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The E-Sylum: Volume 13, Number 26, June 27, 2010, Article 22

WHY NAILS ARE MEASURED IN PENNIES

This article from the Berkeley Daily Planet caught my eye this week. A do-it-yourself handywoman explains one of those odd historical imponderables with a numismatic connection: why nails are measured by "pennies" (and labeled with a "d"). I'm sure there are better documented explanations out there, but it's interesting to see the connection discussed in a general newspaper. -Editor

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.

To read the complete article, see: Restoration Comedy:Nail Salon (www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2010-06-22/article/35669?headline=Restoration-Comedy-Nail-Salon)

Wayne Homren, Editor

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