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Copper nails and rail caps and sides

Discussion in 'Wood and Canvas' started by Howie, Jul 19, 2021.

  1. Howie

    Howie Wooden Canoe Maniac

    I've restored a few canoes that used rail caps, and salvaged the copper nails that were used to secure them from the old parts that remained. These nails were held in very tightly. But I immediately found out that thin copper nails are extremely soft and bend very easily - there's no way they could be driven into wood without pre-drilling their hole. This pre-drilling took a lot of time, and I had to get the drill size just right otherwise the nails had no holding power. So I'm wondering how they did it in 'the old days' - I just can't see them spending all the time needed for fussy pre-drilling to get the needed holding power, nor can I imagine them taking the time to carefully hammer the nail so that it didn't bend.

    I'm sure we've all seen canoes where seat bolts often have to be pounded out of their holes - that the drilled hole has shrunk so much that it essentially turned into a tapped hole. So could it be they were counting on the same thing happening with the copper nails in rail caps? If they knew the steamed wood was going to shrink then the pre-drilled hole could be sized to have little holding power so that the nail essentially dropped into its hole with little to no hammering needed. Then when the wood cooled down the nails were tight in the holes.

    Am I wrong?
  2. 1905Gerrish

    1905Gerrish LOVES Wooden Canoes

    I find brass nails and escutcheon pins on the pre 1900 canoes I've restored but I can't recall copper ones. Curiously, what make canoes are you finding copper on?

  3. OP

    Howie Wooden Canoe Maniac

    Not sure... I've done a Morris, a Veazie, and a Rushton Indian. Morris & Veazie would have the same parts, and I only remember copper on one canoe, so it was likely the Rushton.
  4. MGC

    MGC Scrapmaker

    Yes, your Indian was the one with copper. I don't recall that the rail caps were held on with copper headed nails but that would make sense since everything else was copper.
    There are quite a few (were) types of copper nails used on boats.
    I've found copper nails (but proper ones) securing the outside rails on a Kennebec I once owned.
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2021
  5. OP

    Howie Wooden Canoe Maniac

    Whew... I was thinking my memory was wrong! So the question remains: how did they nail 'em in? There were like 3/4" to 1" long as I recall. These little 1/16" nails must have gone into the hole with little to no resistance, right? Yet they were still holding tight when I removed them. Another question is why they used copper in the first place.
    1905Gerrish likes this.
  6. Benson Gray

    Benson Gray Canoe History Enthusiast Staff Member

  7. 1905Gerrish

    1905Gerrish LOVES Wooden Canoes

    As far as why I think the Ruston was copper is that was what was available at the time of construction. I started a stem band thread last year and I believe only Benson replied as I suspected as he is our master research guru. Sort of falls into the same category with hardware. I found that my oldest Gerrish had brass stem bands, then steel bands, to copper and back to brass by what I believe the timeline of construction on the eight I have currently. Why wound the company do that? I sort of just think that is what was available at the time and I am thinking to much into it. Available I mean, what the hardware store had in town at the time. They vary in width and thickness. Certainly Gerrish ,was not as large of a maker as Rushton but that's my thoughts.

    As far as insertion into the wood. Practice makes perfect, just like anything else. If your job is to wack tacks and nails for a living, 50 hours a week for 10 years strait, you would probably be very skilled at it.
  8. MGC

    MGC Scrapmaker

    WRT Rushton, the use of copper seems to have been a choice. Even well into the teens and long after other builders were using brass the Rushton canoes were tacked with copper. This applies to both the pre-1906 boats as well as the "inc," boats built post JH. Stem bands were also always brass, again, an apparent choice in that other builders were using other materials. The SLBC hulls built on the Rushton forms were also tacked with copper. Some of the other builders working in the area did use brass and perhaps that was out of convenience.
  9. Andre Cloutier

    Andre Cloutier Firestarter. Wicked Firestarter.

    Also remember rail caps on closed gunwale boats would almost exclusively have been on top of spruce wales, given the vintage of this type of construction. All of mine are certainly spruce. If restoring with ash or other hardwoods there's your problem.
  10. OP

    Howie Wooden Canoe Maniac

    Right Andre. Hard woods are... harder! But mine had the original spruce inner rails, and it looked like cement to the copper nails.

    I know... they cryogenically froze the nails so that they shrank in diameter. Then when the warmed they expanded and were held tight in the holes.
  11. Michael Grace

    Michael Grace Lifetime Member

    Hi Howie,

    I agree with The Prodigy above. I think that in a new build with fresh spruce, these copper fasteners would’ve gone in, particularly for skilled builders.


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