Antique Furniture Nails

By John Tope

Examine the nails to see if they are either round, square or rectangular.  Prior to 1800 all nails were handmade nails.  They were hand cut and square.  If there is no nail in the hole, but it is square, that indicates there previously was a square nail.  After 1800 and closer to 1820, nails were made by machine stamping.  They were also called square and referred to as machine cut nails.  Actually, they are shaped more like a spike.  One angle would look square, but the side view would be more V shaped.  Generally, the nails did not have heads until about the 1850’s.  A hand cut nail will create a square hole.  The machine stamped nails will make a rectangular shaped hole because they were stamped rectangular.  Round nails or wire nails came into being around 1880 or 1890.  These are like the ones we see today.  

Don’t automatically rely on nails as a perfect indicator of age.  The nails could have been salvaged from another piece of furniture.  Another clue about nail holes is the blacken wood around the nail.  This results from the corrosiveness of the iron content in the nail to the wood.  This takes a long time to develop.

Look at rust from oxidation.  It should be reddish in color like you would expect to see on steel.  New screws and mails are shiny with a zinc coat to prevent rust.  The wood around an old uncoated nail or screw would be oxidized black.