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December 2009
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Nail Guide for DIY'ers - Finish Nails

Having explored Framing Nails, I am jumping ahead to Finish Nails. I will deal with the nails between the wood and trim (drywall, paneling,and specialty nails) next post.

Finish Nails are the ‘headless’ nails used primarily for trim work, hence finish. They come in a variety of sizes for fastening things that will be exposed or where  materials will be finished such as window and door frames in wood, where a big headed nail may look bad.

Here is a photo of  a selection of finish nails from 16d [3 1/2”] to 4d [1 1/2”]. (Note Nails smaller than 1 1/2” are called ‘brads’ and are sold by length.)


They are called headless, but they do have a small head. They also have a diamond point on the other end. I need to take a moment to talk about how nails work.

Nails are friction holding devices. The wood surrounding the nail provides the friction that allows things to stay together and not fall apart. That is it. The little bits of friction and a bit of gravity is the only thing keeping the big bad wolf or storms from sucking your house off its foundation and sending it to Oz or someone else’s house. (Or in my case, concrete anchors, construction adhesives, nails, deck screws, strong tie hangers and brackets…) Relax, they have been doing their job well for hundreds of years.

I mentioned in the framing nail posting how various coatings are used on framing nails to increase the holding power of the nail. Vinyl, Epoxy, Cement. Not so much with finish nails. The only notable exception are galvanized nails for exterior use.

Because nails work by friction, splitting your wood  removes the friction necessary to your nails doing their job and makes your work look bad. The closer you get to the edge or end of a piece of wood,(Composites don’t count.) the greater the chances of the nail splitting it, and causing problems. All nails have points, which is good news/bad news. Good news in knowing which direction to point them, bad news for edge nailing including toe nailing which is not used much anymore.

The point of the nail literally cuts the wood fibers as you drive it in. This is a bad thing for the friction game especially if you split the wood. You can minimize this. When getting ready to drive a nail into an edge or end, flip it over and tap the point with your hammer to blunt the point of the nail before driving it.


What this  does is push the wood fibers out of the way rather than cutting them maintaining the maximum friction and holding power. I learned this from my grandfather who was a master cabinet maker from Sweden, and it hasn’t let me down yet.

With every nailing operation except for duplex nails, your goal is to drive the nail just below the surface. Occasionally you will slip and damage the lumber with a hammer mark. In rough framing this is not a real issue, as it will be covered by something and have trim.

On trim however, this is an issue. There is a tool for that. It is called a nail set. A nail set is a small tool with a semi flat point to allow you do tap the head of finish nails below the surface of your trim.


You want to take care to just drive the nail far enough so that any filler you use to hide the nail hole will be easy to finish.

For the majority of your home remodeling projects you will only need 2 sizes 8d and 4d


The 8d will cover setting door and window frames, applying 1x-3/4” trims and other areas where appearance is an issue. The 4d will handle all of your case and base work. You will only need to buy these in pound quantities. The only other optional size would be a small box of 16d’s for temporary hangers like coat racks and interior jambs on exterior doors that have 1 1/2 ” or thicker jambs.

Happy Nailing.

7 comments to Nail Guide for DIY’ers – Finish Nails and the Nail Set

  • My first visit to your site. Very nice! Great explanations.

  • This is my first time i visit here. I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment here! keep up the good work

  • Hi RemodGeek,
    Thanks for posting about finish nails and including such great photos. I inherited a toolbox when I bought my condo from an old friend who’s a geek (computers). I’m a geek too (books & computers) and had no idea until now that I’ve been using finish nails from friend’s toolbox to hang small pictures around the house for years. I always thought “huh, funny nails to hang pictures, but they’re here and they’re the right size.” NOW I now I’ve got exactly the finish nails I need to fix that little bit of baseboard trim that’s come loose and has been bugging me for months! Thanks. Don’t stop blogging!

  • You’re welcome, Heather.
    Thanks for stopping by.

  • Sweet blog, I’ll be checking it out from now on.

  • ian

    Now I heard somewhere that pre-drilling a hole smaller than the nail diameter helps the friction – and it does – I’ve tried it. The idea being that instead of the nail parting the grain and therefore only contacting on each side of the nail, the predrilled hole causes it to snug all round the nail and really grip. It does seem to test out when you try it and try to pull the nail. Kind of hard work though!

  • I still frame by hand, if you can believe it, but I’ve typically used finish nailers for interior work. Not so any longer! I still go to the nailer for things like paneling a ceiling or wall but I really like using a hammer, nails and a nail set for trim work. That said, I’m still new at it. Your nail explanations are simple and straightforward, visually sensible and just plain helpful. Thank you!