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When is it appropriate to use nails to join wood?

Other than for rough framing, the only common accepted use I can think of is for tacking trim, but even there it doesn't quite feel right because invariably the nailguns aren't set properly so unless a good painter comes after them with wood filler each brad leaves a divot. And for all I know "real" woodworkers rabbet and glue all their trim.

So is brad nailing still considered a good practice for trim? And are there other permanent installations where nails are appropriate?

14

Very good question. I'll tell you how I use nails, though I'm not sure this is the "correct" answer.

  1. When I don't have the patience to wait for the glue to dry. Typically, nailing is only needed to secure two pieces of wood until the wood dries (provided you have long grain to long grain contact). So, I pull out my brad nailer so I can move onto doing something else while the glue dries.
  2. When I don't care how it looks. When building shop furniture, for example, I almost always nail my drawers together because I don't care about a nail being visible in a drawer. Same goes for jigs.
  3. When it's easily concealed. This is what you're referring to--trim. The hole it leaves is so small that it's easily masked by putty. (Although, if you're staining it, that's a different story).
  4. Similar to #1--when the angle is such that I can't find a way to clamp it. For example, if I have trim that's angular, I can't place weights on it and it may be too wide to clamp it, so I'll nail it.

I'll keep thinking and edit if I can think of any more.

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  • Wooden tool chests often had the bottom nailed on. That way it can be replaced when the bottom falls apart due to moisture, age, etc. without having to dismantle the entire thing. – saltface Mar 17 '15 at 19:36
  • Good point, @saltface. Same goes for drawer bottoms (and for similar reasons). – dfife Mar 17 '15 at 19:38
  • Wouldn't screws be better indicated whenever something is intended for disassembly? – feetwet Mar 17 '15 at 22:26
  • @feetwet: Well, that's certainly why my standard student bookcase design used screws without glue -- plus they make for quieter and more neighbor-friendly assembly, especially when you get the lumberyard to pre-cut the boards to length. (Still using two of those, 4'x4'x1', which will be turned back into lumber when the real library cases go in.) – keshlam Mar 18 '15 at 1:55
9

This used to actually be a guild issue, believe it or not. "Mere" carpenters were forbidden to use many of the fancier joinery available to furniture makers, and expected to use nails. Hence the association of nails with cheaper pieces made by less-skilled labor.

Of course the budget piece might be just as functional as the fancier one -- and the fact that nails flex a bit actually lets them dodge some wood-movement issues that "proper" joinery has to wrestle with. But there are still bragging rights in being able to minimize your use of screws and nails, and let the wood and glue do the job.

On the other hand, I've seen a number of pieces which deliberately use nails (especially cut nails) to replicate the "ordinary homeowner's" version.

My take is that it's all good, as long as it's a deliberate decision with some awareness of the history.

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3

As mentioned in other answers, nails may be more appropriate when the wood will be prone to a lot of warping or swelling. Nailed joints offer flexibility to accommodate the changing dimensions of the joint, whereas glue joints may outright fail.

Moisture is a major cause of warping and swelling. Projects that are subject to sustained contact with water, such as boat building or a planters with direct contact to the soil are well-suited for nail use.

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