How to Remove Nails

Having spent the last few months doing a major remodeling job on my home, I’ve been forced to reacquaint myself with just about all the ways there are to remove nails.

During the course of the job, I have dealt with everything from huge spikes to tiny – but troublesome – four-penny finishing nails. Some of the techniques I used will almost certainly serve you well at some time in the future, so let’s take a look at them.

For down-and-dirty demolition work, in which you aren’t interested in saving any of the stuff you are disassembling, use big, heavy tools. When you can, use a sledge hammer simply to knock things apart. A 4-foot or 5-foot crow bar will give you the leverage you need for heavy prying. And a 3-foot wrecking bar can pull even the most stubborn nails.

Pulling nails nearly always involves the problem of gaining access to their heads. If you have access to the rear of the nail’s backing, use a hammer to knock the front piece forward an inch or so. Then pound it back down; in most cases, the nail head will pop out where you can get at it. Then use the hooked end of your wrecking bar or the claws of a hammer to pull the nail.

If you use a hammer, use one with a glass or steel handle. Wooden handles won’t hold up under continual heavy prying.

To protect your stock, slip a thin scrap of wood under the claws of your pulling tool as you pry. On long nails, you may have to have to pull the nail halfway, then switch to a thicker block such as a 2-by-4 to get the nail all the way out. If you have no access to the back of your work and can’t knock the front piece forward, you have a couple of options:

You can slip the thin end of your wrecking bar or a pry bar under the edge of the piece you want to remove and pry it up. Then knock it back down to pop the nail head out. This is a relatively gentle technique that will let you reuse the stock.

wrecking bar to pull it the rest of the way. The cat’s paw will make a crater in the wood where the nail was, so it’s not the tool to use if you want to keep the face of the lumber in good condition.

For light work, such as removing siding, shingles or trim, switch to thinner, lighter prying tools. A pinch bar is one of your best bets. These come in sizes from about a foot long (good for siding), down to about 4 or 5 inches (good for moldings and trim).

To use one of these, pry the stock forward with the thin, gently curved end. The bar is thin and wide enough that it usually won’t dent the stock if you are careful. Then switch to the hooked end to finish pulling the nail.

If you want to be extra sure not to dent the face of the rearmost piece of stock, try this: Drive a 6-inch putty knife between the two pieces of stock. Then tap your pinch bar in on top of the knife. Pry gently, then switch to the hooked end, still prying against the blade of the knife.

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