It’s a little embarrassing, but back when I was a young pup at the carpentry, I was once told to nail the back panel of a kitchen cupboard in place. The nail was 3mm long and the wood was 10mm thick, yet I still managed to nail the 3mm nail clean through the wood. I not only put a hole right in the middle of the back panel, but I destroyed the smooth paintwork! We had to fix, strip and repaint the entire cupboard, the kitchen was delivered late and I was in shame. As “punishment,” my instructor assigned me to banging nails into wooden cut offs for the next three weeks straight, from morning to evening, but I’ve never hit a nail crooked since!
I know many of you might be pshawing this post, but I’ve known many experienced, professional carpenters who haven’t mastered this skill. They might tell you it doesn’t matter how straight the nail is or that you can always remove the nail and try again, but in truth, hitting the nail right the first time not only makes the join stronger, but can also save a load of time, energy and nails! And with just a few tips, it really can be just as easy as it sounds to hit the nail on the head every time and practice safe woodworking skills.
Firstly, I recommend tapping the nail gently into place, rather than banging it in, more strenuously! It enables you to guide the nail more accurately through the wood and helps prevent the nail from bending or sliding in on the wrong angle. It also greatly reduces the risk of the wood splitting, especially if you are working with harder woods.
Some less patient woodworkers might compromise by tapping the nail in halfway and then giving it a couple of stout blows to secure it in place. Once again, this might save you a few extra seconds, but you still risk cracking the wood, pushing the nail all the way through to the other side or that the top half of the nail will bend down into the wood.
Try practicing on wood cut offs for a bit: it is harder to get a feel for a gentle tap than a blow. Also, while you are practicing, make sure the wood and the nail are at eye level so you can clearly see the nail penetrating at the correct 90˚ angle. You can tell you’ve done a good job when the nail head is flat and level with the wooden surface. This will train your eyes to see the 90˚ angle automatically.
After you start getting it right consistently (ie. more than 5 times in a row), start trying to tap the nail in when it’s not at eye level to get used to how 90˚ looks from different perspectives and then check your outcomes again. It’s all about training your eyes. Once you start getting it right, it’s a skill you will never lose; just like riding a bike!