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Cheat Sheet: Hammering home some basics on choosing nails

Recently, a reader wrote complaining that I spent too much time writing about the problems in the real estate industry.

Recently, a reader wrote complaining that I spent too much time writing about the problems in the real estate industry.

"Most of us live in houses already and we want to know how to improve them," he said. "Why don't you write about banging a nail with a hammer?"

The line under the name reads "real estate writer," and that's my primary function. In this space, however, home improvement is king, and since nails were mentioned, let's talk about them.

I have boxes of different kinds in the workshop, because all nails are not alike. For instance, there are general-purpose nails used primarily in woodworking, and specialty nails for jobs involving concrete and masonry.

I would never use a roofing nail to install trim on a piece of furniture I was building. Even if I pre-drilled, I would split the wood, and how would I hide the head of the nail below the surface of the wood? Conversely, if I used a finishing nail to attach roof shingles, I couldn't guarantee that they would not break free in a strong wind.

And just as not all nails fit every job, not all hammers fit every nail. You should have more than one hammer.

A glossary: Common nails are thick and heavy-duty, with large flat heads, and are used in framing carpentry and other rough work. Finish nails are used to fasten trim and cabinets when you don't want the heads to show; carpenters put a steel tool called a nailset into the nail's cupped head to hammer the head below the surface of the wood. Wood filler masks the hole.

Casing nails are like finishing nails but used for heavier-duty work; the nails themselves are thicker and heavier. Brads are very small finishing nails, usually no more than an inch long, and they are thinner, too.

Cut flooring nails are rectangular with blunt tips that won't split the wood as they go through the edges. Roofing nails - used to hold roofing felt, shingles, shakes, and materials of that sort - have large heads and ringed shanks so the material won't come away from the sheathing easily. Masonry or concrete nails are made of thick, hardened steel with a grooved or fluted shank that can be round, flat, or square.

Gutter spikes are six-to-eight-inch nails used to secure gutters. Drywall nails have large heads and ringed shanks for attaching drywall to studs. Most professionals use them; most do-it-yourselfers use drywall screws. Duplex or scaffold nails have two heads - one that is driven against the material to hold it in place, the second for easy removal. These are usually used to fasten work temporarily.

Tacks have short shanks and are used to fasten upholstery or carpet.

Need to know: Most nails are made from steel or stainless steel. Nail length is measured in inches or designated by the word penny, which once referred to their price per hundred. A tenpenny nail (known as a 10d) is three inches long, a twopenny is one inch long, a 60d is six inches long. Nail diameter typically increases with length.

Be sure to ask: Are the nails galvanized, to prevent them from rusting? That is extremely important if you are doing an outdoor project, such as building a roof or deck. Galvanized nails are coated with zinc either through electroplating, which makes them shiny, or hot dipping, which leaves a dull finish.

Don't do this: Don't try to use a nail for purposes it wasn't intended for. For example, don't use barbed or ringed nails if you plan to remove them; their sharp-edged ridges are designed to lock into the wood, and if you try pulling them out, you'll do damage.

Bad advice: "Drive nails through thicker pieces of wood into thinner ones." Actually, it's the other way around. The nail should be three times as long as the thickness of the thin piece, so that two-thirds of the nail will be in the thicker piece to hold it better.

What it will cost: From a few cents to several dollars, depending on the kind of nail and the quantity. There are 66 three-inch common nails in a pound, which retails at $4.60.