Types of Nails: Materials, Sizes, and Uses
Bob Formisano is a licensed architect and builder with nearly 40 years of experience building new homes and restoring older homes. One of his specialties is repairing old systems dating back to the 1920s, including galvanized water pipes, knob-and-tube wiring, and more. His home repair articles for The Spruce span more than 10 years.
Updated on 04/27/23
Deane Biermeier is an expert contractor with nearly 30 years of experience in all types of home repair, maintenance, and remodeling. He is a certified lead carpenter and also holds a certification from the EPA. Deane is a member of The Spruce’s Home Improvement Review Board.
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While a hammer and nail may seem as simple as it gets, do you know which sizes and types of nails to use for different applications? Just as hammers require some knowledge for using them effectively, it helps to know which nail would serve you and your task best. Nails are available in different sizes and shaft configurations to maximize their holding power in different applications. The shaft configuration, strength, and nail size you need will depend on the project at hand.
Here’s what you need to know about nail sizes and types.
The physics of how nails work are simple. When driven into wood, the shaft of a nail pushes apart wood fibers as the point penetrates. The holding power of a nail derives from the simple friction of the displaced wood fibers gripping the shaft of the nail.
Nail Parts and Design
- A nail point is the part that is hammered or driven into the material.
- A diamond-shaped point is the most common type made to drive easily into material.
- A long diamond-shaped point is designed to minimize the possibility of splitting the material.
- A blunt point is more difficult to use but designed so that it does not split the material.
- Part of the nail that secures and holds the materials together.
- It is the strongest part of the nail with the most holding power.
- A smooth shank drives in easily but pulls out just as easily.
- A spiral shank, used for hardwoods, rotates as it is driven into the material which prevents it from pulling out easily.
- A ring-shank locks into the wood fibers as it’s driven in, mostly with softwoods, to secure it from pulling out.
- Heads are designed to help the nails function for specific applications.
- Common flat heads offer a large striking surface.
- Checkered flat heads with a grid pattern help when hammering at difficult angles by preventing the hammer from slipping off the head when striking.
- Countersunk and cupped heads have a conical shape and are designed so they can be easily driven just below the surface to create smoother finish.
- Special coatings lubricate the shank to improve drive and strength.
- Galvanized nails coated with zinc offer protection against rust.
- Cement coatings are extremely strong.
- Vinyl coatings also increase drive and holding strength.
- Black phosphate coatings are used for indoor nails to better adhere to drywall, paint, and drywall mud.
Types of Metals for Nails
Nails can be made from a variety of metals, including ordinary steel, stainless steel, brass, copper, or aluminum. Or, nails can be galvanized or plated with zinc or another metal. Most construction nails are steel, often with some kind of surface coating. Many construction nails are coated with a thin layer of vinyl, which acts as a lubricant when driving the nail. Nails can also be coated with phosphate to improve their holding power. A nail that is uncoated in any way is often called a "bright" nail.
Nails intended for outdoor use are often galvanized or "hot-dipped" with a coating of zinc to improve their weather-resistance. Stainless steel is also used for outdoor applications, though stainless steel nails are considerably more expensive than zinc-plated nails. With pressure-treated lumber, it is essential that you use hot-dipped nails to prevent the corrosion caused by the chemicals used in the lumber.
You’ve probably heard of nail sizes referred to as 10d, 16d, and so on. The number and "d" suffix are called the "Penny" system. The English penny used to be designated with a "d" representing the first letter of the Roman coin denarius. Originally, the penny number referred to the cost for 100 nails of a particular size. An 8d nail, for example, cost 8 pennies for 100.
Today, the penny system refers specifically to nail length. A 2d nail is 1 inch long, for example, while a 16d nail is 3 1/2 inches long. Each higher number in the penny system represents a 1/4-inch length increase, up to a 12d nail (3 1/4 inches long).
Common nails are used for general construction and specifically for framing and other structural work. They have a thick shank, a wide head, and a diamond-shaped point. They are most commonly used with 2 x dimensional lumber. Their thickness makes them strong but also more likely to split wood than when compared to thinner nails. Some carpenters actually dull the nail tip to prevent splitting the wood, though to do so means the tip will tear the wood fibers, thereby slightly reducing the holding power.
A special type of common nail is the sinker, which has a slightly narrower shank and a special head designed to be sunk flush with the surface of the wood.
Box nails are similar to common nails and sinkers but have thinner shanks and are better suited to thinner wood materials, such as 1x (3/4-inch-thick) lumber and exterior trim. Box nails should not be used for structural projects because they don’t have the strength and the holding power of common nails. The thinner shank of a box nail is less likely to split thinner materials.
Duplex Head Nails
Duplex head nails are specialty nails useful for temporary construction, such as formwork for pouring concrete or attaching temporary cleats during roofing work. You drive the nail until the lower head is flush with the wood. When it’s time to disassemble the project, you can extract the nail using the upper head and the claw of your hammer or pull bar.
Annular Ring or Ring Shank Nails
An annular ring also called ring shank, nails have rings on their shanks for extra grip and additional resistance to pulling out of the wood. They are commonly used for installing subflooring, where the extra holding power can help prevent floors from squeaking. Other nails that may have rings include drywall nails or deck board nails, also for improved holding power.