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This Should Work: Drilling with nails

In this week's column, Bruce provides tips on how to improve the process of hammering a nail into hardwood, while saving money, prevent wood splitting and burning your countertop
This Should Work with Bruce MacNab

Have you ever tried hammering a finish nail into hardwood?

Good luck with that. Even nails shot from air nailers can bend in hardwood.

Sometimes finish nails will go through hardwood but then cause the wood to split. Softwood can split, too, especially when nailing small pieces of trim. This happens because the pointy end of a nail is like a wedge that pushes aside the wood fibres.

To help avoid splits, old-timers would cut off the pointy ends of their finish nails with pliers leaving an end that was square but sharp. Usually, but not always, these cut nails would slice through the wood fibers without causing splits.

The best way to nail hardwood is to drill pilot holes for each finish nail. That way you don’t have to worry about nails bending or nails splitting your wood. You can buy tiny drill bits but they break easily in hardwood. Plus, of course, it’s easy to lose them.

Drill NailCut the head off a finish nail and use it as a drill bit. Photo by Bruce MacNab.

If you want to save money and drill the perfect-sized hole for nails you can use a nail as a drill bit.

Take one of the finish nails you’re planning to use and cut the head off it with pliers or end nippers. Now it will fit into a drill just like a drill bit.

When you use a nail for drilling holes you are not really cutting a hole in the wood like a proper drill bit. Instead you are more-or-less burning a hole through the wood.

As you can imagine, a nail spinning at high speeds in hardwood will get very hot. It’s possible you’ll see smoke. If it gets too hot, your drill-nail will bend easily. When it bends, don’t try to straighten it with your bare fingers. It will definitely burn your skin. Use your pliers to straighten the nail.

After a nail bends it will keep bending at the same spot. It’s best to cut a new nail and throw out the old one. Make sure you don’t drop a hot nail on your floor or a countertop because it will leave a burn mark.

A nail will drill good pilot holes for tiny screws, as well. This can come in handy for installing small hinges or specialty hardware.

I hope this helps you the next time you need a tiny drill bit. Now find a finish nail and give this trick a spin.

Bruce MacNab, a Red Seal carpenter, has taught carpentry courses for NSCC and the Guysborough County Adult Learning Association. Visit him online here.