Village Science

Nails, Pegs, & Lashings


A 15
B 1, 3
C 3
D 1, 3


Surface area

In traditional and modern lifestyles, we blend materials together to make homes and tools that best meet our needs. Often the materials are held together by fasteners: nails, screws, pins/pegs, or lashing. Lashing might sound like an old fashioned technique, but it is the method most of us use to keep our shoes on.

Can you imagine trying to build a house without nails? Would you use string, glue, wire, or rope? Our world would not be the same without nails.

Before there were nails in Alaska, the oldtimers used wooden pins as well as rawhide and root lashings.

In applications, like a dogsled, where the joined parts must be held together with flexibility, lashing works best. When I first came to Alaska, the teacher in Sleetmute made a sled and nailed it together. It didn’t last a month. It couldn’t flex enough.

Rawhide lashing is difficult to prepare and hard to protect from hungry animals of all sizes.

Spruce roots are wonderful lashing material, but they take considerable time and effort to collect and prepare. They aren’t very strong.

Pins. It takes a long time to make wooden pins, drill the material, and set the pins.

When wood must be held firmly together, nails work well and are easy to drive.


Different Nails

nailsNails are very different from each other for specific reasons. They vary in length, thickness, size of head, surface, coating, and other features.

Usually nails hold two pieces of wood together, or hold another material like tar paper, to wood.


nailsIf a nail is too long, it sticks through both pieces of wood and can catch on clothing as people pass by. If it is too short, it can easily pull out.


If the nail is too thin, it will break under stress or bend before it is driven in. If the nail is too thick, it will split the wood.


If the nail is too smooth, it pulls out too easily. If it is too rough, it cannot be removed if need be. “Sinker” nails have a green coating that reduces friction so they sink into the wood quickly. Ring and galvanized nails have very irregular surfaces, and are quite difficult to remove once driven.

Head size

If the nail head is too small, it might pull through the wood or material it is holding. Nails that hold foam have huge heads because the foam is so soft.

If the nail head is too big, it is unattractive when used in trim around doors and windows. The surface area of the head should be as small as possible, but adequate to hold the surface of the wood under all conditions of stress.

too softHard and Soft

If the nail is too soft, it can’t be driven into hard wood. If the nail is too hard, it is expensive to manufacture and purchase. Some nails are hard enough to be driven into concrete. Some screws, like drywall screws, are very hard, but so brittle they easily snap.

All of these variables determine what kind of nail we buy and how we use it.


Special Nails

There are special nails for special purposes.

We used to nail steel roofing with colored nails with washers to seal out the rain. Now we use screws with washers that hold better in strong winds.

There are nails that have double heads. These scaffold (duplex) nails are used to build concrete forms or scaffolds on the sides of buildings. Since the scaffold will be removed when the building is done, there are two heads: one to hold the boards together and another to make removal easy when the job is complete.

Some nails are extremely hard so they can be driven into concrete, holding walls steady on a concrete footing. Concrete nails are often shot by a nail gun powered by a .22 cartridge.

Ring nails have their shanks intentionally roughed so they will hold more effectively. Boat builders use them, as the boat constantly works in the waves and current. nail gun

Some nails are glued together in a row, held apart by paper like the bullets in a machine gun. They are for nailguns. The nailguns drive these nails with 90 lbs of air pressure and nail twenty to fifty times faster than a carpenter nailing by hand. The added expense of the nails is overcome by savings in the carpenter’s time.



Nails are made of different materials. Most are made of iron or steel which rust. Special boat nails are made of brass. Some roofing nails are made of aluminum.

GalvanizedGalvanized (zinc) coating on iron nails protects them from rusting and holds them in place much better than smooth nails. The friction of the rough galvanized surface is much greater than the smooth surface of nails used for framing. Galvanized nails are used on plywood and T1-11 siding. Ungalvanized nails rust, even through paint, leaving long black streaks down the side of the building.

When oldtimers couldn’t get galvanized nails for boat building, they put regular iron nails in a can or frying pan and put them in a campfire, allowing them to turn red hot then slightly blue when cooled. When treated like this, they have a hard oxide coating on the outside that resists rust.


Pulling Nails

There is a trick to pulling nails that are rusted in place over time. Driving them farther in breaks them loose so they can be easily pulled out.


nailHolding Power

As the nail is driven into the wood, the wood fibers are bent down, and held down by the shank of the nail. There is friction between the fibers and the surface of the nail. In order to pull the nail out easily, the fibers must be bent upward. A nail comes out smoothly once it is pulled the first half inch.


Driving Nails

woodThere are two tricks to driving nails so they don’t split the wood. If you look at the end of a nail (big ones are more obvious than smaller ones) one side seems wider than the other. If the nail is driven with the grain rather than against the grain, it won’t easily split the wood. This is particularly important when building in cold temperatures when the wood is frozen.

nailsIf a nail is first pounded on the point, and then driven into the wood, it doesn’t easily split the wood. This is particularly important when the wood is frozen.

Extra Holding Power

The way we drive nails determines how well they hold the wood together. If the nails are driven straight in, they can be pulled straight out. If they are driven in at different angles, they cannot be pulled straight out.




gable end

Size Description

Nails are made in different sizes. Small nails are 2 penny, 4 penny, and 6 penny, written 2d, 4d, and 6d. Larger nails are 8d, 12d, 16d, 20d, etc. Nails have been around for so many centuries, no one knows where the expression “penny” came from.


Log cabins are often constructed without many nails at all. Notched corners and pegs hold the buildings together. Pegs are split from straight-grained dry or driftwood. Dogsleds were often pegged so trappers could take their sleds apart and tie them to the wings of small airplanes for beaver trapping.

The downward pressure on the logs, particularly with a heavy sod roof, tend to spread the logs out as the round sides contact each other. (Wooden pegs are a must around doors and windows or the logs will slide off one another.) On the gable ends of the houses, pegs are most important as the heavy ridgepole and the weight of the sod roof press strongly downward.



Bottom logs which are notched to accommodate the top log promote rot because they tend to collect water. However, if the top log is notched and the notch hangs down, there is no flat surface for moisture to gather.

The split sticks in a fishtrap are often notched on one end. The notch and lashing work together.


Spruce roots are the only proven lashing for fishtraps. As fall fishtraps in the creeks require constant cleaning, nails are a very poor substitute. They split the wood and cut the person’s icy hands while cleaning the grass and leaves from the fences.

lashingPeople have tried nylon and other synthetics for lashing, but they stretch too much. Manila and cotton twine rot too easily.

Roots are free to anyone in country where there are spruce or willows. There are specific knots for different applications. The elders know which ones work best in different situations.

Lashing with strong twine or cord works well on canoes and kayaks as it allows for flexing of the boat in waves and tough situations. Nails tend to split the wood.

While rawhide works well for dogsled lashing, it stretches when it gets wet in the spring and dogs like the taste of rawhide. Braided halibut twine seems to be the modern choice. It doesn’t stretch too much, wears very well, and isn’t palatable to animals. The nylon ends are commonly burned with a match to keep them from fraying.



  1. Make a nail collection. How many different kinds can you find?
  2. Try to identify the different purposes of each of the above nails.
    Try filing each nail. Are they harder or softer than the file?
  3. File or grind a galvanized nail in one place, exposing the metal underneath. Leave the nail in a warm, damp place with a galvanized nail that hasn’t been filed. Does rust appear where the galvanize was removed?
  4. Find a building in town where the siding was nailed on with nails that weren’t galvanized. Can you see the rust “bleeding” through the paint or down the side of the building?
  5. nail Experiment with different nails: long, short, smooth, and rough. Can you determine why they are different? Drive each one into a board with the head slightly above the surface of the board. Pull them one by one. Do the ring nails or galvanized pull out easier or harder? Can you tell the difference?
  6. Draw a nail that would hold two inches of foam to a wood surface? Imagine in your mind what would happen when the head of the nail pressed against the surface of the foam. How would you design a nail for this purpose?
  7. Drive nails into the end grain of a board. Do they hold as well, better, or worse than cross grain?
  8. Look at the point of a spike (end view). Can you see how one side is tapered more than the other? Draw what you see.
  9. Try the tricks mentioned in this chapter to prevent splitting at the end of a board. Do they help to keep the wood from splitting? Use green frozen lumber.
  10. Listen to a good carpenter drive nails on a surface like a floor or roof. How is his nailing different from that of an inexperienced person (apart from speed)?
  11. Research how nails are now made. Find a case of nails. Where were they made? How were nails made before modern machinery?
  12. How much does a pound of nails cost in the village? How much does this come out to for each 6d, 8d, and 16d nail?
  13. Pull some old nails from a board. Does driving them first to loosen them seem to help?
  14. If there is a nailgun in the village, have an experienced person demonstrate. Can ten students drive ten nails as fast as one person with a nail gun? What are the safety features of a nailgun so someone can’t be shot with a nail? What are some of the hazards of nailguns? What can you learn about the pressure of the compressor, specifically the difference between a framing gun and a finish gun?
  15. Ask a good carpenter about hammers. What weight hammers are used for different applications? Waffle and smooth faces? What are the differences between steel, wood, and fiberglass handles? Why do people prefer one over another? Which hammers are better in different situations? Why do you think there is such a variety of hammers?
  16. Ask an oldtimer in the village to demonstrate lashing a fishtrap. What lashing material was commonly used? Videotape if possible.
  17. Ask a local sled builder to demonstrate how to lash a sled—crosspieces and stanchion—to the runner. Videotape to show others.
  18. If there is a log cabin in the village, inspect the corners and inspect the pins used. Are they spikes or wooden pins? What kind of wood was used for pins? Ask a local person where the pins were placed in the wall and why. If spikes were used, ask them how the holes were drilled to allow for settling of the logs.
Student Response

Student Response

  1. What will happen if a nail is too short? Too thick? Too smooth? Too thin?
  2. Draw the type of nail that is used on tar paper and roofing shingles.
  3. What kind of nail would you use on a boat?
  4. Draw the end view of a nail. Show how it should be driven if it is close to the end of a board.
  5. Draw a nail that would have high friction in wood. Draw one that would have low friction.
  6. Draw a scaffold nail.
  7. Why are galvanized nails used?
  8. What is the name given to describe the sizes of nails?
  9. Why were pegs used in log cabins?
  10. Why are spruce roots superior to all other materials for a fishtrap?
  11. What is the best lashing for a sled and why?


  1. If a 50 lb. case of 8d galvanized nails cost $57, what is the cost of 27 lbs at the same rate? 150 lbs?
  2. Matt wants to use spikes on his cabin rather than wooden pegs. Spikes are $.50 each. He figures that each log will average 3 spikes. There are 56 logs in the house. How much would wooden pegs save him?
  3. If Matt’s time is worth $10 an hour and he can make 12 pegs an hour, which is cheaper?
  4. Which is stronger: 4 larger nails with a shear strength of 65 lbs each, or 9 smaller nails with a shear strength of 52 lbs each?
  5. Two carpenters frame a whole house. The total time of both workers is 80 hours using a nail gun (40 hours each.) They both make $18 per hour. Without a nail gun, they will take 98 hours. The special nails for the nailguns cost $100 more than regular nails. Nailgun rental is $20 per day for 5 days. Are they saving money?
  6. A 50 lb case of 16d galvanized nails costs $57 delivered to the jobsite. A case of 16d sinker nails cost $42 delivered, but Al figures that he has to use 20% more nails if he uses sinkers because they don’t hold as well. Which is cheaper: sinkers or galvanized?
  7. Sinker nails are $1 a pound delivered to the jobsite. Scaffold nails are $1.50 delivered. Building scaffolding takes 30 lbs of nails. Scaffold nails save 3 man-hours working at $12 per hour. Are scaffold nails worth purchasing and using?

Questions or comments?
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