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You Don't Have to be A Journeyman Carpenter...

by Damien Andrews

Thirty years ago the need for toenailing lumber together was as common as self-correcting typewriters. It just seemed like practically every repair, construction or remodeling task taken on by professional carpenters and do-it-yourselfers required that at least one board be toenailed to another – usually a 2" x 4" to another 2" x 4". Professional carpenters became, as one would expect, quite proficient at this ubiquitous task – making it look easy. But a professional pilot makes landing a jumbo jet look easy. The do-it-yourselfer, who might only get to practice this skill once or twice a month, frequently splits wood or ens up with a toenailed piece of lumber that was not where it was supposed to be. Both errors can require extensive repair time, and sometimes appreciable costs.

Times have changed. Today there are more fittings and components, and more options for the do-it-yourselfer. This accounts for the dwindling need for toenailing lumber. Today, for example, the do-it-yourselfer can run down to the local hardware store and purchase some metal wood joining plates that will easily attach any two pieces of wood together. Then too, who wants to stop in the middle of adding an exhaust fan to a room and drive down and buy some metal plates – especially with gasoline costs being what they are. Besides, all do-it-yourselfers want to have a full list of skills to their credit. So here's how you can toenail lumber like an expert.

Toenailing is not the first choice for strength. If you have the need for great strength, then you should install whatever nailers are necessary and use some glue as well as nailing. Better yet, buy some metal wood joiners – many are even available in stainless steel for specialty applications such as around the spa, or in a damp basement. The galvanized wood joiners are much cheaper, and will standup to almost anything, though. Don't use "L" brackets – get true wood joiners. For 2" x 4" lumber these are in the shape of an "L", but are comparatively thin, 2½" – 3½" wide and have pre-drilled holes for 6-8 nails. Use one wood joiner for a very string joint, use two for an exceptionally strong joint.

In our example, we'll be joining a 2" x 4" cripple stud to a new header – as you'd do to install a new wall air conditioner, window, door, or exhaust fan into an existing wall (see the perspective view of Diagram A).

How to Toenail

Again referring to Diagram A, mark the 2" x 4" labeled "B" where you want the new cripple stud "A" to be located. I mark both sides just to be sure. If you try to nail A to B now, you're going to experience some problems. The nail will be very hard to start into the wood at the angle necessary, and every blow of the hammer will shift the location of A. Refer to Diagram B.

How to Toenail

Drill a hole into A, as shown and explained – how far above board B you drill will depend on your nail selection, but somewhere around 1-1½". Drill the first hole with the drill at 90° to the board you’ll be nailing - A. Drill approximately 1/8” deep. Now, with the tip of the drill bit in the 1/8” hole, drill the second hole with the drill at about 60° to board B. Drill until the drill bit touches the board you’re nailing into (B). Use a drill bit that is slightly smaller than the diameter of your nail, or even up to the diameter of your nail. I like to toenail 2" x 4" lumber with 8d, but others prefer 10d, and still some others prefer size 8 (12½ gauge) or 10 (11½ gauge) finishing nails. Perform the drilling operation three times – in the locations shown in Diagram A.

Make sure board A is right where you want it and brace it with your knee and a pad – to protect you from impact. Now tap your first nail through the board until it just touches board B. Now, again make sure A is precisely where you want it. Drive the nail partially into board B. Now switch sides and drive one of the nails all the way into board B. Now finish driving the first nail. Lastly, install the third nail. This will give you a rock solid toenailed joint.

If you want to add a little strength, before you start drilling, put a few drops of wood glue between A and B. Never underestimate the power of good wood glue! Wipe excess wood glue away after you complete your nailing.

Pro Tips

If you do happen to split the wood while toenailing, don't worry – it's almost never really that bad. The nail will still act as a stop to the board, and you still have the other two nails holding solid.

You can toenail wood as thin as 3/8" using the above process. For very thin wood you'll have to drill closer to the board represented by B in Diagram A, and at a very steep angle. Also, be sure to use small finishing nails. Customarily, wood thinner than ½" is not toenailed, it is attached using nailers or wood joiners.


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