International Nails of Mystery - Popular Woodworking Magazine

International Nails of Mystery

 In Chris Schwarz Blog, Woodworking Blogs

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

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Showing 10 comments
  • Patrick

    Chris –

    The second taper at the very tip of a horseshoe nail forces the nail up and OUT of a horse’s hoof. Basically, the nail is engineered to chew out a curve. The soft, plastic qualities of a horse’s hoof allows the nail to do this without discomfort to the horse (unless you miss).

    In wood though, it causes a split board. That wedge isn’t acting the way a regular wire nail will, or even those Roman cut nails.

    And if I were to guess, I bet the nail shot through the flooring, the pine boards and the subfloor, in a short enough distance that the curve couldn’t split a softwood and engineered chipboard.

    I knew my summers mucking stalls would pay off at a cocktail party sometime.

  • Mack McKinney

    I’d be happy to sell you my wife’s quarter horse to go along with your new nails!

  • Andrew H

    Coincidentally, I just got an email of the most recent Lee Valley Newsletter which includes a link to an article about cut nails. What timing!

  • John

    These almost would require a pilot hole with a countersink to accomodate the flare.

  • Ethan


    I believe the best use of these nails might just be in attaching old horse shoes above the front door of log cabins.



  • Patrick Lund

    I think you’ve got to remember "Horseshoe Nail". The wide shank below the head was in the metal horseshoe not the wood.


  • Christopher Schwarz


    A lot of Roman nails I’ve seen photos of had heads that flared like that (check the link in the story to one set on Flickr). The split could occur early if the pilot hole was small.


  • Jason


    Did Roman nails have that same ridiculous flare between the shank and the head? That looks like a splitting wedge, if you ask me. I think that with dry woods, you’re going to need a creative pilot hole to overcome the tremendous mechanical advantage that thing has. The taper of the main shank doesn’t look TOO horrendous, but I guess without seeing the nails in action, I can’t tell for sure if the splitting is happening before or after that big flare hits the hole.


  • Bartee Lamar

    You have the GREATEST Job!!!

    I love your blog. Rob Lee’s warehouse would be like a kid in a candy store, or me in an old style hardware store. I loved going to the old hardware stores and just looking around. There was always something new!!! At least to me.


  • Marco Cecala

    Thanks for the mention of farrier’s nails. 20 years I did a floor for horse people using pine 1×6 siding upside down, so it liked like beveled 1×3’s. We drilled pilot holes, and used horseshoe nails, and square farriers hammers, leaving hammer marks on the floor.

    The wood was a bit wet, so no splitting problems. We glued the floor down, the nails were mostly ornamental.

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