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Nails vs. Screws: When to Use Each Fastener

Author:Andreana LeftonSource:Andreana Lefton

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The unsung heroes of construction and carpentry, nails and screws are used to hold together everything from wooden house frames and flooring to outdoor decking and kitchen cabinetry. But when to choose one over the other isn’t always clear cut. In fact, even pros at times find themselves in a quandary wondering whether to nail or screw it! So examine these popular fasteners side by side—nails vs. screws—to determine their optimal uses and reach for the right ones during your next home improvement project.

1. Project size and tool choice matter.

Nails are often preferred for large projects, like house framing and installing hardwood floors, because they are typically stronger and less expensive than screws. Since most nails have smooth heads and shafts, they insert easily and speedily with a hammer or nail gun. Screws, in contrast, are favored for small and mid-sized projects, such as woodworking and decking, because they offer more control when inserting and extracting. While Phillips and slotted head screws are the most common, there’s a minimum of five screws types that DIYers should know. Manual screwdrivers require more effort because they use torque (twisting force) rather than the blunt force of hammers. However, thanks to electric power tools like cordless drills and impact wrenches, screws are increasingly easy and quick to install.

2. Nails are often preferred for structural joining, including framing walls, because they are more flexible under pressure, whereas screws can snap.

Nails are also called upon when securing plywood sheathing for exterior walls, installing hardwood floors, and attaching siding and roofing. Common nails are often a first choice for framing, construction, and carpentry. Box nails have a thinner shaft, which can prevent wood from splitting when hammered in, making them ideal for installing clapboard siding. Brad and finishing nails are great for detail work like securing molding, door jambs, and baseboards.

3. Screws are better for temporary jobs because they create tight bonds and can be removed more easily than nails.

Screws are a favorite fastener of woodworkers because, for example, they can be used to build jigs (temporary structures that guide and keep work consistent) for smaller projects like installing hinges. Screws are also good for mounting hardware and trim, constructing cabinets, and joining furniture parts, like attaching a tabletop to a base. Because screws cause less vibration—and less potential damage—upon insertion, they’re also preferable when working with more delicate materials like plaster and drywall.

4. While nails have more flexibility, screws have more tensile strength.

Tensile strength refers to a material’s ability to resist breaking under pressure. This makes screws better for projects when joined pieces are under tension or bearing weight, like porch railings or kitchen cabinetry. Another benefit of screws is their resistance to withdrawal pressure, or the tendency of surfaces to pull apart. That said, nails are stronger than screws of the same length, and are better able to withstand “shear” pressure—which is the tendency of two joined pieces to slide past each other. For your next project, determine whether joined surfaces are more likely to slide or to pull apart, using nails in the former case, screws for the latter.

5. The fasteners may be used interchangeably at times, but one will generally work better than the other.

For example, if you are planning on installing subflooring or drywall, screws tend to be the preferred fastener because they tend to hold tighter, longer. Drywall screws typically feature a Phillips head and can be driven in with a drill or an electric drywall screw gun. Screws are also preferable when installing subfloors, because they are less likely to loosen and pull out. Screws also help prevent squeaky floors because they create tighter joints.

Nails are the fastener of choice when laying down hardwood floorboards because they’re not as likely to split the wood as screws and don’t mar the surface with screw heads. Nails also flex a bit more, to allow for the natural expansion and contraction of the wood, without loosening their grip.

6. For superior gripping power, use ring shank nails.

While most nails have flat heads and smooth shafts, ring shank nails are a hybrid design. These sturdy fasteners combine the superior gripping power of screws with the flexible strength of nails. In fact, their ringed shafts can increase holding power by 40 percent or more. Ring shank nails, often used with softer woods like plywood and shingles, provide a tighter, more permanent grip than smooth-shank nails. You can also use ring shank nails instead of screws to install subflooring and drywall, but their flat heads are harder to extract than screws and can leave a jagged hole if you do remove them.