I was reading Bungled‘s blog paint stripping series this morning. Their most recent topic about whether or not to remove trim and subsequent nail removal reminded me of a couple of things I have learned/experienced that seemed worthy of sharing. I have done my fair share of renovations in my own home and salvaging of trim out of abandoned homes and nail extraction is near-and-dear to my heart.

1) Nail removal, as they indicated, should ALMOST ALWAYS be done from the back. By definition, sinking finish nails drives the head of the nail below the surface of the wood. When doing so, the surface of the wood will be pushed away as the nail is driven through but once the head has passed, it will retract slightly. If you drive the nail back through, especially on old, dry wood, breakouts and significant tearing can occur, damaging the face of the trim. This should be avoided at all costs.

2) To facilitate nail removal, I would highly recommend a $25 investment in nail extractors designed specifically for this task. See Van Dyke’s version of this tool. I bought one just this year and consider it one of my most prized possessions. I have used standard pliers, slip-joint pliers, fencing pliers, and vice grips for this task in years past. All these tools work but require an enormous amount of effort and more often than not result in the nail slipping out of the tool for one basic reason–all of the force from the tool (pinching) is concentrated at the very tip.  The genius of the extractors from Van Dyke’s is that the tool is designed specifically to apply pressure to the entire nail along the full surface of the tool. That coupled with the “built in” leverage in the head of the extractors for prying, and no nail is a match for it.

3) Now that the nail and the tool are out of the way, a comment about the wood itself. I have worked essentially exclusively in pine, so take my comments within that context. One must always be cognizant regarding the wood itself in determining how to deal with nail removal.

  • Quarter sawn/rift sawn/straight grained trim where the growth rings run perpendicular to the wood surface, while very beautiful, is very brittle when applying the pressure necessary to pull the nail from the back. Older finish nails often times have relatively large, cone-shaped heads compared with modern finish nails’ smaller, bead-shaped heads. The pressure from pulling the head through the trim coupled with the force of the tool being applied can occasionally lead to the wood splitting, especially at the extreme ends of the trim. Work slowly on a solid surface with a scrap piece of lumber to spread the force of the prying over a larger proportion of the trim to alleviate the risks from damage.
  • Trim that is not straight such as that found in my reclaimed archway is extremely vulnerable to damage from removing nails if, as was my case, the trim was cut from a wide board (12 inches or more). This technique of creating the trim results in the grain running to the edge at a severe angle. Either extracting the nail or the tool itself is quite likely to cause the trim to completely break. In my case, I opted to cut the nail off with a metal cutting wheel using my grinder. This works extremely well if there is any danger presented from removing the nail or if removing only the exposed portion of the nail is feasible/necessary.

To make a long story short, finish nails should almost exclusively be dealt with from the back side of the wood. Removing nails from old trim is much more than simply grabbing, pulling, and prying. It requires a considerable amount of thought and consideration regarding the nature of the wood itself in order to prevent damage to the greatest extent possible.

My thanks to the folks at Bungled for the topic!