use cut nails in my furniture projects. They hold better and look better than common wire nails. They do have a couple downsides, however. They are more expensive than wire nails and more difficult to find. You cannot walk down to the local hardware store and buy a bag.
Well, let me qualify that last sentence a bit. You actually can purchase cut nails at the hardware store, but they are super-hard nails designed for masonry, not furniture. In a pinch, I’ve used these masonry nails for carcase construction, but I am not a fan. Many of them have too smooth a finish, which reduces their holding power. And some masonry nails have too much taper, which means they will split the wood, even if you drill a pilot hole for the nail.
So if you want cut nails, your best bet is to get some that are made by Tremont, which are sold directly from the manufacturer and other resellers, such as Tools for Working Wood, which packages them in nifty bags.
I’ve tried to get some information on La Belle cut nails from its West Virginia factory, but haven’t received a reply. Another good source for cut nails is eBay; old boxes of nails show up all the time. Shipping for these bargains, however, can be a killer.
But the biggest questions for most woodworkers are: What types of nails should I buy? And what sizes? Here are the nails that I stock in my shop and what they are good for.
For nailing together carcases and installing drawer runners, I prefer the “fine finish standard” nail because I like the way it looks. Some people prefer the look of the “box nail” or the “brad standard.” All of them work.
To select the correct sizes of nails you need to consider the thickness of wood you are nailing through. The rule of thumb is that you first convert the thickness of the top board into eighths – so a 1/2”-thick board is four-eighths; a 3/4” board is six-eighths. The numerator is the size of nail you should use for that board – a 4d nail and a 6d nail in these examples.
For carcase work, I use 3d nails (1-1/4” long) for toenailing and installing drawer runners, 4d nails (1-1/2” long) for nailing into rabbeted case work and 6d nails (2”-long) for full-on nailing through 3/4” material.
The best nails for installing moulding are the “fine cut headless brads.” They are crazy expensive, but worth it. After paying for a few boxes you’ll realize why early cabinetmakers took the time to straighten any bent nails. I keep 2d brads (1”-long) on hand for small mouldings, plus 3d and 4d brads for larger mouldings.
I prefer nails with a good-sized head to hold my cabinet backs in place. Sometimes I’ll use a “clout” nail for this, but I prefer the look of the “wrought head” nail that comes with a black oxide finish. As to sizes, I use 4d wrought heads for 1/2”-thick backs and 6d nails for 3/4” backs.
There are other specialty nails for hinges and clinching, but I don’t keep these on hand. I buy them only when I have an upcoming project that requires them.
I keep all my nails in a plastic tackle box, which is perhaps the ugliest thing in my workshop and is something I intend to fix this year by building a traditional nail cabinet. These wall-hanging cabinets look like a lot of work because they have lots of drawers, but they are easy to build – thanks to nails.
— Christopher Schwarz
For more on using nails in traditional casework, check out the book “The Joiner and Cabinet Maker” at ShopWoodworking.com. This was a nearly lost text from 1839 that details life in a rural English shop. Joel Moskowitz and I rescued the original book plus added extensive historical background and built the projects detailed in the book.