Sunday, October 14, 2007

Tales From The Nailery

In the dim misty reaches of the land called last Tuesday afternoon I misspent a substantial portion of my (ha!) prime as a peripheral festoon of the wooden boat craze of the latter end of the twentieth century. One of the high points of that fantasy was this history of nails. Though I must warn you that there is a certain amount of boat builder jargon ahead, I don't believe it will do more than mildly annoy the typical reader. Hopefully the one or two meager puns and a damp squib or two will so disconcert the reader as to maintain his or her wakefulness at the wheel.


A Short History of The Nail

By Martin Langeland

Originaly Presented 5 July 1981
at The Center for Wooden Boats
Seattle Wooden Boat Show

Copyright 1981 by Martin Langeland.
Revised 2007 by Martin Langeland
All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced
without written Permission of the author.


A Garden of Marine Delights

During the next 50 minutes I should like to escort you along a broad avenue within the Garden of Technology. Nail Way, or Via Clavus as the Romans had it, begins at a major entrance to this Garden which extends through time as well as space. Through 5,000 years of innovation it leads us into every corner of Technology and the Applied Arts with its many branchings such as Screw St., Bolt Boulevard, and Adhesive Alley. As time limits us, we would have to depart the main way early down Rivet Road. This brings us quickly to the road steads near the Springs of Ingenuity where we may board a mutable vessel to view the well marked, amply annotated and fully explained development of the marine nail in the watery precincts of the Garden.

Alas! Such a voyage is not possible. For some reason (Unfathomable to myself who has been consumed with interest in the humble nail for some six years now) the subject fails to catch the scholarly eye. Our much vaunted culture boasts no libraries with shadowed corridors looming with the lore of the nailery, Our universities endow no Chairs of Distinguished Tacks, or Belles Brads. Very well, let it be so. Even can I put up with the exhaustive technical manuals which afford a bare passing reference to the subject, which is assumed to be kindergarten knowledge. But an undertaking to limn the history of the nail is truly to be caught in a cleft stick. One travels far afield into diverse and arcane subjects, only to return with meager gleanings of dubious value. When compared to the results of previous forays: controversy, contradiction and confusion are the principle products. In a tome of some 200 folio pages, profusely illustrated, one sketch tantalize. In Vain is all search for explication or even mention in the text. But in the next chapter the text throws out an encouraging hint at the bottom of a page:

"It was nailed".

Excitement fevers my brow as I hurriedly turn the page to find: A new chapter heading. What were those nails made of? How were they made? How were they used? What did they look like? All such vital concerns have been edited out to present purportedly more meaty matter.

So I must guide you through a watery wilderness, not a garden of marine delights. Our craft is compounded of History, Archeology, Metallurgy, Machineology, Economics, Architecture, Linguistics and other trace elements. This chancy framework is covered with a skin of varying thicknesses of speculation.

In this tender vessel we will brave a crossing of Marum Incognita in quest of our Ultima Thule: The Nail. Our way is filled with whirlpools of conjecture, floating beds of controversy, man eating quibbles, shoals of doubt, Our chart offers comforting warnings on the order of "Here be Monsters." Islets of fact are marked "Disputed", or "possible." Only infrequently comes the welcome phrase: "Probable." But all these are writ in pencil, none in ink, Prepare! Sharpen your sense of humor, wrap yourselves in a cloak of imagination, and defend yourself with a buckler of skepticism, We begin.


In the Dim Misty Reaches

In the dim misty reaches of the Aeneolithic (copper) Age, about 3,000 B.C., we embark on the river of time. Amidst the pre-dawn darkness of the new Stone Age which wraps the known world, two lights of culture and civilization gleam. On the far bank to the west lies the Old Kingdom of Egypt: So young they are just beginning to reckon time in Pharaonic reigns rather than seasons. On the near shore, in the fertile crescent betwixt the Tigris and Euphrates, lie the city states of Sumer: first to flower and first to fade. The epoch is one of such overwhelming innovation that our present day "Silicone Valley" pales into insignificance. Set to one side the invention of agriculture, writing, mathematics, organized religion, democracy, monarchy, theocracy, history and education. Put beside them the invention of the plow, sickle, bricks, pottery, sculpture and monumental architecture. On the other side set this wonder: These people made the leap of faith which invented the nail!

When? Alius Liber, Alius Dictum. Which is to say: Which source will you prefer? The Encyclopedia Americana circumspectly states that nails were in use before 1100 B.C. The Brittanica is bolder. They claim the nail was in use at least as early as 1700 B.C., in Sumer, and probably a thousand years before that in Egypt. But one school of archaeological thought maintains that the Egyptians learned metal working from traders coming from the northeast.
There is only one ultimate source in that case: Sumer. Further it had to be before 2700 B.C. when the Brittanica thinks the Egyptians were nailing things together. Sumer also had the better access to copper and tin deposits. So to Sumer and the winter of 3,000 B.C. I give credit for the birth of the nail.

The Sumerians had a marvelous personage, their most important deity, who was in charge of the air. This god, Enlil, was credited with teaching them the art of agriculture and giving them the tools with which to do it. Before you dismiss this as myth, consider the position of the scholar several millenia hence examining the relics of our own time. Will that gent credit our assertion that there was only one John Gardner? Only one Dick Wagner? (two luminaries of the wooden boat revival in the late twentieth century. -- ed.)

Here then is Enlil, sitting by the river in the dawning sun of recorded time trying to solve a problem. He wants to build a box. He could build it of earth, except he wants to move it about. He could build it of pottery, but he wants to toss heavy things into it. That leaves wood.

Now wood is not perfect. It doesn't grow locally so it is expensive.
Fitting the joints calls for an expensive master carpenter. Of course the budget is limited since this is an ordinary box, not a fancy one. Still wood is the best material, if only he could get around the high price of help.

Just then the postman arrives with a stack of clay tablets.

"Ah, the new issue of the Scientific Sumerian. Perhaps Enlil's What's New column can illumine." After a paragraph or two: "Eureka! " he shouts in cuneiform.

He digs up some of that reddish soil that doesn't grow much, and stuffs it into the potter's kiln. After firing, a long skinny rod of copper lies in the scratch he made on the floor of the kiln. This he places on a hard place and with the proverbial rock beats it into a long thin wire. Then he bends a piece of it back and forth until it becomes so brittle it breaks. With a handful of these, he assembles his boards and wales away with his rock until he has hammered those nails home. The box works!

Of course there were some gray beards present who shook their heads and said "it warn't no good." They didn't like the way the kiln stank; they thought all that banging with rocks was a safety hazard; and as for the box: Humph! That was just plain shoddy. Undeterred, Enlil wrote it up for the "Scientific Sumerian" and the new thing caught on.


A Clump in Old Elath

During the next millennium there were a few minor, though noteworthy, achievements by other Enlils and Thoths and so forth as new tribes caught the civilization bug and settled down to play the culture game. Things like alloying copper with tin to produce bronze. Not much came of that trick. Except a whole new age. Other metals and hot forging techniques were discovered, also annealing and heat tempering.

But our craft is coming in sight of a fact. Let us look around us. We have moved west of Sumer and downstream in time to 700 B.C. Here we are outside Jerusalem where Solomon is King and in the process of arraying himself in all his glory.

Solomon is transforming the Israelites from a war footing to a peacetime economy in the already time-honored manner: A large public works project. Hiram of Tyre has agreed to knock down several hundred thousand board feet of old growth cedar and fir to raft down to Solomon for a measly 20,000 measures of wheat and a like amount of fine oil. That's per year. All these fine timbers are only a small part of the materials list. There is a fair amount of stone, some gold, electrum and other baubles. All this stuff will keep the carpenters, masons and smiths occupied for the next 11 years. Rather than lay them off, causing a recession, Solomon sets them to building a palace during the following 13 years. Now you can't meet Solomon's payroll if everybody in the country is working on the temple. There is a booming economy supporting this project, not just in the agricultural sector, but in manufacturing and exporting as well.

That means ships.

And harbors.

Then, as now, many of life's necessities came from the Arabian peninsula and the horn of Africa. By boat up the Red Sea to the port of Elath came they. And also came there in our days the Archaeologists.

Among debris associated with ships' stores in a corner of a warehouse they found a verdigrised clump of copper spikes. That's the fact. My source left it at that. Were they used in the ships of the time? How? In the deadwood? In the planks? What was the cross section shape of the shank? What size was the head in relation to the shank? Were they pointed? The book is mute.

Time presses. The stream flows on, sweeping our vessel west nor'west towards innovation point in 100 A.D. The republic of Rome is a century and a half in its grave. The Empire is reaching for its height. The Romans didn't care much for the sea and ships, which is not too surprising in a bunch of lawyers and soldiers. Solid ground they understood, but naval battles and philosophy were better left to the Greeks who enjoyed such chancy occupations.

The litter of storm wrack on the floor of the Mediterranean attests to the wisdom of Rome's doubts. The classic Mediterranean craft was smooth sided and made of short planks usually more than 3 feet in length but seldom more than 6 feet. These were laboriously joined with tennons in mortises, and then pegged to the ribs. Their life expectancy wasn't anything to shout about.

Now we find ourselves in the Imperial shipyard at Ostia sometime before 100 A.D. A Centurion named Gaius has been put in charge, to teach him not to mouth off to a Praefectus. Gaius is being a real go-getter, in hopes of an early return to the infantry. So he takes credit for an experiment which worked:
Nailing the tenons in place. The resulting hull is so much stiffer and more seaworthy that all is forgiven and Gaius returns to his century with a promotion.

But, was that when it happened? Probably not. It was probably earlier.
But here is our fact: A wreck dated to 100 A.D. has been found with nailed tenon construction. No earlier example has been located. Yet.

The river swirls, time slips. North by northwest to Caesar's despair, Hadrian's siege, and Ambrosius' defeat: To Britain during the Roman occupation.

Rome seldom left its colonies idle. Always a massive building program of roads, aqueducts, arenas, baths, courts, villas masked and facilitated the flow of goods to Rome. Stone for the construction of Londonium came from quarries in Berkshire. It traveled down the Thames in shallow draft versions of the Mediterranean merchant carvels. Stout, beamy, capacious, built of good British oak.

One such was launched in 120 A.D. and spent an uneventful four score of years hauling stone down and dead heading up. One day circa 200 A.D., near the south bank not too far from Londonium, the quartermaster was hungover, and the captain worse. The kid at the wheel fancied a course close in, hoping to see a sweetheart. Any sweetheart. The mud bank reared up out of nowhere and snatched the ship. All hands promptly swam ashore leaving the old hulk to rot. It didn't. It settled into the ooze and muck to lie undisturbed for another 1800 years, its cargo intact.

In a section of London, between the wars, a foundation was going in where the Thames used to have its bed. There they found her: The Black Friars Ship.

She is significant because she offers the earliest extant example of the technique of clenching nails. Spikes 29" long were driven through the two bottom planks into her oak floors. Though stout, she wasn't stout enough to swallow all those shanks, There was a bit of excess; this was neatly bashed over.


The Lapstrake Hull and Rivets

That slight lurch was not one of us shifting uneasily. Time passes and Rome is feeling it. In 410 A.D. the long defeat gathered weigh as the legions decamped. Some of the Celts cheered to see the invader go. Then they looked nervously over their shoulders and the cheer choked off.

To the west the wild Irish. To the North the savage Picts. To the East, not quite yet, but soon, the heathen Vikings.
Most terrible of all, to the Southeast: Jutland and the barbaric Angles, Saxons and Jutes. No sooner are the legions safely landed in Gaul than new ships are sighted on the North Sea.

The Anglo Saxons are waiting in the wings with a new thing, Before they enter, let us turn aside briefly to consider the origins of this new thing.

For two thousand years and more the inhabitants of Scandinavia practiced a curious custom which has been a great boon to the arts of scholarship and controversy. They carved pictures on rocks with gay abandon. Many of these pictures are of boats. Some say they are dugouts. Some say they aren't. Some say they are hide covered boats. Some say they aren't. Since neither are nailed together, I don't pretend to have an opinion.

The next development we have is somewhat more substantial. Dated to 300 B.C. the Als Boat, or Hjortspring Boat, consists of five overlapping planks which are sewn together with spruce roots. In form it is knuckle sided with a thicker plank in place of the keel. It is double ended and meant to be paddled rather than rowed. At either end the sheer and bottom board sweep up in parallel curves. It has nine thwarts.

A curious craft, dated to 100 A.D., exists known as the Bjorke Boat. It was found on an island west of Stockholm. Its hull is a dugout to which sheer planks have been added. These were riveted in place. What were the rivets made of? Were there roves? Were the roves dished? Surely by now you know better than to ask. Nobody says.

Meanwhile, back in Britain:

It was a dark and stormy night. . . But in the murky dawn that followed the poor Celt on picket duty with the sheep in Lincolnshire north of the Wash got the fright of his life when he saw their hulls just off the coast. Uffa, Offa, or Wuffa, or maybe all three and their clans, were arriving in force to put paid to Celtic independence. They were Angles. Or maybe they were Saxons. Could have been Jutes for all that. By now it hardly matters. They got their toehold and soon transformed it into a hammerlock the Celts have not fully recovered from to this day.

Around 600 A.D. one of their big wigs cashed in. A large party was thrown to send him off in a fit manner to Valhol. They depleted breweries fifty miles away. About half way through the obsequies they dug a trench, moved a boat into it, placed His Magnificence in the special house built for the occasion and piously buried the whole works. About 1890 a curious curate or some such dug into the mound to see "What was what. What?" Fortunately, he had sense enough to stop before doing too much damage. I believe he didn't fancy the spade work. He took to writing letters to the Times about it instead. Forty years later a professional at the end of a project, and so of his tether, decided it was about time to get around to doing a proper dig. They didn't find the king. They didn't find the boat. What they found were the rivets. Painstakingly they lifted the dirt away until the impression of the hull was revealed. Careful measurement developed a set of lines for construction of a replica of the Sutton Hoo Ship.

It is the earliest known rowed, riveted, lapstrake.

I think.

But it may not be. Maybe we can give this honor to another ship built 200 years earlier in 400 A.D. just in time for the invasion. One source says yes, definitely. Two or three others say no, unequivocally. The majority hold that the Nydam Ship was built in 800 A.D. in Southern Jutland. Well, either date makes it an Anglo-Saxon boat, so we'll give them credit for now and you can take your pick between 400 and 600.

The Nydam Ship was found in better condition than the one at Sutton Hoo, so more construction details are available. The Nydam Ship lacks a true keel, having instead a thick plank bottom. A stem is fitted at either end of this. For each course of planks, a log was split. Each half was then shaped and faired with an adze or hatchet in such a way that integral cleats were formed on the inside at the rib stations. Each plank was rivetted to the next. Oak ribs were inserted next to the cleats and lashed to them. Branch crooks were lashed to the sheer for oarlocks. Lacking a stout keel, it could not be sailed.

This was the new thing which drove the Celts bonkers and established the dull and plodding Lion next to the Unicorn.


A Viking
Out of the East they came like a plague unto Egypt! With fire and rage they plundered and killed!
--conventional stereotype
Ah, but put yourself in their place: As any but the first born son, there is nothing to inherit. The farm goes to the eldest born. You can stay on sufferance to work like a carl. Or you can go a Viking to trade, to win a new place, to see what the three sisters spinning fate have woven as your woof. You gather the trade goods of a long winter: Hides and ivory from the North, handcrafts such as iron and bronze castings, soapstone carvings and utensils, textiles, and so on, into three long ships and sail with the wind behind you (or row when it isn't) due West to Angleland.

The whole sweaty trip Halfdan hasn't shut up about the mead in the pub on the other side. Now you can almost taste the stuff as you reach for every stroke. At last, with a heartening scrunch, the keel runs up the shingle. Now for that pub!

"You there! Sirrahs! What is your business?"

At the top of the dune a pompous body wrapped in furabouts and furbelows, squatting on a pony, and surrounded by a dozen or so mollys from the town stands in your way.

"Well, Squirt," says Whortleburt (who has the Kirk Douglas part) "First we was gonna 1ift a few, and then maybe we was gonna do a deal, or two, see?"

"Merchants, eh? Well, I'm the wallah in charge of customs, don't you see? Office is in Dorchester, fellow. Keep a civil tongue in your head and I'll overlook it for now. Must follow the rules, don't you know? What? Now, there's a good Squarehead, just fetch your cargo manifest, bills of lading, valuation forms, Master's papers, crew manifest, certificate of seaworthiness, social security cards, and, oh, yes, medical report from your last port. Come along, just eight miles. Brisk walk, do you good."

He stopped with his jowls hanging slack as he watched Eric pitch into the pretty boy on his left. Some fool drew a sword and. . .

The Viking age began. They were merchants as much as they were invaders, and they had a marvelous craft which allowed them to perform a kind of blitzkrieg, both in the military and mercantile sense, all over Europe during the next 250 years. Perhaps the best known example of this craft is the Gokstad ship of 850.

The first obvious difference between this and the Nydam ship is the sail. Long strips of cloth of two colors were sewn together either in stripes or a checkered pattern to make the square sail. The spar is almost as long as the mast, and the whole rig fits inside the boat. The Gokstad is 76' long with a beam of 171/2" amidships. From keel to sheer amidships is 61/2" giving a draft when fully loaded of 3". Drooling time: Her keel was hewn from a single oak timber over 60' long. The ribs were lashed to the plank cleats with spruce roots, but not fastened to the keel. The planks were riveted to each other. The garboards and the next course were fastened to the keel. pilot holes and roves were used. She was a lively ship, downright limber in a swell. But she must have been considered a stiff old thing in her day, when compared to the sewn boats of granddad's day. No doubt that was harked back to as a golden age.

Ships like this drove the Anglo-Saxons bonkers. Ethelred the Unrede built a reputation for listening to lousy advice which caused him to arrive in the wrong place or on the wrong day. History shows us a monarch spoiling for a fight, but just a little too dense to find it.

Perhaps Alfred the Great had better advice, or, again, maybe he was smarter. In his youth he came close to loosing the whole shooting match down in Wessex. But his adherence to unfair guerilla tactics paid off just in the nick. Once he had won the hearts and minds and pacified the countryside, he wrote up his side of the affair in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. He left out one story. Once the Exchequer was rolling, Al decided it would be nice to have a navy. Not just any navy, but a modern, up-to-date navy: One with long ships. Ha! But his long ships would be bigger than the Vikings'! This was his mistake. And in making it, he fell into the bigger is better trap. Here's what happened.

The summer after his fleet was commissioned, Al was champing at the bit, spoiling for a fight. When word came that Eric Bloodaxe (or some such quaintly titled kinglet) was out on a raid, Al galumphed down to Portsmouth and set to sea. It was almost worth it when he saw the look on Eric's face as (for once in his 1ife) he had to look up to see an Anglo-Saxon. Now, the way a sea battle was joined in those days is as follows. Both sides rowed their fleet together bow on. Each side tied their ships together so no wimp could depart before the whistle. The nastiest member of each crew went to the stem and began hacking at his opposite number with appropriate insults, vituperation and calumniations. Sooner or later one would give way and the other would hop aboard the enemy ship. Well, you don't enter this kind of fracas when the enemy ships not only outnumber you, but have 18 inches of free board on you as well. Naturally, Eric gave the order to sail west. Alfred pursued with a vast quantity of good natured hooting and hollering. Eric sailed his fleet between an island and the coast where the channel was quite shoal. Alfred was in hot pursuit, up until the greater draft of his dreadnoughts caused them to run aground. The Vikings sailed around the island, passing near Alfred to dip the colors, and went ashore to have fun.

No wonder he didn't include this tale in his Chronicles. But the idea wasn't bad. Pretty soon a lot of kings all over Europe were building lapstrakes.

And riveting them.

The Last Great Viking Raid was in 1066 when William of Normandy (sometimes known as Bill Conq) settled the Anglo-Saxon's hash much as they had done the Celt's. The rest of the Viking world ran out of effervescence. They had proved themselves and had got religion. But they left an indelible mark on our world.

For the next 500 years every ship built in Europe was a lapstrake. By Queen Elizabeth I's day lapstrake merchants and men o'war ships exceeding 100 feet in length were common.

But, having jumped to 1600 in two sentences, we need to reconnoiter. Those wily Italians have done it again: Sprung something new on an unsuspecting world. The classic era is in vogue, so the traditional ways are no longer good enough if you can do a thing the way the Renaissance thinks the Greeks and Romans did it. Somebody dusted off the naval archives at Ostia and dragged out the carvel as the new miracle design which will solve all of the world's problems.

Just in time too. Every salt in Europe was dashing off to the ends of the earth and finding them further off than anyone had thought. The Renaissance did do a bit of a redesign job on the carvel. They used longer planks. And they riveted instead of mortise and tenoning. But when it came to ships' boats, the carvel just couldn't manage. One week in the horse latitudes turned it into a bathtub shaped trellis. So the lapstrake continued in service because it could keep its seams shut on deck. Some of these were riveted, some were clenched, some displayed both. Since the history of small craft prior to 1700 has yet to appear in print, one can only conjecture that what we know existed shortly after 1700 must also have been around before then. Chancy business.


On Arising In Search Of One's Other Extremity

We have reached the verge of the Enlightenment rather like a pegleg sailor: We lack half our under pinnings. Let us return to secure them.

Somewhat airily I dismissed the findings of Metallurgy after Enlil, for I was then in pursuit of how nails were used in boats. Now the topic is how nails are made. For that we need to consider how wire is made. Our old friends the encyclopedias have some light (albeit diffused) to shed on the subject. Both agree that the eldest reference is in Exodus where that worthy describes the decoration of Aaron's priestly garments. The material used seems to have been a form of wire. No doubt Enlil would have recognized the process which produced it. The ingot was beaten into a sheet. Then a length was sheared from it. With the tools available this would have been large and rather ragged. So the final step was beating it, turning the wire as they went to keep it from curling. Thus all wire was round in cross section. EXCEPT! when the queen said she wanted it square and the king said or else; and when the boat builders ordered some rivet stock, then the wire was made square by a great deal of effort. In the first case it was precious metal for jewelry. In the case of boats it was to stiffen the hull. Since the stiffer hull survived longer, there was a greater chance of the ship returning from a voyage.

Making rivets by hand from this stuff was by no means a science, exact, or otherwise. Since the heads were formed by several glancing blows, they tended to be rather lumpy, higher in the center and sloping to a thin edge. Perhaps this gave rise to the predilection in some building traditions for a pyramid shaped head.

By the sixth century A.D. the Venetians and the French are drawing wire. The first dies may have been adamant rocks with holes bored in them. Soon steel and cast iron plates replaced them. Such dies were hardened by heat tempering giving them a much longer life. The metal to be drawn was cast as a rod. One end was pointed to enter the die. This was grasped by the closest thing to a Sumo wrestler on the premises and rove through the die, drawing the wire. Successive passes reduced the wire to the desired gauge. Since the process was well established by the Viking Age, it is safe to assume that they drew wire for the rivets to build the long ships.

An eddy of time, therefore, returns us to the construction site of the Gokstad ship. The largest crew is falling, splitting and shaping oaks under Gunnar's direction. But the second largest crew, under Olaf the master riveter, is set to draw the wire for the rivets. At the base of a small cliff a thin spur of granite juts out. This has been bored and then filed to form a series of square holes which will transform the metal from the rod to wire of a gauge appropriate for the ship.

The day before, the crew rigged a crane on top of the cliff and hung from it a bosun's chair just before the drawing die. The expectant crowd gathers. Trygvee, Olaf's assistant, is seen pouring soap into the dies for lubrication. The metal is in place. And here comes Olaf! His mighty arms bared, his pigtails gleaming with pig fat. He sweeps off his horned helm as he bows to the crowd and takes his seat in the bosun's chair. No, it's not quite right. He gets out again. Rubs his feet in a box of sand, rubs some into his hands, and climbs back into the chair. This time he straps himself in. He plants his size fourteens on either side of the rock as he grasps the end of the rod. "Har ve go, 0le!" shouts Trygvee giving a push.

Olaf takes the strain as the crowd holds its breath. Suddenly there is movement! A cheer rises. Feet fully extended, the chair all the way back, Olaf passes the end to one of the crew and swings back for a closer purchase. As the wire gets longer, more of the crew join on, and the wire draws faster.

This was the origin of Tug o' War, which became a required part of the curriculum at wire drawing academies for the next several hundred years. Honest! They really did draw wire like that!

By 1292 Paris had nine wire drawing establishments governed by a complex set of rules and procedures. They supplied the Armorers who required a prodigious amount of rivets to suit the nobility in the tin cans which were fashionable just then.

Rudolf of Nurmburg was one of those crafty Germans one hears so much about. In 1350 he figured out a way to draw wire using water power. The crafty part is that he managed to keep the patent secret for the next 150 years. His progeny failed him however. One let a fellow named Eobanus Hessus in for a look around. Eobanus wandered into every corner exclaiming ingenuously, "Oh, my! However do you do all these clever, clever things. Mechanics is just too, too complicated for dim little me."

Once Eobanus got back to his inn, he wrote out a very complete description in Latin. The level of public education was such that the customs officials didn't even raise an eyebrow over the sheet. The next thing Nurmburg knew, everybody was using water power to draw wire.

Once you can hitch one power source to your machine, hitching a different one is small potatoes. By 1769 steam was doing the work. Now of course it is Grand Coulee and our suspect friend the atom.


On the Maykinge of Nayles

That loud noise was the industrial revolution. Its currents are just about to rock our boat in the wake of innovation. We can pinpoint the first shock to the year 1830, and the place to Connecticut. Unless, that is, you give credence to the 50 odd patent applications in the U.S. and Europe beginning in 1777 for "Machines with which to cut nayles." Let us wave this aside for the sake of dramaturgy and repair to the Connecticut state fair of 1830.

Among the multitude of marvels at this veritable earthquake of entertainment, two concern us. They show the pinnacle of the past, and the fashion of the future.

In the Hall of Crafts, Hiram Eustace, Smith of Groton, enters the nail making competition. As he enters the dim hall, excitement in the crowd is palpable. The forge is glowing. Several nail bars, 4' long, jut out of its maw like so many toothpicks. To one side is the anvil with a wedge shaped bit of steel at one end called a "Hardy". On a bench nearby area half dozen die blocks. Each contains a dozen wedge shaped holes to accommodate as many nails.

Next to this is a rain barrel. An assistant stands ready to feed nail bar to the forge, work the bellows, and retrieve the filled die blocks from the water, empty them and set them ready again.

Hiram is a proper smith. Not too tall, but plenty stout. He takes his stance before the forge, hammer in hand, and nods to the judge. This gent notes the time and shouts; "GO!"

And Hiram goes. He grabs a cherry red tipped bar from the fire and lays it on the anvil. Two mighty wallops and the end is pointed. Back into the fire it goes. Next it goes to the hardy where a smart rap cuts the bar almost through. Hiram stuffs the end into the die block. A deft twist snaps the bar from the blank and down comes the hammer in a mighty blow to form the head. When the block is full he brushes it aside into the rain barrel where the still glowing nails temper, cool, and contract so the assistant can merely upend the block to empty the nails into the waiting barrel.

Arms working like a human piston; body swaying from the waist to the fire, to the anvil, to the block. Over and over with never a rest all the long morning. All the long sunbaked post meridian. Through the weary night the glow of the forge illumines his weary face. Through the thin early morning, still he moves, and the hammer rings as before. But just after noon he falters. Then stops. "Done", he says. Duration: 30 hours. Production: 1600 dozen nails. Rate: 102/3 nails per minute. That was an expert, showing off. But the same process was used all over the western world up until that world record was set.

Down by the riverside a fellow from Massachusetts name of Ezekial Hay was showing off his new machine. It was a queer contraption with enough cams and gears and flywheels to give James Watt heartburn. The water wheel drove it by means of flat leather belts. The machine ate f1at bar stock, 20' long. One at a time these entered the machine to rest on a stop. Then a sheer came down biting off a wedge shaped bit. This bit fell into a pair of grippers, short pieces of steel, which squeezed the blank in the middle and held it while a ram smacked the big end to form the head. The finished nail fell out the bottom of the mechanism' On the next revolution, the shear shifted to make the wedge the other way, and so on. Time: So long as the river runs. Production: 30 nails per minute. Hiram didn't know it, but he had just become extinct.

And the fastening industry was born. (Flourish of trumpets, please, Maestro!)

Well, for a time, this was what the world was looking for. Over the next several decades they got the speed up to a respectable 50 nails per minute. The world put the cut nail to work building houses, cabinets, coffins, barns, shoes, boxes, oh, yes, and boats. Both for riveting and clenching, boat builders figured out how to make the cut nail work. So did the house carpenters. And farmers. And others. For some applications it was just slick, but for several Others it "warn't all the package said it would be." The mutterings were heard by the engineers and such. By the 1850's they had a new answer. By and large it has solved the various problems until this very day. It is the wire nail maker.

This machine uses wire in a variety of materials gauges and shapes to form nails. One revolution of the shaft performs the following actions on the wire to produce the nail. We begin with the wire secured in the grippers, with the end sticking out. A ram smooshes this to form the head. As the ram retreats, the grippers open, and a lever pulls the wire from the spool to the length of the nail. The grippers close again, just before the cutters (two carved, opposed pieces of hard steel) close on the wire forming the point and cutting the nail from the wire. A finger driven by the ram ensures that the nail is free of the wire as the ram moves forward to make the next head.

The Scientific American (a successor publication of the journal cited earlier, I believe) in 1910 carried an article on the dramatic breakthrough in the production speed of the wire nail maker. Thanks to precision machining, nails were capable of being produced at speeds of 120 per minute. The pursuit of dizzying speeds had only begun. During the '30's, the Germans, when not otherwise engaged, developed the use of tungsten carbide cutters, and very precise machining to make nails at the rate of 700 per minute. England and the United States lagged behind in the nail making gap. By the end of World War II, our machines were doing a bare 300. To rectify this, a joint commission of British MI 5 and the OSS descended on the Ruhr Valley nai1eries in 1945, micrometers in hand, to fathom the secrets of the cunning Hun. Their top secret report was mandatory bedside reading during the late forties for engineers employed by outfits like US Steel. The result was that by the 1950's nails were being produced at speeds up to 900 pieces per minute. This had some very pleasant effects on the bottom line of the large naileries. But that bottom line stuff got in the way of some consumers. Boat builders, for instance. There just weren't enough of them to justify exotics like rivets.

Perhaps a closer view of a modern nail production facility will give you a clearer picture of why this is so.

Welcome to Pennsylvania Iron and Steel's Goes (Ohio) Nail plant, here in the garden spot of the Ohio River. On either side of the paved street leading to the administrative offices are twelve long brick sheds. Each of these has a bay door in its end. As we approach No.6, you may note the sign: Warning Hearing Protection Required. Already the din suggests that this may not be one of the OSHA rules some people ridicule. Upon entering, all doubt is removed. Up the center of the shed a street runs with forklift trucks shuttling 500 to 1000 pound reels of wire to various points along the way and picking up bins of finished nails. On both sides of this are the stock reels. Beyond them, hunkered down like a troop of trolls, are the nail makers. Every 10 feet another one sits munching wire and spitting out nails. The current price of one of these today, incidentally, exceeds $25,000. Depending on the rate of wire consumption, one man tends between 4 and 12 machines. Closest to the door the first machine makes 12d common nails. The next machine makes 1Od, the next 8d, and so on. If at all possible, the machine never makes any but one specific nail three shifts a day, 7 days a week. For why? Well, the guy tending the machines now makes in excess of $20 per hour, whether his machine is making nails, or whether he is tinkering with the machine. Tinkering can go on for some time, so the management prefers to avoid it.

This is called "efficiency." This kind of thinking allows a handful corporations to produce more than 500,000 tons of nails annually in the United States alone. These are consumed at the rate of 390 pounds per average five room frame house. This kind of thinking makes it impractical for these outfits to produce copper rivets and clench nails for woodenboat builders. There just aren't enough boats built to keep one machine busy. How many more are needed to get them interested? Skookum Fastenings sells about a ton a year of copper fastenings in three gauges, two tempers, three types, and 12 different lengths. Machine time on Thrice Noble Fred to produce these amounts to something like 25 hours (exclusive of about three months setup time). The big outfits are making a ton of nails per machine per shift. So if wooden boat builders were increased a hundred fold, still the industry could only give a yawn. That's what efficiency does for you, it convinces you you can't afford to do something.

It is interesting to contemplate where this mad pursuit of speed and efficiency is leading us. As more nails are found uneconomic, and discontinued, the old obsolete machines are rebuilt or put on the block. Who buys them? Japan, Brazil, India, Zimbabwe, Singapore. Oh, yes, and Skookum Fastenings bought one also. So maybe this shouldn't seem too gloomy. Fred is old. He's slow, he's obsolete, he's cantankerous. But on my better days I manage to coax some decent nails out of him so you good people can build boats.

My feet are tired. And your -- you are tired. As Mark Twain remarked, it is a terrible death to be talked to death. So I will reserve further consideration of the economics of the nail trade for another day, and pause here, to give you an opportunity to escape.
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1 comment:

  1. I discovered on Christmas EVe that my printer was out of ink, so I didn't print this out for my husband. Will do it for another holiday. Thanks for giving me permission.