The Nail

Janice Upton | June 6th, 2019

Until the invention of the nail, the procedure of constructing wood structures was very different. Something had to hold the building together, whether it be friction or an adhesive. Frequently, pieces had to be designed to lock into one another, or were simply driven into the ground for support. An example of this would be the usage of palisades, which were primarily tree trunks that were staked next to each other to form a structure, and sometimes reinforced with dirt or clay.

More complex structures necessitated a high degree of craftsmanship. Japanese wood joinery existed from around the seventh century, where pieces are cut into very distinctive shapes that fit tightly into each other. This was not only time consuming to create, but to design as well. It was not something that a layman could conceivably do on their own, and the mass production of the nail greatly simplified man’s ability to join wood together.

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It’s not entirely clear when the nail was created, as evidence of them existing go all the way back to mid-4th millennia BCE. However, these were a lot different than what we use today, as they each had to be individually hand crafted. Even after the American Revolution, nails were prohibitively expensive because they were rare and weren’t mass produced. This all changed with the invention of the slitting mill.

Invented in the 16th century, slitting mills were designed to cut metal into much smaller rods, which could then be more easily formed into a nail. The usage of wire nails that came after in the mid-1800s, which allowed them to be even more widespread. With them being created in large quantities by machines, they became a cheap and useful commodity that are used by both experienced craftsmen and at-home hobbyists.

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