Pull Nails

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By: Paul D. Gossen, Gossen Restoration

Here's a fast and simple procedure for removing rusty nails from old wood without scarring the wood surface. I use it to clean up salvaged old growth timbers and to remove nails from antique chairs that I'm repairing.

Once you are set up, it takes under a minute to loosen a nail enough to pull it out with a pair of needle-nosed pliers. I've used this procedure for big 4" common nails to small finishing nails broken off below the surface of the wood.

When I'm taking apart antique chairs for repair, this method makes it easy to remove deeply set nails while leaving only a neat, round hole in the wood that I can fill with a dowel plug after regluing.

What You Need

  1. A soldering iron with a flat, round tip. Nothing fancy. You want power with no temperature control. I've used a 40W Radio Shack model that you can thread tips onto. I remove the tip and use the flat, round, threaded metal end. I've also got an old 350W Weller with interchangeable tips that I can modify to any shape.
  2. A pair of needle nose pliers. If you are pulling small, deep nails use pliers with a fine, long tip. Vise grip pliers help for big nails.
  3. A curved wood chisel. Useful if you have nails broken off below the wood surface. The blade's curvature radius should match the soldering iron tip.
  4. A metal detector. I use a stack of powerful permanent magnets on a string.

Gear You Need

Procedure For Nails Above the Surface

  1. Find the nail. Big ones by eye. Small ones with your metal detector.
  2. Heat the nail with the soldering iron. Time depends on the size of the nail and the power of the soldering iron. For a small finishing nail, the 40W iron may need 1 minute, the 350W gun, 15 seconds.
  3. Wait for the nail to cool.
  4. Pull out the nail with pliers. If you got it hot enough, it will just slide out.

Procedure for Nails Below the Surface

If your nail is set or broken off below the surface:

  1. The metal detector is more important here to distinguish empty nail holes from one with a nail in it.
  2. Use the soldering iron to burn a neat hole into the wood until the iron touches the nail. Use the curved wood chisel to clear out charred wood if you have to.
  3. Once your soldering iron touches the nail, leave it there long enough to char a circle of wood around the nail deep enough for the pliers to grab the nail (1 mm can work).
  4. Use the chisel to clean out the char around the nail head.
  5. Pull out the nail with the pliers.