Dead As A Door Nail

By: Mark Clement , Contributing Writer
In: Uncategorized

So why is a door nail dead anyway?

Actually, it’s kind of a cool story.

One is said to be “dead as a door nail” because when doors were built of nailed together planks the carpenters pounded the nail through then bent it over on the other side. This is called “clench-nailing” and its one heck of a way to make a nail hold fast.

But why is it dead? Well, one story has it that if the house ever burned down–a pretty common occurrence in days before organized fire departments–the homeowners could salvage all kinds of stuff like earthenware, steel bowls, dishes, utensils. And nails. But because the door nails were clenched, or bent over, they couldn’t be re-used.

Door nails, dead but not deceased.

Hence, dead.

In the photos you can make out the nails’ heads. In between you can see the shank of the bent nail coming through from the other side. Another piece of trivia: what are the circular marks on the door plank?

Door nails driven through and bent over--or clenched--rendering them "dead."

Door nails driven through and bent over--or clenched--rendering them

Wiktionary supports this perspective but doesn’t mention burnt house part. A dead nail is simply one that’s clenched and pretty much can’t be removed by anything but fire. And they cite the term as one of the many hundreds of neologisms (new words) of one Bill Shakespeare. (On a side-note, for a fascinating romp through Bill’s life–no poetry required–Bryson’s Shakespeare is great).

I love how house lingo opens into our every day lives. Everything from “proud nails” and “shiners” to bits and blades that “wander.”

Here’s hoping, by the way, you remain quite the opposite of door nails for many years to come.

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  1. 2 Responses  to “Dead As A Door Nail”

  2. Curt_Welch
    Sep 18, 2012
    I'm a blacksmith, and I can tell you that it's trivially easy to straight out, and reuse, a bent hand forged iron nail. (even without fire). So the idea that there were "dead" because the could not be reused does not fly. In addition, there's a legend that goes around that says when people would move, it was common practice to burn down their old home on purpose to get the nails, and take them with them, due to how expensive the hand made nails were. There is apparently no support for this - it appears to be a modern legend. Any home made with nails, would be more valuable standing, so it could be sold, rather than burned for the nails. If it was done, there's no evidence it was common practice. More likely, it was a called a "dead" nail because if you didn't cinch it over, it was a "live" nail, and free to work its way out. Like wise, the act of cinching it over, when done correctly, will tighten the joint by pulling the nail tight. I have to wonder if that is the source of the idiom "dead tight". I don't know if this story about cinched nails being called "dead nails" is true, or just urban legend.
  3. Jonny
    Aug 29, 2011
    The circular marks appear to be saw kerf marks. Clenched nails are extremely strong and the technique is used in boat building all the time. Another bit of nail trivia...displaying nails in your front door used to be a sign of prosperity, as nails were expensive and hard to come by.