Cloverfields as of July 2019: Period Nails Help Date Different Sections of the House and The Structural Frame is Repaired

Historic Nails Help to Date Different Sections of the House

Until recently, most historians believed that the Cloverfields house was built in the 1730s (Swann 144, Rideout 83). In 2018, dendrochronology proved them wrong when it determined that the wood of the beams that make up the structure belonged to trees felled during the years 1704 and 1705 (see newsletters: “Rewriting the Timeline” and “Science Dates The Historic House…”). Now that they figured out the date of original construction, the preservation specialists working at Cloverfields are conducting research so that they can date the sections of the house added during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In the video above, historian Willie Graham tells us about historic nails and screws, and explains to us how they can help us to write the timeline of the house:

In order to help us understand the chronology of the development of the site, we have been sampling fasteners, particularly nails but sometimes screws that we are discovering in the construction of the house. So, we’ve got a variety of them here; we have samples put in bags, cataloged as part of that process. 

Graham then shows us four different nails. Three of them are period nails, identified in the image below with the letters “E,” “K,” and “X.” The other one is a regular wire nail.

This image shows different types of nails used during the colonial period in the Chesapeake region. Nails of the types identified as “E,” “K,” and “X” have been found at Cloverfields. / “Nails and alternatives” (Chappell 264).

The first nail shown to us is the one identified as “E.” It is a rose head nail with a sharp point, which, Graham tells us, was used when the house was first built in 1704-05:

One of the earliest nail types that we find is a nail that is hand-made; often people refer to them as “wrought nails,” but I think technically we really should call them “hand-forged nails” made out of wrought-iron, as opposed to mild steel or even just plain steel which you would find towards the end of the 19th century. This is a typical nail from that period, it has a shank that has been hammered out along both sides by hand after heating it in a hot fire, and it is very malleable and easy to work. They create kind of a wedge-shaped piece, which they’ll drop it down in a header, and then they hammer the top of the nail four times to create almost a clover-leaf like head on it. 

These are the common nails of the 18th century. This one was used in the 1704-05 plaster lathe in the house and is really no different from nails you would find, you know, in England from the 16th century and even here up through about 1810 or 20; they are still using these kinds of nails. So, this is the earliest variety. 

Framing nails are larger versions of these, not much different; they’ll have a different point on them. Other than their size, they are really like these nails. We got another kind of early of wrought-iron nail, hand-made, in the house. 

Graham then turns our attention to an L-headed brad, identified above with the letter “K.” It was used at the end of the 18th century to hold a piece of trim around a window in the parlor: 

This is an “L-head sprig” or “brad.” Those names are names we still use for finish nails today, but this was a tiny little finish nail, you know maybe an inch, inch-and-an-eight inch long. It is kind of technically challenging to make these things because they are so small, but just a little all-hand hammered out nail with a little beak on it for a head to hold it in place. This was used to hold a piece of trim around the window in the parlor that we think was installed sometime around the late 18th century. 

The third nail he discusses is an early machine-headed cut nail, identified above with the letter “X.” The nail was used in the 1830s or 40s to install paneling in the parlor above the chair rail. Graham explains:

We’ve got a variety of cut nails, that were machine manufactured, and used in this house. This happens to be a slightly unusual variety, in that it’s a blend of kind of early-cut nail technology and some later technology made in its manufacture. It has a machine head; it has a shank that was created by punching nails out of a sheet of iron. That sheet would have been turned on an angle and flipped back and forth as they were punching it out to create that angled shape. It’s got a blunt point, which is what we expect from late cut nails, but it’s been pinched under its head on the sides when the head was formed in a way that sort of represents earlier technology. These things have a fairly tight date range, probably 1830s and 40s. In this case, this nail was used to install paneling in the parlor above the chair rail, and really helps us with the dating of that particular element here.

Finally, Graham shows us a wire nail. It is not identified in the “Nails and Alternatives” figure, and it is like the ones we would expect to find today in any house:

So, we have one more kind of nail in here, sort of what we would expect to find today on a construction project, if we are not using a nail gun. This is a common wire nail; this one happens to date to 1897. Wire nails were invented much earlier but when they were made out of wrought-iron; they just didn’t have the popularity that it had once manufacturers started making them out of steel, kind of late in the 1880s. Really in this region they don’t become very common for use in structural circumstances until after about 1900, so this 1897 use of this common nail is a little bit on the early side and kind of interesting. In this case this is a framing size nail but it was in fact used to nail blind nail flooring in the hyphen, and why somebody would blind nail flooring with common nails is beyond me, but that’s what they chose to do, and this is the nail they did it with. 

A rose head nail from 1704-5, an early machine-headed cut nail from the 1830s-40s, and L-headed brad from late 18th century, and a common wire nail from 1897 fill in gaps in the chronology of the Cloverfields house.

Structural Repairs in the Cellar

While Graham and other preservation specialists continue to write an accurate timeline, fine residential contractor Lynbrook of Annapolis is working in the field. Many of Lynbrook’s employees are currently in the cellar, where we find the eighteenth-century wood beams that still support the house. A portion of those structural beams are rotten, and Lynbrook is replacing them.

Lynbrook is not replacing whole beams but only the rotten sections. To ensure that the eighteenth-century timber and the twenty-first-century portion are combined in a structurally sound way is by using “scarf joints.” A scarf joint (also known as a “scarph” joint) joins two wood members end to end in the manner illustrated in the image below.

Scarf joints are being used to repair some eighteenth-century beams of the Cloverfields house. / “Three kinds of scarf Joints” (Evers 49).

The photograph below shows a scarf joint at Cloverfields. The scarf is hand hewed, and pegged into place. Even if it is made of the same wood species, the texture and color of the new wood are visibly different from the rest.

Timber scarf repair to one of the timber beams in the cellar. Notice the peg at the far left. / Pete Albert Photography

In this case, the rot was at the end of the beam, where it rests within the brick exterior wall. The damage is pretty minimal considering what 314 years of weather could have done.

timber scarf prior to installation. You can get a good idea of the size of the beams. / Pete Albert Photography

By only replacing the rotten portion of the wood, Lynbrook is making sure to preserve the original structure as much as possible, while simultaneously protecting the eighteenth-century beams from further damage. Solid bones will make sure that Cloverfields continues to stand in centuries to come.

By: Devin S. Kimmel, AIA, ASLA, of Kimmel Studio Architects

For: Cloverfields Preservation Foundation


Chappell, David A., “Hardware,” in Carson, Cary, and Carl R. Lounsbury, eds. The Chesapeake House: Architectural Investigation by Colonial Williamsburg. UNC P Books, 2013. 257-83.

Evers, Christopher. The Old-House Doctor: The Essential Guide to Repairing, Restoring, and Rejuvenating Your Old Home. Illustrated by Harriet Hason. Simon and Schuster, 2013. 257-83.

Kimmel, Devin. “Cloverfields as of March 2018: Rewriting the Timeline.” Website of the Cloverfields Preservation Foundation. March 16, 2018. N.p.

Kimmel, Devin. “Cloverfields as of February 2019: Science Dates The Historic House And Archaeologists Identify Botanical Remains.” Website of the Cloverfields Preservation Foundation. February 18, 2019. N.p.

Rideout V, Orlando, “Clovefields,” in: Miller, Marcia and Orlando Ridout V, eds. Architecture and Change in the Chesapeake: A Field Tour on the Eastern and Western Shores. Crownsville, Md.: Vernacular Architecture Forum and the Maryland Historical Trust P, 1998. 83-84.

Swann, Don. Colonial and Historic Homes of Maryland: One Hundred Etchings. Johns Hopkins UP, 1939.