Western Maine Blacksmith Association

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Western Maine Blacksmith Association

This page will provide insights and history into items associated with the craft of blacksmithing

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A Short History of Nails

Man has been making and using nails for a long time, at least 5000 years and maybe longer.  Along with forging of weapons and knives, nails were one of the first metal items made in volume from copper and then iron.  Copper and bronze nails continued to be used in shipbuilding as iron came into wide use in other construction.  Iron nails from the Romans have been found in Britain.

All of these nails were hand forged one at a time.  For centuries, the stock for nails would be hand slit into square cross section from iron that had been pounded out.  The "sheet" was most likely made with waterpower heave hammers.  Then in 1606, a major improvement was made with the invention of the slitting mill by Englishman Bevis Bulmer.  This slitting mill could cold shear a series of square sections from a thin bar of wrought iron.  Bundles of these nail rods were "loaned" to local folks who would convert them to nails often using the home hearth as their forge.  They would then be paid by weight of good nails returned less some allowance for waste.  Most of this work took place on British farms and everyone made nails from kids to grandparents.  The pay was very low. 

Nail making in America followed a similar pattern with most of the nail stock coming from England.  Nail stock has been found at Jamestown so local forging of nails took place from the very start in the USA.

In 1775, Jeremiah Wilkinson, a Rhode Island inventor devised the first machine to make cut nails from iron sheet.  By 1795 there where machines that could cut and head nails in one operation.

Nail making didn't really change again until after the large volume production of mild steel by the Bessemer Converter process.  By 1880, mild steel wire was being produced and the wire nail became king because of its lower material / high volume production.  Most nails today are wire based with some cut nails still being produced.  Increasingly, nails being driven by pneumatic nail guns to the point where some construction workers today don't seem to know how to hand drive a nail.

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The Great Myth about burning houses for the nails.  In many books on blacksmithing and all kinds of articles on the internet you will see repeated the story that during colonial times nails had such high value that if some family was going to move west to a new area that they would burn down their house and collect the nails before leaving.

I think that this is pure Myth.  Just repeated and repeated – yet no one gives any original source or even a reference to an original source for this story.  No one who has built a house and could sell it would burn it just for the nails.  It just does not make sense.

Where does this Myth come from?  Most likely, it is the fact that nails did have high value and when a building or house did burn, the owner would always take the time to sift through the ashes and recover the nails.  Fires were not uncommon and destruction was often rather complete so this could have happened many times.

A few buildings that had not been used and had failed roofs might well have been burned for the nails but I think this would have been rare.  Log cabins and out buildings of a simple nature were built mostly using wood pegs etc. so they didn't have many nails to go after.

Think I am wrong about this?  Well I'm always open to new information.  Why don't you send me an original reference where some record of the time says that "Thomas Jones burned the house on his farm so he could take the nails with him as he headed to Ohio territory."   Dave

 

Copyright 2006 by David E. Smucker  Note to other editors of blacksmith newsletters.  You are free to use this article in your publication provided you use it in its entirety and credit the Appalachian Area Chapter of Blacksmiths and author.  I can provide you with an electronic copy by contacting me at davesmucker@hotmail.com   It may not be reproduced in any form for commercial use.

 

 

Dating Antique Items Made by Blacksmiths

 

by    Gary Scasbrick

 

Close dating of blacksmith made items, especially some hand tools is impossible without makers marks or documentation.  Some styles of tools have been made the same for 200 years.  Some styles or types came into use and went out of use in certain periods.  Here are some clues to come up the approximate date of some hand forge items.

1.)  Dome Head factory made rivets were common after 1845.  Items with factory rivets should date later than 1845.

2.)  Tools from England were Stamped "Made in England" after 1891

3.)  Tools stamped with "Cast Steel" were made after 1760

4.)  Pritchel Holes in anvils appeared about 1830 in English Anvils.

5.)  Earliest Factory made hatchet approx. 1845

6.)  Double bit axes first became popular abound 1850

7.)  On any edged tool, steel bit forge welded to iron body, look for a line where the steel was forge welded to the iron body.  These steel bits were generally added after approx 1744 and quit approx. 1870

8.)  Pre Civil War handles for axes were straight not curved.

9.)  No Poll on Axes in the 1600's,  First hint of a poll about 1715,   Fully developed polls by 1750,  Round polls continued to be made until about 1800 and square polls are still made.

10.)  Threads on bolts were hand filed and rounded before 1830 – where sharp and crisp later.  (I have English threads lathe cut and rounded, American a sharp V thread after 1830 – Dave.)

11.)  First practical steel production furnace in America was 1730.  Edged tools were scarce before this time.

12.)  1840 First adze eye hammer (long or deep eye) same as on modern hammers

13.)  Nail pulling slots in bottom edge of blade in shingling hatchets became popular in early 1800's.

14.)  1815 First cut nails with a square head were made by a machine, these had flat sides a had forge nail had four tapered sides. (I have this date about 25 years earlier Dave)

 

Patina, items stamped with a date, item with a makers mark, items with original wood handles mean "everything" when trying to put a value on any antique hand forged item!