Nailmaking in the Eighteenth Century

Figure 5. A basket of finished nails. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Figure 1. Shouldering and drawing the shank. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 64 no. 4, December 2011

by Kenneth Schwarz

Colonial Williamsburg is currently reconstructing James Anderson’s Revolutionary War-period blacksmith shop and public armoury using material prepared by Colonial Williamsburg tradesmen—carpenters, joiners, brickmakers, and blacksmiths. Among those materials are nails for siding, roofing, and flooring. About 30,000 nails will be needed to complete the building. How does one make 30,000 nails? Well, nails are made one at a time—just like all of the other components of the building. Making nails by hand might seem laborious, but in the context of hand manufacture of building materials, nails are about the quickest and easiest component to make.

Nails begin as “nailrod,” iron bar that is about a quarter inch square. The rods are broken down into lengths of about 36 inches in order to be handled conveniently. One end of the bar is heated to a bright yellow—about 2,500 degrees F— in order to soften it and make it respond to the hammer. By turning the bar back and forth one-quarter turn in between each hammer blow, the blacksmiths reduce the width and thickness of the bar and increase its length, creating a smooth taper and forming a point. In blacksmith’s terms, this is called “drawing out” (Figure 1). Next, the bar is brought to the near edge of the anvil, and a shoulder is created on two sides of the bar by striking the metal with the hammer half-on and half-off the anvil and turning one-quarter turn between hammer blows. This shoulder will act as a stop when the head is being formed, and it determines the length of the finished nail. The shank is drawn out to blend the taper into the point.

Figure 2. Cutting the bar with a hardie. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Next, the bar is held on a “hardie— a cutting chisel that fits into the square hole in the anvil—where the bar is still full size, and it is cut most of the way through, isolating a small lump of the full-sized material to form the head (Figure 2). This is then broken off and held upright in a “heading tool” while the head is hammered into shape (Figure 3). Typically, it takes about six hammer blows to form the head and complete the nail (Figure 4). The finished nail is dropped to the floor to cool. The goal is to complete the nail while the metal is still glowing red—about 1,000 degrees F. This entire process can be completed in less than thirty seconds by a competent workman—or woman (Figure 5).

Figure 3. Heading the nail. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

Thomas Jefferson operated a nail manufactory at Monticello for about twenty years, commenting in 1795 that “My new trade of nail-making is to me in this country what an additional title of nobility or the ensigns of a new order are in Europe.”
Jefferson is one of the few from this period to describe the process, saying that the workman:

… hammers the length of his nail to a proper size, then lays it on the edge of the anvil & with a stroke or two indents a shoulder, then lays it on the coal chisel, about ¼ I [inch] above the shoulder; one stroke (sometimes 2) cuts it very nearly in two; then he flirts the end of it against the underside of the square bit which bends it to a right angle, then he puts it through the hole in the square bit; the first stroke of the hammer discharges the butt of the rod from it, & about 6 more forms the head, then with the thin plate he knocks it out so as to fall on the block…he then puts that rod into the fire by which time the other is hot, or so nearly so that 2 or 3 motions of the treadle make it hot: he does not blow the bellows while he is forming the nail…when he has worked his rod so near the butt that it becomes too hot to hold he welds it to another.

Knowing that the Anderson Blacksmith Shop project would require a great quantity of nails, the blacksmiths didn’t wait until the last minute to make them all. We have been making nails since last summer and try to average about one hundred nails per day, in between our other work projects. We might warm up in the morning by spending twenty or thirty minutes making nails (forty to sixty nails), and late in the day when a project is finished and there is not enough time to start on another, we can finish out the day making nails (another 40 to 60 nails). Averaging one hundred per day results in more than 30,000 in the course of a year—enough for a major structure like the armoury.

Figure 4. Finishing the head. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

The bulk of the nails are 8-penny common nails for siding and roofing, but we will also make specialty nails for applying trim, nailing down the rafter feet, attaching hardware, building double-thickness doors, etc. Those are required in much smaller quantity and are often made shortly before they are needed.

Understanding the process employed by blacksmiths for making nails provides little insight into what was actual commercial nailmaking during the eighteenth century. Colonial Williamsburg’s small-scale approach to making nails reinforces simplistic notions of colonial manufacture and the idea that colonial settlers sought a jack-of-all-trades, self-sufficient existence. The realities of the colonial economy were much more complex, but it can be examined through the manufacture and distribution of nails in the period.
By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, nail-making had become a specialized industry in advanced economies. The benefits of specialization were evident, and could be quantified—as Adam Smith described in The Wealth of Nations,

The division of labor, by reducing every man’s business to some one simple operation, and by making this simple operation the sole employment of his life, necessarily increases very much the dexterity of the workman. A common smith, who, though accustomed to handle the hammer, has never been used to make nails, if upon some particular occasion he is obliged to attempt it, will scarce, I am assured, be able to make above two or three hundred nails in a day, and those, too very bad ones. A smith who has been accustomed to make nails, but whose sole or principal business has not been that of a nailer, can seldom with the utmost diligence make more than eight hundred or a thousand nails in a day. I have seen several boys under twenty years of age who had never exercised any other trade but that of making nails, and who, when they exerted themselves could make, each of them, upwards of two thousand three hundred nails in a day. The same person blows the bellows, stirs or mends the fire as there is occasion, heats the iron, and forges every part of the nail….

Much of this kind of hardware manufacture was concentrated in the West Midlands of England—a region rich in iron and coal and laborers, as well as water for transportation and power. While the colonies were also rich in natural resources like iron and fuel, there were no large population centers where the competition of a robust labor market would have reduced manufacturing cost. By some accounts, there were nearly 50,000 nailers in the West Midlands by the end of the eighteenth century. Assuming that each of these nailers was capable of making 2,000 nails a day as Smith reported, nail production in the Midlands could potentially reach 100 million nails per day.

The pre-Revolutionary War importation of nails into the colonies can be noted by looking at ads run by local merchants or surviving business accounts from the day. John Greenhow, Williamsburg merchant, frequently advertised in the Virginia Gazette that, among other merchandise, he carried “…nails of all sorts and sizes… .” William Allason, merchant of Falmouth, Virginia, recorded in one inventory that he had about 750,000 nails on hand. These were the product of workers back in England.

Figure 5. A basket of finished nails. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

By contrast, colonial America’s largest city, Philadelphia, had a total population of about 30,000 individuals. Throughout the Colonial period, reasonably priced English nails were readily available in coastal cities, limiting the need to develop a substantial nail-making industry in the colonies. That is not to say that nails were not made in the colonies, but rather that nails were readily available and reasonably priced as imports. In his accounts, Williamsburg’s James Anderson indicated that nails were made in small quantities to fasten hardware that had been forged in the shop. Rarely did Anderson supply more than a few dozen nails to a customer until the wartime economy and the loss of English imports shifted demand to local producers. The commonwealth of Virginia was a large consumer of nails during the war, and after advertising for “nailers” to work in the shop, Anderson reported, “I have eight lads that’s nailers…” and that they produced “…twenty five thousand nails a week… .”

It seems that nailmaking was work often given to young boys, as the simple shape and repetitive nature of the work allowed for quick skill development. Jefferson noted that at Monticello,

…Children till 10 years old serve as nurses, From 10 to 16 the boys make nails, the girls spin. At 16 they go to the ground or learn trades…[and]…I now employ a dozen little boys from 10 to 16 years of age, overlooking all the details of their business myself and drawing from it a profit on which I can get along till I can put my farms into a course of yielding a profit…. [W]e make from 8 to 10,000 nails a day and it is on the increase.

Another element of the nail trade that many find surprising is the number of women involved in the trade. Because nail-making was a fairly quick and simple process, and because the capital costs of establishing a nail-making workshop were modest, women, and young children worked as nailers to supplement a family income. William Hutton wrote in 1741,

The art of nail-making is one of the most ancient among us; we may safely charge its antiquity with four figures. The manufacturers are so scattered round the country, that we cannot travel far, in any direction, out of the sound of the nail-hammer. But Birmingham, like a powerful magnet, draws the produce of the anvil to herself. When I first approached her, from Walsall, in 1741, I was surprized at the prodigious number of blacksmiths shops upon the road; and could not conceive how a country, though populous, could support so many people of the same occupation. In some of these shops I observed one or more females…. wielding the hammer with all the grace of their sex. The beauties of their face were rather eclipsed by the smut of the anvil; …. Struck with the novelty, I inquired, “Whether the ladies in this country shod horses?” but was answered, with a smile, “They are nailers.”

Kenneth Schwarz, who has been a blacksmith for more than thirty years, is the master of the shop at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Progress on the construction of the John Anderson Shop and the Public Armoury is recorded online at http://whatsnew.history.org/topics/armoury/.

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2 Responses

  1. Don Griffin says:

    I sincerely enjoyed this article. I have collected hand wrought nails of all sizes and types, lath, paneling, floor, beam. I have a collection of boat nails and plank rivets from an early shipbuilding site on the Delaware River in NJ. These rods are all wrought iron.

  2. Jim says:

    I made 1500 3″ nails for a restoration in Delaware (State House). I was able to make 60 to 70 per hour.

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