Hi NH,

Chris How has come back to me and has asked me to post this on his behalf so over to Australia !! :-

You are much too kind in your description of my research. The bulk of the work has already been done in North America by Henry Mercer, Lee Nelson, Eric Sloane, Amos Loveday, Edwards & Wells, and very recently this year by Ryzewski & Gordon. I have only put the bits together and tried to fit in where we stand in Australia, and how the variations affect the UK.

To get a full appreciation I can forward my recent paper to Northern Hewer and others interested in this topic. NH is on the right track, and things that went on in USA were quickly noted in UK and vice-versa. Recent research has pushed back cut nails in America to around 1762 based on metalurgical finds. Barrel hoop was used and cut either by guillotine or by shears. The same thing happened over here in Australia when a party was sent from Sydney Cove, after the first landing in 1788, to Norfolk Island out in the Pacific to settle the island with some of the hard case convicts. They quickly ran out of shingle nails and cut more from barrel hoop; about 700 a day. So it's not surprising that the Yankees got onto this pretty early as nail shortages were critical from the 1650s or so. Their first machine was in 1790 and pretty crude, but did the job, using 2 levers and 2 foot pedals, by Jacob Perkins in Newburyport, Mass.

America struggled up until 1840 with changes in iron production and mechanisation. Thereafter they flew at great speed until around 1890 when steel wire nails came in to displace the cut nails. Over here in Australia we find the elegant US cut nail in the fine sizes used in softwood linings etc up until 1912. Australian carpenters seemed to like the finish or "fine" versions, easy to handle, to use, and to store. They were no use in Eucalypt woods, and broke easily.

To identify the changes, which were not uniform or linear, (depending on which State you are in), the neatest book is by Jay Edwards & Tom Wells, Historic Lousiana Nails; aids to dating of Old Buildings. This is beautifully illustrated and clear to follow. My only caution is that too much attention is given to the type of heads formed. Nelson's little pamphlet is also very concise and neat, but outdated now by more recent research.

Very roughly, cut shanks with hand formed facet heads are pre 1800. Those with struck heads and side pinched (across the shear of the cut) are pre 1830, though some say these were around in 1838. Neatly formed heads with face pinching, which slightly flattens the shank on the wider axis, will be after 1840. These are the ones we find here in Australia in thousands.
The Brits say they started importing simple US cut nail machines in 1811, but US sources say 1814!! Our MSc. colleague Adam Wilson found spur-head floor brads in a datable house of 1800 in Devon, England. Nelson & Mercer say they appear in the US in 1805-1810, so no one really knows who invented the cut spur-head brad. It may even be the Brits, using the American ideas, in order to develop the rising bed cutter needed to cut 2 nails at once, (because they interlock in pairs). In 1800, the Brits had machines capable of this, and Ryzewski suggests a shearing force of 300+ kilograms was needed, whereas in the US hand driven machines were being turned out by rival groups up until 1820 or so. America lagged in the introduction of steam power, & so relied on water mills up until 1818. The Brits started steam power for blast in 1698 with the Newcomen single acting engine, and in 1776 the canny Scot, James Watt, developed the double acting engine with seperate condenser to suit iron-works, which saved a fortune in fuel costs. The Cornishman, Trevithick, turned this into high pressure steam by 1801. Nail cutting and iron production followed these developments like a road map.

The true genius of the Americans was to challenge the long established pattern of hand made nails, each with its own function, and to develop a general nail shape, easily adaptable to needs and to timber, and CHEAP! That is until steel wire became available at a low price, then loading the machine was no longer a problem, and production costs were less than a quarter of hand loaded strip. Long established firms in Pennsylvania folded up in 6 years or so, or diversified to stay alive.

Ken, I hope that you will pass this on and please note that I will send a copy of my paper to NH and others who want same.

Regards to all the timber fraternity in the UK & USA.

Chris How MSc. C.Eng.

Hi NH et al,

Well you asked for it !!!!


Ken Hume

Looking back to see the way ahead !