Home & Garden

Restoration Comedy:Nail Salon

By Jane Powell
Monday June 21, 2010 - 11:13:00 PM

Today I decided it would be easier to strip the remaining trim in my kitchen if I pried it off first, since paint insisted on remaining in the cracks between the various pieces, and responded neither to sanding, scraping, heat gunning, or paint remover. 

In normal houses this would not be a big deal- break the paint seal, slide in a stiff putty knife, lever it a bit until there’s space to get in a flat bar, pry off, remove nails, repeat. It works like that because the average piece of trim is three quarters of an inch thick or less. 

But not in my house. Have I mentioned that the guy who built my house also owned a lumber yard? My door and window trim is two by sixes. You know, like the stuff they use for decking. And being from 1905, it’s really two inches by six inches, not the one and a half by five and a half of the modern two by six. Ponder for a moment what size finishing nail would be required to hold something two inches thick to the wall, and you will begin to see my dilemma- you need a nail about four inches long. 

Let me digress briefly into the lore of nails. The round, chisel pointed wire nail with which we are familiar dates to around the 1850s, when wire nail-making machinery was invented in France, making it possible to turn out zillions of nails in a short time for a low price. Nails used for attaching wood to other pieces of wood are classified using the term “penny” along with a number representing the length; for instance, a nail 3-1/2 inches long is known as a sixteen-penny nail. A 2-1/2 inch nail is known as a six-penny nail. Why? Supposedly in medieval England, you could buy a hundred 3-1/2 inch nails for 16 pence (pennies), whereas you could get a hundred 2-1/2 inch nails for only 6 pence. Thus, the shorter the nail, the smaller the number. Why then, one might ask, does it says 16d on the box and not 16p? Well, because they used the name of a Roman coin, the denarius. No, I don’t know why. 

To confuse things further, nails not necessarily used for attaching wood to more wood (like roofing or siding nails) are referred to in inches rather than penny sizes. 

Finishing nails are nails that are essentially “headless”, having merely a sort of bulge at the top- they are meant to be driven below the surface of the wood, and the hole filled with putty. They are thinner than regular nails as well. Finishing nails for normal trim would be 6d or 8d. 

A four inch finishing nail is 20d- in common nails, that is a size used for framing. Normally, when you pry off trim, the nails, having not much by way of a head, will actually pull through the trim and stay in the wall. Let’s just say this is unlikely to happen when the trim is two inches thick. Instead, after managing to lever a piece out about a quarter inch, I reached for every remodeler’s friend, the Sawzall™. Now I realize that Sawzall™ is a brand name of the Milwaukee Corporation, and that this tool is properly called a reciprocating saw, but I’m here to tell you, whether your reciprocating saw is made by DeWalt, Makita, Ryobi, or whoever, you will still call it a sawzall. Like kleenex and xerox, it’s just the way it is. So I stuck a metal cutting blade in the sawzall and cut through the nails. Trim should pop right off, right? Well, no. Because those old-time finish carpenters were thorough if nothing else- the damn thing was toe-nailed to the floor. The lefthand trim, which was in a corner, was toe-nailed to the adjacent wall. (Toe-nailing, for the uninitiated, means nails driven in at an angle.) When you’re trying to take it apart carefully, good carpentry can be annoying. 

So that’s one door down, only four more to go. Followed of course by the previously mentioned five coats of shellac on all this trim. No wonder the kitchen has taken four years so far…. 


Jane Powell is the author of Bungalow Kitchens and writes for the Planet whenever she feels like it. She can be reached at hsedressng@aol.com.