8 tips for sturdier joints in woodworking projects

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One of the obvious basics of framing is being able to join two boards together. For the most part, that’s done by nailing through one into the other. But there are a lot of situations where that simple process won’t work, so you’ll need to resort to "toenailing" instead.

Toenailing is the technique of attaching one board to the surface of another by driving the nails through at an angle. It sounds pretty simple, but for some reason it’s a tough thing for a lot of people to master. Since it’s a useful and often necessary process, it might be helpful to learn a few tips that will help you get it right.

Select the right nail: If you’re nailing through one 2-by-4 into another, the nail of choice is typically the 16d (3 1/2 inches long). But for toenailing, a nail that long can be a little more difficult to start and drive, so a shorter nail is often helpful. Instead, consider selecting an 8d (2 1/2 inches) or 10d (3 inches).

Select the right angle: One of the tricks to toenailing is to get the angle right, and that angle depends on what you’re trying to do.

For example, suppose you’re installing a new wall stud, so you have a 2-by-4 sitting vertically on top of another that’s lying horizontally. If you drive the nail in at a sharp angle in relation to the vertical board, it will go in relatively vertically. This will lessen the movement of one board against the other, making it easier to drive the nail.

On the other hand, if you place the nail at a flatter angle, as you drive the nail in it will tend to move the vertical board in the direction you’re hammering. While that makes the nail harder to drive, this technique can be very useful if you need to drive the board over to get it into the proper position.

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Start off your mark: When you drive a nail at an angle, moving the board to the side is pretty much unavoidable. So instead of fighting that motion, plan for it. Set your board to one side of its intended final location, and drive it over into position as you drive in the nail. The flatter the angle of the nail, as described above, the farther over you’ll want to initially set the board.

Get a tight fit on your materials: When installing a board by toenailing, the tighter it fits, the less movement you’ll have to contend with, so cut your board to fit as snugly in place as possible.

A good example is installing a piece of blocking horizontally between two vertical studs. Cut the block so that it’s a tight friction fit between the studs (but not so tight that it bows the studs), and you’ll find that it’s much easier to drive the toenails without the block moving.

Prevent the board from moving: Another way to drive the toenail without moving the board is to physically lock the board into place. You can do this by nailing or clamping a block behind it.

For example, suppose you’re installing a new stud on top of an existing plate. Put the stud in position, then nail a block to the top of the plate, right behind the stud. Now, as you drive in the toenail from the side opposite the block, the stud can’t go anywhere. Sometimes just driving a nail into the plate — behind the stud and sticking up a half an inch or so — will be enough to help keep the stud from moving while you do your toenailing.

Predrill the material: If you’re having a difficult time getting your toenails to drive in at the proper angle, consider predrilling first. Let’s go back to the stud on the plate example. If you predrill the stud at the proper angle, using a drill bit that’s a little smaller than the nail’s diameter, it will act as a guide for the nail as it goes in.

It also relieves the pressure of driving the nail through the stud, so there’ll be less movement of the stud as you nail. Be sure that you don’t drill all the way into the plate, however; if you do that, the nail won’t have anything to grip to, and won’t secure the board.

Use a pneumatic nailer: In general, unless you’re trying to move a board over into a different position, an air-powered nailer is preferable to hand nailing. Because the nailer drives the nail so quickly, you can do it without moving the board. It’s also easier to control the angle of the nail as it goes in.

Pneumatic nailers are several hundred dollars to purchase, so it’s probably not worthwhile unless you plan to use it all the time. However, you can rent one fairly inexpensively, so if you have a lot of toenailing to do, it’s not a bad idea.

Switch to a screw: Another great trick is to use a screw instead of a nail. You can predrill one of the boards at an angle as described above. Then use a 2 1/2- or 3-inch screw, driven down through one board into the board below. The screw will be a little harder to drive than the nail, but it holds better. More importantly, the act of driving the screw won’t push the board over the way hammering will.

Remodeling and repair questions? E-mail Paul at All product reviews are based on the author’s actual testing of free review samples provided by the manufacturers.

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