Types of Nails For Every Construction Project
Nov 09, 2020
A nail may appear to be the most straight-forward item you’ll use in construction. Its design is simple: a point, a straight shank, and a head. They have been used since the days of ancient Egypt and for more than 5,000 years builders have turned to them to attach beams and joists to one another.
However, this most basic type of fastener also comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, some best suited for structural frames and others used in finish carpentry work. As professional builder and craftsman Jordan Smith explains, there are ones with “different tips, different shanks, and different heads, all depending on the purpose the nail was designed for.”
Nail Materials and Coatings
In addition to different nail shapes, the different materials used to make nails and their coatings (or sheathings) make them best suited to particular conditions and situations. There are a few different metals commonly used to make nails.
Most nails are made of steel, with several different options besides untreated steel.
- Stainless steel: The addition of chromium to steel helps it resist corrosion, though it can also reduce the gripping effect of the nail.
- Galvanized steel: Galvanized steel is dipped in zinc, which provides a protective layer against corrosion. If steel nails are going to be used outdoors, you’ll want either stainless or galvanized ones.
- Carbon steel: The high carbon content of this steel makes it harder and is used for masonry nails.
This is another good option for outdoor use and is used to install aluminum siding and often with cedar and redwood. (The zinc in galvanized nails will react with those woods, making aluminum a good alternative.)
These nails are most often used on roofs as they are especially durable and resist the corrosive effects of pollution more than galvanized steel nails. They are more expensive than other options, but given that they can last for decades, they may be a better value over the long run.
This alloy of copper and zinc does not rust and so it has long been used on ships. Given their cost, they are generally only used in houses when they will be exposed and they provide a decorative accent. There are some rare situations where brass nails may be preferable over galvanized ones as the zinc in galvanized coatings may react with certain materials, for example, the copper in copper pipes.
Some specialty nails are made of other metals, though they are not common in home construction. For example bronze nails are often used in the construction of boats while iron nails are still produced, but they are mostly used for the restoration of historic buildings.
Just as the materials used to make nails can improve their performance under certain conditions, the same is true of some coatings that are commonly used. Note that if a nail is described as “bright,” that means it has no coating and is typically intended for indoor use.
A layer of zinc over steel will slow corrosion. While eventually the zinc will wear through, the rusting is delayed. There are two different ways in which zinc is typically applied:
- Zinc plating or electro-galvanization. When steel nails are dipped in a zinc acidic bath, a thin layer of zinc is left behind. This provides some protection against rust, though these nails are still usually intended for indoor use.
- Galvanization. Galvanized or hot-dipped galvanized nails are dipped in molten zinc. The resulting layer is six times as thick as the layer on zinc-plated nails making galvanized steel nails appropriate for outdoor use. The layer of zinc is sometimes called a “sacrificial coating” since, even if the underlying steel is exposed, the corrosion will attack the zinc before the nail itself.
Drywall nails are often coated with phosphate, which increases the gripping power of the nails. (Note: phosphate coated nails should not be used on treated lumber.)
Also used on drywalls and gypsum board, the thin layer of cement on these coated nails heats up from the friction when they are nailed in place, increasing their staying power.
A vinyl layer operates similarly to cement, although it has the added plus of acting as a lubricant for the nail during installation.
Nails have their own classification system, with a complete nail set ranging from 2d (one inch long) to 60d (six inches). The “d” stands for denarius, a Roman penny—a reference to how much they once cost—while the number assigned to a nail today indicates not only its length, but also the diameters of its shank and head. A 16d or 16-penny nail, for example, is 3.5 inches long, has a shank with a diameter of 0.165 inches, and a head with a diameter of 11/32 inches.
Specialized nails are often graded using the 2d to 60d scale, though they may also be sold indicating their length in inches or some other dimension.
Choosing the right size nail for your wood
As a general rule, more dense woods or hardwoods (including maple, oak, and walnut) are better able to hold nails as there are more fibers to grip the nail, though they are also more prone to splitting.
Softwoods (including cedar, Douglas fir, and pine) won’t grip a nail as well because there are fewer fibers to hold it in place. You may recognize the softwoods as ones that are especially common in construction projects; they are popular choices because of the ease of working with these varieties, including when it comes to nailing fasteners. To compensate for the lower density of fibers, however, it is necessary to use longer nails and in some cases coatings like cement as well.
Why don’t structures fall down or come apart? Learn all about the stuff that holds building materials together in the MT Copeland online Fasteners and Adhesives course. Taught by professional builder Jordan Smith, the course covers topics ranging from nails and screws to glues and epoxies.