In Shop Blog, Techniques

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Traditional cut nails can be made from pretty soft steel, especially the useful cut headless brads. As a result, you have to be careful when installing them. Here are some of the things that can go wrong and how I deal with them.

1. Your pilot hole is too shallow. One early book on woodworking advises you to drill a pilot hole that is one-half the length of your nail. This advice works in softwoods, but it can be a disaster in hardwoods. When a soft nail reaches the end of the pilot hole it can bend. This is a sudden failure: tap, tap, doink. The best solution is to pull the nail with nippers (is this a racist term? I hope not) and drill the pilot deeper.

2. Your hammer skills stink. When working inside casework, it can be tough to get the hammerhead right where you want it , particularly when driving nails at an angle for toenailing or simply angling them to help wedge your components together. When this problem happens, I usually have only a small amount of the nail that’s proud and getting the nippers (should these be called the “Japanese Extractors?”) in there to pull the nail can be difficult.

If there’s just a little bit of the head that’s proud, I’ll snip it off (with snippers, the nipper’s sharp friend). Then I’ll file the soft steel flush with the work. This might seem excessive, but you don’t want anyone catching their hand on a nail or the nail’s head interfering with a drawer’s fit.

I use a fine file without a handle. I lay it flat on the wood and push it forward, then lift the file, move it back then push again. Files cut on the push stroke. Dragging one backward over your nail will dull the file. If you start filing wood that’s OK; it generally leaves a nice finish behind.

3. You split the work. Either your pilot hole is too small, you are too close to the end of the board or you oriented the cut nail in the wrong direction (you want its wedge shape to bite into the end grain of your board that’s on top). The solution: Pull the nail, wick yellow glue into the split piece and wrap the repair in painter’s tape. Put a clamp on it. When the glue is dry, redrill the pilot hole (perhaps enlarging it a tad) and try again.

Cut nails sound like a pain, but they really are worth the trouble. They hold better than wire nails and look better in traditional projects. Nothing looks as odd as a piece of 18th-century furniture made with drywall screws and pneumatic finish nails. I buy my nails from Tremont Nail, which offers a wide range of cut nails.

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 16 comments
  • Don Butler


    My comment was merely meant to reflect my personal preferences. I certainly don’t question the historicity of using nails and I most certainly don’t mean to criticize you.

    Please forgive me for the offense. There was none intended.

    Most sincerely yours,

    Don Butler

  • Christopher Schwarz


    For contemporary furniture, I would agree. However, for the furniture I build (generally traditional), nails are used throughout. They are used thoughtfully and (in many cases) are hidden from view.

    Any furniture conservator could back me up on this.


  • Don Butler

    I abhor nails and only use them on trim moldings in house construction, NEVER on furniture at all. I recognize that nails were used often in traditional woodworking such as children’s items and trims for furniture, but I detest them, avoid their use entirely and NEVER, EVER would use them where the ‘wound’ could be seen.
    I make the exception in the case of a back panel for a carcase.


  • dave schabel sr

    like tremont nails, nice variety of period nails.

  • Al

    RE – Nails splitting your work when used near the edge…

    Cut nails work best, but another trick is to blunt the tip of a wire nail before driving it home. I usually hold the head of the nail against the floor or a piece of scrap and then tap the tip twice with my framing hammer. That seems to do the trick and greatly reduces the amount of split moulding I have to deal with.

  • Marshall

    "JC" as far as ‘marring’ the surface of your project with a file…. i can say i have never had a problem with a file messing up a project, as long as your not filing on a "finished" surface, and you resist the urge to ‘get all crazy’ with the…if you do as the original weblog (by Mr. Shwarz) says and lightly file in a forward direction only, you shouldnt have a problem…. and if by-chance you do get a couple file marks on the surface, its nothing that a couple passes with a piece of 220+ grit sand paper cant fix.

    with that said, i had a question about the comment stating that you should only "cut on the push stroke" with a file, because "drawing" will dull a file….. now this is something that i have always heard, but while actually thinking about it i started wandering…. is this true for only single ct files or does it go with double cut ones also…. cuz i follow the rules with a single cut but when i get a double cut in my hand, i "cut" on the forward the backwards the sideways the upside down…lol…. you get my point…am i damaging my files ???
    thank you all

  • Dan LaJeunesse


    Keep your personality and your thoughts in your writing. I tend to ignore those critics with too much time on their hands.


  • JC

    looks like yesterdays post somehow never made it here. I’m just wondering what your thoughts are on using a file after planing. should this only be done in an inconspicous area? I would think a file would mar the surface. Lets see if the post works today!

  • David

    Hmm – The "racist" thing went right by me, perhaps because "Nippon" is the proper japanese term used by their citizens for the country of Japan, which was later perverted by the US government to the word "Nip" in WWII-era propaganda posters. "Nippers" has absolutely zilch to do with either "Nippon" or "Nip" – it’s both a description of a tool and a slang term for a little kid.

    OK – now back to woodworking amusement. I expected the phrase "Nothing looks as odd as a piece of 18th-century furniture made with drywall screws and pneumatic finish nails." to be far more controversial. While it is a statement of opinion, it is indeed true – modern fasteners have absolutely no place in 18th century furniture, as does plywood.

    However, a certain woodworking TV personality is absolutely famous (infamous?) for taking perverse pleasure in tacking moldings on reproductions of 18th century colonial American furniture with a pneumatic pin nailer, and has been derisively called "The Biscuit Joiner" for his propensity to employ that tool in just about every conceivable situation. So does that make you a "Normist"? (grin)


  • Bruce Jackson

    I’m curious. Are there periodicals devoted to the history of woodworking with an eye to how different cultures influence styles and methods of work?

    Much of what I have seen in area of "period reproduction" (that is, using methods of the times to reproduce, say, Queen Anne, Country, or Federalist reproductions) center on the periods, as well as others (think Shaker and different forms of Arts & Crafts), I listed in the parenthese, seem to be of American or Colonial provenance. When I branch out to other magazines, Fine Woodworking comes to mind, then I see a Ming reproduction in this month’s FWW, as well as Tansu chests and some incredible contemporary-like pieces using techniques rarely covered in PWW, like bent lamination (the best way I can describe it.

    Our Westernized tools work on the P.U.S.H. principle (something like Pray Until Something Happens?). Push saws. Push planes, Push chisels. Tools from ancient and non-Western cultures seem to work differently; pull. Pull saws. Pull planes. Having worked with both push and pull saws, as far as I’m concerned, the push saw shouldn’t have gotten past the first guy (or gal) who used it. I’m finishing up a project now, and I had to throw away a piece because my push backsaw for my miterbox is so frustrating and exhausting to use, I mitered the piece on the wrong side. And I haven’t accounted for the hairiness of my cut. The teeth are really too few and too big. Doesn’t help that I’m shaping select SYP (southern yellow pine) from the big blue box down the boulevard. Next time, I’ll try my ryoba in the miterbox to see how it works. Might help to use some camellia oil (or failing that, the canola oil off the top of the stove) to lubricate the saw befroe I start cutting.

    Anyway, the point is to build respect for other ways of working wood. Put away your Disston in favor of your ryoba, your Sheffield in favor of your dozuki, your Bedrock in favor of a Japanese or Chinese (or even Roman) plane you buy (or build) yourself. Seems it’s only when you use the other guy’s (or gal’s) saw that you truly see inside the heart, yours and your companion’s.

    Sorry, just a few random PC thoughts.

  • Wesley B. Tanner


    Hold on a minute folks, No one is calling anyone a racist. I simply commented, or tried to, that once the issue was raised, the Japanese phrase then became questionable. This is how language works.

    And no one is suggesting that Mr. Schwartz is anything other than "a beacon of light in the world of fine craftsmanship." Let me now fall on my knees and exclaim "I’m not worthy."

    Still, I think that your recent Woodworking editorial does open some interesting issues. How can we extend the craft to a larger community?


  • Don Peregoy

    I have just finished my first NAILED project a small (toy box size) 6 board chest made of pine. I am working on a second smaller one using Cherry for the body. I hade some splitting of one end on the pine chest which I “fixed “ by running glue into the split and clamping.
    The cherry – will I could have just as well used a set of splitting wedges. I know this design is by its nature contrarian but there is something about it I find appealing. Is there a list of pilot hole sizes and spacing recommendations.

  • Christopher Schwarz

    I think people are being a little sensitive this morning to something that is a simple play on words without any negative connotations.

    If we could please keep the discussion to woodworking, that would be ideal. If you want to call me a racist, send me an e-mail:

    Thanks in advance.


  • .

    It wasn’t racist at all until you made it so with the later comment about the Japanese.

  • Frank Vucolo

    Pretty big stretch to call the word nipper racist; in fact is’t not a stretch at all, it’s inappropriate. A nipper is what Chris described.

    That said, the "Japanes Extractor" comment could be taken as marginally insensative to someone who is looking to take it that way. It’s just enough for someone looking to make a charge of racism to grab on to and twist out of proportion.

    Chris puts out a ton of valuable content on woodworking – much of it on blogs at no cost. He is a spontaneous, inventive and refreshingly unique writer. I’d hate to see this prolific contributor to the woodworking community have to start measuring every piece of his art against charges of political correctness.

    I’m sure there are places in our society where racism needs to be challenged and I’m sure ther are communities out there that need to be more open and inclusive.

    In my opinion, you’re barking up the wrong tree here.


  • Wesley B. Tanner

    Dear Chris,

    Nipper as a racist term? Goodness, that when right by me. All the word brought to my mind was a tool for taking a nip off a nail head. But once you’ve brought the subject of racism up, "Japanese Extractors" then seems quite racist. But you’re right to be concerned about language and the way intentions are perceived.

    Recently your site announced the Woodworking in America conference. After reading about it I thought I’d better take a look at the list of presenters before I sent in my registration fee. Upon reaching the page I was presented with eleven white men over the age of 50. Now, I have the greatest respect for these gentlemen. Indeed, as your web site boasts, "Their precision, authority and insight have made them key figures in the woodworking world, and they’ll . . . share their unsurpassed wisdom and expert techniques with you." No doubt, but doesn’t this selection by any definition seem somewhat narrow when there are so many women active in woodworking — how could this happen? And so far we’ve only discussed women, what about the rest of the wonderfully diverse population of these United States? When I asked one of the staff at Woodworking during the Lie Nielsen event her response was a stunned look, and the comment that no one had thought of it. And I suppose that’s the problem, no one’s thinking about it.

    I’m sure the Woodworking in America conference will prove to be the great success it deserves to be. And PW and Woodworking magazine are to be recognized as a beacon of light in the world of fine craftsmanship, whether it be woodworking or other disciplines. But I’d like to suggest here that one of the reasons so much of contemporary woodworking design looks the same is a narrowness of culture, and the real question is how to expand it.

    These are, unfortunately, not new issues. T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, who coined the phrase “Art and Crafts”in 1888, went firmly against the grain of his times when in the 90s he opened his London workshop to women students (mostly Americans); and as you suggest in your editorial in the recent Woodworking, we need to stay very aware of how fragile the continuity of craft culture is, and that an open and inclusive attitude is surely the best way to ensure it’s life into the new century.



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