Nuts and Bolts: A Fasteners Guide

Fasteners literally hold our world together. Here’s a guide to nuts and bolts and everything else that joins one material to another.
By Steve Maxwell
April/May 2006
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A 6-inch spike, a framing nail and finishing nail. The nails’ spiral shanks increase holding power.
Steve Maxwell
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Fasteners are an essential part of almost any do-it-yourself project. Pay attention to them, and everything you build and fix will be better because of your extra effort. Nearly 20 years on my homestead have taught me that successful building and maintenance require many more kinds of nails, rivets, screws, nuts and bolts than I ever would have thought. I use them for creating new buildings, repairing older ones, building furniture, fixing machinery and completing crafts with my children.

Hundreds of different kinds of fasteners are available, and you won't need most of them. But here are the most popular ones organized in four broad categories: screws; nails; bolts; nuts and washers; and specialty. You might also want to check out this chart summarizing common fasteners. 

Screw Types

It wasn't so long ago that screws were too expensive and troublesome for outdoor building projects, thus barns and garages were always built with nails. But these days, you can readily buy inexpensive, corrosion-resistant screws at any hardware store.

For all kinds of projects, deck screws should form the heart of your screw collection. The best versions are highly resistant to corrosion. I keep No. 8-size deck screws in 1 1/2-, 2-, 2 1/2-, 3-, 3 1/2- and 4-inch lengths on hand at all times. Storing that many sizes of screws may seem excessive, but it's important to have many lengths on hand to match any size of job. For most applications, screw threads should penetrate the bottom layer of wood by at least 1 inch and even more is better. But screws that are too long are a problem if they pop out the back side of your piece of wood.

You'll also find pan head screws widely useful. Often called sheet-metal screws, these have flattened-dome heads that are ideal for attaching pieces of thin metal.

If you live in the United States, you might not be aware of a screw head design that is popular in Canada. Named after their inventor, P.L. Robertson, Robertson screws (see photo, Page 96), also called square drive screws, have a square recess in the drive head that makes them stay on the tip of your screwdriver, and they are much easier to drive than Phillips or slot head screws. Robertson patented the socket head design in 1909, and it's been used in Canadian buildings for many decades. Robertson screws are worth tracking down. One mail-order source is McFeely's

To drive screws, you simply can't beat cordless impact drivers. They are faster than a regular drill, they offer more torque, and the screw-driving tip stays put in the screw head much more reliably. (See Cordless Drills & Drivers.)

Nail Types

Nails are the cheapest and fastest way to join wood that's why they're so popular. The two most widely used types are framing nails for the walls and frames of buildings, and finishing nails for trim installation and small wood projects.

Framing nails have much thicker shanks and much wider head diameters (2- and 3 1/2-inch lengths are the most useful). Finishing nails are shorter and thinner, with tiny heads relative to shank diameter (1 1/2- and 2 1/2-inch lengths are the most useful). The tiny heads can be driven into wood and covered with putty to hide them.

Another kind of nail is a large spike, which is ideal for big projects such as fencing and timberwork (6-, 8- and 12-inch lengths are the most useful).

If a nail is worth driving, it should last a long time once its in place. That's why I use hot-dipped galvanized nails for all exterior applications. They cost a bit more, but they're definitely worth the extra cost, because untreated steel nails can corrode to nothing in a decade. Always wear safety glasses when driving nails, especially galvanized ones. The zinc-based treatment that keeps rust at bay also makes the steel more brittle. It's not unusual for bits of metal to fly off when you pound a galvanized nail.

If you have some hardwood trim to install with finishing nails, then you'll need to pre-drill holes (called pilot holes) to prevent splitting, or you can speed things up with a tool called a nail spinner. This small, inexpensive device fits into any drill and uses a nail as its own drill bit. Load one nail into the tip of the spinner, press the nail to the wood, switch on the drill and then push. In a few seconds, the nail will burrow its way into the trim. Pull the drill and spinner off the nail and then drive the nail the rest of the way with a hammer.

Bolts, Nuts and Washers

Use bolts whenever screws aren't strong enough for the job, or when there isn't enough material for screws to grab solidly.

Carriage bolts have a domed head and are ideal for use in exterior wood projects. Lag bolts (also called lag screws) have threads like wood screws and have a hexagonal-shaped (hex) head on top. They can be used either in wood or soft metal anchors set into pre-drilled masonry holes. Machine bolts have hexagonal heads and threads that will accept a nut. Keep an assortment of lengths on hand, from three-sixteenths to three-eighths inch in diameter, along with matching sizes of plain nuts and washers. Buy larger bolts as needed for special projects.

Threaded rod is essentially a long threaded bolt without a head. I buy it in 24- to 36-inch lengths and find it is one of the best ways to join things that are too wide to be spanned by regular bolts, such as foundation cribs and large timber connections. For general purpose, the best size of threaded rod is five-eighths inch in diameter. This size is large enough for most projects, it is readily available, and you can easily cut it with a hacksaw.

Lock nuts are a useful addition to any collection of fasteners. They thread onto bolts the same way as regular nuts, but they include nylon inserts that prevent the nuts from loosening when vibrating, such as those on a gas engine.

The ring of metal that often sits under a bolt head or nut is called a washer. I generally use three types: flat washers, lock washers and cup washers.

A flat washer works the same way as a snowshoe, because its wide surface area distributes holding pressure. This is especially important on soft wood. Without a flat washer, an ordinary bolt or nut under stress can pull right through the wood.

A common lock washer is a split, spring-loaded ring that exerts a small but steady outward pressure on the nut, which greatly reduces the chance that vibration will loosen it. Lock washers are typically used to hold machine parts together.

If you are driving screws where they'll be seen in finished interior work, then you should try cup washers (shown above). These look like tiny metal bagel slices, and they do two important things. Besides boosting the holding power of screws, they make the head look terrific. That's why cup washers are ideal for making furniture and built-in shelves. There's no need to hide the screw heads because cup washers make them look more attractive.

Specialty Fasteners

When screws and nails won't get the job done, you need specialty fasteners. The three that work best for me are pop rivets, malleable iron rivets and plastic cable ties.

Pop rivets connect metal, leather and fabric in a fast, neat way. They're ideal for connecting pieces of gutters and downspouts, assembling a flashing collar around an insulated woodstove chimney, joining seams on homemade leather tool sheaths and basic body repairs on cars and trucks. Drill or punch a hole sized to accept the shank of the rivet you're using, put a rivet in the installation gun, slip the rivet into the hole and then squeeze the gun handle until you hear a pop. The noise indicates the rivet has swollen to full size and the joint is now locked the procedure takes just seconds. Use washers under the heads of pop rivets when you're joining cloth or leather to metal or plastic.

Malleable rivets look like skinny mushrooms. They're bigger than pop rivets and fit into pre-made holes in leather, sheet metal and machine parts up to a quarter inch thick. To complete the joint, hammer the soft metal shank of the rivet into the domed head.

Cable ties (sometimes called zip ties) are small bands of plastic. There are a thousand uses for them, but I use them for binding together multiple wires, securing young saplings to support stakes and for repair jobs where several objects need to be bound together in a corrosion-proof way. One end of the tie feeds into a slot that only allows one-way movement. You can tighten a cable tie, but it won't come loose. Buy cable ties in sizes ranging from 2 to 10 inches in length.

Storage Systems

The mid-1980s was the plywood-box period in my life. That's when I created dozens of trays, toolboxes and crates that formed a system of organization for the tools I would need for my budding life in the country. One of my favorite designs was a massive bolt and screw tray. I still use it today, though always with a smile. The tray looked so big back when I made it. Now I see that it's hopelessly small for all my needs.

Sooner or later you will discover that fastener storage is just as important as the fasteners themselves. Can you afford to spend 15 minutes searching every time you need a 3 1/2-inch deck screw And what if the bottom drops out of the cardboard box that holds your foot-long spikes while you're in knee-high grass in the pasture Good organization is the antidote for these kinds of headaches.

Different fasteners demand different storage systems, and a couple of parachute bags are an excellent choice for holding your collection of screws. Each bag is divided into six sections and has a drawstring that makes it easy to quickly open the bag and choose whatever type and size of fastener you need. I keep my collection of framing nails in old metal paint cans. They work well, they're tough, and they're free.

Pop rivets and small bolts are best stored in a flip-top plastic case, but you should always choose a case design that includes fixed dividers molded into the case or internal trays. Adjustable dividers might seem like a good idea, but small fasteners will find a way underneath the dividers, and eventually they mix with neighboring groups of screws, nails and rivets. And if you carry the plastic case around in your truck, there's no doubt the jiggling will make for double the trouble.

Have you ever felt like a cheater when you used screws, nails and other modern fasteners I used to think traditional interlocking and woven joinery was the best way to go, even to the point of building and using an all-wood wheelbarrow for a couple of years even the wheel, axle and bearing were wood! But I've come to realize that a homestead isn't a museum. My homestead can hold and preserve some aspects of the past, but the bottom line is that functionality works best the tools and building methods you use must be strong and reliable. When it comes to results, we can be thankful to have such a terrific array of fasteners.

Fasteners for Pressure-treated Lumber

The pressure-treated ACQ (alkaline copper quaternary) lumber at home improvement stores these days is safer than arsenic-based versions sold just a few years ago, but it’s more corrosive, too, so pay special attention to the quality of fasteners you use. Always use screws and nails that are rated for the kind of wood you’ll be using. Whatever you do, avoid plain steel and shiny electroplated fasteners.

Make Bolts Behave

Two types of liquids can make machinery maintenance easier. The first keeps bolts from coming loose when they should remain tight, and the second lets you loosen stuck bolts.

Thread-locking liquids come in differing strengths, from mild to strong. Put a few drops on the threads of critical bolts before you tighten them up, and vibration or movement isn’t likely to make them come loose unexpectedly.

An anti-seize compound is another essential shop supply. It ensures that threads won’t corrode and lock on bolts that you occasionally need to unscrew or remove. Apply it to the threaded parts of trailer hitches, wheel lugs and adjustment nuts, and you’ll never have to wrestle with seized fasteners again.

Are Power Nailers Worthwhile?

Over the past 15 years, power nailers have become much less expensive and more common. These hand-held power tools use the energy of compressed air, combustible gas or a rechargeable battery pack to drive all kinds of nails and staples. Power nailers speed construction, they’re easier on your arm than a hammer, and they make it easier to assemble joints accurately. But do they make sense on a homestead? That depends.

If you want to build a house, workshop, barn or an outbuilding, then a framing nailer (about $250) is worth consideration, especially if you own an air compressor. Even the smallest model of air compressor provides enough air volume to power any nailer. If your remodeling plans involve installing new trim, then a finishing nailer (about $200) is a good idea. Consider 16-gauge finishing models over 18-gauge models. The slightly thicker 16-gauge nails also come in lengths up to 2 1/2 inches, making them more versatile than the 2-inch maximum length you’ll find in the 18-gauge size.


Contributing Editor Steve Maxwell has been helping people renovate, build and maintain their homes for more than two decades. “Canada’s Handiest Man” is an award-winning home improvement authority and woodworking expert. Contact him by visiting his website and the blog, Maxwell’s House. You also can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook and find him on Google+. 


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