Briefly, a date nail is a nail with the date stamped
in its head. For example, a nail with a "41" is from 1941.
They are usually 2 1/2" long, with 1/4" shanks. Date nails were
into railroad ties, bridge timbers, utility poles, mine props, and
wooden structures for record keeping purposes. I concentrate
on the nails used by railroads. For a good site on date nails
poles, go to Scott Weed's site: http://nailhunter.com.
Most date nails are steel, though many are
aluminum, malleable iron, or brass. Lengths run from a paltry 3/4" up
3", with shank diameters running from 1/8" up to 5/16". The nail
heads can be round, square, diamond, pentagon, as well as other rarer
Over 2,000 different date nails were used by North American railroads
show the year. Add to that the nails which tell wood, treatment,
and other information, and toss in all date nails used in poles and
timbers, and the total number of different nails from this continent
A typical date nail. This one was manufactured to be 2 1/2"
(it was cut a little short), and is made from steel wire 1/4" in
The date 18 (1918) is stamped in the head. Note the crude,
faint diamond on the shank to the left of the anchor markings. It
might look more like a horizontal blob on this nail. It indicates
that the nail was made by American Steel & Wire Co.
There is a standard notation to describe date
The 18 pictured above is: 2 1/2 x 1/4 rnd
stl (07) 18. It is 2 1/2" long, 1/4" in diameter, rnd = round
(& shank), I = indented figures, stl = steel, (07) = code for
Steel & Wire, 18 = the date.
(These and all other photos of single nails on these pages were taken
by Tom Meyer.)
For a photo of a date nail in a tie in the track,
here. The date nail is outside the rail, at the bottom of the
picture. It is a 62 (unreadable in the photo) from the Florida
Coast. Go to the Photo Album for
pics of nails in ties.
How date nails were used
Date nails were manufactured by steel companies on
speed machines, even in the early years. If a railroad wanted to
use date nails, they would order the kind of nails they wanted (for
a 2 1/2" x 3/16" steel nail, round with raised numerals "34").
the nails were driven into ties either at the treating plant, to
the year of treatment, or at the track, to indicate the year the tie
When a rotted or mechanically damaged tie was
the date on the nail was noted. Ties were never removed because
age, so date nails did not tell section foremen when to replace
In fact, some railroads found that dated ties lasted longer than usual
because the men took special care of them.
In the first decade of the 20th century railroads
which used date nails drove them into every treated tie. Some
found the record obtained by this method to be a failure, so beginning
1909 some railroads concentrated their record in special test
For these companies keeping track of only a few thousand ties was far
economical and accurate than tracking several million ties. By
early 1920's, however, most of these railroads had returned to the
of placing nails in every treated tie.
Each railroad conducted its own experiments, so
nails used on one railroad will not be like those on other lines.
For example, compare the Lehigh Valley with the New York Central:
Lehigh Valley. Used date nails1910-1917, 1919-1921, and
New York Central. Used date nails 1910-1932.
The LV 11 is the same style nail as the NYC 11: square head &
shank, indented numbers. In other years the nails differ. The NYC
stuck primarily with square nails while the LV used round nails.
Neither company was loyal to a single steel company, either. The
NYC bought its 1910-1913 nails from American Steel & Wire Co., its
1914-1915 nails from Jones & Laughlin, its 1916 nails from American
Casting & Manufacturing, etc.
Some railroads never used date nails at all, like
the Southern RR. Still others used them for a short time
1908-1910) and others for a long time (Santa Fe: 1901-1969).
Often the shape of the nail head has some
For example, on the El Paso & Southwestern round nails were driven
into zinc chloride treated ties while diamond nails were driven into
Brief history of date nails
Western Europe suffered a timber shortage much
than North America, which is why railroads in France, England, and
were chemically treating ties long before companies here. Date
were in use in France by 1870, possibly as early as 1859.
treated ties come into use, date nails are not far behind.
need a way to monitor their investment in treating, and date nails
the most common method of this record keeping.
When North American railroads began to experiment
with treated ties in the second half of the 1800's, it was not known
chemicals, treatment methods, or woods were most economical. They
needed some method of keeping track of the lives of ties, so like their
European counterparts, they decided to mark them. Early methods
Stamping the date in the end of the tie (Central RR of New Jersey
Santa Fe 1885, Southern Pacific 1887, Rock Island 1895, etc.)
Brass tags (Santa Fe test sections, 1881-1882)
Notching ties (Allegheny Valley 1883, other lines beginning ca.
By the late 1800's American railroads settled on the use of date
The oldest known North American date nail is a 97 from the Mississippi
River & Bonne Terre. It was in 1899 that major railroads
using nails to date ties with nails: that year the Chicago &
Eastern Illinois, the Great Northern, the Chicago, Burlington &
and the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie began nail use. Others soon
By the 1920's nail use was the norm. It peaked in
the early 1930's with over a hundred different railroads using date
in 1931. The depression, then the second world war adversely affected
use, and from 1950 to 1970 the number of railroads using date nails
declined so that for the past thirty years virtually no railroad has
them. The newest date nail in a tie in North America is an aluminum 01
(2001) from a U.S. Navy track in New Jersey (thanks to George Oliva for
tracking this down). The decline in the use of date nails can be
mainly to two things: the perfection of treatment techniques, and to
reliance of stamps in the ends of the ties for records.
To properly understand the history of date nails,
you have to become familiar with the history of railroad tie
My book is devoted to both subjects. For some tie preservation
Frequently asked questions
Did the nails hold anything down?
No. Date nails were used only to date the tie. The nail was
in the upper face of the tie away from the rail. Date nails are much
than railroad spikes, which secure the rail to the tie.
How can I tell what railroad used my nails?
The railroad name is NOT on the nail. No railroad put its name,
initials, or monogram on a date nail. We know pretty much which
were used by which railroads becuase collectors have walked the tracks
for the past thirty years and have recorded their finds. This
is compiled in the book Date Nail and
Tie Preservation, so given a handful of date nails you can compare
them with the book to find out who used them.
Does the nail always show the date?
No. By far most date nails show the date, but many railroads
used nails to indicate the species of wood, the kind of treatment, the
length of the tie (at switches), among other things. Nails from
poles can show the class (diameter), height, or ownership.
Some nails have letters instead of numbers.
A "B" from the Buffalo, Rochester & Pittsburgh, for example, was
into a Beech tie. Another example: on the Santa Fe the nail
"OZ" was used in oil-zinc chloride treated ties.
Beware of single digit nails: some are dates
(i.e. a "4" is from 1904), but many are code nails. The Southern
Pacific used code nails 0 through 9 to number bridge pilings. The
& Nashville used single digit code nails to number switches.
Other railroads used code nails to number ties in test sections.
The Union Pacific and the treatment company Southern
Wood Piedmont drove nails into the ends of overlength ties at switches
to indicate tie length. On most UP nails these were clearly not
to date the ties: A nail will read 8FT over 6", or
But those used by SWP will have 9 over 6, 10, 10 over 6, 11, and so
A 16 in this series will look like a 1916 date nail. See the
of the SWP 17 on the photo page. One
on eBay thought his 9 over 6 was an 1896 date nail! It was driven
into a 9 1/2 foot tie, and probably dates from the 1970's or 1980's!
Pole height nails often cause confusion. They
look just like the nails used to date timbers, reading 35, 40, 45, 50,
and so on in increments of 5. A 35 was used in a pole 35 feet
My book makes
all these distinctions clear. If you have a nail, you can look it
up in the photo section to see if it is a date or if it is a code for
else. If it is a code nail I include information on what the nail
was used for (when that info is available).
Isn't pulling date nails illegal?
Yes, it is, if you don't ask for permission. By wandering on to an
active line and pulling nails you are trespassing, vandalizing, and
though railroads in general not only do not care about the nails, they
are no longer aware they are even there. If you ask for
first, you will almost always be given a positive nod to go ahead.
Where can I find nails?
Either you can pull them yourself, or you can get them from other
by buying or trading. See Acquiring
Are you the only nut who does this?
No! There are about 190 members of the TDNCA, and subscribers
to my Nail Notes, most of whom are NOT in the TDNCA, number over 300.
350 copies of Date Nails and Railroad
Preservation have sold so far.
How can I clean my nails? Should I clean them
Some collectors prefer nails with their rusty patina intact.
If you like shiny new-looking nails, let them sit overnight in a jar of
vinegar. Don't use any really abrasive method of cleaning, like
or muratic acid, and don't paint, varnish, or plate your nails.
protect them from rusting over again, one collector sprays them with
How can I display my nails?
First, ask you wife (assuming you are male and married) if she WANTS
these old ugly things displayed. Once you have been relegated to
the basement, an easy method is to take a piece of pegboard, drill the
holes bigger (say to 7/16") and put it in a wooden frame of your
The nails fit nicely in the holes. I have some old maple drawers
whose bottoms I replaced with pegboard. Now these hang vertically
on the wall so the nails are plainly visible.
I just want to sell my nails! How do I
Here are your possibilities:
(a) Put them up for bids
(b) I will put a free ad
for you on my e-mail newseltter Nail
Notes, Over 300 people subscribe currently.
(c) You can put an ad in
the quarterly newletter Nailer News,
publised by the Texas Date Nail Collectors' Association.
Before you do one of the three, it is best to know what railroad (or
utility company) used your nails, and you should have a way to describe
them accurately (a photo is nice). The more you know about your
the better they will sell. Contact
me for more info. And remember that I do not buy, sell, or
How do I find out more about date nails?
Buy the book and read it!
It is the best deal on a well-researched railroad topic you can find.
information-packed pages for only $30! Also, join the TDNCA
and read the quarterly Nailer News which comes with
Lastly, subscribe (for free) to my e-mail newsletter Nail
I have a nail with an "X" on the head.
Both the Santa Fe and the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh used "X"
nails to indicate a substandard tie or timber. Many ties, after
the treating plant, are found to be sub-standard. Some have a
premature rot, while others suffer from checking (splitting) in the
Often these ties are still fit to be used, so the railroad would drive
an "X" nail to indicate that they did not want them counted in the
statistics. The BR&P used a nail with an indented X from ca.
1911 to 1932. The Santa Fe began using a raised X sometime
and they stopped perhaps about 1959.
I have a nail which reads "PK" on the
What does it mean?
This is not a railroad nail. PK stands for Parker-Kalon, and
PK nails are used by surveyors to mark points in their work. They
drive them into poles, trees, fenceposts, ties, or whatever timber is
Do not pull any more of them---otherwise you may cause them extra work
in recalibrating their positions!
Acquiring date nails
There are two ways to get date nails: (1) Pull
them yourself from ties, or (2) Buy or trade for them. I will
describe each of these.
These days there are two problems with walking down a railroad track
pulling nails: First, railroads are quite a bit more intolerant
people walking the tracks as they once were, and second, there just
many nails out there in active track anymore. The best way to get
nails "from the source" depends on your location. In most parts
the country you should do the following:
a. Find out which
near you used date nails in abundance. My
book will help at this step. consult old maps which give the
names of the railroads as they were a half century ago or so. New maps
often label rail lines "Conrail", "Norfolk Southern", or other modern
b. Pick, if possible,
an abandoned branch, and walk the right-of-way. Look for ties
off the embankments when the railroad was in operation. Keep an
out for ties re-used as fenceposts, in driveways, old buildings,
Railroads which ran through wooded, hilly areas are best. If you
only have main lines around, crisscross the railroad in your car and
an eyeout for tie fenceposts. People who live in desert aras have
good luck dragging magnets in the ballast and in burn pits. In
areas metal detectors help.
c. This one is
KEEP A WRITTEN RECORD OF WHAT YOU FIND! You might think "Oh, I'll
remember where I got these nails." You won't. I have
with five dozen date nail collectors, and ALL have rusty
Beginners can make real contributions in this hobby because I have had
to rely on these recollections for some of the information in my
Let me know what you find!
Buying or trading nails.
a. Keep an eye out at
railroadiana & antique shows/malls, flea markets, yard sales,
Lots of good nails turn up this way.
b. Contact other nail
collectors. This is the best way to get lots of nails
Most experienced collectors have thousands of extras lying around, and
beginners are always willing to trade. You can join the TDNCA
and/or subscribe to my Nail Notes
to get names and addresses.
c. Buy nails through
or other auctions. I monitored eBay continually from 1999 to
2001, and here
are some important tips for the beginner:
i. I saw only a few rare nails on eBay. When sellers use
the word "RARE" in their
description they often know nothing about how rare their nails really
Disregard the advertizing fluff.
ii. Some lots are misidentified. Someone will write, for
"15 B&M nails" when in fact some are from the New Haven, from
or elsewhere. This problem was far worse in 1999 than it is
If in doubt, write to me and I will tell you if the lot is listed
In nearly all cases the seller just does not know where the nails are
attribution is either a guess or the seller was told bad info.
iii. As of 1999 there were many common lots selling for several
per nail---way too much! Things settled down by mid 2000.
occasionally common nails sell for too much while better lots go
iv. One way to tell how much nails sell for is to search for
nail*" (without quotes) on eBay, then click "search completed auctions"
to view lots which have sold.
v. At nail shows you can buy nice condition nails---many of them
rather scarce---for a nickel apiece. But you have to GET to a
to do this. Nails are commonly offered at roughly dollar each at
railroadina and antique shows. Nice, properly attributed common
nails from your favorite line are worth about dollar each, but don't
a lot more unless you know you are bidding on rare nails.
And do find out what shipping & handling will cost before you bid.