How to Hit the Nail on the Head: Getting Back to Basics

How to Hit the Nail on the Head: Getting Back to Basics

Hit the Nail on the Head

Back in my carpentry apprenticeship days, I was once asked to nail the back panel of a kitchen cupboard in place. The nail was 3mm long and the wood was 10mm thick, yet I still managed to nail the 3mm nail clean through the 10mm wood and not only put a hole in the middle of the back panel, but I destroyed the beautiful paintwork! We had to take the entire cupboard back to the carpentry to fix, strip and repaint. The kitchen was delivered late, and I was in shame. To teach me a lesson, my instructor set me to work, and for the next three weeks straight, from morning to evening, I practiced banging nails into wooden cut offs. The lesson must have worked because I’ve never hit a nail crooked since!

I know many of you might be an old hand at hitting the nail on the head and straight in every time, but I’ve known many experienced and professional carpenters who haven’t mastered this skill. They’ll tell you it doesn’t matter how straight the nail is or if it takes a few goes to get it right, but in truth, it does matter: over 90% of the time, the project calls for the nail to be at a perfect 90˚ angle and hit in right the first time. This not only makes the join stronger and the surface smoother (especially when painting over it), but it can save a load of hassle, time, energy and nails! And with these few tips, it really can be just as easy as it sounds to hit the nail on the head every time.

To Bang or to Tap? In the movies, anyone with muscles can hammer a nail in perfectly every time with just one or two heavy blows of the hammer. In reality, it doesn’t really take much muscle, but it does take a little more time and finesse. Try placing the nail loosely between your thumb and the first join of your forefinger. This is because if you accidentally slip and hammer your forefinger at the tip, it’s much more painful than hitting the main finger shaft.

Now for the big question: to bang or to tap?

I highly recommend tapping the nail gently into place. Firstly, this enables you to guide the nail more accurately through the wood and helps prevent the nail from bending or sliding in askew. Secondly, it greatly reduces the risk of the wood splitting, especially if you are working with a harder wood like oak, maple or mahogany. That few extra seconds it takes to tap the nail into place can save you a lot more time and energy in the long run.

Two Sure-Fire Methods:

There are two sure-fire methods to ensure you get the nail in on the right 90˚ angle every time. The first method is to practice extensively on wood cut offs. Rest the wood at eye level so you can see that the angle is correct as you tap the nail in (rather than having to bend over to check the angle only to have the nail go out of place when you stand upright again). This will train your eye to see the 90˚ angle automatically. You can tell when you have nailed it (pun intended) because the head of the nail will finish on the same angle as the wood, so you should end up with a flat surface you can run your fingers over without feeling a bump.

After you start getting it right consistently (ie. more than 5 times in a row), try tapping the nail in when it’s not at eye level to get used to how 90˚ looks from different perspectives and then check your outcomes again. It’s all about training the eye. Once you start getting it right consistently, it’s a skill you will never forget or lose. The second method is a little more complicated: it involves first drilling a hole through the two objects at the point where you are planning to nail them together. Use a thinner drill bit than your nail, so that your nail still bites the wood as it goes through and make sure that both holes are at exact 90˚ angles and line up precisely. This method takes a bit more effort, but the hole will guide your nail through perfectly straight every time. This method is particularly good for solid hard woods or for masterpieces because it not only makes short work of the nailing, it prevents the wood from cracking and ensures you get it 100% right every time!

And, of course, practice, practice and more practice makes perfect!

How to Hit the Nail on the Head: Getting Back to Basics
By Leshy Friedman