In Shop Blog, Techniques

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You can do fancy things with a hammer and the right nails. And lately, I’ve been doing a lot of practicing with cut nails for a series of projects I’m working on that feature nails (including the dry sink in the next issue of Woodworking Magazine).

The more I learn about nails, the more I find out there are lots of interesting things you do with them. You probably have heard about “clinching” (sometimes spelled “clenching”) nails. This is when the tip of the nail passes entirely through both of your workpieces. Then you use your hammer to bend the nail’s tip over and back into the work.

You see lots of this in boat building and in old work, especially where battens have been attached to doors.

Some people can’t quite visualize this, and so I was happy to find the illustration above in “Exercises in Woodworking,” a late 19th-century book that I need to do a full blog entry on. It’s quite cool. You can download the whole book at Google Books.

I’ve found the trick to clinching nails is to have the nail’s head resting on a piece of steel plate or some small anvil. It makes it much easier to turn over the tip.

While I was browsing this book, I also found a description of how to swing a hammer to encourage floorboards or backboards to mate together tightly along their edges. I’ve done this before (by accident), but I didn’t know exactly what was going on inside. The illustration (figure 5 above) shows it brilliantly.

“Fig. 5 illustrates a peculiar drawn blow of the hammer. Starting at
d, it follows the direction of the broken line in its course; the effect of which is to bend the nail in such a manner that it forces the board a close up to c, as shown at f. This blow is practiced in nailing floors and in clinching wrought nails.”

Or you can try finding this device

– Christopher Schwarz

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Showing 10 comments
  • Jane Church

    Great post! I’ve been very interested in handycrafts for a long time. I didn’t know that Woodworking Magazine Weblog

  • Art Shaw

    Clinched nails in a door, as you describe, in old time carpenters’ lingo were said to be "dead" . This gave rise to the saying "Dead as a doornail".
    Maybe because they will never move again?

    Art Shaw

  • jacob

    I was taught to clench nails for ledge brace and batten doors with a nail punch.
    First punch the heads in below the surface.
    Second turn over and punch the sticking out nails over sideways along the grain – but with the punch applied at the base so that it bends into the surface and also gets slightly pulled through tighter.
    Third is to punch and bend the nail end down into the surface, which pulls the rest of the nail below the surface.
    Last fill all the holes with putty.
    It’s very fast and you can nail up a door in a few minutes.


  • Rick Yochim


    And as to the method, inadvertent or purposeful, whereby the hammer face "pulls" the stock into place by manipulating the bending of the nail, that’s a useful skill to develop if one does a lot of hand nailing as I used to as a finish carpenter. It really is a feel you have to develop. You start by roughing up (and keeping rough) the face of the hammer with emory cloth to insure it has good bite, then you work on bending the nail – in only the direction you want of course – by putting a little English on it right at the moment of impact. This really only works if you are not over-striking the nail head and you are getting perfect "interface" between hammer face and nail. Takes practice but it’s one of those subtle things that if you master it you save a lot of time not removing gummed up nails that are bent half way through as you can make mid-course correstions to fully seat the miscreant while snugging up the stock at the same time. (Only talking about modern bent wire nails here – but it could be done with cut nails no doubt.)

    Rick Yochim

    PS – As you are no doubt aware, carpenters can tend to be somewhat playful at times. One jobsite joke, never done by me of course, is to take your buddy’s favorite finish hammer while he’s not looking, buff shine the face, and put it back in his belt. Then watch the air turn blue when he destroys many nails and much stock. First he blames the quality of nails made today, then, more thoughtfully, he attributes the problem to concentration loss due to the residual effects of last night’s bender. Only when he discovers the real source of the problem does everyone get scarce.

  • Adam Knox

    Did you see the through pinning graphic on page 93 of Exercises in Woodworking?

  • Larry Chenoweth

    Chris in looking at figure 6d it reminds me of something my uncle taught me as a kid on his farm. We were nailing boards together similar to a batten arrangement. First he said always stagger your nails so as never to put two nails in the same grain line, encouraging splitting. Second he said that when you get ready to clinch the nail over you have to decide if the application is for apperance or strength. If it is the first, you bend the nail with the grain so that you can basicly end up countersinking it. If it is the latter such as a batten, you would bend it across the grain so that it would have better holding power against pull out. Hence the old saying, form follows function.


  • P.M. Leenhouts

    Bucking irons can be as simple as those found in auto supply shops such as NAPA Auto Parts. They sell a nice dubbing iron used for tapping out dents in (older) automobile bodywork. It works well for clenching planking nails. Pete

  • Christopher Schwarz


    It works both ways in my experience. Clinching after driving is also supported by the literature. When I first learned to do it, I did it with two hammers actually instead of an anvil or buck block.

    Thanks for pointing this out.


  • hunter

    i second what david said.

    i have done it this way on 2 board and batten doors i built. i have a big chunk of steel that i use as an anvil place it under where the nail will come through and drive the nail home (last few blows you really whack it.). it bends over nicely. and doesnt take much time. i use tremont nails they are great.

  • David Cockey

    My understanding is usual, traditional boatbuilding practice is to clench the nail while driving it. An iron, frequently a large hammer head, is held at an angle on the surface of the wood the nail will emerge from while the nail is being driven. Once the tip of the nail emerges the iron is rolled flat against the wood so that the nail curves back into the wood.

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