When dating a piece of antique furniture, one of the most important clues to its history is often overlooked. A nail may not be a noticeable style feature, but looking at them carefully can help you authenticate the age of a primitive or antique furniture piece before you buy. Like restorers of historical buildings, you can identify the period by the technology used to create the nails and unlock the past of furniture. Until the 18th century, nail production methods had not changed for hundreds of years. Iron ore and carbon heated together and then cooled created wrought iron, from which a nail length piece was cut and hammered on four sides to create a point.
Dating a building with Nails. Before Hand-Wrought Nails; Early Machine Cut Nails (Crude) Early Machine Headed Cut Nails; Modern Machine Cut Nails (source of the illustration above: Thomas D Visser - "Nails: Clues to a Building's History" - See also his book "Field Guide to New England Barns and Farm Buildings"). The simple nail serves as a key to furniture dating. Until about , nails were hand-forged - tapered square shafts and hand-hammered heads. During the 's, cut nails have tapered rectangular shafts and rectangular heads. In the 's, the round wire nail with straight sides and a . Hand-hammered nails, dating from the s or earlier, leave a square hole with an irregular impression at the top from a hammered head. Cut nails leave a more rectangular hole and around or.
Most of these nails were formed from a nail ro a bar of iron available from iron mills close to the approximate size of the nail. Nail rods were at first imported by American nail makers from mills in England but later used bars made in the colonies. The first step in making a hand forged nail was to form the shank.
Next, the head was formed with a heading tool Figs.
Early nails have two types of heads: a round head whose head is above the surface of the wood and used for general purpose fastening and a T-head whose head is driven below the surface and used for finish work. The forged round head nail is also called a rose head because the hammered head often resembles the petals on a rose.
A variation of the T-head, the L-head, is the same as a T-head but with half the head cut off.
Cross sections of pre nails are generally square; shanks from are rectangular; modern shanks are round. The earliest forged nails are identified by their irregular shanks and hammer marks on both shanks and heads.
When viewed from above, early round heads have a meandering outline that is anything but round.
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Later machine cut shanks will still show hammering which was necessary to form the head. Fully machine-made nails used since the s have round shanks and round heads like those in Fig.
Modern heads in particular are virtually always a nearly perfect circle.
Reproductions of hand made nail shapes are currently being made by casting in a mold. Generally, this means along the shanks and across the heads.
Rather than a broadly dimpled hammered surface, cast nails have a very gritty textured surface. Some late 19th century nails were cast but had very limited use.
In general, any nail with molds seams or grinding marks should be considered of recent manufacture. Some genuinely old cut nails with hand forged heads may have burrs along the edges of their shanks.
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These burrs should not be confused with grinding marks that appear in the middle of the shanks and heads. Looking at the holes left by the missing nails can provide valuable information.
The irregular forged heads of early nails, for example, leave an irregular impression in the wood. Perfectly round heads on modern wire nails leave an almost perfect circle impressed in the wood; early finishing T-heads leave a rectangular impression Figs. Irregular impressions from early round headed nails are correct in hidden or unseen places such as backs and sides of drawers, backs of cases, etc. Finding rectangular impressions from early finishing head nails in those same locations is wrong -the small T-headed finishing nails were used in exposed areas.
The explanation is often that genuinely old wood that at one time was visible has been used to repair, or entirely replace, the original wood, or that the entire piece is a totally made up.
Jul 03, The Dating of Old Houses, a paper prepared by Dr. Henry C. Mercer, contains photographs, drawings, and patent information on nails, hinges, screws, hardware, planing machines, etc. Call the Mercier Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania during business hours for information on reprints by The Bucks County Historical Society. The first screws were crafted during the s by blacksmiths using square nail stock that was heated and pounded until it was somewhat round. The tips were blunt and each one was unique. If you find these hand-finished screws in furniture, investigate other cts of the pieces to see if they appear to match the screws in age. Determining the age of antique furniture is not an exact science, but there are certain indicators of age evident in furniture. How a piece is constructed is a common measure of age. You should look at the screws, nails, wood, joining and hardware. The condition and .
It either case, the types of nail head impressions can be a clue that the piece is, at the least, not original, and at the worst, a deliberate fake. Pay particular attention to molding, trim and other exterior details. In these positions you should expect to find small T-head finishing nails driven flush with the surface on early furniture.
You should not find tiny filled in nail holes which are generally a sign that modern round headless finishing nails have been used.
A few replaced nails are probably honest repairs and can actually enhance a pieces' claim to legitimate and normal wear and help authenticate age.
Wholesale replacement or nails mismatched to their original function are a warning sign of potential problems. The condition of the wood surrounding nail heads and nail holes can provide additional clues about age. Early forged nails are a type of wrought iron with very low amounts of carbon typically about 3 to 4 per cent.
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This type of iron has a very high resistance to corrosion. That's why wrought iron was used for early architectural features like balcony railings, gates and other pieces meant to be used outdoors.
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In addition to the low carbon, forged nails are also somewhat protected by the fire scale which forms on the surface as a result of being heated in the fire. The high resistance to corrosion is due to how low carbon iron oxidizes, or rusts. When exposed, it develops a black rust Fe 3 0 4 that does not flake off. This stable film of rust actually prevents further corrosion by keeping oxygen away from the underlying metal.
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This rust is typical of most new cast iron reproductions. Knowing how iron corrodes and what colors of rust are formed, helps us tell what types of nails were used even if the original nail is missing. When an early wrought iron nail corrodes, or rusts, it leaves a black stain in the wood around the nail hole.
The extent and penetration of discoloration caused by either type of rust depends on the type of wood and where a piece has been used or stored. Some woods, like oak, have very strong natural acids and tend to produce deeply saturated stains.
of the nail, burrs, and head style to date nails. To use his chronology one compares a nail to those illustrated in the pamphlet to find the clos est match. An earlier work, by Henry C. Mer cer , is based on samples of nails from several houses in Pennsylvania; however, this pioneering work provides some fatgirlnmotion.com Size: 2MB. Jan 05, By examining the shape and condition of the furniture nails and screws as well as the wood and finish, you can get a fairly good idea of when the furniture was built, and possibly Author: Timothy Dahl. How nails work. Nails, modern or antique, are able to be used as fasteners because of the cellular structure of wood on the microscopic level. As a nail is driven into wood, the tip of the nail pushes apart or crushes wood cells in its path (Fig. 3-A). When the tip of the nail passes, the cells spring back and try to resume their former positions.
Be sure that the condition of the nail matches the surrounding wood. Any combination of these features can help place the age of the furniture. Check out the condition of the finish on the exterior as well as the drawers.
Look for areas that have been worn down or replaced. Lastly, compare the design of the furniture to other pieces from the same period. Type keyword s to search.
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