Making Nailing Easier: Tips for Carpentry

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It’s a known fact of life that using a hammer and nails can be a dangerous exercise, and on every single sitcom you already know what’s going to happen when this tool makes an appearance. Once you know some basic tips for carpentry when it comes to a hammer and nails, you'll be able to make your DIY projects easier and safer.

Mastering the Hammer

A man in a plaid shirt holding a hammer.

Even the most professional carpenters out there carry one simple tool with them: a hammer. It’s one of the most basic tools, and that’s why so many people think it’s easy to use. But you shouldn’t just pick up a hammer and start swinging.

Grip the handle firmly—not tightly. Don’t hold the hammer in a death grip. You want a good firm grip, but one that isn’t too tight or too loose. Your muscles shouldn’t feel too tensed by your grip, and the handle of the hammer should not feel wobbly in your hand.

Pay attention to your form when you hammer. No matter what you're working on, the end of the handle should always point toward your hips. This will keep your nails straight as you hammer them. Swing from your elbow, not your wrist, to maintain control over the hammer. Remember that you don't have to be powerful to hammer. Let your tool do the work. Hammers are designed to be heavy for a reason. Focus on using a strong, steady motion, and the hammer's weight will provide the force you need to drive the nail.

Make the surface of your hammer rougher. Odd as it may sound, you actually don't want a nice, smooth hammerhead. You want it to be somewhat rough and coarse to keep it from sliding off nails while you work. Use ordinary sandpaper to wear away the metal of the hammer until you have a nice, rough finish.

Change directions. Have a stubborn piece of wood? Try hammering your nail in at an angle to make a stronger joint between two pieces.

Working With Nails

A close-up image of a pile of nails.

The hammer is only one part of the equation, for what good is any hammer without its nail? Here's how to use nails like a pro for beautifuly finished projects.

Watch your fingers. Instead of holding a nail with your delicate fingers, hold it in place with a clothespin. Wooden clothespins will absorb the force of the hammer more safely than your fingers will, and still grip the nail steadily while you work. You can also use a regular hair comb to hold the nail in place. Put the tip of the nail between teeth of the comb. This gets your hands out of the way and keeps the nail supported, too.

Pretreat your nail. Working with old wood? Brittle wood may split even with a great hammering technique. Avoid this by covering the nail with beeswax before hammering it in. If you find yourself working with a particularly hard piece of wood or a tough nail that doesn’t want to be hammered, rub the nail with a bar of soap to create lubrication. Where you can, avoid hammering nails through noticeably knotty wood. This wood is irregular and can lead to crooked nails, not to mention splitting of the wood.

Dull the nail. Nails with sharp points can be dangerous to work with and create damage to your wood. Make nails easier to use by dulling those points first. Simply tap the tips of the nails with the hammer to blunt them a little. This will help prevent splitting and cracking in the wood.

Make the going easier. You can take some of the work out of hammering nails by pre-drilling holes. Use a drill with a bit that’s just a bit smaller than the nail you’re going to use, and drill a starter hole right where the nail will go. This will create a nice groove to hold the nail and eliminate some of the work of driving it in.

Don’t forget your accessories. If you’re doing a lot of hammering, slip on a canvas nail apron. This will hold your nails and make them easy to reach. Wearing a nail apron can also help prevent lost nails because it’s easy to drop them here and keep them secure, whereas leaving them on the floor near you can quickly lead to trouble.