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.)