Nails vs. Screws: When to Use Each Fastener

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The unsung heroes of construction and carpentry, nails and screws are used to hold together everything from wooden house frames and flooring to outdoor decking and kitchen cabinetry. But when to choose one over the other isn’t always clear cut. In fact, even pros at times find themselves in a quandary wondering whether to nail or screw it! So examine these popular fasteners side by side—nails vs. screws—to determine their optimal uses and reach for the right ones during your next home improvement project.

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1. Project size and tool choice matter.

Nails are often preferred for large projects, like house framing and installing hardwood floors, because they are typically stronger and less expensive than screws. Since most nails have smooth heads and shafts, they insert easily and speedily with a hammer or nail gun. Screws, in contrast, are favored for small and mid-sized projects, such as woodworking and decking, because they offer more control when inserting and extracting. While Phillips and slotted head screws are the most common, there’s a minimum of five screws types that DIYers should know. Manual screwdrivers require more effort because they use torque (twisting force) rather than the blunt force of hammers. However, thanks to electric power tools like cordless drills and impact wrenches, screws are increasingly easy and quick to install.

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2. Nails are often preferred for structural joining, including framing walls, because they are more flexible under pressure, whereas screws can snap.

Nails are also called upon when securing plywood sheathing for exterior walls, installing hardwood floors, and attaching siding and roofing. Common nails are often a first choice for framing, construction, and carpentry. Box nails have a thinner shaft, which can prevent wood from splitting when hammered in, making them ideal for installing clapboard siding. Brad and finishing nails are great for detail work like securing molding, door jambs, and baseboards.

3. Screws are better for temporary jobs because they create tight bonds and can be removed more easily than nails.

Screws are a favorite fastener of woodworkers because, for example, they can be used to build jigs (temporary structures that guide and keep work consistent) for smaller projects like installing hinges. Screws are also good for mounting hardware and trim, constructing cabinets, and joining furniture parts, like attaching a tabletop to a base. Because screws cause less vibration—and less potential damage—upon insertion, they’re also preferable when working with more delicate materials like plaster and drywall.

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4. While nails have more flexibility, screws have more tensile strength.

Tensile strength refers to a material’s ability to resist breaking under pressure. This makes screws better for projects when joined pieces are under tension or bearing weight, like porch railings or kitchen cabinetry. Another benefit of screws is their resistance to withdrawal pressure, or the tendency of surfaces to pull apart. That said, nails are stronger than screws of the same length, and are better able to withstand “shear” pressure—which is the tendency of two joined pieces to slide past each other. For your next project, determine whether joined surfaces are more likely to slide or to pull apart, using nails in the former case, screws for the latter.

5. The fasteners may be used interchangeably at times, but one will generally work better than the other.

For example, if you are planning on installing subflooring or drywall, screws tend to be the preferred fastener because they tend to hold tighter, longer. Drywall screws typically feature a Phillips head and can be driven in with a drill or an electric drywall screw gun. Screws are also preferable when installing subfloors, because they are less likely to loosen and pull out. Screws also help prevent squeaky floors because they create tighter joints.

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Nails are the fastener of choice when laying down hardwood floorboards because they’re not as likely to split the wood as screws and don’t mar the surface with screw heads. Nails also flex a bit more, to allow for the natural expansion and contraction of the wood, without loosening their grip.

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6. For superior gripping power, use ring shank nails.

While most nails have flat heads and smooth shafts, ring shank nails are a hybrid design. These sturdy fasteners combine the superior gripping power of screws with the flexible strength of nails. In fact, their ringed shafts can increase holding power by 40 percent or more. Ring shank nails, often used with softer woods like plywood and shingles, provide a tighter, more permanent grip than smooth-shank nails. You can also use ring shank nails instead of screws to install subflooring and drywall, but their flat heads are harder to extract than screws and can leave a jagged hole if you do remove them.


— Update: 02-01-2023 — cohaitungchi.com found an additional article Nails vs. Screws: When to Use Each Kind of Fastener from the website mtcopeland.com for the keyword are nails better than screws.

Nails and screws perform a similar function, and some types of nails (like spiral shank nails) even look like screws—which might lead you to believe that these two fasteners are interchangeable for construction and home improvement projects. They are not. Each one has different strengths and is best suited to different tasks.

Among the factors to consider when choosing between nails and screws are: 

  • The types of stresses the fasteners will be subject to
  • The scale of the project and the speed at which you need to complete it
  • Whether the structure is temporary or permanent
  • What tools you’ll be using to install the fasteners
  • The materials that they are being used in
  • The project budget
  • Whether the fastener head will be visible or not in the completed structure. 

In general, screws have better holding power and superior strength than nails, and they are more easily removable. They can be used in almost all cases, except for when the fastener needs to disappear (here you’ll want to use finish carpentry nails), when speed is king (here’ you’ll want to use a framing nailer), and when cost is a major factor.

Nails are cheaper, faster to install, and easier to hide in finish details.

The Stress Factor

When deciding between screws vs. nails, the most important factor to consider is the types of pressures that they can best withstand. 

Shear strength refers to the ability of a fastener or other construction element to withstand lateral, or side to side, pressures: Think of wind blowing against a house. This is where nails excel. Even if the pressure becomes extreme, they will bend rather than snap (as screws often will as they are typically made of hardened steel).

Tensile strength refers to a fastener’s ability to withstand pressures that pull a structure apart. Think of the fasteners used to attach a subfloor to a joist, where repeated deflections (that is the bending of the subfloor under a load) can cause a nail to work its way up and out of the subfloor over time. A screw, however, will hold, thanks to its threads.

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Why don’t structures fall down or come apart? Learn all about the stuff that holds building materials together in the MT Copeland online Fasteners and Adhesives course. Taught by professional builder Jordan Smith, the course covers topics ranging from nails and screws to glues and epoxies.

When Are Nails Best?

Nails are cheap and fast, and are usually better for finish carpentry, since they are less visible than screws. 

Large projects

Nails are often preferable for large projects because they can be installed quickly with nail guns. They are also less expensive than screws.

Finish carpentry (usually)

With their thin shafts, nails are less likely to split wood making them a better option with wood molding and other details. Another plus is that finishing nails, with their small flat heads, are less visible than screw heads. There are, however, some situations where trim will require more holding strength than a nail can provide, and in those cases you’ll want to reach for a trim screw (which has a smaller head than a typical screw). 

When Are Screws Best?

Screws have more holding power than nails and have a high failure strength that makes them well suited for high-stress structural projects. They’re also easier to remove. 

Structural projects and weight-bearing installations

Structural screws have completely replaced lag bolts and large nails for structural fastening, given their high failure strength. They’re also the better choice for non-structural element like a cabinet or handrail will be bearing weight. If the principal concern is preventing two materials from pulling apart, then screws are the better fastener.

Temporary and smaller projects

While it is generally easier to install nails, it’s generally easier to remove a screw. This makes them the better option for many temporary projects. For example, if you want to fasten a board to a wall to support cabinets during installation, reach for screws before nails.

Drywall or gypsum board

Drywall or gypsum board will often crumble when a nail is hammered into them. Another advantage of screws with drywall is their holding power. Nails, with their smooth shanks, are more likely to simply pull out of it. 

You’ll often use both nails and screws

With many projects, you’ll find yourself using both nails and screws. For example, with a deck you may use nails to attach a joist to the deck frame but screws to fasten the decking itself. Screws can also be used to repair and prevent head pop—the tendency of nails to pop out of the framing and penetrate a house’s drywall. And, as always, keep building codes in mind. They may dictate whether you should use a nail, screw, or other fastener in a particular situation.

MT Copeland offers video-based online classes that give you a foundation in construction fundamentals with real-world applications. Classes include professionally produced videos taught by practicing craftspeople, and supplementary downloads like quizzes, blueprints, and other materials to help you master the skills.


— Update: 04-01-2023 — cohaitungchi.com found an additional article Nails vs. Screws: How to Know Which Is Best for Your Project from the website www.popularmechanics.com for the keyword are nails better than screws.

It’s time to settle an age-old debate: nails vs. screws. Both are a form of ancient wood-fastening technology that still get the job done today. But how do you know which one to use for any given project?

That question was actually easier to answer a few decades ago because now there are many more types and sizes of nails and screws available, and many more—and better—ways to drive them in.

So let’s talk about the differences and similarities between nails and screws, so you can figure out the right one for the job.

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Nails vs. Screws: A History

Let’s start by saying that both nails and screws are excellent wood fasteners when they’re sized correctly and installed properly. And in many cases, you can use either a nail or a screw for a strong, lasting connection. The right choice often comes down to the tool used to drive in the fastener, the dimensions of the wood pieces being fastened together, and whether you’re constructing a house or building a woodworking project.

At one time, nails were preferred over screws because it was much easier and faster to hammer in nails than to use a manual screwdriver or spiral-ratcheting screwdriver (e.g.: Yankee Screwdriver) to drive in slotted screws.

The advent of the Phillips-head screw in the 1930s changed everything and began the slow movement from hammering nails to driving screws. Phillips screws were fast and easy to drive in, as opposed to slotted screws, which were—and are—painstakingly slow and difficult to install. As electric and pneumatic screwdrivers became more commonplace, the popularity of screws grew exponentially.

But the real quantum leap for power-driving screws coincided with the introduction of the cordless drill/driver, the most popular portable power tool ever invented. Soon came the subsequent introduction of cordless impact drivers and impact wrenches permitted power-driving even the very longest, thickest screws.

So much for nails right? Well, not quite.

Nails once again became the fastener of choice for many jobs both small and large once people discovered the speed and ease of using air compressors and pneumatic nailers. More recently, battery-powered cordless nailers match cordless drill/drivers with the convenience of being untethered from a compressor.

One of our favorite YouTubers, The Essential Craftsman, gives a great rundown on some of the similarities and differences between our two favorite wood fasteners:

How to Pick the Right One

When deciding between nails and screws, keep in mind that nails are less brittle, so they provide greater shear strength. They may bend under pressure, but they seldom snap.

Screws, on the other hand, may not be as forgiving, but their threaded shafts hold better in wood and draw boards together much more tightly and they have greater tensile strength. Screws also do a better job of holding tight during wood’s natural expansion and contraction.

Nails

In many cases, nails can be stronger and less expensive—a bonus for any home builder.

Generally speaking, nails are popular for general carpentry jobs, such as:

  • Framing walls and roofs
  • Securing plywood sheathing
  • Putting down hardwood floors
  • Installing siding and roofing

Small-diameter nails, including finishing nails and brads, are ideal for:

  • Nailing up interior moldings, such as baseboard, chair rail and window and door casings
  • Installing exterior house trim, including rake boards, fascia, frieze and corner boards
  • Attaching stiles and rails to cabinets
  • Solid-wood edging to plywood shelves
  • Anywhere you don’t want to mar the wood’s surface with the head of a screw

Screws

As mentioned earlier, both nails and screws are excellent fasteners and you can often use them interchangeably, depending on the job at hand.

Screws are preferred for such tasks as:

  • Hanging drywall
  • Attaching ledger boards
  • Installing cabinets
  • Fastening wood decking
  • Fabricating cabinets, wooden toys, bookcases, and other woodworking projects
  • For any wood-to-wood connection that you may need to take apart

The bottom line is that choosing the best fastener—nail or screw—comes down to selecting the right size fastener and then using the most-appropriate tool for driving it into the wood. And after you’ve gained some hands-on experience through trial and error, the right choice will become crystal clear.


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About the Author: Tung Chi