Dating nails is a challenging thing to do for some metal detectors. Still, nails provide excellent clues for finding out the age of historic buildings. But how do you date nails to find out the age of these ancient constructions?

With close inspection you can date a nail into one of 4 categories. (Hand-Wrought) nails before 1800s, (Type A) nails from 1790s to 1820s, (Type B cut) nails made from 1810 to 1900s and finally (Wire) nail from the 1900s to present. Lets identify the markings to “age” a nail.

Metal detecting is no doubt a fun pastime, especially if you can dig good finds. But if you are lucky to find nails that look ancient, you need a comprehensive guide to tell you everything you need to know about them.

Dating Nails 101: How to Date Nails When Metal Detecting

Metal detecting is a good hobby. You get to find coins, jewelry, gold nuggets, and other valuable objects. But if you find nails, you might think that they have no value and leave them on their hunting site. However, what you do not know is that you might find old nails.

Metal detecting and digging up old nails
Metal detecting and digging up old nails

Moreover, dating nails may seem like a real challenge since they do not have a general identification feature. But a physical examination of the old nails your metal detector found can determine their age. Looking at the nail’s spike, shank, and head will help you determine how old they are.

That said, below is a comprehensive guide about dating nails when metal detecting:

1. Check the Nail Size

Early nails often have large spikes and were used to replace treenails in beams, posts, and other construction. Later on, blacksmiths created smaller hand-wrought nails used to secure wood lath for plaster walls.

Meaning the more significant the nail that your metal detector caught, the older it might be.

Apart from the size, you also need to know how the nail was made when dating nails.

Nail TypeDescription
Hand-wrought nails – made before the 1800sBefore the 1800s, blacksmiths wrought nails individually from a square iron stock rod. They heat this road until it turns red hot, and malleable. Then, they hammered the heated iron rod until they achieved a pointed end. After the pointed end is formed, blacksmiths will insert the hot nail into a nail header’s hole or an anvil. From here, they will form a head by a few glancing blows of the hammer. This step resulted in a rosehead nail head. However, some hand-wrought nails had broad butterfly heads, and L-heads were also popular. Since wrought nails were hand-made, they did not look polished. So, if you happen to be metal detecting and dug a nail that is L-shaped or has a broad butterfly head, you may have found a collector’s item from before 1800s.  
Type A cut nails – made in the 1790s to 1820sBack in the 1790s and early 1800s, blacksmiths from the United States created several tools that turned iron bars into nails. These machines worked like a guillotine that sheared nails off the iron bar. After the iron bar reaches the proper shape, blacksmiths will cut them to size. The cutting process leaves a small burr along the edge of the nail. You can find the burrs of Type A nails on the diagonally opposite edges.
Type B cut nails – made in the 1810s to 1900sBy the 1810s, blacksmiths developed a more effective design for the nail-making machine. The said machine flipped the iron bar over after every stroke. The machine’s cutter is set at an angle, so each nail is sheared off to a taper. For this reason, the resulting nail, called a Type B nail, is all oriented in the same direction. Unlike the type A nails, Type B nails have both burrs on the same side as the iron bar was flipped for each stroke during the nail-making process. You can distinguish Type A and B nails based on the location of their burrs.
Wire nails – made in the 1900s to presentWire nails are the common nails that you see today. They are not the type that antique enthusiasts collect. For this reason, many metal detectors ignore them when dating nails. (source)

2. Examine the Nail Head

Finding old nails metal detecting
Finding old nails metal detecting

How the nail head looks can also distinguish the age of a nail that you found when metal detecting. When you dug a nail in your metal detecting site, check if the head is:

  • round and flat
  • round and hammered
  • irregular and hand-wrought

Nails with round and flat heads are modern nails, while other round-head and hammered-head nails can be antique. On the other hand, irregularly-shaped and hand-wrought nails are no doubt antique.

3. Look at the Nail Shank

The details of the nail shank are another critical factor when dating nails. Is the shank hand wrought with signs of hammering? Or is it machine cut with straight-tapered or straight sides?

If the nail you found looks machine-cut, you also need to check if the cut marks or on its diagonally opposite sides. If it is, the nail you found while metal detecting might have come from the 1800s to the 1900s.

On the other hand, square-shaped nail shank was standard in nails hand-forged before the 1800s.

Roughly rectangular but not square nail shank came from the 1800s to the present. They are commonly wrought and cut nails.

4. What Nails Were Made Of

Back then, blacksmiths and nailers created nails using wrought iron or bronze. These cheated square iron rods and hammered the sides until the one end formed a point.

Archeologists found that hand-forged nails dated as far back as 3000 BC. Then, the Romans began making nails from iron. This metal is harder than bronze. However, the problem that the Romans encountered with iron nails was that they rusted away.

Hand-wrought iron nails were only popular in the 1700s.

Later on, blacksmiths found a new way of creating nails using a machine that looked like a guillotine. Still, artisans used iron for the process. Blacksmiths used this nail-making method until the 1820s.

Moreover, the machine used for creating nails was altered slightly in the 1810s, thus creating Type B nails.

Finally, artisans developed modern nails using a mild steel wire variety. In 1892, these steel wire nails overtook iron cut nails. These modern nails are still popular today. (source)

How Deep Nails Might Be

The depth of the nails on the ground depends on the site where you are metal detecting. For instance, one unremarkable pasture area on the River Tay banks was a legionary fortress during the Roman Empire.

The Romans briefly occupied this site near Dunkeld in Perthshire, Scotland, from A.D. 83 to 86. Archeologists excavated this site in 1960 and found approximately one million ancient nails from the ground. Some of the nails even came out in a near-pristine state.

Moreover, the said nails had been buried in a 3.66-meter deep pit. So, suppose you are metal detecting ancient nails. In that case, you need to prepare yourself for digging approximately 4ft on the ground.

Meaning you need to dig deep holes before you can proceed to date nails. (source)

Tips For Finding Ancient Nails

Clues for dating old nails
Clues for dating old nails

Metal detectors are one of the best tools for finding metals on the ground. But it is essential to note that the depth that your metal detector can reach will depend on its features.

For instance, an ordinary metal detector can only catch signals from objects 4″ to 8″ deep. Mid-range metal detectors can reach from 12″ to 18″ underground. On the other hand, some unique models of metal detectors can catch signals from as deep as 65ft.

However, it is not only the metal detector that needs to be ready when hunting for old nails. It would be best if you also learned some things before digging and dating nails.

Practice

If you are new to metal detecting, you need to test spin in a vast area more than once. This way, you will be able to get used to your device.

You can also place some metal items on the ground, such as jewelry, coins, nails, and other ferrous materials. After scattering the metals, you can swing your search coil above them to get a feel of your metal detector.

Metal Detecting Tip: Finding treasures like an old nail is a little like reaching back into history. Read what you can do with those bits of history in this article: Metal Detecting Finds (Identify, Display or Sell)

In addition, you can bury the metals at various depths. Doing this will allow you to get used to your metal detector’s depth settings. It will also help you learn what the alerts would sound like at different depths.

Learn the Unique Sound of a Nail

One of the essential things about metal detecting and dating nails is learning how to differentiate the alerts your device makes. Try putting a nail under the ground and swing your search coil above it. This way, you can get familiar with the alert sound that a metal detector makes when it catches an iron.

Search Purposefully

Once you have found a site where you want to metal detect, be sure to swing the search coil in a pattern. This step will allow you to make the most out of your metal detecting time. Most metal detector enthusiasts search in a grid pattern to know which part they have already searched.

However, you can metal detect in any pattern you like as long as you can go over all the ground you want. This way, you can find as many targets as possible before you go dating nails.

Take Away the Trash

Please do not throw them back down when you detect a metal you do not care for, such as a piece of foil or a pull tab of a soda can. The reason is that you may want to metal detect in that area again. If you throw unwanted objects back to the ground, chances are you will detect and dig them up again when you hunt in that particular area.

Don’t Dig Large Holes

It would be best if you made as small holes as possible when you are digging a target. Meaning you need to narrow down the exact location of the potential ancient nail that you detected. You can do this step by moving your metal detector’s search coil from front and back and then side to side.

Alternatively, you can purchase a pinpointer and use it to narrow down your target location further.

This tip will allow you to work more efficiently when detecting and dating nails.

Use Your Metal Detector’s Discrimination Feature

A metal detector’s discrimination feature allows you to ignore signals from certain metals. For instance, you can set the detector’s discrimination to ignore non-ferrous metal. This way, it will only alert you when it detects ferrous materials like gold, jewelry, coins, and of course, ancient nails.

Setting metal detector discrimination for nails
Setting metal detector discrimination for nails

That said, you need to use the discrimination feature of your device to detect old nails quickly. It will also allow you not to be disturbed by signals coming from invaluable metals.

Wear Headphones

Wearing headphones when metal detecting will allow you to focus your hearing on the signals alone. They can block out traffic, wind, and people’s noise while you are hunting. This way, there will be less chance that you will miss signals coming from ancient nails.

That said, searching and dating nails will be an easy task. (source)

Metal Detecting Etiquettes That You Need to Know Before Digging

Before setting foot and digging in an area, you need to know that laws cover this hobby. These laws differ between counties, states, countries, and local public places. That said, the best thing that you need to do before metal detecting is to contact local officials before you go digging.

Furthermore, here are some of the metal detecting etiquettes that you need to know:

1. Use the Right Tools

Never bring large digging tools when you go metal detecting. Not only are these tools cumbersome, but they can also draw unwanted attention to you.

Metal Detecting Tip: Shovels and trowels are nearly as important as your metal detector. Read my complete guide: Selecting Metal Detecting Digging Tools

For that reason, only bring small and easy-to-carry hand digging tools. Such will cause the least amount of damage to the place where you are metal detecting.

2. Cover Your Holes

Regardless of where you are metal detecting, it would be best to cover all the holes you dug. You need to return the area to how it looked before you began metal detecting. This way, you will be able to cause no damage to your hunting area.

Ensuring that you return the area to its original look is an essential step before you go dating nails.

3. Be Neat and Thorough

Neatness is a trait that you need to have when metal detecting. For instance, if you dug unwanted targets, don’t leave them discarded in your hunting area. Instead, collect them and place them in a garbage bag.

Then, please put them in the nearest trash can near the area.

In addition, you need to be thorough in replacing the dirt back to its hole. To do that, bring a piece of cardboard with you while you are digging and place the soil that you dug there. This way, you can easily put the dirt back in the hole without causing any mess around the area.

4. Work Quickly and Bury Faster

You need to work quickly, especially if you are digging in areas with plants and grass. The faster you work, the quicker you can place the sod and plants back to their places. This will give the roots the best chances to re-root.

Once you are done cleaning the area, you can proceed to date nails. (source)


David-Humphries-Metal-Detecting

David Humphries, Writer and Creator of METAL DETECTING TIPS. After borrowing my son’s detector and finding $.25. I felt like a treasure hunter. FREE MONEY! I was seriously bitten by the metal detecting bug.


Sources

  1. Tom Wells, Nail Chronology: The Use Of Technologically Derived Features, https://inspectapedia.com/interiors/Nail-Chronology-Wells.pdf, accessed November 16, 2021.
  2. Thomas D. Visser, Nails: Clues To A Building’s History, https://www.uvm.edu/~histpres/203/nails.html, accessed November 16, 2021.
  3. Inchtuthil, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inchtuthil, accessed November 17, 2021.
  4. General Metal Detecting Guide, https://metaldetectingforum.com/showthread.php?t=60491, accessed November 18, 2021.
  5. Metal Detecting Etiquette, https://www.reddit.com/r/metaldetecting/comments/fztl3h/metal_detecting_etiquette/, accessed November 20, 2021.