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A friend gave me a bunch of really old lumber (the late 1800s, early 1900s) and they have a bunch of old handmade nails in them which I tried pulling out but half of them broke off in the wood. I would love to use this lumber but I don't want to ruin my blades in the jointer/planer or trigger the SawStop so is there a way I can safely mill these boards or should I scrap them?

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    If you aren't willing to laboriously locate pretty much every nail (using a metal detector!) and dig it out, by whatever means necessary, then yeah, you might have to abandon the idea of milling the wood down to get fresh-looking stock. Without seeing numerous photos it's hard to advise further, but are the nails all over the place in most of the boards or are they positioned usefully in fair straight lines so the affected strips could be safely ripped off? You might be able to cut around them and still end up with a decent yield, just not in the lengths and widths you were hoping for.
    – Graphus
    Jun 21, 2022 at 19:11
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    I suppose it's worth mentioning that carbide-toothed TS blades are capable of cutting though staples, brads and even the occasional nail without harm. This isn't to say it's 100% safe to do so (for the operator or the saw) but it is a fact of life that every now and then you'll saw through a fastener without meaning to. Now nobody should recommend this, and of course it's not something to be cavalier about, but it is possible to get away with it. If you want a bit more info Stumpy Nubs did a video on this very subject maybe 2 months back, the thumbnail is easy to spot because of the sparks!
    – Graphus
    Jun 21, 2022 at 19:24
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    @AloysiusDefenestrate - and, I would add, will trigger the OP's SawStop, which will definitely finish the job on the blade that the nails started. Jun 21, 2022 at 22:58
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    Were the nails substantially rusted out? If there is a lot of rust and little iron remaining, that's going to be a lot easier on carbide tools than metallic iron. Jointing and planning though would still be a no go unless you have a junk hand plane blade you can sacrifice.
    – user278411
    Jun 22, 2022 at 0:00
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    There may be a local mill that specializes in milling "urban" timber. This basically means they will accept timber with fasteners probably embedded in it, and you will pay accordingly. Other mills will never accept such timber.
    – user5572
    Jun 22, 2022 at 12:43

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Before you start, rather than just winging it as many do when faced with the prospect of using reclaimed wood (I'm very much including pallet wood here for some of the direct parallels) it might be worth consciously looking at it this way:

potential value of wood to you / (the cost of your time + cost of 1-2 useful tools)

Everyone will do this calculation differently. If you're an amateur you might value your time at zero as many/most amateurs do, in which case it becomes only a matter of how much effort you're willing put into the boring preparatory stages, along with the cost of any of a few tools you might need to make this wood safe to process in your normal manner (but see bottom for an alternative).


New Yankee Workshop used reclaimed wood numerous times so that might be something to go hunting for to see someone working start to finish with wood that might be quite similar to what you have there. Sorry I can't give you even a starting point for the search like project titles, or even which seasons to look in, because in writing this I realise it's been 20 years since I watched NYW!

As Norm shows quite well (better in later episodes IIRC) you start by meticulously de-nailing the boards before any further processing.

Find the metal, remove it
Using a metal detector is considered a must here, so that's an expense to factor in. Be methodical. Do both sides. Mark each location with pen, chalk, or carpenter's pencil.

Do not be guided purely by the staining you might see, or obvious holes; although of course they are a useful starting point chunks of iron can be surprisingly well hidden on old, especially weathered, wood. I've missed a few on boards that were merely rough-sawn and a bit dingy!

You might read you can use a stud finder for the metal hunt but, eh, not really. Ditto a strong magnet. Both are capable of finding some of the metal in wood for sure, on thinner boards especially for obvious reasons. But they both lack the sensitivity you want for thicker material and to reliably find smaller chunks, like just the tip of a nail that gets left behind after pulling.

I tried pulling out but half of them broke off in the wood

It may be possible to successfully pull/prise out the pieces that remain e.g. by drilling to either side and then using needle-nosed pliers. This can take far longer than you expect, and it means leaving a much bigger gouge in the wood than you were hoping for. But remember you can always use tinted epoxy or a Dutchman for defects like this, and either can add an attractive touch to something obviously made from old wood.

Assuming you aren't willing to just rip cut out entire nail lines, and/or trim off the ends where the nails mostly lie, the only alternative to prying out is some type of coring tool or plug cutter which will leave a more uniform hole that you might or might not prefer (note that the larger the holes are the harder it is to plug with face-grain wood, so you might prefer to convert the round holes to any of the more traditional Dutchman shapes).

After you've worked your way along a board from one end to the other, ticking off every marked location, check the wood again with the metal detector. Dollars to doughnuts you'll find at least one piece that got overlooked or left behind.

It should be impossible to miss any piece of metal worth noting if you check a second time but.....

What if I do miss a piece?
Assuming you don't go a different route on initial breakdown the first major power tool to see the wood will be your table saw. Since you're using a modern saw I think it's safe to assume your blade is carbide-tipped :-) and as I mention in the Comment above, carbide-toothed TS blades are capable of cutting though staples, brads and even the occasional nail without harm1. And just to be clear, by without harm I don't mean no apparent damage I mean no damage at all that anyone can notice; you'll confirm this for yourself during your due diligence.

This shouldn't be that surprising since mild steel and wrought iron are relatively soft, and carbide is hard2.

Now the flesh-sensing technology on the SawStop adds a further complication because sawing though a bit of metal can on occasion trigger it, which means new brake and new blade, obviously something you want to completely avoid. You can turn the saw into a dumb saw, as an owner you'll know Bypass Mode is specifically provided for this purpose as and when needed, and some users make use of it on a regular basis. So this isn't at all an unreasonable option, but it's up to you if that's something you would be comfortable doing.

Once you get done with the saw cuts the wood should be as safe as you could hope for, and suitable for running over a jointer or thickness planing.

Alternative approach
Do the processing by hand, exclusively or mostly with hand tools. So, starting with rip and crosscut panel saws, possibly a hatchet (for wasting edges and splitting off), and a scrub plane or other roughing plane.

Because of the pace of work, and the nature of the tools themselves, it can be almost risk-free to process wood with nails in it manually; I have planed down to staples, brads/nails, and even a hard modern screw once or twice, without ever doing unrecoverable damage to the plane3, although admittedly others have had different experiences including chipping the rear of the mouth opening.

I suppose the primary power tool you could use to help with this process is a jigsaw4. And at worst you'll trash a jigsaw blade or two, not an unreasonable expense for what you're getting at the end of the day (even if this is 'only' softwood).


1 Do your due diligence here. Because of how relevant it is to your situation the video I referred to above in the Comments would make a great starting point; the original title was different but it's now What did a tiny nail do to my $10K table saw? As you might expect there's quite a bit on the forums related to this topic, and probably much more on YouTube.

2 But not necessarily as brittle as you might have been led to believe. This is one area where you can expect to notice the quality of your blade's carbide, since tungsten carbide is by no means a single, uniform, entity as so often implied (just like HSS isn't, as you might already know if you have a lathe and have tried various makes of turning tools). This is one of the genuine reasons for some saw blades costing a lot more than others, rather than it just being a name premium or the maker recouping their fat advertising budget :-)

3 Other than one deep scratch to the sole (which doesn't affect function in any way) the worst I've had to deal with is a minor nick in an iron and a worse, but still superficial, gouge to the leading edge of a cap iron.

4 I suppose you could use a reciprocating saw for this, as they're used for demo work their blades are most definitely up to the task (I doubt you'd even notice sawing through these nails as far as increased resistance goes) but this type of saw may be too uncontrollable for what you need here. A jigsaw is slower, safer and has much greater potential future utility to the average woodworker.

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Short answer for this: no, there is no way using ordinary wood shop equipment to safely mill wood with embedded iron in it. Jointer, planer, and bandsaw blades will be ruined by even small amounts of iron. Carbide table saw blades will survive some cutting of steel or iron, but will be dulled significantly, and may experience damage. Iron also may trigger your SawStop if it's a big enough fragment, if you don't disable the mechanism for each and every cut.

If there is a relatively small number of nails to deal with, I would remove the remaining bits of iron by coring the nails with a small bore carbide or bimetal hole saw, then plug the resulting holes with cores cut from near the end of the timber (to minimize shortening of the resulting boards), then mill it. If there are very many, I wouldn't bother.

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  • Interesting that this has 2 up votes and 2 down votes. It seems perfectly reasonable to me and I'd be curious to know what parts the DV's disagree with and why. This seems to line up with all the conventional wisdom I've ever heard on dealing with recycled lumber and precisely why many lumber mills don't accept urban trees - there's too much of a chance of running into embedded metal, thus destroying expensive bandsaw blades.
    – FreeMan
    Jun 22, 2022 at 14:07
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    @FreeMan - I don't know. I've used a lot of recycled wood in my day. You can get some beautiful wood out of old barn beams and the like. But even being careful, I've wrecked the occasional jointer and bandsaw blades. It is not just urban trees, by the way, that sawyers have to be careful of. Trees from fencerows in farm country are frequently full of steel - wire, nails, and even the odd steel fence post or plow share. I ran into an elm log not long ago that had grown completely around a steel T fence post. Totaled my chain saw chain. Jun 22, 2022 at 20:48
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First, evaluate the boards and figure out how you want to use them. If they're old and they have a lot of hand cut nails, maybe it'd be nicer to leave them in their current state as much as possible to preserve their character. That'd save you some work, and you might end up with a project that's one of a kind.

If you do decide to mill the boards, you need to get rid of the nails. There are a lot of good tools for that out there, and you may need more than one. A Crescent Nail Puller is a great tool for something like this -- the harder you pull on it, the tighter it holds the nail. A flat pry bar and a cat's paw might also be handy. As others have suggested, a wand-style metal detector can pay for itself in the cost of replacement blades in just one or two uses.

If you don't think you can get the nails out, sometimes you can push them farther in. For example, if you've broken the head off a nail, you may not be able to get a hold on it to pull it out. You can try to excavate around it, but at some point you're just going to make a mess of the board. Instead, insert a small punch in the hole and use a hammer to drive the nail a little further into the wood, so you can safely surface the wood without hitting the nail.

If you just want to surface the wood but don't need it absolutely flat, a belt sander is a good option. Even if you hit a nail, the sander will probably just sand it down along with the rest of the board. Worst case, you might have to change the belt, which isn't a big deal.

Carbide-tipped table saw blades will cut right through most nails and screws, and hand cut nails are probably softer than today's steel nails. Even so, you don't want to subject your best blade to nails, so buy a cheap blade for this project. I bought a rip blade at Home Depot recently for about $16. I think the brand is "Avanti," and it actually works pretty well. The teeth aren't exactly beefy, and I doubt it'll stay sharp for as long as a better blade would, but it's probably perfect for the kind of boards you've got.

If you're going to use your SawStop and want to avoid tripping the brake, just put the saw in bypass mode. Check your manual for instructions, but it's basically just a matter of turning the key as you start the saw. Just remember that the brake WILL NOT FIRE when the saw is in bypass mode, so use the blade guard and an extra dose of caution.

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