Did medieval craftsmen use nails?
There is often a perception among modern woodworkers that using nails is a sign of shoddy, second-rate work-which surely a medieval craftsman would not do. Or conversely, that nails must have been far too expensive to be used in medieval furniture and construction. The truth was somewhere in-between: nailed construction was for a time "state of the art," yet shows up frequently in surviving artifacts and documentary evidence.
Medieval nails were made by hand, either by a general ironworker (blacksmith) or by a specialist nail maker. Contrary to the popular image of dark medieval furniture, medieval nails and other ironwork were sometimes tinned for a bright appearance. Tinning was both decorative and helped prevent corrosion, especially where the nails were in contact with oak, which being somewhat acidic tends to stain in contact with iron. Ironwork might also be finished with varnish or blackened with pitch.1
Early on, nails and associated ironwork appear to have been used for a variety of purposes. The Mastermyr tool chest, probably dating from the 10th or 11th century, included both nails and nail-making hardware.2 Nails and spikes show up frequently in both period ships and the excavation of shipyard sites, indicating that nails were not only used but even occasionally wasted. Nails were also used extensively in building construction, from small roofing nails to large iron spikes.
Despite their expense, nails were not at all rare or unusual, L. F. Salzman's examination of building accounts, "shows that great quantities of nails, called by a surprising variety of names, were used in medieval building. Thus the stores at Calais in 1390 included '494,900 nails of various kinds,' which, as nails were often reckoned by the long hundred of six score, may be actually 593,880."3
In the early Middle Ages, most woodworking was done by carpenters, who built both houses and the furniture in them. Early furniture styles were largely "boarded," consisting of wide boards nailed or pegged together. Such joinery relies on the strength of the fasteners more than the joints themselves, and nails were often used either as a primary fastener or to secure reinforcing bands, hinges, locks, etc. Nails often became a decorative motif, in part because the presence of nails in surfaces limits other possibilities for carving and painting.
By the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance, boarded furniture was losing popularity to stronger and lighter joined furniture, which relies on mortise and tenon joints rather than iron fasteners. Since nails are characteristic of boarded furniture, it is in this period that the use of nails begins to become associated with second-quality furniture. However, nailed furniture remained extremely popular for everyday use; all of the chests recovered from the 16th century wreck of the Mary Rose were of boarded construction.4 Interestingly, even the dovetailed chests (now regarded as a form of joinery) were also nailed, a practice not usually seen today.
1. Salzman, L.F. Building in England Down to 1540. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1952 (Special edition for Sandpiper Books Ltd., 1997),, p. 294.
2. Arwidsson, Greta and Berg, Gösta. The Mästermyr Find, A Viking Age Tools Chest from Gotland. Kungl. Vitterhets Historie Och Antikvitets Akademien, Almquist & Wiksell Intl., Stockholm, 1983.
3. Salzman, pp. 303-304.
4. Redknap, Mark (ed.). Artefacts from Wrecks; Dated assemblages from the Late Middle Ages to the Industrial Revolution. Oxbow Monograph 84. Oxbow Books, Oxford, 1997.
Copyright 2006, Tom Rettie. Content may not be republished in any form without permission of the author.