Dating square cut nails
And perhaps even less well known is the fact that square nails are still manufactured today. Top: Hand forged 17th century iron nails and spike in the roof system of the Old Hawkins house, Derby, Connecticut.Bottom: Two 2.5″ (8d) square-cut iron nails I extracted from a door jamb, causing an oyster shell to break free from surrounding plaster (oyster shells were used as thickeners in early plaster walls). The basic form of the modern wrought square nail was developed in sixteenth century Europe.What many of us are unaware of, however, is that those old nails were actually superior in design to modern wire nails.They have several times the holding power, and are less likely to cause wood to split.The wood fibres would often swell if damp and bind round the nail making an extremely strong fixing.In Tudor times, we have evidence that the nail shape had not changed at all as can be seen by the nails found preserved in a barrel of tar on board the 'Mary Rose' - the Tudor flag ship of Henry VIII built in 1509 and recovered from the mud of the Solent in 1982.
The head of the nail was formed either by simply turning it over to form an L-shape or by striking a hand-held mould or 'bore' over the end of the shank to produce a shaped end such as a 'rose-head', a simple four sided pyramid shape.
When the first settlers began arriving in the New World in the early seventeenth century, they brought large quantities of wrought nails with them.
Nail making was never done on a very large scale in the American colonies.
Bars of the requisite thickness were then made into nails and spikes by 'nailers'.
Only the head and the point were forged, so these nails, which were common from the 17th to the early 19th century, can be distinguished from earlier ones by the sharp regular profile of the cut section.
It was not until around 1600 that the first machine for making nails appeared, but that tended really to automate much of the blacksmith's job.