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Choosing the right nail for your project

Here’s a guide to help you learn everything about nail designs, materials, lengths and finishes so you can choose the right one for the job.

Parts and features of a nail

Every nail has a head, shank, and tip. It also has a specific purpose. Here’s what you should know about nail design, materials, and finishes:

A nail head serves as a striking surface for the hammer and keeps the materials you’ve nailed together from coming apart or cracking.

  • A flat, circular head provides a broad target, maximum hold, and will make the nail easier to remove.
  • A rounded or conical head can be countersunk below the surface of the wood and easily concealed, and may have a cupped surface to steady a metal trim nailset.

The shaft or body of the nail. A smooth shank drives easily; shanks with annular rings, threads, grooves, or twists have more surface area to deliver a stronger, more permanent hold.

The nail’s point separates the wood and makes room for the shank to enter.

  • A diamond tip, the most common, has a four-sided tapered cut.
  • An elongated diamond tip is sharper and penetrates more easily.
  • A blunt point takes more effort to drive but will reduce splitting in harder woods.
  • A conical tip is used in masonry nails and creates less friction than diamond tips.


Most nails are made of steel wire. Other possible materials include hardened steel, stainless steel, aluminum, copper, and brass.

  • Each is unique in its strength, corrosion resistance, cost, and appearance.
  • For example, mild steel is inexpensive and strong but rusts easily.
  • Aluminum and stainless steel inherently resist corrosion but are not as strong as mild steel.


Most steel nails have a coating, plating, or finish to improve their strength, corrosion resistance, or appearance.

Here are the most common finishes:

  • Bright-finish nails are lightly polished but not coated. Not recommended for outdoor use.
  • Hot-dipped galvanized nails are dipped in molten zinc for a rough, dull coating that resists corrosion. Best for outdoor projects and cedar, redwood, and treated lumber that require “ACQ-compatible” nails.
  • Zinc-plated (electroplated galvanized) nails are coated in zinc powder for a bright finish. Not for outdoor use.
  • Blued nails are heat-treated until the oil is completely burned off, leaving a nail that’s clean and easy to work with. However, without any coating, blued nails rust easily.
  • Paint is a decorative element generally reserved for finishing nails to match wall and/or moulding and casing colours.
  • Cement-coated or vinyl-coated nails are dipped in resin to improve their grip. The resin heats up as it’s driven into the wood and “glues” itself into hole. This is useful for nailing green wood that can warp and loosen nails as a result.

Pro Tip

Keep nails organized so you don't have to buy more every time you start a new project. Whether you use homemade containers, the boxes they came in, or you buy an organizer specifically for nails and other hardware, we have a solution for you. Glue a sample of each item to the outside of its container. You’ll be able to see at a glance what’s inside.

Nail models

User Guide

In Canada, nails are sold by length and gauge, sparing you the confusing American practice of having to buy nails by the pennyweight.

  • Length is expressed in inches or millimetres;
  • Gauge is a measurement of the diameter of the shank (the smaller the gauge, the greater the diameter).
  • The greater the surface area of the nail, the stronger the hold. Choose the largest nail possible without causing the wood to split or the tip of the nail to become exposed.

For framing and other structural pieces

  • Your local building code may require nails of a certain type and size.
  • As a general rule, nail length should be 2 ½ to 3 times the thickness of the thinner of the two nailing surfaces.


This is a technique for joining pieces that come together at 90° angles.

Nails driven at a 45° angle are less prone to backing out as the wood expands and contracts over time.

Nailing wide boards

Avoid driving a line of nails into the same grain line to reduce the risk of splitting the wood.

Hiding finishing nail heads

  • Use a nail set to hide finishing nail heads and prevent hammer damage to the wood surfaces.
  • A nail set is a small, tapered, cylindrical tool with a pointed or concave end designed to drive a nail below the surface to conceal it.

Wood splitting

  • To avoid splitting when nailing in hardwood, drill a pilot hole slightly smaller than the nail diameter.
  • If you can’t drill a hole, blunt the point of the nail with your hammer.

Nail guns

Nail guns, both gas and pneumatic, use nails assembled together in clips or strips that load into the gun’s magazine.

  • When the nail is punched into the wood, the friction heats the glue to the melting point.
  • Once the nail is in place, the glue quickly hardens again, fusing the nail to the surrounding wood.
  • See your owner’s manual for instructions about choosing nails and safely loading, operating, and using your tool.

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