Collecting Antique Tools (from the March/April 2010 issue of the WT) in memory of Jim Ross

We are re-printing this article written by Jim Ross who sadly passed away on July 22, 2020. Jim contributed many fine articles to the Wayback Times over the years and was constantly helping us identify the numerous “What’sIts” we – or our readers – came across.  Jim will be greatly missed by all of us – his humour,  his knowledge, (particularily about tools, but other things as well)  his kindness . He was a delight to chat with and always willing to share helpful  information. Jim  was such a welcome supporter of the WT right from our early issues, and his kindness will never be forgotten.

By Jim Ross

In this article, I would like to talk about NAILS (no, no, not toenails or fingernails) – Carpenters’ Nails or Woodworking Nails.

Nails were invented waaaayback when (take my word for it).  As would be expected, they evolved over the years in size, shape, content and methods of manufacture.  Being an essential part of construction and furniture making, they were produced in profusion and, in England for instance, up until the end of the 18th century, nailmaking was a separate and distinct profession, often practiced by a family employing the wives and small children.  Even in this country, in early times, nailmaking was a cottage industry practiced by a settler in the winter months to augment his income from farming.

The early nails were individually hand wrought in a blacksmith-type operation.  A stick of wrought iron was heated at one end in a forge (many irons in the fire), then removed and a point pounded out on an anvil, cut to size on a hardy (upright cold chisel), threaded into a needle-like wrench (called a header or bore) and then hit on top with a hammer to flatten the blunt end to form a head.  Such was nailmaking up to the early 19th century.   Needless to say, nails were scarce and precious and many an old building was deliberately burned down to recover the nails.

Next came “Cut Nails” starting around 1800.  These were cut or stamped out of a sized sheet of iron, alternating the taper and then hammered on the end to form a head.  This also started out as a hand wrought operation but machines soon took over and nails could be spit out at a great rate.  Many a new immigrant received a supply of nails on settling in Canada.  Around 1820, Scottish Emigrant Societies allotted a settling family (along with tools, provisions and supplies) “8 pounds of nails of sorts.” The accompanying sketch shows the basic differences of nails over the last 300 years and this might assist you in dating antique furniture and construction.  Modern nails are readily recognizable as they are perfectly round and have an extra coating.

In Canada, we refer to the size of a nail by its actual length.  In England and most of the U.S.A., size is referred to by the age-old standard of weight.  Our 1” nail is called a “2d” by the blokes; a 2” is a “6d”; a 4” is a “20d” and a 6” and “60d”.  The use of a lower case “d” is the symbol for “penny” referring to the old English small unit of money.  There are two versions of the derivation of the “d” (penny); one as being related to the weight of a given number of nails, and the other the cost.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about wooden nails called “trunnels” meaning treen nails.  They were an essential item in the construction of heavy beam buildings, such as barns.  Basically, they were wooden pegs about 12” long and 1” thick whittled by the use of a drawknife on a shaving horse.  When fastening beams together, a hole was drilled through both the mortise and tenon and the trunnel pounded into the holes to secure the joint.  A metal pin wouldn’t work because of the varying climactic conditions and moisture content which would cause the metal and the wood to expand and contract differently, to the detriment of the joints.  At first glance, trunnels look perfectly round, but they are not.  They are irregular by design to provide a tight grip, which can also be done by offsetting one of the drilled holes.

You are probably disappointed I have not talked about hammers.  I don’t want to get started on that here because there are literally thousands of types and styles depending on the profession using them and it would take several large books to do the subject properly.  Nevertheless, hammers, anvils, hardys, headers, drawknives, etc. will be on display at THE TOOL SHOW, as will I.  Please join us and we can talk about trunnels and other interesting tools.  See you there.

Jim’s “bio” sent to me in 2007, still makes me smile: “Born, raised and subsisting in Toronto.  Don’t hold that against me, as I have a longing for country life and fantasize about the life of my greater grandfather who emigrated from Scotland to rural Fergus in 1836.  This has had a definite influence on my collecting interests. Pracised law for over thirty years and now dealing in antiques is my avocation.  As an auld collector knows, it doesn’t take long before you become a practising dealer.  Tools are my first love and my first attempt at a collection.  Joined a collectors club known as The Tool Group of Canada and I guess, spoke up too often, so they made me President.  The Club is a perfect vehicle for amyone who loves history and tools of any description. I would love to have you, dear reader, as a fellow member (see our website, www.the toolgroupof for membership info.  I guess my collecting interests are far and wide and are better defined by what I don’t collect – I don’t collect coins or stamps.  Two items of the same nature are the beginning of a collection.”

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