Home Improvement : From Countless Types Come a Few Good Nails

Nails come in dozens of types and sizes. Multiply sizes by types and you’ll come up with hundreds of different combinations. Obviously you can’t stock them all at home, but how many should you stock? Not very many.

I like to keep a few basic, “must-have,” nails on hand at all times. But I rarely buy any specialty nails until I actually need them. This saves shelf space in my shop and lets me buy exactly the right specialty nail for the job.

Before I get into my list of must-have nails, here are some thoughts on the confusing, archaic “penny” sizing system. This system, handed down for generations, doesn’t make much sense. (The abbreviation for “penny,” for example, is the lower-case letter “d.”) Fortunately, the penny system is slowly going out of favor. Unfortunately, we are still stuck with it.

How long should nails be? There’s a rule of thumb that nails should be about three times as long as the thickness of the material you are nailing through. Keep this rule in mind, but be aware that it has lots of exceptions. Nails for thin materials such as shingles, siding, paneling and trim must be quite a bit longer than the “three times” rule would suggest or they simply won’t have enough holding power. And nails for face-joining two boards of the same thickness must be shorter than the rule would suggest. Otherwise, they’ll protrude through the back of the work.


Here’s the basic, must-have, homeowner’s nail selection:

--Common nails. These are the basic nails for fastening together 2-inch framing lumber (actually 1 1/2 inches thick). You’ll probably only need three sizes: 10, 16 and 20 penny. Use the 10d nails (3-inch) mostly for toe nailing. Use the 16d nails (3 1/2-inch) for nailing through the face of one board into the edge of another. And use the 20d nails (4-inch) for nailing through one board into the end of another. The extra length will compensate for the fact that nails don’t hold well in end grain.

--Finishing nails. You’ll use these mainly for installing trim such as door and window casings, jambs and so on. If you can find them, casing nails (which look a lot like finishing nails) will produce stronger, neater work. The most useful all-around size is probably 6d (2 inches). You can use these for jambs and most moldings. You’ll probably want some 1 1/2-inch 4d nails as well for smaller moldings such as door stops. It also pays to have some 8d nails for putting up thick moldings. You need the extra length to reach through the wall surface and into the framing behind it.

--Brads. These are basically miniature finishing nails. They’re cheap and useful for all kinds of small jobs. It pays to have them in three-quarter-, 1- and 1 1/2-inches. They don’t have much holding power, so it often pays to use them in conjunction with glue.


--Roofing nails. It pays to have a box of these around for repair work. They should be aluminum or hot-dip galvanized. Use aluminum if you are working with aluminum flashing. For asphalt shingles, the basic length is 3d (1 1/4 inches). If your roof has new shingles over old ones, move up to 4d (1 1/2 inches).

--Drywall nails. Don’t buy nails. Use 1 3/8-inch Phillips head drywall screws instead.

--Masonry nails. These are handy for fastening furring strips, tool racks and the like to basement walls. They come in a variety of shapes and shank types, but the fluted round shank is a good all-around choice.

Masonry nails are an example of when you want to break the rule of thumb on length. Choose sizes that will go through the work you are fastening, and then penetrate the concrete about three-quarters of an inch. This makes 1 1/2 inches and 2 1/4 inches your most useful sizes. Use the shorter ones for three-quarter-inch stock, the longer ones for “two-by-stock.” And don’t try to drive these nails in with your usual hammer. You’ll need a short-handled sledge. And since these nails are brittle, be sure to wear eye protection or even a full face mask.

--Specialty nails. In addition to the must-have nails above, there are special nails for jobs like flooring, upholstery, siding, shingling and so on. Buy them as needed, asking your dealer for advice.

Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.